Finally, Skiing in Switzerland: Villars-sur-Ollon

A view from a snowshoeing trail. Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, February 2019.

A view from a snowshoeing trail. Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, February 2019.

And finally, Arnaud got to ski.

After all, he’d only talked about it since he’d begun early stage conversations with the university where he now works—and where he has worked since the first of September. That makes for about fourteen months of talking about skiing in Switzerland and not skiing in Switzerland, with four of these months living only a few miles from the ski slopes on which skiing could happen.

A colleague of Arnaud’s had mentioned Villars-sur-Ollon as a nearby spot for some reasonably accessible skiing and snowshoeing, so we decided to make an overnight of it in early February. We could even have made a it a day trip, given that it only took about an hour and a half to get there via train and bus, but a night away and two days of skiing felt only fair after so much anticipation.

Villars Palace

The trip came together rather at the last minute, and without a lot of detailed preplanning. (Often, as in this case, a weekend without a lot of planning makes for a much more relaxed and relaxing trip.) When Arnaud heard that the MBAs at his university spend a weekend in Villars and stay at the Villars Palace when they do, he figured it endorsement enough and booked a room for Saturday night.

The hotel, which is massive, reminded me of Stephen King’s The Shining, though the novel’s hotel sounds a lot more upscale than this one. The Villars Palace may have had quite the vogue in its heyday—in the early 1900s. With perhaps a little resurgence in the 1960s.

The front desk in the cavernous lobby had a computer embedded in the counter, but the clerks mainly operated on paper—including writing down Arnaud’s credit card number at check-in on a printed document with our reservation information. (Somehow, this didn’t feel exactly secure. I thought the Swiss had a reputation for high financial security. At least they have a reputation for high regard when it comes to personal confidentiality and honesty, too. We’ll have to hope that one of the two stereotypes holds.)

Our hotel room, when we got into it—check-in took a while, in keeping with the place’s retro mode—had dingy, mismatched, and hard-used furniture, replete with scratches, chips, and water stains. We’d reserved a double room with a double bed, but “double bed” here meant two twin beds with full-on bed frames, pushed together. As the bed frames prevented the two mattresses from touching, the hotel had made the beds separately with separate sheet sets, blankets, and the rest—leaving us with two twin beds without space between them. Not exactly what we had in mind for a weekend away as a couple. At least they’d cleaned the room relatively well.

In short, Arnaud’s university may want to find another place for MBAs to stay.

Outside the room, the hotel must have spanned at least 40,000 square feet. Maybe 50,000. Left to my own time on Sunday while Arnaud skied, I wandered the place and found a synagogue, a theater, a bar with a dance floor, another bar with a wall of fame that had frames without pictures, two or three large dining areas, and a basement with lockers for each guest room’s ski gear—and I didn’t even poke into the more remote corners of the place. Supposedly, the hotel has baths and a spa, but both had odd hours that prevented me from getting there during their open times. (And I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into any common-use baths in this hotel, to be honest.)

Given that we stayed at Villars Palace in February, I didn’t explore the outer grounds, which looked to have a swimming pool and tennis courts and beyond, though snow had so covered everything that it only added to the middle-of-nowhere sensation. Like I said, this place runs past massive.

As an aside: The hotel must advertise heavily as a ski or sports destination in Israel and in Jewish communities, given the synagogue, the large number of signs and plaques throughout the hotel in Hebrew, the separate dining area for people who keep kosher, the Hebrew-speaking front-desk staff, the hotel toiletries labeled in Hebrew, and the kosher condiments on all the tables, even in the general dining room. I didn’t expect it, so it came as a surprise, though hey, why not? Makes sense to have a place that caters to specific dietary requirements, cultures, and language, no? Yet I wonder if the specialization means that the hotel has such a captive audience that it doesn’t feel the need to update its décor or amenities. Shame.

Skiing in Villars

You’ll have to ask Arnaud for details about the skiing in Villars. Here’s what I know:

  • He had a blast.

  • He skied for a solid five hours each day.

  • The slopes felt manageable for someone who hadn’t skied in several years. (We’ve heard skiing in Verbier has much more intensity.)

  • Even on a weekend with heavy snow and in a town easily accessed by avid skiers, the slopes didn’t seem crowded.

  • The town has plenty of places to rent all the ski gear you could want or need. (And you can buy it there as well, if you’d like.)

Showshoeing in Villars

Though I can’t pretend to the same level of anticipation for snowshoeing as Arnaud had for skiing, I’d long wanted to try it. This despite many avid-skier friends telling me that snowshoeing, in comparison to skiing, ranks as “lame.”

When reality looks like a holiday card. View from a showshoeing trail. Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, February 2019.

When reality looks like a holiday card. View from a showshoeing trail. Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, February 2019.

When Arnaud skied on Saturday, I took rented showshoes and trudged uphill for two hours and down for one on a marked trail walking distance from our hotel and the rental shop, Sport’s House on the Route des Hôtels. (We rented Arnaud’s ski gear there as well.)

I write “trudged” intentionally. I had the impression that wearing showshoes meant I would march easily over the snow. While strapping large frames to my feet may have made it easier to cross fresh powder than just wearing shoes would have made it, snowshoeing in fresh snow felt like trying to walk through heavy quantities of powdered sugar with large platters on my feet. Moving your feet through shifting silt, especially when what you’ve put on them expands them to twice their size, feels like slog.

Given that Arnaud used gravity to yank him down a mountain on rails, I had the much harder workout in my three hours than he had in two days of five hours of downhill skiing each, I’d say.

And though I thought snowshoeing would feel much like hiking, just in snow, and though snowshoeing by and large did feel much like hiking, just in snow, it had a major drawback in comparison (in addition to the increased difficulty, given the aforementioned snow and the cumbersome foot-platters): At no point can you find a nice rock or outcropping and sit down for a bit to have a snack or just enjoy the scenery. Because at every point, everything around you has snow all over it.

Sit in snow and you’ll sink so far you might not easily get up, especially wearing foot platters. When you do get up, you’ll feel miserable and cold at best and, at worst, you’ll feel soaked. (It depends on what you wear, of course. Wear waterproof stuff, and you’ll sweat yourself into misery as you hike due to the workout factor—but you’ll stay dry if you sit down to take a break. Yep, you got that right: No win either way.)

Cookie Deli

Did you notice I didn’t link to the Sport’s House website up there when I mentioned where we rented skis and snowshoes? If not, pause a moment and take heed. I’ve found a recurring theme in Switzerland: Things don’t have websites, even things that you think can’t possibly survive in today’s day and age without them. Sport’s House has no website.

Cookie Deli—a tasty, cozy café where I had lunch on Sunday while Arnaud skied—doesn’t have a website, either. This makes recommending it as a lunch spot somewhat difficult, though I suppose the smallness of Villars makes it easy enough for you to locate Cookie Deli if ever you happen to go there. (You can find it on Avenue Centrale.)

The café has a basic menu with three main categories: burgers, bowls, and wraps. (They serve tasty-looking milkshakes as well, though I didn’t try one.) Craving vegetables, I had a bowl with sweet potatoes, spinach, quinoa, nuts and seeds, and an egg. I can’t say I felt the pricing made sense for such a moderately sized meal (I paid some twenty-five Swiss francs for about ten to fifteen bites of food), and I feel like I should have seen some cookies around somewhere, yet I walked out feeling like I’d had a healthy lunch, at least.