Someone might be having a less-than-excellent day somewhere in Switzerland, but it isn't me. Sipping a glass of Laurent Perrier as I roll out of St Moritz aboard the Glacier Express, I am officially enjoying a day of excellence. For I'm not slumming it in first class or even (shudder) second class – I'm in the brand-new Excellence Class carriage aboard the famous train which takes eight hours to cover 291 kilometres between St Moritz and Zermatt.
This is not a boring rail route. It threads through Alpine scenery the whole way, with snow-capped mountains above valleys dotted with grassy slopes and pretty villages. It's all the cliches of Swiss scenery wrapped up in a journey that's also a technological achievement. Along the way we'll pass through 91 tunnels and over hundreds of bridges, reaching an altitude of 2033 metres above sea level. But enough stats, there's a train interior to be admired. Although I haven't yet managed to mention "Excellence Class" to anyone without accompanying that title with air quotes, it has to be acknowledged that it's very nice indeed. In its own specially-outfitted carriage of 20 seats, Excellence Class has the air of an elegant five-star hotel on wheels.
The decor is thoughtfully designed for maximum comfort, and is stylish rather than flashy. There's just one seat either side of the broad aisle, facing a counterpart across a timber-topped table. The use of natural materials is a highlight, with touches of walnut and Alpine quartzite. On the floor is hand-tufted carpet and the beige leather seats each have an individual fabric inlay of varying colours.
The key feature of the Excellence Class concept, however, is the dining. The fare includes a seven-course meal served over the course of the journey, including wine and other beverages. These are ably presented by our concierge Zuzana, who is originally from Slovakia and is unruffled by the challenges of serving fine food aboard a moving train. She fills my champagne order from the Glacier Bar at the rear of the carriage, a classy bar inside a domed space whose rim is decorated with outlines of peaks we'll encounter on the way. At the heart of the dome is a huge compass which looks as if it should rotate as we move, but today seems motionless. No matter, it's what I can see out the window that counts.
St Moritz is a picturesque starting point and soon we pass through countryside and smaller towns. The beauty of rail travel is you get to see both the gritty and the sublime – the backyards of houses and light industrial sites, along with spectacular natural backdrops. Within 15 minutes of leaving St Moritz we pass through a glorious vista of snowy mountains on each side, with a glacier-blue stream bubbling alongside the rails.
This first section of the journey carries us along the Rhaetian Railway's Albula Line, World Heritage listed for its impressive use of tunnels and viaducts to overcome such difficult terrain. One such highlight is the Landwasser Viaduct, a 65 metre-high bridge which provides a lofty view as we cross.
My first course arrives, a starter of cheese tarts and mixed spiced nuts. My fellow passengers have a version that includes a beef tartare mini-tart, but I opt for a vegetarian variant as Zuzana tells me confidently that she can cater for many food preferences at a moment's notice. I test that claim as the day wears on but for now the starter is excellent, the local cheese pairing well with the champagne.
Another feature of my seat is an iPad on which is loaded a map of the journey, constantly updating via the Wi-Fi provided free to Excellence Class passengers. Donning the accompanying headphones, I watch one of the embedded video profiles of prominent locals, in this case Andres Ambuhl, an ice hockey player. Meanwhile out the window, there are key sights to watch out for as well as plenty of smaller, unmarked items of interest which I spot including a small castle on a distant crag past Thursis.
After leaving the regional centre of Chur we pass along the Rhine Gorge, a stretch of grey cliffs formed by an ancient rockslide, which dammed the river creating a vast lake. There's never a dull visual moment with yellow-flower-dotted meadows, blue-green streams and small towns, all in contrast to mighty peaks above. Intermittent sunshine throws colours into sharp relief, the greenery of spring alongside the icy white remains of winter snow.
Around noon we enjoy an entree of smoked trout matched with a local white, Sherpa Blanc, before sliding through Ilanz. Encountering the occasional town like this is startling after sighting many small, distant hamlets, but is a good reminder of the industriousness of the Swiss in making these high locations work for them.
As there are only seven Excellence Class passengers today, it's easy to meet fellow travellers. As I wander down the carriage and get talking, I meet a group of four who turn out to be from San Francisco, having emigrated there from China and Japan. We have a pleasant chat about Japanese cuisine and about the long train journeys they could possibly undertake in Australia. The final couple of passengers are Swiss and are aboard the Glacier Express to see a part of their country they've never visited.
We criss-cross one of the Rhine's tributaries, glimpsing hydro-electric plants along the way. Then, after consuming a pea mint soup scattered with dried alpine blossoms, we pass through the Greina Plateau, a high landscape of grassy slopes and little wooden houses. At Disentis we pause for a cog railway locomotive to be attached, as we're about to tackle steep terrain and will need its help to haul the train up the incline. I can feel the cogs kick in as we proceed, towards big snow-covered peaks across the valley.
For lunch I've again called on Zuzana's catering magic, so while the others dine on beef tenderloin I'm presented with a regional Swiss dish called capuns. Hailing from the canton of Graubunden and reminding me of cannelloni, this is a collection of small rolls made from spatzli dough wrapped in chard leaves, boiled in milk and served in a rich cheese sauce (you're never far away from dairy in Switzerland). It's delicious, and works well with a glass of a local syrah.
In a dramatic finale to the meal, we emerge from a tunnel to find ourselves for the first time entirely snowbound, enveloped in a white landscape. It's startling and I scramble for my sunglasses to combat the glare. After the bucolic scenery this icy whiteness seems like nature untamed, and I'm in awe of both the snow and the train's ability to carry us through it.
At the Natschen siding we step out for 10 minutes to await a passing train along the single track, and enjoy the chilly fresh air while taking photos of each other against the featureless white background.
There's plenty of attractive scenery yet to come, and three more courses (cheese, dessert, afternoon tea). However by mid-afternoon the sunshine and non-stop dining have made me dozy and less likely to notice the vista. Perhaps sensing this, the weather gods produce some dramatic spitting rain, which takes the edge off the scenic colours but adds a dash of wild nature.
On the final approach to Zermatt, filled with Swiss food and wine, I feel contented. It's been a fine rail journey through the mountains. No – it's been excellent.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism.
Hotel Hauser, in St Moritz, has a good restaurant and comfortable rooms from CHF137 a night. Hotel Pollux is in the heart of the shopping and dining action in Zermatt and has rooms from CHF117 a night. See hotelhauser.ch; hotelpollux.ch
Excellence Class aboard the Glacier Express is available daily in both directions from March to mid-October. The fare consists of a first-class ticket at CHF268 plus an Excellence Class reservation which costs CHF420. The Swiss Travel Pass is accepted for the first-class portion. See glacierexpress.ch