Off-peak and full board

Serious snowboarders are already gathering in the tiny Swiss resort of Saas Fee. Tam Leach reports on a riders' paradise

It's early on a cold October morning, high in the Swiss canton of Valais. Like a giant cowbell, the church clock clangs out a wake-up call across the slate roofs and cobbled streets of the little village of Saas Fee. The sound echoes through the empty rooms of the grand Romantik hotels, bouncing off the carved shutters of bistros still closed for the off-season.

It's early on a cold October morning, high in the Swiss canton of Valais. Like a giant cowbell, the church clock clangs out a wake-up call across the slate roofs and cobbled streets of the little village of Saas Fee. The sound echoes through the empty rooms of the grand Romantik hotels, bouncing off the carved shutters of bistros still closed for the off-season.

The hundreds of braying skiers that populate the resort later in the season have yet to arrive, and won't do for at least another couple of months. In the silent moment following the clock's last chime, it appears that the stout woman laying out loaves in the glowing window of the bäckerei is the only soul in town.

Then we come.

Just a couple at first, ambling slowly towards the Alpin Express cable car at the far end of the village.

Now a group of six or so, still yawning.

And suddenly we're everywhere, emerging from well-worn apartments or lurching through the heavy doors of the Hotel Dom. Goggles on heads, pipe gloves poking out of pockets, headphones clamped on ears. Swiss, French, German, Dutch, Americans, Japanese, British, descending on this most traditional Alpine village in a mass of spray-painted boards and studded belts.

Visiting Saas Fee in late autumn conjures up feelings of magical exclusivity. Even in peak season, there's a touch of the village that time forgot: creaking chalets that appear to have gone a few rounds with woodworm and are only just ahead in the game; narrow, car-free streets that rattle and hum to the sound of electric milkfloats.

With the posh boutiques closed, the noisy après-ski terraces empty and the luxury spa hotels still refurbishing for future guests, Saas Fee still resembles a snowboarder's holiday camp - albeit a chocolate-box pretty one.

Location is the primary reason. Though the photogenic Matterhorn might take all the glory, Saas Fee's Dom is actually the highest mountain in Switzerland. Sitting at an impressive 3,600 metres, the local glacier has been instrumental in making this little village a landmark on the European circuit, particularly during the autumn. While other resorts are just beginning to think about firing up the snow guns, Saas Fee already boasts a World Cup circuit pipe and park, plus the opportunity of enjoying the first powder of winter on an already substantial base.

Pro snowboarders move in for weeks at a time to train, or to get the first of the season's magazine shots outfitted in all their new gear. A few skiers are here, too; primarily national ski teams, plus a smattering of new school freestylers. Weekends get busier, as Swiss, French and Italians drive up from the valleys to get their snowlegs back - but it's still all about youth, attracting those who can be bothered to make the trek for days spent lapping rails and kickers in the park, with the odd morning chasing powder around limited terrain.

Not that Saas Fee isn't a riders' paradise in midwinter, too. Once more of the mountain opens up, the place is freeride heaven - providing you employ a guide to steer you round the crevasses. Local boy made good, Burton pro Fredi Kalbermatten, claims the area has the best secret kicker spots in Europe: reason enough to make the village a popular choice for those embarking upon winter seasons.

Experts with cash can sign up with one of the local guide services to heliboard a few miles to the south in Italy's Monte Rosa region, while beginners have the option of Eskimos, a dedicated snowboard school, or the unsurprisingly efficient Swiss Ski School. Busy on early autumn evenings, the small skatepark and football pitches get snowed in by November; alternatives include the very pleasant pool at the sports centre, or, for those with Formula One aspirations, night sledding on the Hannig.

The isolated village doesn't offer the culinary variety of a larger resort, but a few relatively inexpensive pizzerias lurk amidst all the rösti restaurants, with a couple of mellow bars providing refuge from more hectic Euro après-ski.

But it's the legendary Unique Dom hotel that acts as unofficial snowboard HQ. A refreshing contrast to the stereotypically gemütlich hotels found across the Alps, bedrooms in the Dom are Scandinavian-simple, kitted out with stereos and Playstations. Conveniently located downstairs, Popcorn (blurring the boundaries between bar, café and snowboard shop) is one of the most notorious watering holes, having played host to countless contest after-parties and snowboard movie premières.

Stop by on any autumn afternoon, and this laid-back place feels like the centre of the snowboarding world. Regardless of whether they're staying in the hotel or in budget apartments elsewhere, riders sprawl on sofas in the art deco bar or check e-mails in the comfy lounge, meeting friends, discussing the day's filming schedule, or waiting to hear contest results.

Yet pro status is not a prerequisite - just a desire to get involved. While the rest of Britain hunkers down at home as winter rolls in, under the misguided impression that the snow only starts to fall with the first charter flight to the Alps in December, the nation's snowboarders will snap up cheap off-peak tickets to Geneva. Dragging boardbags, pipe gloves poking out of pockets, headphones clamped on ears, we'll head off to our Shangri-La.

SKI TRAVELLERS' GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly to Geneva on a wide range of airlines from many UK airports, including Birmingham, Cardiff, Durham Tees Valley, Gatwick, Heathrow, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester and Nottingham. Geneva airport has its own station, from which you can access Visp, where the train connects seamlessly with a Post bus, from CHF100 (£44) return.

STAYING THERE

Unique Dom (00 41 27 957 51 01; www.uniquedom.com). Double rooms cost from 80CHF (£35) per person. The friendly Saas Fee tourist office (00 41 27 958 18 58; www.saas-fee.ch) can arrange budget apartment accommodation, working out at about 100CHF (£44) per week for October and November.

LIFT PASSES

One day: €39/CHF60 (£27); six days: €193/CHF299 (£133).

Family six-day pass CHF777 (about £340), covering two adults and any number of children.

SPECIAL EVENTS

The Saas Fee stop of the FIS World Cup takes place 25-30 October; there are halfpipe and boarder/skiercross events. Contact the Saas Fee tourist office for special accommodation/lift ticket packages.

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