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This Swiss Destination is a Skier’s Paradise

An AFAR writer and winter sports enthusiast discovers unparalleled adventure when going off-piste in Engelberg.

Engelberg offers ski devotees access to some of the best snow in Europe.

Engelberg offers ski devotees access to some of the best snow in Europe.

You’ll find world-class skiing all throughout the Swiss Alps, but for a thrill-seeking skier like myself, it’s hard to beat the backcountry and off-piste terrain I was fortunate enough to cover in Engelberg as a guest there. Unlike much of the Alps, where on-piste skiing over groomed runs that are safe, maintained, and managed with Swiss perfectionism is the norm, the draw of Engelberg for me was the promise of unbeatable off-piste experiences, fresh powder, and guided backcountry explorations.

I flew nonstop to Switzerland on Swiss International Air Lines, landing well-rested and ready to explore this incredible country. Getting to Engelberg is an easy train ride away from Lucerne, a beautiful city that’s well-worth visiting. From there, you’ll climb up into the mountains past charming farms before arriving at Engelberg, a destination at the end of the road, high up in the mountains. The polished town lies among rugged mountains with peaks on every side of the valley.

It’s no wonder this town attracts travelers and is full of residents who are avid skiers. Even the abbot I met at the Benedictine Monastery Engelberg, and some of the monks who are in their 80s, are life-long skiers and mountain enthusiasts. The local monastery has been in existence for more than 900 years and is a fascinating place to visit—a treasure trove of cultural artifacts, it’s shaped the history of Engelberg over the centuries.

A stylish stay and the promise of fresh powder

A multi-course chef’s dinner paired with local Swiss wine at Kempinski Palace Engelberg.

A multi-course chef’s dinner paired with local Swiss wine at Kempinski Palace Engelberg.

JH Media

The afternoon I arrived, clouds rolled in, and a buzzy energy was palpable in the air. Everybody was hoping for snow, including at my hotel. I stayed at the Kempinski Palace Engelberg at the foot of the Titlis mountain, from which you can see the Gross-Titlis-Schanze ski jump. The Kempinksi is housed in an impressive 1904 building that reopened in 2021 and was recently renovated. The historic accommodations were the perfect home base for my time in Engelberg.

While the building has Belle Époque-era charm, the rooms felt as crisp as can be with all the modern amenities to satisfy discerning travelers who demand the very best, right down to details like the up-to-date charging docks. I was picked up in a sleek, new Mercedes van, relaxed in the beautiful spa, which had a lengthy pool that was ideal for lap swimming, and savored a refined meal crafted with locally sourced cheese and meat.

The Kempinski’s Chef de Cuisine Joshua Lüscher prepared a six-course dinner of beautiful Swiss food, each course paired with a different delicious local Swiss wine. There was goat in just about every course: goat cheese and goat meat, goat milk ricotta, goat milk and curd, and goat cheese camembert. Even the wine, a Swiss white wine called Gissaheinet, had a goat on the label. Lüscher’s grandmother Frieda Dänzer was a former Swiss Olympic skier, and like most people I met in Engelberg, he’s a lifelong skier himself who was just as excited as we were for the coming snow.

The hotel also often collaborates with local farmers and Swiss winemakers. It’s a destination for local folks as well to enjoy après-ski cocktails, and there’s a pop-up fondue restaurant adjacent to a big park, Kurpark that was filled with newly made snowmen by the time we left.

Glorious, guided off-piste explorations

AFAR recommends exploring the mountains with a local guide to find the best snow.

AFAR recommends exploring the mountains with a local guide to find the best snow.

After a day where everything was tingling with the prospect of great skiing, finally, snow started to fall as I was going to bed. The town awoke to a completely different landscape, covered in snow. Even by 7 a.m., Engelberg was abuzz, with people walking around with skis on their shoulders. I couldn’t wait to get out there. But first, I had to meet my guide.

While off-piste skiing in the U.S. is still a relatively controlled experience within ski area boundaries, in Switzerland anything off the trails is fair game if you know what you’re doing. And since you’re likely on your own and in new terrain, you really need a guide to maximize the experience in a responsible manner. Guiding is taken very seriously in the Alps, where it involves years of training and is considered the pinnacle of worldwide guiding. With a guide you can fully explore the entire mountain thanks to their knowledge of where the best snow is going to be depending on the time and conditions, so you’ll be sailing over fresh, fluffy powder before the rest of the crowds have found it.

My guide for the trip was Daniel Perret, a UIAGM mountain guide from Engelberg Mountain Guide, who was as good of a skier as I’d ever skied with. He grew up locally, pioneered a lot of the region’s backcountry, developed a free ride map of Engelberg, and was full of insight and expertise on the area. And that was very much needed and dearly appreciated as the skiing was as intense as you can get. Imagine waist-deep powder, with fresh, cold snow snapping you in the face on every turn. One unforgettable run we had ended on a farm, requiring an invigorating 10-minute walk back to the gondola—worth every step. These are the kind of experiences that take a trip to the next level.

If you want the longest run and the best powder, it’s worth the extra work—but often that’s not needed, another benefit of going with a guide. Many farmers in Engelberg have private cable cars that get their cheese down to market or wood up the mountain in winter. My guide Daniel and his buddies have mapped out where some of these private cable cars are, so you can go up to the top of Engelberg on their cable cars. If you do end up at a farm—all in the pursuit of secret stashes of powder—farmers come out to crank up generators to get the cable cars running.

Take me to the top

You’ll find ski centers, restaurants, and other businesses near the base of the mountain.

You’ll find ski centers, restaurants, and other businesses near the base of the mountain.

Near the base of the mountain is where you’ll find the Stöckli Outdoor Sports ski center and a delicious curry restaurant. (Stöckli, a Swiss ski and apparel company, sponsors many Swiss World Cup skiers.) The gorgeous cable cars that take you to the top are all state of the art, ensuring a smooth ascent with unbelievable views. Engelberg Titlis features the world’s first revolving cable car which transports you from the middle station at Stand up to the summit station at 3,020 meters above sea level. Up top, you’ll be able to refuel at a fantastic Italian restaurant.

After an exhilarating day on the slopes, stop by the Chalet Après-Ski Bar, which is located at the bottom of the main lift. This low-key and locally beloved spot is a must after a long day on the hill—do not miss the opportunity to hear about all the epic lines skied that day from the area’s top skiers. We raised a glass to the magnificent mountains of Engelberg. I can’t imagine a prettier place in the world to ski.

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