Saas-Fee: The perfect place to take children skiing

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The Independent Travel

"It was a revelation," she says. "Until I experienced skiing in warm sunshine, I didn't believe it was possible to ski without suffering, despite what people had told me about Colorado. At home, in places such as Wildcat and Attitash, you could freeze going up a lift. Sometimes I'd just do a single run and then have to go into the lodge to recover with a hot chocolate. But at the Grand Massif in late March we'd ski all morning, and take a leisurely, late lunch once the mountain restaurants had quietened down. The snow would get slushy then, so we'd ski down to the village and go swimming, or do some shopping for dinner, in the afternoon sun."

Keen though she remains to repeat that happy experience in the Alps, she has not yet had the chance to do so. But between pregnancies she did visit Saas-Fee in Switzerland, last April; I went too, as I did when she skied in the Grand Massif. A year after our first "date" at Killington in Vermont (a day so cold that, for once, I passed up an opportunity to ski), we were married.

On the trip to Saas-Fee we were accompanied by our then-one-year-old daughter. Lillian stayed in the village with her mother; I did the skiing work. If few Britons experience one extreme (the rigours of New England skiing), not many more savour the other (the delights of late-season skiing in the Alps). Why? Because, according to the big tour-operators, the British lose interest in winter holidays after Easter, and turn their thoughts - and their disposable income - to summer destinations.

It might not be quite as simple as that because, by and large, the same tour operators sell summer and winter holidays, and their charter aircraft can't go in two directions at once. But the result is that by the third week in April it's difficult to buy a mainstream ski package from the UK. For that week, the biggest UK ski company, Crystal, offers holidays in just two hotels, one in Saas-Fee and the other in Tignes, France.

You might surmise that a reluctance to ski in spring would also have something to do with snow, or the lack of it. Yet a look at the long-term statistics of snow cover recorded by the Ski Club of Great Britain reveals that the week when the British tour operators shut up shop for skiing is the very one when St Anton in Austria enjoys the deepest snow of the season on its upper slopes. And at Saas-Fee in Switzerland, the snow record at altitude for that third week of April is bettered only in the last week in February.

This season the huge March snowfalls in the Alps promise to make those late-season conditions even better than usual. True, snow cover on the warmer, lower areas does not survive so well, particularly on south-facing slopes: you can get quite wet on the final descent to St Anton in April. Also, late-season snow is reliable only on ski areas that are at high-altitude or whose slopes are chilled by a glacier (or, ideally, both); skiing is impossible after March in low-lying areas. Finally, snow degrades in warm sun, so those high-mileage skiers who like to ski until the last lift would not be happy with the late-afternoon conditions. But aren't those acceptable compromises to be made for the pleasure of skiing under a warm sun?

They certainly are for my wife. Small children would surely agree. So many kids must have resisted their parents' attempts to instill in them an enthusiasm for skiing simply because they were unhappy in the cold conditions on the mountain. I don't plan to make that mistake: ours will get a good start, in the late season, when the slopes are comfortably warm.

Our visit to Saas-Fee last season - Lillian's first time in the Alps - was something of a dry run for future family trips. What makes Saas-Fee an ideal place for a family holiday in April? Firstly, the reliable snow-cover. The village, itself 1,800 metres above sea level, sits at the bottom of a beautiful, high-altitude, snow-bowl full of ice: three glaciers run down it, frozen rivers descending at a pace that would seem painfully slow to a snail. The notion of skiing on a glacier sends a chill through inexperienced skiers, who imagine that it would involve fighting for grip on hard ice. But skiable glaciers are invisible, being covered with snow.

The lower reaches of the Feegletscher are exposed, clearly not ski-able and rather alarming: what starts as a thick carpet of ice degenerates into a sort of giant's causeway, the glacier riven into chunks - sometimes turquoise, sometimes turned black by shale torn off the mountain - with deep, dark clefts between them. Elsewhere, on the stable parts, the glaciers are giant refrigerators which merely maintain the snow-cover on their surface. With 100km of runs, Saas-Fee's is not a huge ski area; and those glacier zones which cannot be traversed give it an inflexible, axial layout, the skiing being in three almost unconnected "avenues". But the piste conditions on what are essentially north-facing slopes are consistently good everywhere except down near the village.

Secondly, Saas-Fee is convenient, charming and car-free. Unlike Zermatt, which stretches along the next valley, this village is compact. True, the main lifts are clustered close together to the south, so they are a hike away from accommodation to the north; but with no cars on the main drag, it's a civilised hike. "No cars" does not, however, mean no traffic: small electric vehicles are permitted to ferry passengers and goods around. They are almost silent, which is a blessing at night but a hazard during the day.

The charm lies mainly in the old wooden barns, which follow tradition in sitting on mushroom-shaped pedestals designed to prevent rats from climbing inside. Some of these barns still emit the smell, warmth and shuffling sound of cattle in their winter quarters. Saas-Fee is such a well-kept and orderly place because it is a family business: the same names (Bumann, Anthamatten, Zurbriggen) keep cropping up among the hoteliers and restaurateurs. But in the lift system, jointly owned by the key families, tradition has been abandoned in favour of modernity.

Because of the difficulty of building lifts on a shifting glacier, Saas-Fee boasts an underground railway which carries skiers up to the 3,500-metre Allalin, where there is a revolving restaurant (great views, ordinary food) and an "ice grotto" said by the Guinness Book of Records to be the biggest in the world. (That doesn't make it the most interesting, but the name of the company that excavated it is amusingly appropriate: Saas-Boring.)

How did the family enjoy the trip? Well, they kept the mountains at arm's length, but had a good time down in the village, even if the surfaces everywhere seemed rather hard on a toddler. My wife enjoyed the uninterrupted sunny weather; the crêche was a big hit with Lillian. Next time her brother Stanley - born last week - can go to the crêche, we'll get her out on the slopes.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Saas Fee can be reached from: Bern on FlyBe and Darwin Airlines; Geneva on easyJet, Swiss, British Airways, FlyBe, Flyglobespan and Jet2.com; or Milan Malpensa on British Airways, Ryanair, Jet2.com, Alitalia and easyJet. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org).

STAYING THERE

Ferienart Resort and Spa, Postfach, Saas Fee (00 41 27 958 1900; www.ferienart.ch). Double rooms start at Sfr396 (£175), full board.

SKIING THERE

One-day ski lift passes start at Sfr56 (£25). Between now and 1 May, the Alpine Express cableway is open daily (8.30am-4.45pm).

EATING & DRINKING

Drehrestaurant Allalin, Saas Fee (0041 27957 1771).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Saas-Fee (00 41 27 958 1868; www.saas-fee.ch) Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30; www.my switzerland.com).

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