Take a peak: Zermatt is celebrating 150 years of Matterhorn ascents
Take a peak: Zermatt is celebrating 150 years of Matterhorn ascents

Switzerland in winter: Traveller's Guide

It all started in St Moritz 150 years ago, when curious tourists returned to the mountains 'out of season' - now, it's snow that steals the show

Mary Novakovich@mary_novakovich
Friday 07 November 2014 12:29

Switzerland is in a celebratory mood this season as it marks 150 years of winter tourism. Back in 1864 – so the legend goes – the owner of the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz, Johannes Badrutt, bet his British summer guests that they would enjoy the Alps just as much in winter. If not, he would cover their travel expenses. Badrutt needn't have worried, for his guests came back that winter and didn't leave until Easter. They soon discovered the joys of hurling themselves down the mountain and swirling around on ice skates in the crisp, clean Alpine air – and visitors have been doing it ever since.

It was thanks to the British that St Moritz's notorious Cresta Run skeleton track (cresta-run .com) was built 20 years later. Although women have been barred from the track since 1929 for reasons of decorum, they're graciously allowed on another pioneering invention, the Olympic bobsleigh run (olympia-bobrun.ch), which is the oldest in the world. In keeping with the nostalgic theme this winter, you can experience the thrill of riding the 1.7km run on a 1939 bobsleigh.

The anniversary party in St Moritz (stmoritz.ch) begins on 5 December with the St Moritz City Race, when spectators are kept at a safe distance while skiers fly down a specially created piste in the city's streets. The Kulm Hotel is offering a three-night half-board anniversary package from Sfr1,400pp (£921) including a gourmet dinner and a stay in the Badrutts' original bedroom. Not to be outdone, Davos (davos.ch) is holding its own celebrations to mark the first winter visitors, who arrived in February 1865 – two ailing Germans who eventually became well enough to go ice skating on the lake. Access to both resorts is straightforward via Zurich airport.

Davos was an innovator in the burgeoning sport of tobogganing and held the first toboggan race in Switzerland in 1883. On 16 January, that race from Davos to Klosters will be re-enacted with vintage sledges from the past 130 years.

Zermatt (zermatt.ch) is getting into the jubilee spirit a little early this winter with the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. In July 1865, Edward Whymper and six other men were the first to reach the peak at 4,478m, but only three (including Whymper) survived the descent. Queen Victoria was aghast and tried to prevent more Britons from climbing the peak, which seemed to have exactly the opposite effect as visitor numbers soared in response to the challenge.

Celebrations will climax in the summer, but before that there's the Zermatt Unplugged music festival (zermatt-unplugged.ch) in April and the opening, this winter, of Europe's highest cinema. Tucked into Klein Matterhorn mountain's Breithorn tunnel, the Cinema Lounge will show free films in cocoon-like seats at 3,883m.

Ski Weekends (023-8020 6971; skiweekends.com) is offering four nights' half board at Hotel Ambassador in Zermatt starting at £765pp, including flights and transfers.

At Saas-Fee (saas-fee.ch), they're taking anniversaries to another level. First they're paying tribute to the person they regard as Switzerland's first skier, Father Johann Josef Imseng. Back in 1849, he attached a pair of planks to his feet and let gravity do the rest. And they're also celebrating the fact that it's been 30 years since they built the world's highest funicular, the Metro Alpin.

To trump it all, it's also been 30 years since the pop group Wham! shot their video for "Last Christmas" in the resort, and the village is returning the favour by taking prices back to what they were 30 years ago from 6-19 December and 10-23 January. Tousled blond mullets are optional.

For more anniversary information, see myswitzerland.com.

Higher, bigger, faster

The country is feeling nostalgic, but many resorts are moving forward. A new link connects Arosa and Lenzerheide, opening up 225km of pistes. An old cable car and chairlift in Adelboden have been replaced with a speedy 10-person gondola.

Mürren in the Jungfrau (mymuerren.ch) opened a new Sky Walk glass platform by the 2,700m Birg cable car station. You can float on glass while taking in views of the Eiger and the Jungfrau. Last month, the world's first suspension bridge between two peaks opened at Glacier 3000, south of Gstaad (glacier3000.ch). The 107m-long Peak Walk offers the experience of walking at nearly 3,000m while looking out over Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.

