There’s something a bit more special about holiday travel by train. After the steward blows his whistle and the train pulls away from the station, you settle in with the rhythmic swaying and chugging along to your destination. Beyond that, it’s the convenience of letting someone else take care of the drive while you chat with your companions, take a snooze, or take in the scenery. But clearly, not all travel experiences by train are the same. The Crème de la Crème of luxury train travel is one that every train travel enthusiast will cherish for a lifetime. The most unmissable train journey in the world is the Excellence Class on the Glacier Express through the Swiss Alps en route from Zermatt to St. Moritz.
It’s called the Glacier Express but there is nothing express about it which is exactly what guests cherish most. In fact, the train takes an indulgent eight hours on one of the most scenic journeys in the world from Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn through Davos to the Engadin Valley and St. Moritz, or in the opposite direction. Passengers can join along the way at stops in Chur, Andermatt, and Brig but the train is deemed express as it does not make the numerous local stops along the way. The Glacier Express is actually one of the slowest trains in the world averaging 24 miles per hour as it covers 181 miles.
But guests on this train are in no hurry as the magnificent views demand slow movement to fully appreciate the vistas of the quaint villages, bucolic landscapes, pristine forests, and rivers along with the most unforgettable mountain peaks, and valleys of the Swiss Alps.
There are several rail classes for the journey that each afford a different level of amenities and privilege. The Excellence Class is what train journey dreams are made of, reserved for only 20 passengers with a customized carriage offering unobstructed panoramic views and a dedicated host and concierge at your beck and call throughout the journey. Guests enjoy the benefits of uber-comfortable seating, a swanky bar exclusively reserved for the Excellence Class passengers, and a fine dining degustation experience served by waiters wearing white gloves.
The Glacier Express began almost 100 years ago in 1930. Initially, it provided transportation across Switzerland from Zermatt to St. Moritz during the summer months as sections of the route were unpassable in winter. With advances in technology and tunnel construction, the train service opened year-round in 1982. Today, the train service continues to improve its technology and level of service to remain at the pinnacle of train travel and as a premier tourist attraction in Switzerland.
The Glacier Express Excellence Class
As with airplanes, cruises, and other modes of transportation, the Glacier Express offers several classes based on price and the associated level of service and amenities. However, the Glacier Express Excellence Class is in a class of its own, offering an indulgent experience each moment of the way from onboard to alighting. It all begins at boarding with a red carpet and velvet roped entrance and a nattily dressed attendant waiting to help guests with their baggage. From there guests enter the Excellence Class car and, after the first flute of champagne is served, feel that they are in a world apart.
The train car is specially designed to afford the utmost in comfort from the seats, technology, food, service, and, of course, the views. The carriage is beautifully designed with natural wood finishes, alpine quartzite details, and plush carpets. There are only 20 seats in the Excellence Class, configured to face each other in pairs with a table in between and only two seats in a row across the train car. With this lounge seating set up, each guest has an unobstructed view. And speaking of the view, not only can passengers see what is outside through the window but even above as the glass window wraps around to give a panoramic view of the stunning nature and scenery along the way.
The seats are very comfortable and what one would expect in a first-class airplane. The plush cream leather reclining armchairs are wide with electronic lumbar controls for back comfort. Guests also receive complimentary WiFi though out the journey an iPad and headphones for use during the trip. The Bordinfotainment iPad gives complete details on the journey with an interactive map and with informative commentary on the journey’s highlights passed along the way. The system also provides video programming with movies and video profiles and interviews of interesting Swiss icons from the arts, culture, and sports.
In addition to the creature comforts, guests can stretch their legs to walk around the car, take photos from a window in between the cars, or chat with other travelers at the Glacier Bar, exclusive for the use of Excellence Class guests. The bar, made of teak wood, feels more like a bar in a ritzy hotel and in the ceiling has an oversized carved wood compass that rotates in the direction of travel. Behind the bar, the staff is quick with a friendly conversation while preparing G&T or a negroni for guests as they swap travel stories with fellow passengers.
The service makes the experience even more endearing with a host/concierge that attends to the guests’ needs along with bartenders, porters, and wait staff that ensure every whim is served. All are switched on, knowledgeable and helpful and are happy to give their insights on the sights along the way.
Switzerland’s Unforgettable Scenery
Rhine Gorge, aka the ‘Swiss Grand Canyon’
As amazingly wonderful that the train, dining, and service may be, it all plays a second act to the spectacular views along the journey. The Glacier Express passes through areas that one would not be able to see otherwise; stunning landscapes that contrast with the grittier sides of Switzerland as seen in the graffitied urban and industrial areas and the backsides of homes, with the days washing and all. But for the most part, it is those scenes from Heidi or the Sound of Music with fairytale-like vistas of charming Swiss chocolate box houses, bucolic scenery with milk cows in pastures, and stunning mountainscapes. Switzerland is made up of four language-speaking areas that all have a distinct culture. As the journey gets closer to the St Moritz area the language is Italian and Romansch and the architecture of the homes begins to morph into the Engadine stone houses with their ornately painted facades and sgraffito design details.
