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Downhill to down-right hot in Switzerland

East of Geneva, amid peaks and powder, go-carts and hot springs

Email|Print| Text size + By Kari J. Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / November 18, 2007

LEYSIN, Switzerland - There's no better cure for a bottomless cheese fondue meal than an 8.6-mile ski run. At least, that's what came to mind as I stood near the summit of a 10,000-foot glacier in the Alpes Vaudoises, preparing for my long descent. My other thought: Please let my legs and lungs be stronger than my resolve to eat lightly on this trip.

Glacier 3000 ski resort (named for its altitude at 3,000 meters, or 9,900 feet) offers wide-open, year-round skiing and snowboarding atop a mountain of snow-covered ice. Skiers can reach the Tsanfleuron Glacier, in the southwestern corner of Switzerland, in a cable car and then use slow-moving T-bars to traverse the immense snowfield. Or, they can catch a helicopter ride to Quille du Diable (Devil's Horn) near the summit of the glacier for a more scenic ascent that offers breathtaking views of the area's 12,000-foot peaks, including Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and the Jungfrau. From here, powder lovers can ski fresh tracks on the glacier and then make the long-distance run down Les Diablerets mountain for a thigh-burning 6,000-foot descent.

(The peaks east of Aigle and the Rhône Valley are collectively dubbed the Alpes Vaudoises.)

As I slipped away from the Restaurant Botta 3000, I looped around the north side of Oldenhorn peak, which loomed above me at 10,306 feet. Then I followed a silky trail of fresh powder as it switchbacked down the Combe d'Audon route and offered views of snow-capped mountains as far as I could see. This shaded run took me from the Valais canton into the Bernese Oberland region, where I carefully skied along sheer cliffs that were thankfully well marked with symbols that transcend language barriers: big exclamation points and yellow-and-black checkered flags.

I caught my breath on the short chairlift up to Oldenegg, where skiers lounged on wooden recliners outside a restaurant, soaking up the sun or warming up under wool blankets. Then it was a short and final descent to the base of the mountain. As challenging as it sounds, the run is doable for intermediate skiers, with plenty of steeper terrain to challenge experts, and cable cars can whisk skiers down the slopes if their legs give out.

Home base for this trip was Leysin, a town of 2,900 about two hours east of Geneva. Located at 4,300 feet on a south-facing mountain, Leysin is known for its sunshine and clean mountain air. The town overlooks a wide valley, giving it maximum sunlight, and is sheltered from the north's cold winds by a range of mountains.

The town earned its reputation as a healthy retreat in the early 1900s, when people began coming here to cure their tuberculosis through exposure to the sun and fresh air. By the mid-20th century, Leysin had become a popular winter sports destination, and people were drawn here for the area's superb cross-country and downhill skiing (the resort's first lift was installed in 1957).

Today, Leysin offers 37 miles of skiing - 28 individual runs - that are geared to beginner and intermediate skiers, and accessible right from the village. One impressive run takes skiers down a chute in between two 7,700-foot rock towers.

The Alpes Vaudoises ski pass allows you to ski at Leysin and six other resorts in the region: Anzère, which can be reached by lift from Leysin; Les Diablerets, a smaller resort below Glacier 3000; the swanky resort of Villars; and the resorts of Gryon, Château-d'Oex, and Gstaad.

According to Switzerland Tourism, 82 percent of all visitors here are from Switzerland, 10 percent from Germany, and 8 percent from the rest of the world. I wouldn't have discovered the area if it weren't for friends who grew up in this French-speaking region.

The Alpes Vaudoises ski areas are overshadowed by the flashier resorts of Zermatt, Verbier, and St. Moritz, but in Leysin and its neighboring resorts, there are fewer people on the slopes and lift tickets are a lot less expensive. An added benefit for families is that in Leysin, children under age 9 ski for free. And there's plenty to do when you're not on the slopes.

Leysin highlights Swiss ingenuity and the locals' love of the outdoors. Silvio Giobellina, a bobsledder who earned a bronze medal in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic Games and went on to coach the French national bobsled team, settled in Leysin in 1998 and opened the Leysin Tobogganing Park.

