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Skiing in Europe: An Affordable Alternative

The sun is hot. I'm on my butt—again—and staring up at the most incredible blue sky. Diana's down the slope, perched on her skis, waiting for me. A pack of colorful skiers schuss by as gracefully as gazelles, and for the thousandth time this week I'm wondering what ever possessed me to try to learn to snowboard during my first winter stay in the Alps.

Three years ago, during a late-summer trip to Europe, some friends convinced me to cycle with them in the Swiss Alps. We hired a guide, rented bikes, and spent two days in the mountains around Gstaad. We rode past herds of grazing cows and wooden houses that were half barn, half dwelling, and smelled of animals and ripening cheese. The towns we saw, even chic Gstaad, were working farm villages. These same hillsides where cows were grazing would turn into ski runs come snowfall, and these same farmers would operate the lifts they had built on their property to earn a winter income. I started dreaming of a cold-weather return.

Flash-forward to the following February: Diana, an old college friend, and I—bored and trapped in New York—make a pact to go skiing the next winter. We start investigating the costs of various resorts and are shocked at how expensive skiing is in the United States. I check out the European alternatives and discover, unbelievably, that a trip abroad can be cheaper.

It also sounds a lot more glamorous when we start telling friends and co-workers about our plans.

Where to go?Switzerland, of course! but we want no part of a jet-set town like St. Moritz, where fur-clad princesses shop rather than ski. We're in the mood for something more low-key. Also, as experienced but not aggressive skiers, we want a place that's good for easygoing intermediates.

A Swiss friend recommends the tiny village of Wengen, in the shadow of the awesome Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains. The Jungfrau region, comprising Grindelwald and the tiny, car-free sister villages of Wengen and Mürren, is one of the birthplaces of modern ski tourism. At the turn of the century, mountain-crazy Brits became obsessed with scaling the Eiger, among the most dangerous peaks in Europe. A Methodist minister named Henry Lunn introduced the first-ever ski packages here in the winter of 1910-11, after convincing the region that it should operate winter trains for access to the slopes. Those same trains still deliver you into town.

From Basel, where our flight lands, we go by rail to Interlaken. The last hour of the trip skirts the Lake of Thun—a beautiful introduction to the region. At Interlaken, we change trains to head into the mountains. And at Lauterbrunnen, a town on the valley floor, we change once more, this time to a cogwheel train that takes riders up 1,558 feet to Wengen, switchbacking sharply as it ascends the slopes. These hard-to-reach places are like remote islands, landlocked in mountains, completely dependent on trains. The views are breathtaking. Fifteen minutes later we land smack in the center of a quintessential Alpine town overrun with skiers.

At the station, our hotel's representative directs us to the Alpenrose—a short walk away. We give him our luggage claim tickets. (For a mere $15, Swissair travelers have the invaluable luxury of sending bags all the way through to their final destination. Once we check in at New York, we don't have to deal with our luggage again—even for customs. With Swiss efficiency, it shows up in our hotel room a few hours after we arrive.)

A steep hill leads down to the Alpenrose, which, at 118 years, is the oldest hotel in Wengen. Rooms are somewhat plain: simple wood furniture, crisp white duvet-covered beds, big windows, French doors, and a balcony with mountain views. The public areas are a study in Alpine gemütlichkeit: comfortable, but a little too cozy, with beige tones, heavy curtains, macramé lampshades. Everything is very, very clean.

Though we're both tired, Di rallies us to take care of business. First stop, ski school, where we sign up for classes: Di, a one-day orientation to learn the slopes; me, six mornings of snowboarding lessons. Then to Central Sport for equipment rental (board, boots, wrist guards, skis, and poles). Then back to the train station for six-day lift passes. Luckily, we don't have to carry our stuff down the steep hill; anyone who rents from Central Sport can stow the gear there overnight.

Our package comes with breakfast and dinner each day. The evening meal usually consists of five hearty courses, and the food is delicious: cream of leek soup, mushrooms on toast, a salad buffet, grilled pork chops or poached salmon with chive potatoes, and Bavarian cream or fruit and cheese for dessert. Breakfast is a traditional Germanic spread—crusty white rolls, dark grainy loaves, fresh jam, butter, cheese, muesli—as fuel for active days.

And what about those days?

I spend five straight mornings with Kevin, my Scottish snowboard instructor, who is very cool but, thankfully, not nearly as gonzo as an American teacher might be. The class starts out small enough, and by the last two days I've scored private lessons.

We end each morning on the long, narrow run into town, passing chalets, barns, docile cows, piles of manure, and the end-of-the-run bar, Kari's Schneebar. I usually grab lunch around there (the terrace restaurant at the Eiger hotel has the most delicious tomato cream soup) and sit in the sun before meeting Diana at the Kleine Scheidegg train stop, the top of the slopes, for the afternoon.

Every day is warm and sunny, with crystal clear skies and fresh mountain air: a cliché of Alpine health. There was a record snowfall earlier in the season, and on several occasions we hear a sound like thunder and look up to see tiny avalanches in the distance—nowhere near any ski trails.

Nights are quiet. A couple of times we motivate ourselves to go out for a drink after dinner, even though there's a perfectly fine bar in our hotel. One night we attend a concert by the Heidelberg Chamber Orchestra at a church in town. Mostly we stay in, read, and fall asleep—early. Resting for another day on the slopes, which is, after all, why we came.

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