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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Best Value Ski Holidays 2016

The winter season is almost upon us. A number of glacier resorts open up in the next few weeks, including Engelberg on 8th October. From 27th to the 30th October the Ski and Snowboard Show in Battersea kicks off the marketing of winter sports holidays to the UK audience.Ski and Snowboard Show The Telegraph sponsors the show, and continues to have about the best coverage for UK skiers and snowboarders of where to go. They also maintain a useful page of discounts and offers.

A lot of concerns have been raised about the value of the pound, but in fairness it is no higher than it was just a couple of years ago. Things might take a turn for the worse in the future but, for now, Brexit hasn’t yet happened!

There are two good periods to hit the European slopes. The first is before Christmas, when a lot of deals and discounts are on offer. Switzerland often has some of the best – currently many of them are posted at the MySwitzerland web site. The downside is that snowfall is fickle during the early season so it is best to head for resorts that give you access to glaciers – or at least where there are other diversions like spas (eg. Leukerbad) and Christmas Markets.

The other good periods to get value on the slopes are those periods when the kids are not on holiday. In 2017, remarkably, the whole of January and March are school holiday free zones throughout Europe. That means rates will be lower and more bargains will be around. For Brits with kids who have no choice but to go in the school holidays, Italy looks the best choice, as there are no local holidays coinciding with the UK ones.

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Affordable Skiing in Switzerland

With the continuing strength of the Swiss Franc, a ski or snowboard holiday in Switzerland may not look affordable, but there are many ways you can make a Swiss winter sports holiday fit into most budgets. Here are some of my tips:

Take advantage of the best public transport in the world

Every single ski resort in Switzerland can be reached by public transport, and furthermore virtually anywhere you book to stay will have good public transport access. That opens up a host of opportunities to stay in inexpensive accommodation outside the ski resorts, but within easy access. One suggestion is to stay in Interlaken, and do day trips to the Jungfrau resorts of Murren, Grindelwald and Wengen. Interlaken is lively and full of good priced accommodation options. From Chur, the cantonal capital of Graubunden, you can easily reach Davos and Flims/Laax. You might also want to mix business with skiing, and it is possible to get a full day skiing on a day trip from any of the major commercial centres.

Use Snow’n’Rail

The Snow’n’Rail scheme provides 20% discount off the combined public transport and lift pass charges for virtually every significant resort in Switzerland. Agsin, this works well if you are staying away from the ski resorts themselves.

Stay in inexpensive accommodation

With a reputation for quality and service, even very basic lodgings can provide excellent lodgings. Perhaps the best tip is to stay in a Youth Hostel. Many resorts have outstanding hostels with easy access to the slopes – even St Moritz. Most of the hostels offer en-suite facilities if you don’t want to share a bathroom, and the dormitories vary from singles upto 20 beds or so. Most offer half-board and sell wine and beer.

Eat and drink out judiciously

Eating out can get very expensive in Switzerland, and you can easily run up an eye-watering bar bill. However the supermarkets offer good value. Many places offer catering facilities, so you can eat in, and you can always have a few apres-ski tipples back in your accommodation. Many Swiss also take their lunches with them when they ski and take advantage of the picnic rooms available at most resorts, although I usually find Swiss soups offer a nourishing and inexpensive lunch. In Switzerland it is also acceptable to drink alcohol in public.

Take advantage of deals

The Swiss are generally reluctant to offer discounts. As one hotelier put it “You are taking advantage of the people willing to pay the full price”! However the strong franc has focussed minds and all sorts of special offers abound. Many resorts include free lift passes with hotel bookings ahead of Christmas, allow kids to ski for free on all or some days. In the next couple of months I will highlight special deals as they become public. The Swiss Tourist office has a number of deals posted Swiss Vacation deals.

Go to less well-known resorts

You get an amazing range of skiing and snowboarding at resorts like Verbier and Zermatt, but many of the lesser resorts offer equally challenging runs, plenty of off-piste terrain and – arguably – much better facilities for beginners and intermediates. Also, using public transport, it is possible to combine visiting a number of cheaper inexpensive resorts in one trip and actually have access to more slopes in total than if you stayed in one more highly priced resort.

Book online in advance

Many things are cheaper booked online than in person – some things, like the Swiss Transfer Ticket, are only available outside Switzerland. In addition you often have the opportunity to buy online in the currency of your choice, often at a lower price than the cost in Swiss Francs.

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Winter Ski Deals in Graubünden

I am a great fan of the winter sports resorts in Graubünden, and will be spending the Christmas period in the canton. It is probably the most complete ski and snowboard destination in the world, but it caters well for ever type of visitor – including the budget conscious.
Arosa ski resort
This season Graubünden once again has a range of excellent deals. The season starts on 18th October 2014 on the Diavolezza in the Engadine, which celebrates 150 years of winter tourism. On 22nd November, Corvatsch and Corviglia in St Moritz open. Progressively other resorts open, with Arosa, Samnaun, Flims Laax Falera and Davos Klosters opening in November.

A great deal for getting there is the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) offer, “Railhit 2 for 1” in which two people travelling together from Monday to Thursday only pay for one if they are hotel guests or in self-catering accommodation. The offer lasts from 8th December 2014 to 10th April 2014. RailHit is not valid on a handful of special services, including the pass associated with using the Preda-Bergün sledging slope.
Skiers in Davos on the Parsenn
For 35 SFr per person per day for visits of at least two nights, a ski pass is included with accommodation at participating hotels in and around St Moritz.

Arosa once again features the “Ski School Included” for youngsters staying in the resort, whereby lessons are available at no charge.

Now linked to Arosa, Lenzerheide gives you a free lift pass if you book a stay at any time between 28th of November to the 20th December.

Up until 21st December 2014 you also get a complimentary ski pass for slopes in Davos Klosters for every overnight stay in a partner hotel in the area. From 20th December until 6th April the resorts are also offering a local insider to accompany you and show you the best of the mountains. Remember also that Ski Club of Great Britain members still can ski or snowboard for free with a Ski Club representative.

More details on these and other offers are posted at the Graubünden Tourism website.

There are also the usual range of budget options if you are going to Graubunden, with some excellent hostels and budget hotels. Check out the Winter Sports Accommodation Guide.

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