Switzerland: Chilled weekend

Winter breaks in Switzerland aren't just for downhill racers. Try something more laid-back, says Lucy Gillmore

The cable-car glides silently up towards the station at Sunnbuel. Huddled together for warmth, our breath clouding the glass, we drift past the unspoilt Lotschental Valley, hemmed in by craggy peaks, off limits and pounded by avalanches in winter. Swinging high above gnarled pines clinging to the slopes, a couple of ice-climbers scaling a frozen waterfall smear a vivid splash of colour across the otherwise monochrome landscape.

The cable-car glides silently up towards the station at Sunnbuel. Huddled together for warmth, our breath clouding the glass, we drift past the unspoilt Lotschental Valley, hemmed in by craggy peaks, off limits and pounded by avalanches in winter. Swinging high above gnarled pines clinging to the slopes, a couple of ice-climbers scaling a frozen waterfall smear a vivid splash of colour across the otherwise monochrome landscape.

Kandersteg, the traditional Alpine village cradled by the broad Kander valley below, is popular with ice-climbers as well as winter walkers and cross-country skiers. In fact, for those who crave a winter wonderland experience but don't necessarily want to hurl themselves down near-vertical slopes, Kandersteg is perfect. This isn't glossy Gstaad or St Moritz; it's laid-back and low key. The cheery local farmer who took us for a horse-drawn sleigh ride speaks only the local dialect. Seventy-five kilometres of cross-country tracks weave their way across snowy meadows. Up in the mountains there are more challenging trails and a handful of downhill slopes. There are also 55km of trails for winter walking.

When we reach the top, the cable-car wheezes to a standstill. We strap on snow-shoes and crunch off along the track, totem-pole like sculptures scattered among the trees. (Kandersteg hosts an art festival every summer when artists are invited to create sculptures from natural materials).

Our guide, and host at the Hotel Victoria & Ritter down in the valley, is Casi Platzer. In summer he takes guests hiking; in the winter, snow-shoeing.

The high valley is eerily still and deserted, lit by a watery sun. On the steep mountain slopes, Casi picks out a group of chamoix foraging for food. At the far end of the valley, an old farm, the scene of local tragedy in 1895 when an avalanche swept down from the higher peaks, stands empty for winter.

The Victoria & Ritter, owned by Casi and his wife Muriel, dates back to 1789. It was originally a post house on the route through the mountains. The walls of the hotel are plastered with framed black and white photos of well-to-do Victorians, smiling gamely with wooden skis strapped to their feet, or riding toboggans, their skirts gathered up around their legs.

Victorian travellers from England were the first to grasp the joys of frolicking in the Alps and are credited with introducing skiing to the region. At the time, writers (Arthur Conan Doyle hiked through the Gemmi Pass to Kandersteg), artists and the wealthy were the only ones travelling for pleasure. And by the end of the 19th century, practically every town in the Bernese Oberland had an inn named after the English monarch in an attempt to pull in the punters and make them feel at home. The picture that really grabs my attention is the one of a man being pulled along on skis – by a horse. But then in Kandersteg, skiing down a hill is not high on the list of sporting priorities.

The previous day, we had taken the chairlift up to Oeschinen at the other end of the Kander valley, and walked to the frozen Oeschinensee lake. Signposts in the snow pointed out the different routes for cross-country skiers, hikers and tobogganers as they crossed the downhill slopes.

Here it's winter sports plural (this weekend there's a husky-sledding competition) conducted with old-fashioned style. There are no queues and the people who man the chairlifts tuck you in with a blanket. At the rustic café at the top there are as many people walking their dogs and stopping off for a hot chocolate as there are skiers and snowboarders.

After about three hours up at Sunnbuel, we had come full circle. The morning had been a mix of wildlife watching, local history, snow-shoeing and modern art. But then anything less wouldn't have been Kandersteg.

Inntravel (01653 629 002, www.inntravel.co.uk) has a week's holiday, half-board, with flights from £662 per person. Three-night breaks can be arranged

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