A line of sights: The Swiss rail pass gives skiers a whole new outlook on the country

Matt Carroll embarks on a journey to some of the most attractive winter resorts in the Alps
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The Independent Travel

I've always dreaded the schlep of getting to ski resorts, particularly the transfer from the airport. All that lurching around hairpin bends with the heating on full blast as the vehicle crawls up the mountain is enough to turn anyone green. This time, I had an alternative plan: rather than follow the herd to a waiting coach, I calmly strolled downstairs from Arrivals at Geneva airport to the railway station.

With a rail pass in my back pocket and the whole of the Swiss network at my disposal, I was about to embark on my own little adventure. On my itinerary over the next six days were the resorts of Gryon, Les Diablerets and Leysin – each often overlooked by British skiers, despite offering superb skiing.

I'd bought my unlimited-travel train ticket through the efficient Swiss Travel System website, then booked a week-long package with self-catering chalet specialist Interhome, which lined up an apartment to match my requirements in each place. All I had to do was jump on the train, arrive at my first resort, dump my bags and hit the slopes. And in the unlikely event that the skiing began to pall, I could also explore Switzerland's cities (the pass provides free public transport in 38 towns and cities) and even get a cultural fix – it bestows free admission to 450 museums, covering all the best collections.

My first resort was Gryon, about 90 minutes and 125km from the airport. Stretched out in the spacious carriage, I soaked up the view of Lake Geneva as the train wound its way towards the first stop in Bex, a conveyor belt of breathtaking scenery sliding past the window. But this was nothing compared with the final leg up to Gryon itself, which I reached by funicular train. Clambering up the rock face from the base of the valley I spied row upon row of jagged peaks stretched out across the horizon.

Gryon may only be a couple of minutes' drive along the valley from the much busier Villars, but it's a world apart when it comes to atmosphere. Here there are no big hotels to blot the landscape. My smart apartment was just a couple of minutes from the lifts, and had the all the comfort and space of a hotel suite – without having the same impact on my wallet.

Gryon's pistes are lift-linked to those of neighbouring Villars, giving you access to about 100km of skiable terrain. Most of it is orientated around Les Chaux, at 1,750m, where there are several long, cruisy reds (ideal for carving), blacks and blues that take you down through the trees. It's easy enough to navigate on your own, but I booked myself a guide in order to maximise my mileage during the two-day stay.

Bart – all blond hair and impossibly white smile – led me across the top of Villars via a series of mellow pistes to the Chaux Ronde peak (1,987m), where we spent the next hour or so scribbling lines all over a deserted run of fresh powder. Here you can access a wealth of ungroomed routes just a few minutes from the Rasse-Chaux Ronde chair.

Gryon may not be the highest of resorts, but its position on the north-west edge of the Alps makes it a dumping ground for any fronts that pass through – ensuring plenty of fresh tracks if you know where to look. Continuing over to Roc d'Orsay, we found more untracked terrain – including a cheeky little tree run close to the Bretaye-Orsay lift. Most of the time we were the only people on the hill, something I'd previously experienced only in North America.

"It's not unusual to find it like this," said Bart, as we slurped a quick coffee at the nearby El Gringo Loco bar. He was right: the next day brought more of the same, and by the time Tuesday arrived I'd managed to work my way through most of the piste map.

Next up was Les Diablerets, which involved a bus ride to Aigle before jumping on the train. Chugging the 19km from here to the resort through high mountain villages, I stared out at the surrounding slopes, turned pink by the late afternoon sun, and contemplated how refreshing it was to travel in the slow lane for once.

With 125km of skiable terrain spread over three areas surrounding the village, a couple of days' hard skiing is sufficient to see the bulk of what Les Diablerets can offer. As in Gryon, I hired a guide, and after spending my first day exploring the Isenau (1,762m) and Meilleret areas, which are closest to the town, I headed up to the Glacier 3000 for some steeper stuff.

This giant – whose numeral refers to the height it (almost) achieves – dominates the skyline, rising up so close to the passing clouds that it looks as though it might prick them into spilling their contents.

From the top of the Scex Rouge, at 2,970m, I entered a world made of meringue, where miles of sugary pistes led off in various directions. My favourite run was a 10km thigh burner that took me all the way from the cable car down to the Oldenalp lift at 1,840m, a vertical drop of over a kilometre.

Les Diablerets doesn't offer ferocious après ski action, but for me it was ideal. A day of hammering the slopes had turned my legs to jelly, and that evening I couldn't think of anything better than holing up in a cosy wood-panelled bar with a constant supply of ice-cold beer.

In terms of cosiness, however, nothing could top my final stop: Leysin. Located 24km from Les Diablerets, its rabbit warren of tiny streets was littered with homely restaurants such as Le Leysin, a traditional timber chalet where I watched my enormous rosti cook over an open fire.

With just 65km of pistes, this was the smallest resort I'd been to so far. But it was also the emptiest. Although I'd now got used to the lack of lift queues, Leysin was so quiet that at times I wondered if they'd closed the place off especially. Heading up to admire the view from the top of the Chaux de Mont chair (2,205m), the closest I came to seeing other skiers were a couple of black specks weaving their way down a distant slope, like a pair of doddery ants sliding down a sheet of paper.

Unfortunately my private resort fantasy was shattered during a mid-morning espresso stop by a couple of local eccentrics who sparked an impromptu yodelling session on the next table. Tempted though I was to join them, I suddenly remembered that I had a train to catch...

Travel essentials: Switzerland

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com/uk ) which flies to Geneva from London City, Heathrow and Manchester.

* Other carriers include British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), Bmibaby (0905 828 828; bmibaby.com ), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com ) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com )

Staying there

* Interhome (020-8780 6629; interhome.co.uk ) has a nine-night, accommodation-only package for £704 (based on two sharing). Accommodation prices in the resorts: two-room apartment in Le Bostan, Gryon, from £295 for three nights; one-room apartment in Diablerets-Parc, Les Diablerets from £175 for three nights; one-room apartments in Castel Club, Leysin, from £234 for three nights (all based on two sharing)

Getting around

* The Swiss Pass entitles you to unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat Swiss Travel network. It is available for four (£153), eight (£226), 15 (£268) or 22 days (£318), or one month (£350).

* If two or more people travel together, you get a 15 per cent reduction. Under-16s travel free with a family card if accompanied by at least one parent; under-6s travel free at all times

More information

* myswitzerland.com

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