Seek out your ski boots out of season and head to the Mecca of mountain sports
The Swiss Alps are a treat at any time of the year, but early winter is a time to treasure.
The Valais villages of Saas-Fee and Zermatt are car-free and calming for it. But calm or not, they couldn’t keep down my excitement. This was the first time I had skied anywhere outside of the main ski season, and the thought of trying this at high-altitude…on a glacier… did make me gulp!
Sunny Saas-Fee has a lot to live up to, as it’s part of the global partnership, Leading Mountain Resorts of the World, along with Val Gardena (Italy), Are (Sweden), Banff/Lake Louise (Canada), Bariloche (Argentina) and Queenstown (New Zealand). These year-round resorts have all signed up to preserve their environments, and the authentic character of their regions, and to offer guests outstanding hospitality and an excellent range of sports facilities. It’s no easy ask, but I can say that snow-sure Saas-Fee is keeping its end of the bargain.
This place is a must-see for mountain lovers, with 18 peaks of 4,000m…and plenty of sunshine. My friends and I eased into the experience with a meal at the Spielboden mountain restaurant, which took us two hours to hike up to, and included my first-ever glimpse of a marmotte whose piercing whistle had to be heard to be believed! For those who don’t feel quite so inclined to build up an appetite, a cable car will easily get you up there. The Spielboden is a great way to discover the valley’s food in a fine setting, luxurious setting, and its quaffable wine goes down even better with the stunning 360-degree backdrop.
For those who don’t even want to turn a hair to take in the surroundings, a visit to the recently renovated revolving restaurant, Threesixty, will solve the problem. Summer/autumn skiing offers 20 kms of slopes and plenty of opportunities to spot international ski teams training alongside local enthusiasts. We spent three hours enjoying the pristine slopes. Skiing at this altitude felt like hard work, but we did gain a good appetite and the Threesixty was a great place to chill out and, literally, watch the world go by; it was hard to tear our tired legs away from this comfy setting to take the cable car home.
For those who prefer a winter visit, there are 150 kms of winter piste here, plus plenty of 2012/2013 purse-appealing promotions. These include the new Saas-Fee passport, which offers a discounted ski pass, free travel on the valley post buses and more.
So, what else does Saas-Fee have to offer the indulgent? Well, the spa facilities at the Best Western hotel come highly recommended, as does a visit to the Waldhotel Fletschhorn for fine dining. This place is a time-out treat, tucked away down a wooded track which winds the cares of the world away to nothing. Owner Charlie Neumüller is in charge of the cellar, which stocks a dizzying 1,200 different wines – more than half of which are from the Valais. Markus Neff and Maren Müller are also owners of this Relais & Chateâux hotel, which lives up to its art de vivre standards for character and excellence.
Traditional village meets tourist-treat hotels in Switzerland’s most southerly holiday destination, where standards are high and comfort is a key part of the appeal.
Sitting mighty pretty at the foot of the Matterhorn, Zermatt’s a must for many tourists keen to see this world-famous mountain. It was first conquered in 1865 by Englishman Edward Whymper, whose ascent – and many other stories – are depicted in the impressive Matterhorn Museum.
It’s also slap-bang in the middle of a large ski and hiking area, with more than 300 kms of winter pistes linking Switzerland and Italy – and 63 mountain railways.
This region has everything, from the country’s longest ski run (25km), to beginners’ parks and wide-carving slopes. Snowboarders and freestylers will also find plenty of fun in the Gravity Park. Helisking and telemark skiing are also enjoyed here, as well as ski touring, cross-country and moonlit downhill runs.
It’s also incredibly inclusive, as the four ski regions on the Swiss’ Rothorn and Gomergrat, and the Italian Cervinia/Valtournenche, are all linked by mountain railway. So skiers and non-skiers have easy access to the mountain
for hut lunches and apres-ski. And there’s plenty of time to do so, as the winter season runs from October until May. Ice climbing, sledging, curling, snowcat rides, paragliding…and igloos are also part of this snow-sure set up.
You can also ski year-round in Zermatt – The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is Europe’s largest – and highest – summer ski region, with 21km of piste.
And with seven hiking trails above 3,1650m, you can also feel like a mountaineer on the high Alpine trails. There are also themed trails, where you can find out local history, or discover more about the flora and fauna.
The sightseeing platform on the Matterhorn glacier paradise is also a must (3,883m) as you get to see the best side of the Matterhorn, as well as the other big boy mountains of Switzerland, France and Italy, including the Mont Blanc.
And, if you want to really enjoy the good life, you can hire the Matterhorn Express VIP gondola, and glide to great heights as you sip champagne.
So Lush Spas
Many Zermatt hotels have spa facilities, but they don’t come any more original than those offered at the Back Stage Hotel Vernissage, where owners Heinz and Evelyne Julen have created a wellness experience linked to the creation of the world. I don’t know much about Genesis, but I did feel very invigorated after my unusual two-hour pampering treat. The Park Hotel Beau-Site’s spa also comes highly recommended, though a lot more conventional!
Other indulgent options include Kitchen Around, where you take a tempting road trip and visit four of the town’s top restaurants in one evening to try their culinary highlights.
There’s also plenty of nightlife, with around 50 bars and clubs open to the small hours.
New for this season is the Swiss Alps Ski Train, which runs from December 22 to April 13 and whisks you from London to the heart of the Valais region, with one change in Lille. Fares range from £189 to £299. Also, just open is Switzerland’s first straw hotel! The Nax-based Maya guest house promises ‘an unforgettable experience’.