Traveller's guide: Swiss snow
The country at the heart of the Alps delivers top-grade winter sports
Saturday 16 October 2010
In many ways, Switzerland defines the Alpine experience: dramatic, craggy peaks, swooping valleys, those impossibly pretty villages. All the other clichés – the clockwork Swiss efficiency and fantastic service – are happily also true, as grateful users of the country's impeccable public transport system are quick to discover.
Still, in winter, it's the mountains that are the main draw: the Alps dominate the country. For skiers and snowboarders, the place offers a wealth of resorts to choose from. At the last count, there were 150 of them, with some little changed from when Henry Lunn created the first ski package holidays back in 1903.
That's not to say they're outdated. Swiss skiing is noted for its blend of old-fashioned welcome and on-mountain progression. The resorts are also easy to get to, with international airports servicing many resorts with a short transfer time. An hour from Geneva and you can be in the lift queue. Even the tucked-away Zermatt and St Moritz are within three hours of Zurich.
With such large mountains as the backdrop, Swiss skiing can be thrillingly involved. Runs here tend to be measured in kilometres rather than metres, and more often than not you'll squeeze into venerable cable cars rather than breezy chairlifts.
Most resorts are high – the Klein Matterhorn cable car tops out at 3,820m, making it the highest in Europe, which means snow cover is all but guaranteed throughout the season. Some resorts, such as Saas-Fee, have glaciers that extend the ski season well into summer.
The resorts themselves can broadly be divided into three categories. The first could be called the mountain towns: places such as Zermatt (zermatt.ch), Grindelwald (grindelwald.com), St Moritz (stmoritz.ch), Davos (davos.ch) and Verbier (verbier.ch). They are in the same super-resort category as Chamonix or Whistler and are sprawling ski areas with large communities of what used to be known as ski bums, but are now called seasonaires. Their presence assures visitors that they're in for some of the best snow on the planet.
Then there are the smaller, more bijou resorts such as Leysin (leysin.ch), Engelberg (engelberg.ch), Villars (villars.ch), Adelboden (adelboden.ch) and Les Diablerets (diablerets.ch). Generally these are small mountain settlements that have been relatively little changed over the centuries, yet experienced a boom when skiing (and later, snowboarding) became popular. These are perfect for a more relaxed ski holiday, especially for families, couples and beginners.
The final category of Swiss resorts are the progressives. These resorts – Saas-Fee (saas-fee.ch) and Laax (laax.com) among them – were quick to adopt snowboarding in the early days. They have great fun parks, exciting events and vibrant nightlife, and as a result enjoy a strongly partisan snowboarding clientele.
Yet Switzerland attracted only a 5.9 per cent share of the British market during the 2009-10 season, according to the annual Crystal Ski industry report, putting it in a distant fifth place behind France, Austria, Italy and Andorra. The reason, of course, is the cost.
Three years ago, your pound bought almost Sfr2.50; today, you will do well to get Sfr1.50. That corresponds to price rises of 60 per cent. Zermatt, St Moritz, Klosters and Gstaad – the playgrounds of the rich and famous – are particularly expensive. At the other end of the scale, Les Diablerets and Laax have cheaper packages available through UK tour operators such as Erna Low (ernalow.co.uk), Ski Freshtracks (freshtracks.org.uk) and Crystal (crystalski.co.uk). Cheaper deals can also be found by shunning the mega-resorts while still staying in the popular ski areas. Verbier, for example, is at the heart of the Four Valleys ski area, and boasts wealthy clients such as James Blunt in its ex-seasonaire alumni (they even named a ski lift after him). Prices reflect this crowd, but a stay in nearby Nendaz, Veysonnaz, La Tzoumaz or Thyon accesses the same pistes, for a fraction of the accommodation costs.
Rail links to Switzerland are better than ever, with an accelerated link from Paris to Geneva starting in December, and fast services from the French capital to Basel and Zurich. Most Brits, though, still arrive by air. For the French-speaking Swiss resorts, the key gateway is Geneva, with resorts such as Leysin, Les Diablerets and Verbier within two hours' transfer time. For the German-speaking resorts, including Laax, Engelberg and Saas-Fee, skiers should head to Zurich. The main scheduled airlines are BA, easyJet and Swiss, with plenty of low-cost and charter services on other airlines from the UK. Alternative gateways include Basel (with plenty of no-frills connections), Berne, Sion (with Snowjet) and the Italian airport of Milan-Malpensa.
The Swiss rail system (sbb.ch/en/) is a public transport service of rare beauty: cheap, punctual, with some of the best high-altitude scenery on the planet to gawp at as you transfer to your destination. You can book in advance at the Switzerland Travel Centre (stc.co.uk), and buy passes ranging from four days (£163) to a month (£361). These offer unlimited travel on trains, buses and boats, and get discounts to most tourist attractions, including some mountain lift passes. Two adults buying together qualify for 15 per cent off.
For more information, visit myswitzerland.com
Saas-Fee (saas-fee.ch) is one of Switzerland's funkiest snowboard hangouts. The town is car-free, it's open virtually all year due to its Fee glacier, and is also home to a large fun-park and half-pipe, and the world's highest revolving restaurant, the 3,500m-high Metro Alpin. Saas-Fee also boasts freeriding ace Freddie Kalbermatten as a local. "Book a guide to go riding off-piste through the glacier world," he says. "There is always powder." The Hotel Dom (00 41 27 958 77 00; uniquedom.com) is at the foot of Switzerland's second-highest mountain of the same name, and is linked to the snowboard-friendly Popcorn Bar. The Dom also features the Roxy and Burton youth rooms, with up to 10 bunk beds in each; prices start at Sfr45 (£30) per person per night including breakfast buffet.
The all-girl snowboarding competition the Roxy Chicken Jam has been part of St Moritz's snowboard scene for six seasons. Add in the nearby Pontresina area, home to freestyle pioneer Michi Albin, and the area's snowboarding credentials are impeccable. Go cheap by staying at the Youth Hostel St Moritz (00 41 81 836 61 11; youthhostel.ch/de/hostels/st-moritz), a college dorm building with attached café. Prices start at Sfr43 (£28) per night per person based on four sharing a family room.
Elsewhere, Adelboden typifies Swiss sophistication with posh shops and chalets as far as the eye can see, while the mountain has one of the country's best fun-parks. Stay at the Hotel Alpenrose (00 41 33 673 11 61; alpenrose.ch), a classic large wooden chalet with doubles and family rooms starting at around Sfr200 (£133) double, with various special deals available if you avoid the peak Christmas, New Year and school holiday periods.
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