The new Swiss Snowtrain offers a stylish and relaxing ride to the resorts of the Valais
For Debbie Greenwood and her friend Rebecca Jackson, from Congleton in Cheshire, a ski holiday in Zermatt is reaching a soothing conclusion.
“Ooh, that’s fantastic,” says Rebecca, melting into her big black massage chair as the Alps glide past the window. “That’s really, really good.”
Debbie, stretched out on a chair next to Rebecca, is excited by a new button she has found. “That hits just the right muscle,” she says. “Usually I have to use a corner of the wall to get in there – this is much nicer.”
Rebecca waves her control pad languorously at her friend. “Press the rolling one,” she says. “It starts at your waist, and goes all the way up to your shoulders. It’s fabulous.”
Debbie leans back, and smiles beatifically. “Ooh,” she moans softly. “Is that the whole train vibrating, or just my chair?” Rebecca looks across enviously. “What are you doing?” she asks. “Are you just pressing all of them?”
Rebecca and Debbie are on the inaugural service of Switzerland’s weekly new Snowtrain, which launched on Saturday. In the mornings, it carries holidaymakers from resorts of the Valais such as Verbier and Zermatt to Geneva airport; in the afternoon, makes the same journey in reverse, bearing new arrivals.
You can ride the train with a normal second-class ticket; you just need a compulsory reservation – which is free, but you have to obtain it before you leave the UK. Since seating is all-first class, passengers effectively get a free upgrade – not to mention perks including use of the two massage chairs and movie corner.
Debbie and Rebecca look as though they intend to make good the most of the facilities. “I could just sit here the whole journey,” says Debbie, “that would be my idea of heaven. I want one on the aeroplane now. I just don’t want this to stop.”
Among the other attractions the train operator advertises is the presence of two ski instructors “to warm you up”. I am curious to find out what they mean. Since I have recently qualified as an instructor through the Swiss system, perhaps I could lend a hand?
Kaspar Kälin and Nicole Oggier turn out to be from Leukerbad, further up the Rhone valley from my own resort, Verbier. Like me, they work at the Swiss Ski School; both are full-time students – of medicine and education, respectively – but teach skiing during their holidays. Nicole says she started skiing when she was two.
In a spirit of amicable rivalry, I challenge Kaspar to a ski race on one of the Sony PlayStations in the entertainment carriage. We are neck and neck until I correct Kaspar for having his weight too far back on his skis – at which point I crash into the netting. Leukerbad 1, Verbier 0. Maybe next time round we should compete on a real piste…
However you fare on the PlayStation, the Snowtrain itself seems a winner. The best way to travel is usually on a Swiss Transfer Ticket. Available only outside Switzerland, this is valid from the airport to any destination in Switzerland, and costs £79 return per adult, second class; children under 16 accompanied by a parent travel free. (A normal return from Geneva airport to Verbier, for example, costs £77, or £123 first-class; to Zermatt, £125/£209.)
Once the Snowtrain has deposited departing holidaymakers at Geneva airport, it collects the new arrivals, who load their skis and luggage in spacious pine racks in the bar carriage with its faux-chalet décor, and in the entertainment car.
A large group of young British skiers, bound for Zermatt, settles into the spacious first-class seats. A man from the Snowtrain hands out goodie bags containing chocolate bars, lip salve, sun cream and other freebies. One of the women pulls out a bottle of orange juice. “Ooh, look, a mixer,” she says. “That’ll come in handy.”
Kaspar and Nicole appear carrying a CD player, plug it in to a socket, and put on Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes – and succeed in getting most of the Brits to work through a warm-up routine for skiing. One man hides behind a can of beer.
Later, I see him in the entertainment carriage, button-holed by the man from the Snowtrain. “Would you like your picture taken in front of the Matterhorn?” asks the latter, gesturing to a giant poster of the iconic mountain. “No thanks, mate,” smiles the skier, “I can do one in front of the real thing in a couple of hours.” “But I’ll print you a free photo,” says the Snowtrain man, “and we’ll put your picture on Facebook with everyone else’s, and whoever gets the most Likes wins a ski holiday in the Valais.”
“Oh, all right then,” says the man, who looks as if he would be more than happy to come this way again.
- The Snowtrain runs every Saturday until March 19, 2011, inclusive. It drops departing skiers at Geneva airport at 1227, and sets off again at 1342; stops include Aigle (for a connecting service to Villars), Martigny (for Verbier), Sierre (for Crans-Montana) and Visp (for Saas-Fee and Zermatt). Make reservations for the service, and buy Swiss Transfer Tickets, from the Switzerland Travel Centre (020 7420 4934; www.stc.co.uk/snowtrain.html). Allow time for documents to be posted to you.
- For information on other train services within Switzerland, and for timetable details: the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)