Arosa is the end of the line and is quite happy about it. When the train arrives at the Swiss station, visitors disembark for their vacation or day’s work and swap places with departing passengers. The Rhaetian Railway takes visitors up the 16-mile line from Chur to Arosa in an hour, the distinctive red train making light work of the 3,280-foot climb, hugging the mountainside as it disappears into tunnels (19 of them) to reappear on bridges spanning gorges (there are 52 bridges).
If you are driving to the resort, the Schanfigg road from Chur to Arosa, which was completed in 1890, has, perhaps apocryphally, 365 turns on its way to the top. The fact that there is nowhere beyond Arosa means that for both the railway and the road, there is no through traffic and, once there, the compact town, with its hotels, shops and attractions gathered around two lakes, doesn’t require further car use. Buses around the town are free.
The population is only about 2,000 in summer, doubling in winter, so Arosa has a reputation for being quieter and more family-orientated than other resorts. Nightlife isn’t the attraction here. What you get, instead, is that peaceful feeling every evening, particularly since most vehicles are forbidden from being driven between midnight and 6 AM, and during the day you’re as likely to hear the bells on the horse-drawn carriages taking tourists around the town as you are a vehicle (it helps that the buses are electric or hybrid).
So what’s special about Arosa? Well, its setting, to begin with. It sits at about 5,900 feet above sea level, yet its location at the bottom of a wide valley means it is both sunny and sheltered from the strongest winds. By the end of the 19th century, it had become a popular spa resort – hence the building of the railway, which opened in 1914 – and as winter sports increased in popularity in the decades afterwards, it added a winter season to the summer.
In contrast to its better-known Swiss ski resort competitors, Arosa still attracts mostly Swiss and German visitors, and there’s a sense that the town enjoys comparisons with its neighbors while feeling quietly superior. All Alpine resorts mention nature somewhere in their marketing, but Arosa is blessed with its own microclimate. The weekend we visited, it was dropping to a comfortable 27 degrees Fahrenheit at night in the resort, whereas just over 20 miles away in St Moritz it was a biting 5 degrees. Once a year, it also has the added advantage of being only 8 miles (as the crow flies) from Davos, where the World Economic Forum takes place each January.
That event, pre-COVID, was just finishing when we were there, and while some attendees had undoubtedly chosen to stay at Arosa to get some peace and quiet in the evenings, others had probably done so because they thought it was a short distance between the two. In fact, that 8 miles is multiplied many times over when you drive, and it can easily take two hours, no matter what online travel agents and other websites might say when you are researching your accommodation.
For downhill skiing, it’s possible to ski in and out of some of the hotels. The ski area has 140 miles of slopes, and has the largest interconnected skiing region in the Grisons/Graubunden, with a cable car joining Arosa Hornli with Lenzerheide Urdenfurggli in under three minutes. But Arosa also has 37 miles of hiking paths and 18 miles of cross-country skiing tracks, and my main reason for going was to have a second go at cross-country skiing, hoping to learn it while still young enough to learn anything, ready for when I’m too old for downhill.
Like learning any winter sport, cross-country skiing is a mixture of skills and bruises. The Maran cross-country ski area is on the same land as the Arosa golf course, and there were times I wished it was the summer rather than winter and that I was chipping on to one of the greens.
Not everyone falls over while learning, but I did, a lot. If you are used to large, wide carving skis and downward momentum to keep you upright, cross-country skis are absurdly narrow and like trying to balance on a bicycle while stationary. One second you are upright, the next a sideways lean introduces itself and you are lying on the ground wondering whether you have the strength to get back up. At least there aren’t many people around to witness your embarrassment. Everyone else is having too much fun hurtling down the mountain miles away. You get back up, try again, and by lunchtime of the first day you can do it.
While cross-country isn’t for thrill seekers, it’s a good choice for those who want to explore the region, get fit (the next morning you can feel it in your arms, shoulders, legs and calves) and also save money. OK, so no one goes to the Swiss Alps to save money, but it’s a lot less expensive day by day to go cross-country skiing or hiking with snow shoes since you don’t need a lift pass.
As well as the range of winter sports on offer, Arosa is also positioning itself as an environmentally friendly choice for Alpine enthusiasts. The Tschuggen Hotel Group, which has two properties in the resort, is spearheading this with its newly built Valsana complex in the center of town. It contains a 40-room hotel, nine serviced apartments and some private residences, as well as a ski shop and supermarket.
The whole development is heated using geothermal probes and by capturing and reusing waste heat from other appliances that would usually be lost to the surroundings. This waste heat is stored in an ice battery, essentially a large water tank housing a 1,300-foot pipe register made up of 5-foot-high pipes.
How it works is that the pipes hold a water-glycol mixture that freezes and thaws, storing and releasing energy. Heat pumps draw their energy directly from this storage tank and its pipes. When the pumps extract a large amount of energy, the water in the pipes freezes to form an ice block. The heat that has been withdrawn might be used for the kitchen or especially the hotel spa, both of which have a great demand for hot water. The loop continues, since more than 50 percent of the heat emissions from this used water can be captured and recycled before the water is discharged into the sewage system. The waste heat from the heat recovery system is fed back into the water basin to thaw the ice in the pipes. If more waste heat is generated than energy withdrawn, the ice is melted and the water in the circuitry can heat up to 60 degrees. And so it goes on, with the sort of wizardry that would have kept me awake at night, had I not been so exhausted.
There are more basic eco-friendly gestures in place around the hotel and resort. Regional food is emphasized, as is local employment rather than “seasonairs.” There are solar panels on buildings. You’ll find glass bottles for water in rooms rather than plastic, and souvenir postcards that are not only biodegradable but contain flower seeds to plant wherever they end up. Guests of the Tschuggen properties can also carbon-offset their stays. Lest it all sound a little worthy, the luxury element hasn’t been forgotten, with a Tesla car available for transfers from the train station.
Meeting the Challenge
Meanwhile, Arosa has signed up to a sponsorship deal with Swiss herb drop maker Ricola to help with its Sustainable Arosa 2030 strategy. The aim is to make the destination 100 percent sustainable by 2030, but it also includes wider aims such as animal welfare. A project launched in 2018 in cooperation with charity Four Paws has seen the Arosa Bear Sanctuary rehome animals rescued from circuses and restaurants. It doubles as a tourist attraction and doubtless is popular with children. The resort has also published Eight Promises for the Future of Arosa, which includes animal, nature and environmental protection.
Having spent many happy weeks in the mountains over the past three decades, I’ve no doubt that these resorts recognize the challenges of climate change. Many are witnessing the profound changes to the seasons and are seeking to preserve year-round tourism while promoting a sustainable future. So much has been upset by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Arosa, while putting in place all of the protocols necessary for safe visits this coming season, is planning for the next decade and beyond.
For more information visit myswitzerland.com, arosalenzerheide.swiss, tschuggenhotelgroup.ch. Contact the Switzerland Travel Centre at 41 43 210 55 00 or visit swisstravelsystem.com/en.