Skiing the great undiscovered

Chances are you won't have heard of Engelberg. Yet this Swiss resort claims to be a secret Alpine gem. What makes it so special?
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The Independent Travel

The notion of the "undiscovered" ski resort is patently absurd. Investors don't spend millions on creating a resort's infrastructure - hotels and restaurants, lifts and pistes - to then keep quiet about the whole thing. Even the most intrepid skier is about as likely to unearth such a resort as an airline pilot is to land at an undiscovered airport.

The notion of the "undiscovered" ski resort is patently absurd. Investors don't spend millions on creating a resort's infrastructure - hotels and restaurants, lifts and pistes - to then keep quiet about the whole thing. Even the most intrepid skier is about as likely to unearth such a resort as an airline pilot is to land at an undiscovered airport.

Yet these places keep popping up. The UK magazine Escape Routes claimed to have found a handful last year; and the desperately fashionable US monthly Blue devotes several pages of its current issue to the "Top 10 undiscovered gems of the Alpine world". Among them is Engelberg, about 30km south of Lucerne, a resort which was one of Thomas Cook's most popular winter destinations before the First World War, and which installed its first cable car in 1927.

There can, of course, be a thin line between "undiscovered" and "ignored". Don't be surprised if you have never heard of Engelberg: the Where to Ski and Snowboard guide grudgingly gives it a single page, while the Good Skiing Guide doesn't mention it at all. The Crystal Holidays brochure describes it as "one of Switzerland's best-kept secrets, largely unknown by British skiers".

Crystal, which has been patronising the resort for several seasons, has discovered this year - along with most of the other big ski operators - that there is a demand among British skiers for flexible short-breaks. So it now has a small programme of such trips to Swiss resorts, offering departures every day and stays of any duration from three nights upwards. The cheapest of its packages - from £289 this month for three nights - is to Engelberg. So I mounted an expedition there last weekend, not to claim it for Britain but to discover if it is a "gem".

The operator's flexible-break programme takes advantage of the good rail connections between the stations at Geneva and Zurich airports and many Swiss resorts. (These services are currently promoted to the locals with a poster campaign using the Beatles-song slogans "Ski's got a ticket to ride" and "She loves you, yeah yeah yeah" - a slightly odd pair of puns which work better if you pronounce ski in the German way, as "schee".) For Crystal, including a rail ticket in the package price, saves arranging coach transfers; and its clients get to enjoy a ride on Switzerland's very civilised railways.

The transfer to Engelberg takes two and a half hours, with one change at Lucerne onto a narrow-gauge line which rattles along the valley, then hauls itself up to the resort on a track steep enough to make the carriages' connecting doors hang open, despite their springs.

On my arrival, last Friday afternoon, Engelberg immediately put in a claim for "gem" status. The resort makes much of its setting, to the extent that its highest cable-car, running up to the 3028m Klein Titlis, has a revolving floor so that skiers can see the whole view during the ascent. Even down in the valley, the panorama is remarkable: the town - nothing special itself, apart from some fine-but-faded Edwardian hotels - is ringed with rugged, almost intimidatingly craggy mountains, more like the Cairngorms than a chocolate box. From the balcony of my room at the Hotel Terrace, the view was unforgettable. Which was lucky, because I didn't see it again.

Next day, clouds hung heavily over the mountains, and rain poured down on the town. Disillusioned, I forsook the life of the skier - always on a slippery slope - and entered a monastery.

It was the Benedictine order which actually discovered Engelberg: the monks arrived in the 12th century and the town developed alongside their monastery. The existing building, which dates from the mid-18th century, has a long, corridor-like church, unshowy apart from its nine altars and an organ which crams 9,000 pipes into a small loft, more than any other in Switzerland. I listened as the organist concluded a service with a fugue that mixed - in a somewhat unstructured way - glorious early-baroque harmonies with passages of gothic horror. In the confined space, pipes in anything but the middle register struggled to get a hearing.

With the mountains shrouded in white, I might have stayed around for the funeral that was to follow; but the weather forecast promised heavy snow on Sunday. So in the hope of seeing something - a mountain maybe, or the snow beneath my skis - I took the gondola and two cable-cars (the second revolving through 360 degrees of cloud) up Engelberg's main ski area to the Titlis, central Switzerland's highest peak.

Snow conditions near the top were good, and there was enough visibility to make sense of the top red run beneath the Ice Flyer lift (which traverses the Titlis glacier) and the steep black pitch which follows. Given enough snow, it is possible to ski the 12km from the Klein Titlis to the valley; but last Saturday the fun ended a quarter of the way down. It was still possible to ski blind, on brown slush, to the Trübsee station; but the lower part of the route - a sweeping blue run, I am told - was closed.

It may now be open, thanks to the blizzard which hit the resort on Sunday, and prevented me from doing more than feel my way around the red runs on the Jochpass. Then I headed down to the railway station. It was a gem of a train-ride back to Zurich.

Also included in the short-breaks programme of Crystal Holidays (0870 848 7000) are Davos, Chateau d'Oex, Grindelwald and St Moritz. Information on Engelberg and other Swiss resorts: Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30)

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