Winter holidays for non-skiers

For a lot of people winter is something to be endured, a long season of cold, short days and stark skylines. The only escape seems to be a long haul flight to somewhere sunny and warm.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1864 four English visitors to the Swiss Alps were due to return home for the winter. Their hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, said that they should come back at Christmas and stay until Easter, and if they didn’t find St Moritz as sunny in winter as it was in summer, he would pay their fares and hotel bills.

Badrutt won the bet, and winter tourism was born.

But what was there to do? Alpine skiing was yet to take off – Conan Doyle in nearby Davos was to have a large part to play in that story. With a well-developed summer tourist industry, St Moritz, Davos and many other resorts quickly developed a significant infrastructure to enable winter visitors to while away their days, and nights, and the longest established resorts still have a huge variety of non-Downhill activities on offer.

A recent article I read in the BA Leisure magazine, recommended a handful of resorts that suited both skiers and non-skiers. Megève, St Christoph, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Zermatt and Lake Tahoe make their shortlist, and it’s a good list. For the Americas, however, there are a number of resorts I would add to the list (see my ski USA page), and I think there are at least a couple of dozen other Alpine resorts as good for skiers as for non-skiers, particularly in Switzerland.

But what to actually do? Innsbruck, Montreux and Basel have wonderful winter markets, although they close before Christmas. Many resorts and Alpine towns have wonderful outdoor and indoor ice rinks, and professional ice hockey teams play throughout the Alpine nations, with a major hockey festival in Davos known as the Spengler Cup. Bob sleigh also features at a few resorts, and at Celerina adrenalin junkies can actually take part in a four man bob team!

More sedate winter sports available in the Alpine resorts include snowshoe trekking, cross-country skiing, curling and tobogganing. A town called Bergün is a mecca for tobogganing, with people visiting from all over Europe to take advantage of the runs there (and enjoy the breathtaking UNESCO listed railway you need to take to get to the start of the runs). My Swiss Winter Sports web site covers other winter sports you can participate in Switzerland in addition to skiing and snowboarding.

There is a network of well maintained winter walks throughout the Alps, the reward mid-way along the walk often being a charming mountain restaurant. There are even Michelin listed resorts in the Alps! Zermatt is particularly renowned for its mountain restaurants.

We love visiting resorts with spas, the best of which is probably Leukerbad, but there is plenty of choice. Villars opened a new spa this year.

Switzerland and Austria have a highly reliable and extensive transport network which makes it very easy to choose a destination suited primarily to non-skiers, but which skiers can also use as a base for day trips to a variety of different destinations. Lucerne and Innsbruck are particularly good choices.

Often the best time to go is March. The days are getting longer and the days warmer, but the snow base is usually still good. If you are prepared to leave it late to see how the snow conditions are developing, a lot of resorts provide particularly good deals before Christmas.

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Andermatt

An article in the UK Metro newspaper claims Andermatt in the Swiss Alps should be your next weekend break. I’m not going to disagree, it’s a beautiful little resort with some great off-piste on the Gemsstock, and it gets some of the largest dumps of snow anywhere in the Alps. You can also get there easily by train.

Andermatt Village

I’m not so sure it would be my first choice for a weekend break though. Flims/Laax and Engelberg are about the same distance from Zurich Airport. The Jungfrau is feasible for a weekend break via Basel’s Euroairport, and Chamonix, Verbier, Portes du Soleil, Leysin, Les Diablerets and Villars are about the same distance from Geneva Airport. Plus there are a handful of smaller resorts much closer to the airports – Feldberg from Basel or Flumserberg, Pizol, Hoch-Ybrig and Braunwald from Zurich.

Things might change, however. Andermatt is going through a massive expansion. The resort is currently in the midst of a huge redevelopment by Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris. Probably the most obvious sign is the new builds in the village, including the impressive 5-star Hotel Chedi. However a number of new and replacement lifts are in place as the Nätschen-Gütsch area gets upgraded in advance of being linked up with the resort of Sedrun, in the Rhine valley. Expansion and upgrades to the Gemsstock area are also planned. The “masterplan” is due to complete for the 2018/9 season.

Andermatt is also billing itself as a year-round resort with a number of scenic viewpoints, varied mountain walks and an 18 hole golf course to lure summer visitors. Hopefully all this development will not diminish the charm of the old village. The schedule of new lifts can be seen here.