The park has seven chutes, ranging from 300 to 750 feet long, that are carved out of snow and have steep, high embankments. For about $19, you can rent a big inner tube and go for rides down the chutes for nearly two hours (it's $2.50 for one run). Tobogganers sit cross-legged on their tubes, gripping the handles as tightly as they can, and go slip-sliding down the chutes. There's everything from relatively slow, mellow runs to fast and wild rides that have jumps and hairpin turns. On several, you become horizontal to the ground as you bank around steep corners. I tried five of the seven chutes, chickening out on the two that started from a 15-foot-high tower.

Leysin's sports center, Centre Sportif Crettex Jacquet, sits next to the tobogganing park and has a skating rink in winter. Here, on the second Saturday of every month, locals and visitors go karting, which is essentially go-carting on ice in cars that have plastic knobs on their wheels to help with traction. It's a good place to practice your high-speed, 90-degree turns on ice and just plain have fun, as you race around the rink with people from all over the world. At other times of the month, the center is open for ice-skating and curling.

There are several popular sledding spots in the area. From late December to early March, you can go sledding at Les Diablerets, down a four-mile, dedicated run called Col de la Croix. Rent a sled from the top of the Meillerets chairlift for $5 to $10, depending on the type of sled, and then make the 1,800-foot descent, cutting through quiet forests and screaming around tight bends, as you use your feet for braking.

I spent the next couple of days in Leukerbad, a German-speaking region two hours west of Leysin by train. Leukerbad sits in the upper part of a valley, with a semicircle of mountains looming over it. The best place to get a sweeping view of the area's 12,000-foot peaks is from the Gemmi Pass, which is 3,000 feet above Leukerbad and can be reached by cable car from the village. This is also a popular spot for cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing. Or you can make tracks at the Torrent ski resort on the other side of the valley, where there are 31 miles of skiable terrain more suited to intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders.

The snow was marginal when I was there in February - like a warm, mushy day in New England - but that was just as well. Most people go to Leukerbad not to ski but for its thermal pools. (The 260-plus days of sunshine are a big draw, too.)

This small mountain village of 1,500 people is the country's largest thermal region and a big center for wellness and healing. It has 65 hot springs that feed 22 public and private thermal baths, four of which are open to the public (an additional four are located in area hotels and open to guests).

The Burgerbad thermal center is the largest bathhouse and one of the most popular. In some ways, it's like a heated water park: The center has indoor and outdoor thermal pools, a water slide, a thermal outdoor whirlpool, a thermal steam bath, hot and cold walking baths, and pools for children and toddlers.

My favorite spot was the Lind- ner Alpentherme, at the other end of the village, which has a grand and elegant feel on the outside, with its light and earthy-colored stone exterior, archways and Roman facade, and calming and conservatively luxurious feel on the inside.

While some lounged on deck chairs, I floated and soaked in the mineral-rich indoor thermal pool, and then swam - without leaving the water - through an exit to the outdoor thermal pool. From here, I had fabulous views of the surrounding mountains.

The pool had seats along an outer wall and numerous Jacuzzi jets (called underwater animation here) that helped loosen up my tired ski muscles. I floated around the outside pool one snowy night, letting snowflakes melt on my shoulders to cool me down and then dipping underwater to warm up again. I could see dozens of other people in the pool, coming in and out of view through the steam that was rising off the hot water.

"Doctors say you have to stay in the water for 200 hours per year" for it to have the greatest positive effect, David Graefen, a manager there told me. "People used to come here and stay in the water for six to eight hours, fully clothed to be proper."

Today, visitors wear swimsuits, except on Roman-Irish night, when people dine on authentic Roman cuisine while bathing in the Roman-Irish bath naked. They sip champagne and eat dinner off floating trays, as they socialize and soak in the therapeutic waters (tunics are available).

The Roman-Irish bath, which was established in 1824 and is one of only two in the country, has 11 steam baths of varying temperatures. Visitors go from one bath to the next, soaking for purification purposes.

I purified myself by floating in the indoor and outdoor pools - with my bathing suit on - for hours and then enjoyed an Ayurveda treatment in the spa's wellness center. I ended my Swiss trip with a raclette dinner (melted cheese from the Valais canton served with pickles, pickled onions, baby corn, and potatoes) at Leukerbad's Restaurant Weidstübli.

This family-style restaurant is nestled in the trees above Leukerbad, next to one of the resort's ski runs. It's well worth the 30-minute walk by flashlight. And this time, my all-you-can-eat meal ended with a high-speed descent to the village by sled, guided only by the light of the moon.

Kari J. Bodnarchuk, a freelance writer and photographer, can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.

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