Arosa, in the Swiss Alps, proves family-friendly ski spot
Arosa, view from atop the Weisshorn, the tallest peak. (Courtesy Alan Behr, MCT / January 30, 2013)
Day-trippers and weekenders, as anxious as they are everywhere to cram a good time into a few hours, are relatively infrequent here because it is hard to make a quick journey by road to and from any of the major Swiss cities. Visitors to Arosa tend to come and to linger. When families arrive, it can be in caravans stretching for three generations: The grandparents, who first discovered Arosa, still come, even if they no longer ski; the parents take to the slopes; depending on the age of the kids, they are either just learning to ski or are being taught how to snowboard without crashing into one another. Arosa is filled with walking trails for those who once skied or who snowboarded or never did, and at several points when we skied, we had to break for pedestrians crossing our path.
With 43 miles of runs and 13 lifts, Arosa is comparatively compact by Swiss standards, and yet there are four complete kids' areas where children can learn to ski in safety, under the patient and expert supervision for which Switzerland is famous. Across the mountains of Arosa, children in color-coded vests follow in line behind blue-and-yellow uniformed instructors like ducklings trailing their mothers. They learn the Swiss method, which stresses technique and attention to what the mountain is telling you in the angles of the slopes, in the weather and in snow conditions. It is mixed with a uniquely carefree Alpine celebration of the fun of it all.
When you ski like a Swiss, you embrace the predominance of nature, respect it and follow its lead, all in the service of having a good time. The instructor/ guide we hired for a day, Bruno Tobler, had a big smile, engaging personality and a hawk's eye for correct technique, which we practiced under his supervision. After a few decades of skiing, I believe I am at last getting close to correct Swiss form; the small children who scooted past us behind their instructors seemed poised to reach that goal a week from Thursday, latest.
Ryan, exposed to it all for the first time at just over 3 1 / 2years of age, skied for a bit - I'm estimating about two, perhaps three minutes. It made no difference that Swiss children younger than he were already on skis. Instead, he developed other interests. He liked sledding with other toddlers in the child-care center at the ski school. He liked the play room as at the two hotels we visited, and the staffers and the children he met there. And he developed a taste - surely to become lifelong - for Swiss chocolate.
Surprisingly to us at first, we found ourselves following our son's lead. Typically, and at my wife's enthusiastic insistence, we ski the whole day through, but in Arosa, we slowed down, not only to spend more time with Ryan, but to experience the other pursuits that an Arosa-style mountain trip integrates into your day.
For instance, one night I tried curling for the first time. I have always wanted to master a sport originating in Scotland, if only to show my wife and her Scots-Irish (and part-Swiss) family that I'm up to it. Curling is Scottish shuffleboard on ice: instead of a disc, you shove a forty-pound stone down the curling sheet. Someone else rapidly sweeps a broom in front of it in an effort to alter range and trajectory. Although my teammates were as new to the sport as I was, and one of them had to divide her new devotion to stones with attention to her sleepy eighteen-month-old daughter, the competitive spirit took hold, and stones slid back and forth with ever greater force and accuracy. I turned out to be our star player (given that none of us was really all that good), and I carried our little team to victory.
One afternoon, my wife joined me for an hour's lesson in cross-country skiing, which proved to be more aerobic than downhill but much easier to pick up if you already know how to get down a mountain on skis. The cross-country area is a golf course in summer, and we next had what can only be called an aerobic stroll through the course and the surrounding woods (taken by sliding on two narrow boards).
The key, in short, to understanding a comparatively low-key resort like Arosa is to forsake expectations of aggressive fun. As a New Yorker, in the Hamptons summer resort complex, I all too often see the attitude of "I'm going to have a good time now even if it kills me - or maybe you." In Arosa, you trade such meditations for a Swiss acceptance of harmony and balance.
Nothing could better illustrate Arosa's easy gentility than our hotels. I use the plural because two of them came so highly recommended by friends, in the end we decided to audition both in order to make up our minds for next time. (The answer, of sorts, is in the information box below.) Both are on the edge of town, minutes from each other by foot. We started at the Tschuggen Grand Hotel, which has a private, luxurious ski lift that Ryan saw as a ride in itself and indeed had the feel of a roller coaster in the uphill segment of its track. The newly renovated lobby, by the Swiss designer Carlo Rampazzi, is sophisticated but traditional enough in execution to maintain a mountain feel. La Vetta, the gourmet restaurant, carries a Michelin star. Unlike similar hotels in St. Moritz, however, you do not need to dress in business or even formal attire for dinner, and the large number of restaurants (five plus the Cigar Lounge, which we only saw during a smoke-free moment), made dining on-campus possible without ever repeating our choice of venue.
The Arosa Kulm has a somewhat more informal feel, even as it is run with the same fine attention to guest services. There is no private lift here, but you have only to walk across the street and take two short people movers to the nearest gondola, and up you go. The Arosa Kulm also has many restaurants, including the Ahaan Thai, which specializes in Thai cuisine, the Swiss-educated king of Thailand having formerly been both a skier at Arosa and a guest at the hotel. On our first day, the weather was so mild, we took our lunch on the terrace of our room, which had a mountain view.
