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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March skiing

March is probably my favourite month for skiing, the longer evenings and sunny skies heralding Spring. And, of course, you do tend to get Spring ski conditions – crusty off-piste, whilst the pistes are icy first thing and slushy at the end of the day. So a good tip is to look for resorts where most of the skiing is high.

No schools in Europe have half term during March this year, so there should be some good bargains for accommodation, particularly family-friendly resorts.

Some of the medium-sized resorts are perfect to visit since they have lower lift pass prices and should have the full extent of their ski area still open.

These, then, are my top tips for March skiing, all resorts with plenty of altitude:

Ski Saas-Fee

Ski Nendaz

Celerina (Engadine)
ski Celerina in the Engadine

ski Murren in the Jungfrau

Ski Flims Laax Falera

Ski St-Luc and Chandolin

ski Crans and Montana

Surlej (Engadine)
ski Surlej, Silvaplana

ski Belalp and Blatten

Ski Lauchernalp in the Lötschental

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Experience a Bob Sleigh Ride

Olympia Bob RunBetween St Moritz and Celerina in the Engadine is the Olympia Bob Run. If you fancy experiencing a force of 4G and careering upside down at speeds in excess of 135kph, this is one to add to the list. You ride in a four person bob sleigh with a professional driver and brakeman, and the brakeman does all the running so you don’t have to experience the embarrassment of having your bob go off without you. Furthermore you get all equipment provided, including a lift back from the bottom, a certificate and a glass of Prosecco.

What you will have to part with, however, for 75 seconds of adrenaline rush, is 250 francs. UBS have a deal at the moment if you bank with them whereby you can get a 70 franc rebate if you have 5 keyClub points – details here. You can book a slot online for the bob run here.

And if you are looking for something rather less frenetic. St Moritz is also a good place to combine winter sports with yoga. See Owning Yoga for details.

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No-ski Days

The day after the night before
Sometimes the winds blow such a storm that the lifts are closed, or there isn’t enough snow or there is too much… anyway, we’ve all hit those no-ski days in the mountains and what is there to do? Most people seem to be content to play cards, surf the internet or drink the bars dry, but one of the great things about skiing or snowboarding Switzerland is there is always something else to do.
Engelberg from Titlis
Most ski resorts in Switzerland have a history that predates the arrival of skiers, and as a result have a wealth of interesting things to visit. For example Engelberg has been a religious centre ever since the Benedictine Monastery was founded here in 1120 by monks who thought Mount Titlis looked like an angel, and hence the town is called “Angel Mountain”. Monks from the Monastery were the first to get to the top of Titlis, back in 1744. They probably didn’t notice it, but the Chinese Olympic champion gymnast Donghua Li spotted a Buddha shaped rock in 1996 from the top of Klein Titlis, and it has become a must see sight fro many Asian tourists since. The Monastery is open to the public and well worth a visit.
Mountaineers Gravestone
The Alps generally had a bad image until the Age of Enlightenment, when the impoverished and isolated Alpine communities suddenly found themselves visited by tourists who rejoiced in the majesty of the mountains. Not surprisingly it wasn’t long until many of them decided to climb to the top of them, not always with positive outcomes. If you are in Zermatt the wonderful Mountaineers Graveyard is well worth a visit.
Spa in LeukerbadAnother group of summer visitors to the Alps were those suffering from various ailments that the mountain air could alleviate. Davos was amongst the most popular, and it was here that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whilst nursing his wife, popularised skiing. A number of resorts provided spas, and for me visiting an Alpine spa is one of the most enjoyable things to do on a no-ski day. Some resorts, such as Leukerbad, actually have extensive spa facilities in the resort.

Winter tourism really took off in St Moritz 150 years ago, and the diversions extend beyond the ski runs. If there is a whiteout up the mountains and visibility isn’t too clear, you can always try cross-country skiing. Other sports you will find in many parts of Switzerland include ice-skating, ice hockey tournaments, sledding, snowshoe walking, curling and even bobsleigh (in Celerina you can try it with a professional driver and brakeman).
Bobsled in Celerina
You probably know that Switzerland has the densest and most extensive railway network in the world, but you probably didn’t know that every single ski resort in Switzerland can be reached by the fabulously reliable public transport network. Even the buses run on time, and link the lifts and railway stations such that you can step from one mode of transport to another without waiting. Resorts like Villars, Leysin, Champéry and Arosa have incredibly cute narrow gauge railways connecting them to the towns in the valleys. Just taking the train can be an end in itself, perhaps getting off at a stop along the way to explore an interesting village or town, rejoining a later train. And of course, the towns have plenty of other diversions that few mountain resorts provide – extensive shopping, markets, casinos, cinemas, museums and galleries.
Aigle in the heart of the Rhone valley has rail connections to several resorts
But then again, you could just catch up on some zeds.

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