Coffee harborside at a tiny bistro table on the sidewalk right in front of our hotel, I Tre Merli, and just a few feet from the water’s edge. Movements only from that cheeky seagull eyeing me and my breakfast onion focaccia, and from the small dogs trotting beside their owners. There were the harbor pilots sipping espresso in their flip flops and board shorts and reading the morning’s paper, the day-trippers consulting the water-taxi schedule to San Frutuosso and glancing at the dock, where no water-taxi is anchored (the sea’s probably too rough and the taxi won’t run today).
Coffee was brought out in a white carafe with a side pitcher of frothy milk. I could sit for hours here, absent-mindedly pouring more coffee and milk into my cup and gazing out and across the harbor of Camogli, watching the cliffside town slowly, ever so slowly wake up. J and I were easing into our day, too. Making the most of our mornings meant sitting at this very table for as long as it took, and then wandering back upstairs to our room to gather water bottles, sunblock and head out for a day of hiking over the hills and coastline stretching south of Genoa, the Riviera di Levante of Italy’s Ligurian coast.
My mind holds childhood memories of skiing in Switzerland as long winding treks down the mountain – mogul hills in some spots and narrow passages in others. There were brief stops along the way for family to catch up. Some nervous contemplation at the crest of a steep hill. A few spectacular falls. But the overarching theme is day-long journeys broken up by leisurely stops at tidy sloped roof chalets for plates of French fries and late afternoon hot chocolates – before ending up sore, windblown, and spent, the afternoon sun sinking, at the bottom of the mountain.
And so it was with J – who I convinced (pretty easily) to go and relive my selective Swiss skiing memories – on a Christmas week in Zermatt (in the Pennine Alps of Switzerland). With a few necessary advance reservations (and help from a high school friend), we ate well and stayed well in car-free Zermatt, an easy train ride up from Geneva. Sharp air and clear skies brought the glorious Matterhorn to maximum view – everywhere – in the village and on the slopes. And took our breath away, spectacularly, on our first jet-lagged day, when we opened the window shutters in our room and came face-to-face with that peak. We stayed in a chalet apartment of the Hotel Zurbriggen (run by champion 1980s Swiss Alpine skier Pirmin Zurbriggen and his family), a convenient five-minute walk from the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ski lift, and apres ski-ed in the heated outdoor pool facing that spectacular mountain peak.
The first day of skiing, we stopped for lunch at the Restaurant Findlerhoff, reservations in hand, down a narrow path in the tiny mountainside village of Findeln. We stumbled in ski boots into the cozy dark wood chalet and hung our helmets from rods overhead. Fellow skiers sat sweater-to-sweater, hair askew from hats removed, the outline of ski goggles pressed into cold pink cheeks. A few dogs were on the patio and beers were being drunk (by the people, not the dogs) while sitting in the bright winter sun.
On the next, J and I gazed out over endless white slopes and blue sky at The Igloo, having just skied our way over the ridge into Cervinia, Italy – spending Euros and not Swiss francs. Sharing a Weissbier on the patio, blankets draped over our knees and backs against the chalet wall, giddy from having skied across a border for lunch. A mid-ski stop at Restaurant Alphitta near Riffelalp had us on the wide terrace soaking up sun with a basket of baguette, quiche, and frisée salad, the Matterhorn in full view over our shoulders.
Then we got lost. Not skiing, but hiking. On Christmas Day. Trying to mix it up. We were hiking our way up to a leisurely lunch at elegant Chez Vrony. But it was snowing, and we made a wrong turn on the trail, eventually finding our way to Findelbach, a stop along the Gornergrat rail line, and caught the train back into Zermatt to take the Sunnegga-Rothorn funicular up to Sunnegga. From Sunnega, it was a short snowy hike downhill to the warmth of Chez Vrony. Outside, the day’s palate was soft greys and whites in the clouds and lightly falling snow.
Inside, Chez Vrony was warm colors and light wood, stemmed wine glasses and etched carafes, sausage and rösti potatoes, and delicate desserts on the side of a mountain. Forgoing all the unplanned modes of transportation that got us to Vrony, we stuck to our original plan, and hiked back through Findeln down the mountain following (successfully this time) a trail through the pine trees and back into Zermatt. A glass of champagne at the outdoor Veuve Clicquot ice bar and a steaming chocolate crêpe to-go from Stefanie’s crêperie across the way would end our day – sore, windblown, and spent but reveling in snowy winter joy.
I don’t do it often enough, but it’s not hard to get out of the city in the Washington, DC, area. Farmland, horse country, the Blue Ridge Mountains, are only an hour or so away. Take Stanardsville, Virginia, just outside Shenandoah National Park. It took me and J about the two hours advertised by getaway, to drive there late Friday afternoon for some Saturday hiking. Getaway is a revamped campground (once, Heavenly Acres Campground) dotted with carefully placed tiny house trailers – all wood-sided and painted black. Ours came with a New York license plate. Each trailer is named for a grandparent of staff or guests (says the web site) the name engraved onto a metal plate by the front door. Discreet black and white signs lead you into the wooded grounds. Our tiny house trailer, Carroll, was light and spare and punctuated by a glossy red under-counter refrigerator and a black-and-red checked blanket.
Two people and a small dog take up the entire floor space. And don’t plan on cooking meals with a lot of ingredients or steps – there’s a two-burner electric cook top and counter space is a scarcity. Which doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well.
J and I started our day waking up to a forest staring back at us through the picture window wall that was the back of our trailer. We ended it in Adirondack chairs in front of our own fire pit – eating sautéed shishito peppers and re-heated smoked sirloin tip with the other night’s potato salad on the side. Later we (truthfully, just I) gorged on s’mores complete with marshmallows toasted over the fire pit on twigs stripped clean and to sharp points by J. Sitting by our flickering fire, the night otherwise dark, you could hear people laughing a few camp sites away. When walking the dog, we passed cars tucked into alcoves next to their own tiny house trailers and saw the occasional dog and person. But our campsite, encircled by trees, was definitely our own.