Throughout our stay in Arosa, there were many small moments of serendipity. One night, there was a concert at the Bergkirchli, a demitasse mountain church dating from the late fifteenth century. As the audience in the full, small nave watched the snow fall through arched windows, Thomas Weber, an accordionist from Zurich, and Franco Mettler, a woodwind player from the nearby city of Chur, delivered everything from Bach to "The Godfather Waltz." We exited to free hot punch, offered in the gently falling snow. On another night, at the Tschuggen, a combo played old favorites after dinner at the Grand Restaurant, the hotel's main restaurant, as our toddler danced with my wife, and the small children of a couple from the Lucerne area danced with their father. From a lobby window on the next evening, we watched a show put on by the ski instructors to the music of ABBA, followed by fireworks.
There was even serendipity of a kind in the traditional regional meal at the Tschuggen's Buendnerstube restaurant, followed by family bowling at a two-lane alley inside the restaurant itself. (The Arosa Kulm has a similar in-house alley.) And for me, there was total serendipity on our last full day, when it snowed and my wife, being the more enthusiastic skier, went up to the top of the highest peak, the Weisshorn, and I stayed near the children's area to go sledding with Ryan. He still shares his memories with friends of how he and I went sledding together - and fell off! (I need a bit more practice, it appears.)
Arosa's comparatively small scale will change somewhat starting with the 2013-14 season, when a long-planned (and much debated) cable-car linking Arosa to the larger Lenzerheide area will open. Lenzerheide is more popular with day-trippers, and many residents of Arosa have feared that joining up with it will change their area's character. The advantage is that the link will about triple the total length of slopes you can ski on an Arosa pass. As for ambience: People from Lenzerheide may ski into Arosa to have a look, and skiers from Arosa will surely reciprocate, but when the lifts close, each place will stand on its own once more, and the family-friendly gentility that makes Arosa special will, I predict, comfortably prevail.
As people who have come back to Arosa time and again have explained to us, it is an atmosphere that makes you feel you can and should be a part of it.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: We flew Swiss International. Do you want yet another story about Swiss service? When one of us lost his Mont Blanc pen when it fell from his pocket while sleeping in his fully reclining seat in business class, the purser all but pulled apart its upholstery in midflight, saving the author from the loss of his precious instrument. Tel: 1-877-359-7947; http://www.swiss.com.
STAYING THERE: Trying to judge between the Tschuggen Grand Hotel and the Arosa Kulm is fun but rather futile. In part due to its sophisticated decor, the Tschuggen comes across as more Euro-chic and consistently elegant. The Arosa Kulm counterbalances with Alpine conviviality and a relaxed quality familiar to premier ski hotels in the American West. The Tschuggen has the bigger and more dramatically designed spa, but the spa at the Arosa Kulm has more types of baths and saunas, including the scalding "Elephant Sauna," which has its own Alpine view. Headed by La Vetta, the Tschuggen has the better restaurants in-house, but the Stueva Cuolm, free-standing Tuscan restaurant of the Arosa Kulm (located in a traditional Alpine hut near a gondola base) served us our most surprisingly unique meal; even standards such as pea soup and Gluehwein - hot mulled wine - were delivered with new and clever complexity. So do what we did: Divide your time between them both and make up your own mind for your return visit.
-Tschuggen Grand Hotel; tel. +41-(0)81-378-99-99; http://www.tschuggen.ch. You can also reserve through The Leading Hotels of the World: tel.1-800-745-8883; http://www.lhw.com.
-Arosa Kulm Hotel; tel. +41-(0)-81-378-88-88; http://www.arosakulm.ch.
DINING OUT: We had a lovely dinner downtown one night at the Vetterstuebli, a respected hotel restaurant featuring regional cuisine. Tel. +41-(0)81-378-80-00; http://www.arosa-vetter-hotel.ch.
ACTIVITIES: Our cross-country afternoon took place outside of town on what, in the summer, is a quite challenging mountain golf course. Cross-Country Center Geeser, tel. +41-(0)-377-22-15; http://www.geeser-arosa.ch. Curling took place afterward at the town's ice rink. The evening ski show is performed three times per season, to a party atmosphere (complete with warm drinks served tent by the Arosa Kulm in a clubby tent).
DOWNHILL SKIING: We rented our nearly new equipment from Carmenna Sport downtown, but there are many fine rental places throughout. No matter what you forgot to bring, there is a store within walking distance from where you are to offer you a choice of replacements. Tel. +41-(0)81-377-12-05; http://www.carmennasport.ch.
Weekly lift tickets are on sale at four locations at the base of the mountains, and toddlers ride for free. For information on the area and lift tickets: http://www.arosa.com. For the ski school: tel. +41-(0)81-378-75-00; http://www.sssa.ch/en.
-Alan and Julie Behr