Gemsstock Cable car in Andermatt
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Snow’n’Rail Prices Published


Snow’n’Rail is the popular scheme organised every year by the Swiss Railways which provides a significant discount on the combined lift and public transport ticket prices for over 40 resorts. The booklets listing the offers are available from stations in local language versions, and the online brochure also provides details in English.

There are no new resorts for 2016/7 although les Portes du Soleil is back after a one year absence. Toggenburg, Hoch-Ybrig and Val D’Anniviers have fallen off the scheme, sadly, and a couple of minor resorts are now only listed online.

After modest increases last year, it is perhaps not surprising to see significant increases in some of the offers. Adelboden, the 4 Vallées, Saas-Fee and many Graubünden resorts have seen hikes around 10%. However Zermatt has kept prices flat, as have a number of other resorts, including Les Diablerets, Leysin, Villars, Grindelwald, Wengen, Mürren, Gstaad, Meiringen, Sörenberg, Melchsee-Frutt, Klewenalp, Airolo and Stoos – some routes from Luzern have even fallen slightly.

Tickets can still get pricey, even with the discounts, especially if you do not have a half-price rail card. Without the additional discount, a full day skiing or snowboarding in Zermatt from Basel or Zurich will set you back around 270 SFr. Conversely, with a half-price card, a day in Engelberg will give you change from a 100 Sfr note. Meiringen, Sörenberg and Klewenalp, in particular, provide very good value for the extent of piste available.

For more details of the new season prices visit the resort pages at SwissWinterSports.

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Snow’n’Rail 2015-16

Snow'n'Rail 2015-16
The Snow’n’Rail schedule for the Winter Sports season 2015-2016 is now available. This is the wonderful scheme run by Swiss Railways that provides a 20% discount on the combined lift pass and public transport connections for most of the leading resorts in Switzerland. This is a unique offering – the Austrian Railways run a similar scheme, although nowhere near as extensive.

The offers are now available online (in English, French, German and Italian), and in a brochure available free from the booking offices of most Swiss Railway Stations. The brochures are available in German, French and Italian depending on the language of the locality in which the stations are situated, but only the German version comprehensively covers all the resorts in the scheme.

There is not much change from last year. Most prices have stayed the same. For example an adult day trip to Zermatt from Basel if you are in possession of a Half-Tax Card is still SFr 166.40. A comparable offering is SFr 75.40 for Klewenalp, again the same as last season.

The resort coverage has changed slightly – Vals is now included.

However the most glaring omission is the Portes du Soleil. This massive ski area was one of the most impressive destinations under the Snow’n’Rail scheme, but it looks like they couldn’t come to an agreement with Swiss Railways for this season. Hopefully they will be back for the next one.

What looks like a new resort on the list, Chäserrugg, is simply a rebranded name for what has been referred to in previous years as Toggenburg or Obertoggenburg and covers the charming, linked resorts of Alt St. Johann and Underwasser. Included in the lift pass are the slopes around Wildhaus, but it appears that the routing of the offer to Wildhaus via Buchs is no longer available at a discount.

Some resorts can be accessed by train alone, others you need either a scheduled bus service or use of a linked ski bus. Details are all listed at the resort reports at the Swiss Winter Sports web site, and I can vouch for the rourting information as I have used the scheme for every resort myself!

Resorts covered by the scheme are as follows:
In Northern Switzerland: Braunwald, Chäserrugg and Pizol.
In Graubünden: Arosa Lenzerheide, Brigels, Davos Klosters, Disentis 3000, Engadin St. Moritz, Flims Laax Falera, Motta Naluns (Scuol), Splügen and Vals 3000.
In the Bernese Oberland: Adelboden-Lenk, Gstaad Mountain Rides, Jungfrau Ski Region and Meiringen-Hasliberg.
In Ticino only Airolo.
Several resorts are included in the category Alpes Vaudoises, including Villars, Les Diablerets and Leysin.
In Valais: 4 Vallées/Mt-Fort, Aletsch Arena, Blatten-Belalp, Crans-Montana, Grächen, Lauchernalp/Lötschental, Leukerbad, Visp Area, Saas-Fee/Saastal and Zermatt & Cervinia.
In Central Switzerland: Engelberg-Titlis, Klewenalp-Stockhütte, Melchsee-Frutt, Andermatt-Sedrun, Sörenberg, Sattel-Hochstuckli and Stoos.

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