No matter what time of year there is beauty to behold. In spring summer and fall, the hillsides bloom with colorful flowers set against a sea of green pasture land. Elsewhere the train snakes through thick woodlands without a human in sight. Rivers, gargantuan glacier lakes, and streams cut through the land adding to its beauty. In the winter, you’ll feel like you are trapped in a snow globe surrounded by scenery covered in a blanket of blinding white snow, and snow-laden pine trees, with the occasional cross-country skier trekking across the scenery.
Feats of Swiss Engineering: Train lines, Tunnels, Viaducts, and Bridges
The entire rail lines used by the Glacier Express is an engineering feat that travels for 181 miles and to an altitude of 6,706 feet. Along the way, it covers 291 bridges and 91 tunnels. Just outside of St. Moritz is the Albula line, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been recognized for its remarkable use of tunnels and viaducts to overcome the route’s daunting mountains and valleys. The line includes another engineering feat in a three-mile tunnel taking about 15 minutes to pass through. The most iconic bridge is the and is Landwasser Viaduct, a 213-foot high engineering feat of its own in a stone viaduct connecting the towns of Schmitten and Filisur. It is an icon of swiss travel ingenuity and beauty and is the most emblematic landmark of the Glacier Express.
This is Sightseeing on Another Level
In addition to the beautiful nature along the way, the quaint towns and thriving cities will keep passengers fixated for hours. Zermatt is known for its affluence and aristocrats in a posh car-free ski town as well as one of the most stunning mountains in Europe, the Matterhorn. While at the end of the journey, the winter playground for the jet setters in St. Moritz awaits with its flashy shopping streets, castle-like hotels, and sunny slopes which has made this town a playground for the rich and famous for over 100 years. Along the way, the train weaves through mountains and snowy villages like Andermatt as lifts take skiers to higher elevations to race down the slopes. The Glacier Express literally takes guests through the middle of the natural beauty and landscapes that Switzerland has to offer.
Beyond the more recognizable towns, the train ride weaves through remote mountain villages with little more than a stone mountain chapel with a steeple and a few chocolate box wooden homes that seems to have fallen right off the postcard onto the scene before you. There are also occasional castle sightings, sitting high on the mountainside surrounded by pastures, woodlands, and rivers.
The Oberalp Pass
The spectacular vistas and landscapes that guests see on the panoramic journey will stay with them long after their luggage is unpacked back home. One of the most stunning sites that passengers see is the Rhine Gorge, nicknamed the ‘Swiss Grand Canyon’ with towering white rock walls and odd rock formations that reach over 1000 feet on each side of the river scenery. Arguably the most incredible sight of the journey, especially in winter, is the Oberalp Pass which lies at the highest part of the journey and is 6670 above sea level. It is one of the most remote places in Switzerland where the residents are few and far between. In their place is a wide snow-filled windswept valley, barren of trees; a seemingly icy desert of blinding white glaciers and snow.
Bon Appetite on the Glacier Express
Forget everything that you’d normally think of when it comes to train food. No greasy burgers or ham and cheese sandwiches here. In its place is an indulgent gastronomic experience of gourmet Swiss cuisine, and an exquisite wine list, all made complete with their intuitive and switched-on service. Every dish is exquisite in taste, beautifully presented, and served at your table. Enjoying the six-course meal along with the stunning scenery is an experience beyond compare.
There are snacks throughout the journey as well as a proper Afternoon Tea toward the last part of the journey. The highlight of the experience is the lunch assured to please the most finicky epicurean with regional and classic dishes including a robust offering for vegans and gluten-free options as well.
The fine dining experience delightfully stretches over two and a half hours beginning with an aperitif and amuse-bouche. The menu may include an appetizer of Swiss-smoked trout served with oven-roasted beet and horseradish cream cheese. The pea and mint soup with Alpine is served at your table from a white pot into a bowl with edible Alpine flowers. The savory finale is an equally sumptuous offering of Swiss fillet mignon served atop truffle and potato mash with mountain herb jus and accompanied by buttered carrots. An offering of Swiss cheese and nuts then makes way for a sweet ending of Engadin nut cake, the Valais apricot cake, or a selection of sorbets.
The selection of wines perfectly augments the dining experience with each dish paired with Swiss wines allowing guests to partake in the top wines of the country, in particular from the Graubünden and Valais regions.
A Sad So Long
All good things must come to an end and after the eight-hour journey, a sense of melancholy is to be expected knowing the trip is now complete. Some experiences in our life are almost too good to be true. Taking the Excellence Class on the Glacier Express is one of those unforgettable experiences where the journey is as wonderful, if not more so, than the destination. From the gorgeous scenery to the pampering service, and the five-star dining, the Swiss have found a way to set the bar for luxury train travel on one of the most scenic train journeys in the world.