With the majority of Switzerland's internationally famous resorts in the country's far west or south-eastern corners, ancient Engelberg, in the central canton of Obwalden, stands out. The first hotels appeared here in the 1850s and it became a ski resort not long after, but the village had been dominated for many centuries before that by the impressive Benedictine monastery, established in the early 12th Century. It's still operational today, with about 20 monks in residence.
The people of Obwalden have always had a reputation for their independent spirit, reflected in the fact that the original Swiss Confederacy – an alliance of small states determined to remain independent from their more powerful neighbours – was established near here at the end of the 13th Century. Although it's very much a village, with a population of around 4,000, Engelberg's long-standing status as a holiday resort means that the architecture is of the grand Swiss model, giving the feel of a small town. The spectacular mountains rising up to 2,000 metres above the buildings, create one hell of a backdrop.
As a ski resort, Engelberg has always been at the cutting edge – the first electric rail line in Switzerland was installed here – and the best example in the modern era is the already legendary rotating 'Rotair' cable car/tram, which ascends to 3,020 metres to offer access to the Titlis glacier. At the top station there is a tunnel through the ice, with a frozen bar. The resort is nice an accessible, with its own train station, and with Zurich Airport just an hour and a half away (or around two hours on the train) it's ideal for shorter breaks.
It's also got a reputation as something of an off piste paradise, and the 'Big 5' off piste ski runs (see below) should be on every expert skiers' bucket list.
Engelberg - Ski Map & Pistes:
Engelberg's ski area is large, if not enormous, but its 82km (51 miles) of trails span a massive, 2,000 metre vertical drop. The ski area is served by a network of rapid, modern ski lifts (of which the Rotair is just the most famous example). The longest of the pistes from the Titlis glacier back down to the resort is a whopping 12km (8 miles ) long.
To reach the main Engelberg ski area from the villages, take the Gerschnialp gondola and then the Trübsee cable car . The base station is half a mile (800 metres) from the village centre so it's best to take the ski bus if you don't have your own transport. If you have rented a car, however, there's a large carpark near the gondola.
Most of the runs that make up Engelberg's resort area are designed for intermediate skiers, but there are plenty beginner areas dotted around the mountains too. Although the different sections of the ski area are linked by ski lifts, each one tends to operate as its own, separate cluster – a series of ski lifts converging on a single meeting point – rather than the whole ski resort operating as a fully-interwoven network of trails.
Skiing in each of the areas has advantages and disadvantages. The Brunni area, for example is usually best for beginners. Its base station cable car, which leaves from the other side of Engelberg village to the Gerschnialp, serves lower altitude and mostly gentler slopes. There is a popular children's snow play area here too.
The main snowboarding attractions are on the Jochpass where a terrain park is established when the conditions are right – plus, of course, the off piste (see below). Snowboarders also head for the glacier, especially in the spring and autumn 'summer skiing season' when a fun park is created on the Titlis Glacier.
If you're into cross country skiing, Engelberg's extensive network of marked cross country trails will tickle your fancy. And if you just want to watch something spectacular, try to make sure your holiday in Engelberg coincides with the Ski Jumping World Cup, which takes place on the 120 metre Titlis jumping hill in late December. It's the largest ski jumping hill in Switzerland, and the only Swiss stop on the FIS World Cup tour.
Engelberg - Off-Piste, Backcountry & Ski Touring:
Engelberg's reputation as an off piste paradise is well deserved. The 2,000m vertical drop makes the Engelberg ski area particularly well suited to all manner of off piste shenanigans should the snow conditions play ball. There's a huge amount of variety to the terrain, from high alpine couloirs and cliffs, to tree runs that are perfect when there's fresh snow falling. All round, this is a great place for expert skiers.
Much of the Titlis ski area is north facing, and the lifts here run up to above 3,000m, so there's plenty of decent off piste lines to be had. Chief among these are the so-called 'Big 5,' all of which can be accessed from the lifts with no ski touring or boot packing required.
The Galtiberg, which runs from Mt. Titlis to Engelberg via the Galtiberggletscher is one of the longest freeride runs in the Alps. The Laub, slightly lower down, is also a challenging descent, while Steinberg offers a variety of different line options. The final two, known as the Sulz and Steintäli, which drop from either side of the Jochstock lift, are also must-rides. Check out the Engelberg ski resort tourism website for more details, and to download GPX routes of the Big Five.
Check the snow reports and avalanche forecasts before heading off on any of these off piste itineraries, Make sure you have your beeper, shovel, probe and, ideally, an avalanche backpack with you, and don't set off if you're at all unsure about snow conditions and directions. As everywhere in the Alps, it's well worth hiring a guide from Engelberg Mountain Guides – not only will they help keep you safe, they'll make your off piste day more enjoyable by planning it out and taking you to where the best snow conditions are.
Engelberg - Restaurants, Bars & The Town:
Like all modern Swiss ski resorts Engelberg offers plenty of off-slope activities, and a range of winter sports that aren't alpine skiing or snowboarding - including an excellent network of winter walking trails which are perfect for snowshoeing.
Most of the 55 or so restaurants around Engelberg are hotel based and offer traditional Swiss fare cooked to a very high standard. The mountain huts also offer a wide range of top class dining opportunities. The Fürenalp mountain restaurant is one of our favourites and a great place for sampling local specialities.
Typical of many Swiss ski resorts, Engelberg isn't the most lively on the après ski front, but it's better than some. The Old Monk Bar in the Hotel Central does decent cocktails and the Core Irish bar serves Guinness and puts on live music without laying on the tacky faux-Hibernian vibe too thick. The bar at the Ski Lodge Engelberg is also popular, and on busy weeks, there's always a good party going on at the Yucatan. If it's late night entertainment you're after, the Gletscherspalte disco is a perennial favourite – just don't expect the most cutting edge music.
Engelberg has a range of hotel options to suit a wide variety of budgets including luxury hotels, ski in ski out accommodation near various of the lifts. This is Switzerland though, so none of it sits right at the bottom of the budget range.
While it might not be party central for après ski, Engelberg ski resort is great for children, and traffic is not a danger thanks to Engelberg's location at the head of the valley. Apart from the swimming and ice skating kids can enjoy the toboggan run and of course the revolving cable car! Daycare for children begins at age two in the village kindergarten, with baby sitters available to look after younger kids (contact the tourist office for details). The Ski Kindergartens offered by the ski schools are available for booking from half a day to five days, with lunchtime supervision if required.
Engelberg - Ski Hire:
Renting ski boots and skis in Engelberg is easy, with plenty of ski hire shops clustered in the village and around the lifts at the base of the ski area. The Intersport-owned Titlis Rent at the base of the main gondola, or the Intersport Achermann near the Brunni-Bahnen are good places to start. More ski shops offering ski hire can be found near the centre of the village, including the excellent QuattroSport.
Engelberg - Ski School:
There are plenty of good options for ski schools in Engelberg, from the Schweizer Skischule Engelberg near the centre of the resort, to more boutique ski school operations like Prime Engelberg. Active Snow Team also offer ski and snowboard lessons in Engelberg, with private ski lessons particularly popular.