Andermatt, Switzerland ski resort: Undiscovered gem among Europe's best slopes

Andermatt, says Bernard "Banz'' Simmen, our local guide, is at the "centre of the centre of Europe" and is – thanks to an Egyptian billionaire – poised to enjoy a new lease of life after many decades in the skiing wilderness.

It will be, he suggests, the completion of a circle that began many hundreds of years ago (the Romans were regular visitors) when Andermatt was the go-to place for traders heading through the St Gotthard Pass, a much-used valley through the otherwise rocky barrier of the Alps, to northern Italy. But then, in 1882, someone had the audacity to build a train tunnel under the mountains and this medieval spaghetti junction, with its cobblestoned streets, traditional chalets and pretty alpine charm, was essentially bypassed. The car tunnel completed in 1980 didn't help, either.

A circle, though, suggests some kind of continuity and Andermatt's journey from trade hub to increasingly popular European ski resort has been more boom and bust than that – less a smooth circle than the up and down of an Olympic mountain-bike circuit.

But as one door closed another one opened in the shape of the Swiss Army, which decided to use the village as its garrison town in the late 1880s. Barracks were built, thousands of soldiers arrived to train, firing ranges were set up and, economically, the village thrived again.

According to Simmen, who runs the local 61 Internet Kiosk Cafe, the arrival of the army made the locals complacent. Why think about more chairlifts or bank-rolling the village's future as a ski resort when the money from provisioning/entertaining the army just kept rolling in?

As such, the skiing side of the village lacked any real investment and fell into, if not disrepair, then a major funk. And, let's be honest, a resort peppered with barracks, soldiers and army buildings isn't exactly the sort of picture-postcard views that skiers are seeking.

Instead, by the time the army finally pulled out completely in 2003, Andermatt was essentially a second-rate ski resort despite what the experts deemed to be some of the best off-piste skiing in Europe.

Now it looks like Andermatt is about to get a new lease of life, with a major refurbishment to the railway station under way, new hotels opening up and new ski lifts going in. And it's all down to an Egyptian billionaire who decided to splurge a cool $2.4 billion on the area.

At first glance, Andermatt is your typical charming Swiss village, its streets narrow, winding and cobblestoned, its architecture of the wooden A-frame "Toblerone'' variety. There is the obligatory glacier-fed, milky, babbling brook running through it, it's surrounded by pristine countryside, the dizzying heights of several mountains and, at 1447 metres, it gets a lot of snow.

Advertisement

Gemsstock mountain, at 2963 metres and mountain-goat steep, is the more challenging of the peaks while nearby Natschen offers gentler fare for the less suicidal. But there's more to Andermatt than just snow; it's very much a year-round destination with fishing, biking, mountain climbing and hiking all popular in the summer months. On a wall in the village there is a large quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who visited the area at least three times. It says: "Of all the regions I know, this is my favourite and the one I find most interesting."

Until recently the hotels and chalets here were mostly three- and four-star affairs, small but offering decent accommodation. The few restaurants are mainly homely affairs serving good, hearty Swiss fare. Michelin star territory it ain't. Not yet anyway.

For at one end of the village, not far from the mundane train station, there is the Chedi Andermatt, an up-market hotel and apartment complex that wouldn't look out of place in St Moritz.

It's impressive in that low-key way of chic five-star hotels the world over and has a classy Swiss-Asian opulence about it. It's ambitious, incongruous and, say hopeful locals, a sign of better things to come.

Egyptian-born billionaire property developer Samih Sawiris is the brains behind The Chedi, which opened in December 2013. He was initially drafted in to give advice on how to develop the area for tourism but so liked what he saw that he decided to do it himself. "When I was invited to consult the Andermatt team," he said afterwards, "I didn't expect to come across a long-forgotten destination with such potential. The prospect of transforming this village into one of the Alps' hidden gems is incredibly exciting."

Plans for several new hotels, apartments and chalets in the area have already begun to bear fruit, with eight luxury apartment blocks already open and a new Radisson Blu slated for this northern summer. A new piazza with a host of new restaurants and cafes is also close to completion. And they've not done too badly so far: in 2016 The Chedi was voted one of the top 10 most beautiful ski lodges in the world by CNN and attendant 18-hole golf course was voted best golf course in Switzerland.

Sawiris' property group has also taken a controlling interest in the local lift companies and has plans to redevelop and improve skiing access throughout the valley by installing new ski lifts that will eventually join Gemsstock to nearby Sedrun's slopes to create a huge ski area of 120 kilometres.

Crucially, Andermatt is also the only large tourist destination in Switzerland exempt from the country's Lex Koller law, which restricts the buying and selling of property in Switzerland by non-Swiss nationals. Not for nothing did London-based luxury property group Sphere Estates say in November last year that "now is the perfect time to buy in Andermatt".

On top of this, and in anticipation, there is a $264m renovation of Andermatt train station under way that will include six new covered tracks, a new station hall, commercial space and rental apartments.

Sawiris' plans, when they reach fruition in the next few years, will feature six new four- and five-star hotels and about 500 new apartments. Of course, it's not all sweetness and light. While Andermatt's locals voted almost unanimously in favour of the developments some of them, they say, have been slow to materialise.

Timing apart, Sawiris wants to turn his "hidden gem" into one of the most coveted tourist regions in Switzerland with guaranteed snow, those 120 kilometres of slopes, 24 lifts and something for everyone from beginners to elite skiers.

Until then, it still retains much of its sleepy ski village aesthetic. Go now and beat the Inn Crowd.

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

andermatt.ch/en

myswitzerland.com

discover-the-heart-of-switzerland.ch

VISIT

The Ursern Valley Museum in Andermatt is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in the village, if not the whole valley. Built in 1786 it served as headquarters for the Russian General Suworow in 1799 and later became known as the Suworow House. Its permanent exhibitions   explore everyday domestic living  between 1780 and 1800, the history of the valley and its culture. See museen-uri.ch

FLY

Swiss International Air Lines flies to Switzerland with Star Alliance code share partners from the main Australian cities. See swiss.com . The train ride from Zurich airport to Andermatt takes about two hours.

STAY

The Chedi Andermatt is without a doubt the best hotel in the village. It has 123 rooms and suites, all with picture windows with views. See thechediandermatt.com

Comments