In 10 years of skiing the Alps -- in Germany, Austria, and Italy, but mostly Switzerland -- my wife and I keep hearing the same question from Americans and Europeans: ''Isn't the skiing better in the USA?" Having tried both Vermont and Colorado, our response is always a polite ''Not for us so far."
For on-piste skiers (that is, those who have neither a death wish nor a low threshold of boredom), skiing in Switzerland is more challenging and interesting than back home, we've found. American slopes used to be better groomed, but that was years ago; Swiss runs have mostly caught up.
Swiss lifts are generally faster and more modern, and if you want to compare those cafeterias at American resorts with the charming mountain restaurants of Switzerland, where you can dine and sunbathe outdoors, please, don't get us started.
Next, you might ask, ''Isn't America cheaper?" Last year, with the dollar low, we visited Crans-Montana in Switzerland, and one of us went to Vail, Colo. Here is what it cost: Large double room in Crans, with terrace and open mountain view at a five-star hotel, with breakfast, $390. Vail junior suite of comparable quality, a bit larger but without the view, with breakfast, $650. Crans ski guide per day, $350. Vail ski guide per day, $560. Crans one-day lift ticket, $47; Vail, $77.
There is another concern that keeps Americans away from winter Switzerland: the fear of taking an untrained American body, hauling it over 3,500 miles of ocean and up 10,000 feet of alp, there to strap on two thin boards (or one wide one, if you snowboard) and proceed to make a fool of yourself in the mountains where downhill was invented and where any passing 6-year-old can (and will) outshine you.
Thank your lucky stars that you picked up your Sunday newspaper, because we're here to help. Here is your step-by-step guide to skiing and snowboarding like a genuine, peace-loving, snow-loving, cheese-melting, temperate but kind of goofy Swiss.
Step 1: Just because your skis, bindings, poles, and boots were probably made in Europe doesn't mean they are homesick. Swiss International Airlines, Swiss Rail, and the post bus system (and connecting boats, if you happen to find a lake in your way) will offer to cart your skis from wherever you live to wherever you are going, and -- sit down for this if you're accustomed to planes, trains, and buses in this country -- will actually get you and your baggage there on time and in one piece. You really love your skis and boots? Go ahead, bring them. In Switzerland, however, rental equipment at the leading resorts is high-end gear of recent vintage. The selection is usually so good that plenty of Swiss can't be bothered hauling in their own. It's always fun to use the newest stuff, and if you break your poles, play bumper cars with rocks, or repeatedly drop everything you carry onto the pavement (we've done it all), just remember our happy mantra, ''It's just a rental, it's just a rental."
Step 2: Make up for the ski boots you didn't bring by bringing some stylish après-ski outfits. At some Swiss ski hotels, dinner is a jacket-and-tie event; at others, it is more casual, but Swiss skiers generally like to look nice. If you don't have chic winter clothing at home, don't worry. Switzerland did not become one of the richest nations in the world by forgetting to open charming boutiques wherever visitors might be found.
Goofy works, too, especially in headgear. In the Swiss Alps, someone likely will ski past you wearing a hat with moose antlers, a chunk of Swiss cheese, a comic face, or more tassels than a Texas cheerleader. The point is it's OK to look good, and if you would just rather look silly, that is totally fine, too.
Step 3. In Switzerland, the only flat things that gladden the heart are bank notes and chocolate bars. Thanks to the Alps, practically the whole nation is on the vertical. The Alps are staggering in their majesty, and they present as beautiful a view as can be found anywhere. Perhaps it is because the Alps so exceed what humans can do that man-made beauty in Switzerland is petite and demure. (Good luck finding a dramatic cathedral, for example, a let-them-eat-cake palace, or an in-your-face skyscraper.) All along the slopes, you will ski around people stopping to rest and have a look. Indeed, the Alps may be the one place in Europe where you can take in the view, and take pictures of the view, and not feel or look like a tourist.
