Skiers Making Tracks by Luxury European Train

Ward is an Evanston, Ill., free-lance writer.

This winter, for the first time, that mobile pleasure palace on wheels, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, has formed a dazzling duo of delight for train buffs and skiers alike. Running through March 27, this 1920s-era dream machine introduces skiing from the train along its new Alpine route.

Last March the London-to-Venice run (a more southerly route that passed through Lausanne and Milan) was diverted, once weekly, to the north through some of the world's most handsome mountain regions, making stops at Zurich and Innsbruck as well as the usual halt at Paris.

More Winter Stops

Because of the success of that scenic excursion, the owners of the Orient-Express decided to make even more stops during winter months: at Landquart, Switzerland, for the resort areas of Klosters and Davos; at Chur, Switzerland, for St. Moritz and the Arosa areas, and at St. Anton, Austria, for the great Tyrolian resort centers.

Tickets for Swiss Mountain Railways also will be sold by the Orient-Express so that swift and easy connections can be made from the gleaming blue-and-gold railway cars to the famed Alpine ski resorts. The Orient-Express stops practically at the lift heads of St. Anton and Innsbruck.

Prices are quite reasonable. Passengers can make the full run from London to Venice (a two-day, one-night train journey), with one stopover at a ski resort of their choice (for as long as they want), for $720. This rate includes private sleeping compartment, all meals and the plush amenities the train has to offer.

For dyed-in-the-wool ski folk, $200 will get them on the Orient-Express run just between Zurich and Innsbruck, with a stop at any of the ski areas mentioned above.

The combination of old-guard, stylish train travel and some of the best and most idyllic ski resorts of Europe seems a timely idea. One must simply arrive armed with a desire to be pampered by liveried cabin stewards and tempted by toothsome edibles such as le filet de boeuf poele Hercule Poirot, washed down with a bottle of Moet et Chandon Brut.

Further, travelers must thirst after heady mountain vistas (the train passed through the magnificent Arlberg Tunnel and the spectacular Brenner Pass) and the pine-scented ozone of Alpine ski resorts.

Winter Wonderland

The train experience alone, mushing through picturesque, snow-snuggled scenery, is worth the price of admission. Standards have not faltered since the Orient-Express's first renaissance run in 1982. In fact, the adventure has improved with age. Thirty-five restored railway cars champ at the bit in the Orient-Express stables, ready to whisk you on your journey.

Your train compartment of sparkling brass fixtures and polished wood also has a pink-shaded lamp, a vase of pastel-hued flowers and your own private wash cabinet tucked out of sight behind a wooden door resplendent with marquetry panels.

Hot tea and fluffy croissants are served in here to you in the morning as is high tea in the afternoon.

The art nouveau bar car opens at the civilized hour of 8:30 a.m., where one can restore the tissues with more tea, coffee, juices, bottled water or an eye-opening aperitif. An accomplished pianist plays a baby grand piano at 10 a.m. sharp and plays intermittently until the last reveler has trundled off to bed at night.

Each sleeping car sports a multilingual steward who is on call all night in case you require a chicken sandwich washed down with a bottle of Perrier or an aspirin.

In a tiny boutique in the bar car one can buy trip mementos such as chrome-plated key rings with the Orient-Express emblem, silk scarfs, leather belts and all sorts of other goodies. Crystal, china, luggage and other items--all with the Orient-Express insignia--can be ordered from the "Orient-Express Collection" catalogue.

It's especially fun to buy a $3 set of eight natty Orient-Express post cards, write them over a Campari and lime, then toss them into the mailbag at the end of the car. No postage needed--the train provides the stamps and mails your swank missives for you.

Dining in Style

Lunch and dinner are events on the train and, especially for the evening repast, one dresses. Many folks tote along 1920s-era garb to wear while downing such selections as steamed deep-sea fish and crayfish in puff pastry with watercress-flavored hollandaise sauce along with a mellow Chassagne Montrachet A.C. 1982 to wet the palate.

