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The Glacier Express is a misnomer if there ever was one. Known as the slowest express train in the world, this bright red train travels between St. Moritz and Zermatt in an epic 7 1/2 hour journey through the Swiss Alps.
Good thing I wasn’t in a hurry when I boarded the train in St. Moritz one early winter morning. St. Moritz is one of the most opulent ski resort towns in the world and additionally the locale of both the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics. The night before, I joined the apres-ski glitterati for a drink at the local Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains and half expected to see James Bond perched at a baccarat table in the hotel’s casino.
The next morning, I boarded the train for Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn, a mountain I only knew as the artificial snowy beacon of Disneyland.
Immediately, I felt as though I had jumped into a children’s book reminiscent of “The Polar Express” as the train pulled out of the station, the sturdy Swiss engine towing its bright red cars as they meandered like a caterpillar through the winter-white landscape. Better yet, the train felt roomy. First-class has 36 seats per compartment, while second-class has 48 that are quite comfortable.
I took the epic train ride in the dead of winter and was happy with my choice. The day’s journey of about 150 miles takes you over 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels and across the Oberalp Pass. At 7,000 feet, it is the highest point of the trip. For a portion of the journey, the train churns along the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/ Bernina Landscapes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Traveling east to west, the train chased the day beautifully, and I spent most of the journey with my forehead pressed against the panoramic viewing window. I opted to stay on the train the whole ride through, but one can hop off at any of the five stops along the way for cross-country skiing and snowboarding.
A hot pasta lunch, which included dessert and coffee, was served at our seats for about $32. Passengers also congregated in the Railbar at various points to stretch out their legs and enjoy a glass of champagne.
I’ll never forget the ride over the Landwasser Viaduct, a single-tracked railway viaduct built in 1902 with six dramatic limestone arches curving over the Landwasser River.
We pulled into Zermatt just as the sun was beginning to set. Cars are not permitted in the town, creating a peaceful village feeling at 5,276 feet. I hustled to the town center to catch a glimpse of the Matterhorn before it grew dark.
Mark Twain wrote about his time in Zermatt in his 1880 travel book “A Tramp Abroad,” describing his travails up the mountain passes in the area. I can only imagine the words he would have penned had he been given the chance to take the Glacier Express journey — from the comfort of a train seat.
Where to Stay
St. Moritz: St. Moritz boasts many five-star resorts including the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains St. Moritz.
An all-inclusive Club Med package is a good alternative.
The Schweizerhof St. Moritz is located in the town center with more affordable rates.
Zermatt: The Beau-Rivage is a small, family-run hotel operated by former Olympic ski champion Max Julen. It is onveniently located in the center of town and features a good restaurant.
Glacier Express Ticket Reservations: One-way, second-class tickets from St. Moritz – Zermatt cost approximately $155.
Trains from Zermatt to Zurich or Geneva operate regularly. Fly into Milan, Zurich or Geneva and access the Glacier Express via train connections. The train operates year-round.