In Crans-Montana, the southern view is a line of peaks that includes Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. In Zermatt, the Sphinx-like Matterhorn dominates the skyline. Most resorts are so high that when you ski, you are above the tree line, making for open, unobstructed runs over rolling waves of white, crowned by a sky that turns, depending on time of day, from baby blue to royal blue to navy. Nowhere is it anything but magnificent.
Step 4. Style matters, and falling flat on your face under the unobstructed gaze of dozens is very unstylish. There are many different ways to ski, but the ideal method is to stay upright. Americans tend to ski with determination and grit, but remember those 6-year-old Swiss kids who ski better than you? They started learning at 3 or 4, and that's why it seems as if everyone around you in Switzerland is descended from a race of mountain goats. Don't take offense, take action. Hire a Swiss ski instructor and make him or her put you through a refresher course in classic alpine method. A note to those starting out: Don't waste your time in group lessons; you'll spend most of your time standing around, unable to learn much of anything from others' mistakes. Get private lessons -- you'll learn faster, and you'll need some time to spare because . . .
Step 5. . . . the reason they call it a ''vacation" is because it is not your job. You can tell who the Americans are in Switzerland: They're up and ready when the lifts open, and they take the last run down when the lifts close. They often substitute PowerBars for a sit-down lunch, which is at once noble and pathetic. They also can come across as loud and pushy -- national cliches -- when all they have to do is calm down, speak softly, and chill out in the alpine chill.
Learn from the locals, who, you will soon notice, saunter to the slopes between 9:30 and 10:30. If you want a table at one of those charming mountain restaurants, and you are there at peak season, call ahead, because between 12 and 12:30, everyone Swiss stops for lunch. Some more skiing follows, and then the snow bars get going, vending hot alpine treats such as Glühwein, mulled wine, and Jagertee, a combustible brew of black tea and rum. In short, for the Swiss, skiing is leisure, not an endurance test (which so much of life appears to be for Americans, at least in European eyes).
On some days in Switzerland, people don't even bother to ski. Your typical Swiss resort has curling (for people who like to throw stones and sweep ice), nighttime tobogganing, paragliding, and all those spas. Crans-Montana has a resident hot-air balloonist (a former Philadelphian) to give you a lift and gourmet dining at the Hostellerie Du Pas de L'Ours. St. Moritz has, annually, polo on ice and a food festival, and year-round gourmet dining at Jöhri's Talvo. Which is another way of saying that, should you be unlucky with the weather, or would just like to enjoy Switzerland like a Swiss, you can spend your days taking in a few runs, eating and drinking in moderation, and otherwise amusing yourself, with no apologies to anyone. But if you must ski 9 to 5, always leave room for the indoor yang to the mountain yin: the spa.
Step 6. When we started skiing Switzerland in 1996, a couple of hotels in each town had a sauna. Within a short time, spa wars had broken out across the Alps, as hotel after hotel built ever more lavish facilities with swimming pools, whirlpools, two kinds of sauna, steam baths, Turkish baths, aromatherapy baths, heated-tile lounge benches, light therapy, and those stones in cold water you're supposed to walk on to make your feet feel better. Then there are massages and enough body wraps to make you feel like Godzilla's taco. Even the smallest hotels have at least a sauna.
What gets many Americans concerned is that the Swiss are casual about nudity and also practical: Why build two identical saunas when everyone can share? Once you get used to it, you see they are right. Yes, your (fill in worst part of anatomy here) isn't body-double quality, but no one cares. And if you travel as a couple, the last thing you want at the end of the day is to go for a fabulous spa experience while separated from your sweetie and in the company of sweaty strangers. In Switzerland, you get to go splish-splash together, and that's just fine with us.
Step 6 1/2. One-half because it is a small thing that applies mainly to foreigners but is becoming more Swiss: Please speak English. The official languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian, and a mountain rarity called Romansch. The German is spoken in indigenous dialects barely comprehensible to a German-speaking German, and even Swiss Germans are giving up on learning French, in favor of English. Much of the help at hotels and restaurants is imported from Italy and Portugal, so do yourself and everyone around you a favor: Speak English.
There you have it -- easy when you give it a little practice. Now get out there and make your nation proud of you.
Contact Alan Behr through www.alanbehr.com.