How times change. Yet Engelberg’s enduring reputation as a destination for travellers dates back centuries. Indeed this Swiss ski resort is as popular as it’s ever been, and it’s appealing more to families now, as well as to the usual crowd of hardcore freeriders.
It was back in the 12th century that Benedictine monks gave this small mountain town its name “Angel Mountain”, when they founded a famous monastery here on a meadow where, according to legend, a local duke had seen a choir of angels. Today the monastery shares that same meadow with a clutch of simple nursery slopes, where you’ll occasionally see a monk in full habit skiing past.
Six hundred years later, William Wordsworth beguiled travellers and romantics when he wrote of nature’s “beautiful creation” in his poem “Engelberg, the Hill of Angels” on his Grand Tour in 1820.
But it was Queen Victoria who really put this small town on the tourist map when she visited in 1868 to take the air and to paint its majestic mountains. Soon after, Engelberg became the most fashionable mountain resort in Switzerland. Still today its historic Belle Epoque hotels lend a certain stateliness to the more archetypal chocolate-box Swiss architecture of this small, traditional town.
With the emergence of Winter tourism across the Alps, Engelberg fell from favour for a while, eclipsed by its glitzier, more fashionable rivals, Zermatt, Gstaad and St Moritz. But now, this hidden gem is very much back on the map again. Engelberg is Central Switzerland’s biggest winter sports destination once more. Soon it’ll have its own five-star hotel to compete with such big players as neighbouring Andermatt, once the major overhaul of its grandiose fin de siècle Hotel Europe is complete.
It’s easy to see why Engelberg is popular with locals. It’s so conveniently situated, just one hour south of Zurich and a mere stone’s-throw from Luzern. It’s also a straightforward and pleasant train transfer (2 hours, with just one change) from Zurich International Airport, making it a real option for long weekends and skiing mini-breaks. It’s already a huge ski destination for Scandinavian off-piste enthusiasts.
The resort itself is high (although the town is just 1050m); it’s snow sure; it has a well-earned reputation for some of the best free-riding terrain in the Alps, and a seven-month ski season. Skiing on the Steinberg glacier continues until late May – accessed by the Titlis Rotair, the world’s first rotating cablecar, which spins 360 degrees so that everyone gets an equal view.
There’s skiing on both sides of Engelberg’s steep valley, served by two separate lift systems. Its combined 82km of pistes and 27 lifts are somewhat misleading statistics when you consider the longest run (from Titlis to the town) is 12km/2,000 vertical metres. Then there’s the infamous Laub, Europe’s longest lift-served off-piste run – a steep wall with over 1,200m vertical descent, frequently covered in powder snow.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak… there are countless kilometres of free-riding options here for advanced skiers in the know and with a guide. We’re talking some of the most exciting ski terrain in the Alps.
Engelberg – A family resort
Although many of Engelberg’s pistes are geared to the more advanced skier or snowboarder, it ticks all the boxes as a family resort too.
The main beginner ski area is at Brunni, on the sunny south side of the resort, with its magic carpets, mini-drag lifts, nursery slopes and gentle forested pistes, not to mention one of the resort’s two lengthy toboggan runs. At the top of the track, the characterful Brunnihütte mountain restaurant fuels hungry sledgers before they set off, with hot chocolate topped with a mountain-peak of whipped cream and a generous slice of homemade fruit tart.
On the craggier Titlis side of the resort, the easily accessible network of blue runs at Gerschnialp provides an enjoyable intermediates playground. While a further cluster of blue runs combined with a 2-man chairlift from Engstlenalp (at the top of the Jochpass) will keep more confident intermediates amused for hours.
Meantime, non-skiers can amuse themselves in town – from cheese tasting at the monastery to soaking in one of the resort’s plentiful spas. Up on the mountain there’s snow biking, snow-tubing, and even sleeping in an igloo (book early for the family room!)…
No trip to Engelberg would be complete without a visit up the smart Titlis Xpress cable-car which, together with the Rotair, whisks a staggering 2500 people per hour up to the top of Mt Titlis. The bird’s-eye views of Central Switzerland’s mighty peaks are breathtaking, and there’s also a chance to walk across the Engelberg “cliff walk”. This is Europe’s highest suspension bridge, dangling precariously 300 metres in the air between two mountain faces… if you dare!
Teresa Fisher travelled with Flexiski. A three-night stay at the Hotel Terrace with breakfast and two day lift pass starts at £493 per person (based on two sharing), this includes flights from London to Zurich and train transfers.