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 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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Back country skiing in the Engelberg valley

I have often heard it rumoured that in the Engelberg valley lurk many hidden stashes of lift-served back country off-piste. From Titlis itself there are several areas of off-piste, the Laub being the most famous. There is also one route off Klein Titlis itself down towards Trübsee via the Steinberg some friends of mine have skied, although I have not tried it myself.

I know you can ski from the top of the Fürenalp cable car – again I have not tried it, but I know there is a trail back down to the valley floor which I guess presents at least one option. The lift company identifies a 1000m toboggan run, a 1500 winter walk and snowshoe trail as well as ski touring options at the top. There is also a restaurant. One to add to the list for sure.

Anyway, I came across an article at Worldcrunch which finally addressed the rumour. Apparently there is a lift, Sesselbahn Brisen, which ascends the Haldigrat below Engelberg to provide access to a large unprepared area of snow from 1937m.
Sesselbahn Brisen - photo: raffaconzinu via Instagram
The owner of the lift, Kurt Mathis, is quite famous, apparently, and the lift is possibly not as obscure as I had thought – even featuring in a film and having its own website. The lifts operate 9am-4pm at weekends and on public holidays in the winter season. Kurt’s wife, Antoinette, runs a restaurant and guesthouse at the top. A webcam is here. To get to the Haldigrat by train, take the Engelberg service from Luzern and get off at the request stop Niederrickenbach Station, just after Dallenwil, then take the cable car to Niederrickenbach itself and take a sign-posted 30-minute walk on a broad and well-maintained path to the valley station of the chairlift from Alpboden up to the Haldigrat. There is parking at the bottom of the Niederrickenbach cable car. Although there are no recorded fatalities or significant avalanche risks, the ski area is not only unprepared but also unpatrolled.

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