Laax (laax.com) is already one of Europe's top freestyle resorts, and is opening its new super-pipe, the longest continuous half-pipe in the world. Powder Byrne (powderbyrne.com) has a three-night half-board break at the Signina Hotel in Laax from £975pp, including flights.

Wage war

A recent change in Swiss employment law will have a major impact on British skiers who stay in catered chalets to keep costs down. The government has implemented a minimum wage of around £34,000 a year for all hospitality workers. As a result many UK operators have been forced to stop offering catered chalets.

Powder White (020 8877 8888; powderwhite.com) is still running catered chalets in Switzerland. A fully catered week at Chalet Hermine in Courchevel 1850 is £699 per person on 6 December. Prices for other dates in December to March range from £1,099 to £2,999, all excluding flights. The chalet sleeps 12.

VIP Ski (0844 557 3119; vip-chalets.com) also offers catered chalets, with six nights at either Haus Glacier or Gmatchi in Zermatt from £879 and £899pp respectively, including flights.

City lights

It's not just the mountains that are magical in winter. On 28 November, Zurich's biggest Christmas tree will be switched on in the park of the Baur au Lac hotel (00 41 44 220 5020; bauraulac.ch), which offers doubles from Sfr870 (£570), room only. If you can't make it to the Christmas market in Zurich's old town (28 Nov to 23 Dec), check out the stalls in the main railway station. On 14 December, the streets of Lausanne will teem with Santa Clauses during the annual Christmas Midnight Run race, and the city is also the scene of Switzerland's largest real-life Nativity scene, which takes place during the Christmas night market on 17, 19 and 23 December.

Top-flight food

In homage to those pioneering British visitors from 150 years ago, St Moritz's annual Gourmet Festival will see British-based chefs joining the kitchens of nine hotels in the region (stmoritz- gourmetfestival.ch).

The five-day event kicks off on 26 January at the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains. Chefs taking part include Angela Hartnett and Claude Bosi. Throughout the week, festival-goers can take part in workshops, tastings, and enjoy lunches and gourmet dinners.

Ski Safari (skisafari.com) is offering five nights at the Kempinski Grand Hotel during the festival, from £1,095pp B&B, including flights and rail transfers.

Where to stay

The newly revamped Hotel Montpelier (00 41 27 771 6131; montpelierverbier.ch) in Verbier offers more luxury than you would expect from a three-star. Most rooms have mountain views, as does the indoor pool, which features a glass ceiling. Doubles start from Sfr250 (£180) including breakfast.

Mountain Heaven (0151 625 1921; mountainheaven.co.uk) has a new luxury self-catering chalet for this season in the underrated resort of Grimentz. Five-bedroom Chalet Pic Blanc overlooks the old village and is seconds away from the piste. Weekly rates start at £2,500.

The venerable Gstaad Palace (00 41 33 748 5000; palace.ch) is also keeping up with the times.This winter the hotel is offering slopestyle tutorials to guests who want to try the latest Olympic sport, as well as a night in an igloo. Two nights in the hotel and one in the igloo costs from Sfr2,130pp (£1,400), half board.

How to get there

Switzerland has three major airports: Basel, Geneva and Zurich. Swiss (0345 601 0956; swiss.com), easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) serve all three from the UK. Airlines including Flybe (0371 700 2000; flybe.com) and Jet2 (0800 508 1350; jet2.com) serve the main ski airport, Geneva. New charter routes to Bern, closest to the Jungfrau region, are to be operated by Intersky Airlines on behalf of Topskiswiss.com (020-3515 4654) from Bournemouth, East Midlands, Norwich and Humberside.

From 14 December, TGV Lyria trains will run from Lille to Geneva four days a week, connecting with Eurostar from London St Pancras. Book through agents such as Voyages-SNCF (0844 848 5848; voyages-sncf.com).

Breathtaking Swiss rail routes include the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St Moritz or Davos (0848 642 442; glacierexpress.ch), the Unesco-listed Bernina Express (00 41 81 288 685; rhb.ch) from Chur to St Moritz and Lugano and the Jungfrau Railway (0338 287 233; bit.ly/JungRail) from Interlaken to the Jungfraujoch.

Click here to view tours of Switzerland, with Independent Holidays.

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