Skiing: All set for a day of sun and powder snow

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The Independent Online
If I can get in 12 hours' skiing, thought Cathy Packe, pounds 160 is a small price to pay for a day trip to Switzerland. But time is of the essence, and this trip was no Swiss watch ...

My ski flight last Sunday was rather different from the usual charters. For a start, it was a scheduled Swissair flight, so only a few passengers were destined for a day trip to the resort of Engelberg. I identified two fellow travellers; each had a boot bag, and no other luggage. I ruled out another couple, as the woman was carrying that non-skiing accessory, a handbag, but when we got to Zurich they were waiting to get on the transfer bus.

The plane had arrived 10 minutes early. As it turned out, this was the only thing that went according to plan; the rest of the day proceeded in a manner perhaps more typical of the Italians than the Swiss.

We had received few instructions, but had been told to look out for someone from the Central Swiss Tourist Board in the arrivals hall. There was no one to be seen. The information desk couldn't help. Eventually, a bus driver was found; he was non-English-speaking, and unable to explain why we were not setting off straightaway. It emerged that we had to wait for another group from the Manchester flight. They, too, arrived early, and by 9.45am 15 of us were waiting expectantly in an over-large bus, ready to go. The driver had other plans. He thought someone was missing, and decided we should wait. Finally, at 10am, after one of the passengers had taken control and checked the driver's list of names, we set off for Engelberg.

Those of us who had been told we would be in the resort by 10.30am were disappointed. The journey took an hour an a half, through some dreary Zurich suburbs, around the edge of Lucerne, and into the mountains. Eventually the bus started to climb upwards round a series of hairpin bends, and we had our first sight of a snow-covered mountainside. When we reached the resort, we were to be dropped off at the ski rental shop, where we were to pick up a lift pass, a map and our equipment - all included in the price of the tour. Engelberg is full of ski rental shops, and our driver dropped us at the wrong one. No one seemed surprised.

We had to leave by 4.30pm, to get the Manchester passengers back for their flight. By now it was after midday; so much for the six hours in the resort that we had been promised. Still without piste maps, we set off down the street, to wait for the bus to get to the cable car to go up the mountain. It was 12.30pm by the time I had put my skis on and pointed them downhill.

Engelberg is a fairly small, quite manageable resort on the side of the Titlis mountain. Ascent to the top is by three cable cars; at the half- way point there is a drag lift across a lake, the Trubsee, where a chair lift takes you to the base of another mountain.

Last Sunday, because of bad weather, the final cable car was open only to non-skiers, who wanted to enjoy the view from the restaurant. Unfortunately, the clouds were so low that it wasn't possible to see the cables on the car, let alone the mountains.

Because of the lift closure, the resort's two black runs were inaccessible. A selection of red runs zigzag down to the lake, and from there various reds and blues snake down towards the village. Although the map looked clear enough, the pistes themselves were badly signposted, making it almost impossible for anyone not familiar with the resort to find their way around.

With only four hours available for skiing, it might have been a good idea to forgo lunch, but a restaurant at every lift junction proved too much temptation. They were all fairly small and cheerful, with a lively atmosphere, and they had a selection of Swiss dishes as well as the usual soups and sandwiches. There are several bars and restaurants down in the village, too, which looked inviting: ideal for a spot of apres-ski. Instead, at the end of the afternoon we had to get straight back into the bus, to head for the delights of three hours at Zurich airport.

On the journey back we exchanged notes. Several people said they didn't have time this year to ski for a week, so this seemed a good alternative. We all agreed that it was a bargain for what it offered - the flight alone would normally cost pounds 360.50. But there was a unanimous feeling that the organisers didn't quite get it right. Why, for example, not provide two buses to accommodate the different timings of the London and Manchester flights? And why not send a representative of the tourist office - or an English-speaking driver - to meet us and explain what was on offer in the resort?

Spending a day in the mountains is relaxing, if only because you are so far away from normal life. The flights leave early enough, and return late enough, to give you 12 hours in Switzerland, which should leave more than enough time for a really good day's skiing - and this makes the idea of a day trip extremely appealing. But on Sunday most of us were left with the impression that it hadn't gone as smoothly as it could have done; and until some of the hiccups are sorted out, I, for one, will not be tempted to try it again.

Fact file

The Switzerland Travel Centre (0171-734 4577) is running day trips from London, Heathrow and Manchester to Engelberg every Saturday and Sunday while there is still snow. The cost (pounds 160 from London, pounds 175 from Manchester) includes air fare, transfer to the resort, ski and boot hire, and a lift pass.