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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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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Season Opening Dates in Switzerland 2015-16

Some resorts have already opened – Diavolezza, Saas-Fee and Zermatt being perennial early starters. As of Halloween weekend Glacier3000 and ArosaLenzerheide should also be open.
Region Chablis is usually a late starter
Other key opening dates are:

14th November
Andermatt
Engelberg
20th November
Davos
21st November
St. Moritz
26th November
Samnaun
28th November
Disentis
Flims Laax Falera
Flumserberg
Grüsch Danusa
Zweisimmen
Klewenalp
Sedrun
Splügen
Zermatt (Winter Programme)

5th December
Adelboden
Aletsch Arena
Wengen/Grindelwald
Lenk
Pizol
Verbier/4 Vallees
Feldberg
12th December
Château-d’Oex
Saanen/Gstaad
Rougemont
Grindelwald First
Mürren
Lauchernalp
Melchsee-Frutt
Savognin
18th December
Anzère
19th December
Airolo
Beatenberg
Belalp
Brigels
Bürchen
Chur – Brambrüesch
Elm
Feldis
Grächen
Val Müstair
Obersaxen
Ovronnaz
Portes du Soleil
Saas Grund
Sörenberg
Stoos
Leukerbad

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The Cutest Village Ski Resorts

Zermatt
The Daily Telegraph has just identified what it thinks are the 15 cutest village ski resorts, and I have to disagree with their choice. For instance, Zermatt “cute”? Hardly. Car-free, rocking, beautiful, busy… but cute? And hardly a village. In my opinion most of the cutest villages have limited pistes and antiquated lifts – which is maybe how they tend to stay cute.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my list of villages in Switzerland that are both cute and have access to plenty of the white stuff, in no particular order (click on the links for more info):

Adelboden
Adelboden
Gstaad
Gstaad
Mürren
Muerren
Wengen
Wengen
Andermatt
Andermatt
Stoos
Stoos
Briel (Brigels)
Brigels
Celerina
Celerina
Klosters
Klosters
Lenzerheide
Lenzerheide
Pontresina
Pontresina
Samnaun
Samnaun
Silvaplana
Silvaplana
Les Diablerets
Les Diablerets
Champéry
Champery
Saas-Fee
Saas-Fee
St Luc/Chandolin
St Luc
Grimentz
Grimentz

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