A new French chef, Christian Bodiguel, formerly of La Couronne in Paris, oversees the preparation and presentation of these multicourse gastronomic feasts.

The new route through the Alps gives passengers much to look at between bouts of coddling, and the route has history behind it, too. In the early 1920s this was the second run introduced by the original Orient-Express train, the first being the Paris-to-Istanbul run begun in 1883.

Weekly departures this winter on the new Alpine route originate from London and from Venice, but you can also pick up the train at other points along the circuit such as Paris, Zurich or Innsbruck.

Here are some of the ski areas available from the Orient Express. For more information, contact the VSOE in New York at (800) 524-2420 or your travel agent.

In Switzerland, Arosa has excellent early season and spring conditions. Also great in midwinter, with deep snow and wide-open terrain. Ideal for intermediate skiers. Two lifts at either end of winding main street. Lots of non-ski sports, too. Resort altitude 5,955 feet, altitude of highest skiable mountain 8,494 feet. Total number of lifts, gondolas and mountain railways, 16. Cross-country skiing: shortest trail less than a mile, longest six miles.

Davos has exceptional skiing for novices and intermediates. Great variety of accommodations, restaurants, bars, discos, non-ski sports, shows and shops. Resort altitude 5,110 feet, highest skiable mountain 8,760 feet. Total of lifts, gondolas and mountain railways, 38. Mecca for ski-touring, with 45 miles of groomed trails and night skiing.

Elegant yet Subdued

Small Klosters is elegant yet subdued. Great skiing. Sophisticated though not frenetic night life. Accommodations comfortable yet charmingly rustic. Convenient cable car for the journey down at the end of the day often welcomed by novices. Altitude 3,653 feet, highest skiable mountain 9,243 feet; 22 lifts, gondolas and mountain railways; five ski-touring trails including a 15-mile run along the Landquart River.

St. Moritz seems to have more of everything than anybody else--deluxe hotels, fine shops, non-ski sports, apres-ski activities and a large international clientele. Peerless skiing from six lift complexes on one ski pass. More than enough ski runs to suit the novice, intermediate and expert. Plus ice skating, horse racing on a frozen lake, curling, Cresta and bobsled riding and swimming. Also great shopping, superb dining and lively night life. Resort altitude 6,032 feet, highest skiable mountain 11,215 feet; 34 lifts, gondolas and mountain railways. More than 70 miles of groomed trails from a gentle, one-mile loop to a 26-mile route skied by the 10,000 entrants in the annual Engadine Marathon.

In Austria, Innsbruck offers city living (it's also an 800-year-old university town) with all its amenities--hotels, restaurants, bars, sightseeing, museums, theater, concerts, excellent shopping--and numerous skiing choices. Free buses transport skiers to at least 11 surrounding ski areas. Resort altitude 1,880-2,952 feet, highest skiable mountain 7,254 feet; 49 lifts, gondolas and mountain railways; 106 miles of trails.

St. Anton has snow considered ideal for skiers and the treeless slopes add to its idyllic situation. Fashionable, popular with the wealthy and the odd royal personage as well as a more conservative segment of the jet set. Ice skating, tobogganing and sleigh rides. A new tennis center has five outdoor and three indoor courts. Elegant but quiet apres-ski atmosphere. Resort altitude 4,278 feet, highest skiable mountain 8,685 feet.

Other notable ski resorts in the immediate area include Zurs (chic, elegant, refined), Lech (larger and folksier), St. Christoph (the mountain annex of St. Anton and linked to that village by a cableway) and Stuben (tiny and rustic).

If you take the Orient-Express to Zurich you also can reach the slopes of Gstaad and Zermatt.

For more information about these ski areas, contact the Austrian National Tourist Office, 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 906, Los Angeles 90010 or the Swiss National Tourist Office, 250 Stockton St., San Francisco 94108.

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