There’s something special about SKIING SWITZERLAND
There’s something special about skiing or snowboarding in Switzerland – very few people think otherwise. We Brits have known it longer than anyone else (Except perhaps the Swiss). The country was a key destination for well-heeled Victorian ‘grand tour’..ists, with their caravans of baggage in tow that would send your average no-frills airline check-in desk in to melt down these days. But the Brits were the first to organise winter mountain holidays, a little over 150 years ago, even before anyone had really thought much about downhill skiing, and we chose to do so in Switzerland. We just liked the place.
Why? Well there’s the scenery for starters. No one in Europe quite does stunning Alpine vista like the Swiss. The Alps are at (just about) their highest and pointiest here and the other essential ingredients of wooded valley-sides and snowy valleys are all there, usually with that picturesque resort perfectly positioned below it all. The Matterhorn above Zermatt, what can we say? One of the most incredible views in the world? Whether you’re a skier or not.There’s the quality too, the Swiss don’t seem to tolerate sub-standard establishments or services so it’s hard to go wrong wherever you choose to stay, eat or ski. Then there’s the efficiency. It’s a Swiss stereotype of course but it also tends to be a true one. Everything works as it should, because, well the Swiss attitude is, why wouldn’t it? This is particularly good news when you’re heading to or from the airport on your ski break, knowing you’ll have a seat on the bus, train or shuttle and that they’ll depart when they say they will. Even if your flight is late you know there’ll be another bus or train, arriving at the scheduled time, and again with enough seats on it. In short, if you want your ski holiday – be it a short break or a ski week – to be pretty much guaranteed to run smoothly and deliver to the highest quality, it’s difficult to go wrong with Switzerland. Of course it doesn’t come cheap, perhaps if it did everyone would ski there and some of those advantages would go. The Swiss Franc is super strong being one of the world’s most reliable currencies. But Swiss resorts do what they can to ensure affordability and if you choose carefully and take advantage of special deals you can make Swiss skiing affordable and it certainly feels good value for money, as you’re buying all the advantages listed above.
The Valais region is home to many of Switzerland’s top destinations and none are more highly regarded than Verbier, one of the world’s best-known ski resorts. It’s also an easy transfer from Geneva – or even easier from the regional airport at Sion, less than an hour away, if you’re on a flight there. Beloved of the rich and famous, but equally accessible to the rest of us, Verbier sits in Switzerland’s largest ski area, the 4 Valleys, with some 400km of inter-connected slopes. There are ski runs suitable to every one, but it’s good skiers who get particularly excited about the extent and variety of challenging terrain here. Off the slopes this pleasing resort of primarily wooden chalet style buildings has a reputation for its great shopping, gourmet restaurants and up market apres ski.
Crans Montana is another classic resort, even closer to Sion airport just 25km away and two hours from Geneva, it occupies a sunny terrace above the Rhone valley with spectacular views out to the south taking in a mountainscape from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc. In many ways it’s a bigger, grander resorts than Verbier with more five-star hotels than St Moritz and a similar reputation to both Verbier and St Moritz for gourmet cuisine in its restaurants. The ski slopes are different however, with 140km of runs on predominantly south facing, sunny slopes, most of it best suited to intermediates including one particularly wonderful 12km long run down from the Plaine Morte glacier at the top of the slopes.
Saas Fee offers an almost unique ski resort experience. Although there are other car free Swiss resorts of course, Saas Fee seems to have a peaceful, timeless charm the others lack. But it’s also one of the world’s leading ski centres, with a great range of shops, bars and restaurants to choose from once again. Saas Fee is unique in several more ways though, one of which is its ski season, which no other ski area on the planet matches – it’s open from July through to the following April. In other words – they’re so confident of snow cover on the glacier here the season starts in mid-summer! When most people arrive in the winter though they can enjoy the great vertical that’s here too with wonderful long runs down to the valley.
Zermatt needs no introduction. If it only had the Matterhorn, already mentioned, it would be a very special place. But no that’s just the start. The ski lifts here climb higher than at any other ski resort in Europe (to 3899m). It’s one of the only two ski areas on the planet open for snowsports 365 days a year. It’s got one of the world’s biggest lift served verticals and one of its biggest ski areas, stretching hundreds of miles over the border to Cervinia in Italy. Again the accommodation choices, dining, partying and shopping options are all world class. It’s car free and children aged 8 or younger ski free. We rest our case.
Away from the Valais, Engelberg is an interesting option. Really easy to reach from Zurich airport, it’s a lower-cost option than some of the other famous Swiss resorts in many respects yet still offers a whole lot of ski holiday for your Francs. Recent investment in a state-of-the-art gondola to whisk you a lot of the way up its world-class 2000m vertical means you can get to the top of the slopes, crowned by the Titlis glacier, at the same rapid pace as you reach the resort from the airport, meaning you can be ready to ski very quickly indeed. The village grew up around a monastery where you can still sample the monk’s excellent home brewed beer, but our other suggestions above, there’s a great range of bars, restaurants and shops to enjoy when you’re not on the slopes, with something for all tastes.
Words by Patrick Thorne.