I recently revisited my Swiss Winter Resorts web site to update it with what I have learned skiing and talking to people these last two months. I also revamped one of the landing pages, largely because I have come up with a few recommendations framed in terms of the ‘best five’ for various criteria. What do you think?
Saas-Fee was the first ski resort I visited in Switzerland, way back in the early 1990s. Since then I have skied over 100 other ski resorts in Switzerland, some many times. I have also skied other resorts in the UK, mainland Europe and North America but Switzerland is my destination of choice for many reasons.
Not least amongst the reasons is that you can ski some decent slopes as early as November in Switzerland. I skied Zermatt last week, Verbier last weekend and Saas-Fee this week. I have written in previous blogs about my recent experiences in Zermatt and Verbier, but here I would like to concentrate on the relative merits of Zermatt and Saas-Fee for early season snow sports.
The routes to Zermatt and Saas-Fee diverge at the municipality of Stalden where the Matter Vispa and the Saaser Vispa rivers conjoin. Stalden is a dizzying community of homes on steep valley walls atop which are a number of small ski resorts such as Grächen, Törbel, Bürchen, Unterbäch and Visperterminen – of which Grächen is the largest and most charming. Stalden already has some spectacular bridges but a bypass planned to complete in 2023 will add to the spectacle with seven additional bridges, including the 270m long Chinegga Bridge.
Saas-Fee is the quicker to get to from anywhere you choose to come from, although the last leg from Visp is by bus rather than the train, as is the case for Zermatt. Neither resort allows cars, but the parking lot in Saas-Fee is actually in the village, unlike Zermatt where you have to take the train for the last leg from Täsch if you drive.
Saas-Fee is the highest and largest of four resorts in Saastal – the Saas valley – and the route to the resort passes through one of them, Saas-Grund. Saas-Grund has a creditable 35km of piste in the winter season up to a top station of 3200m. In terms of scale it is somewhat dwarfed by Saas-Fee with its 100km of piste up to 3600m, but it provides some variety if you come to Saastal for a week, often has untracked off-piste when Saas-Fee does not and is less crowded in peak season.
Saas-Fee is not as high or as extensive a resort as Zermatt which, fully open, has an incredible 360 km of piste between 1620 and 3899m. However in November, neither resort is fully open and – in the case of Zermatt – the runs over to Cervinia in Italy which would normally be open are closed because of Covid-19.
Saas-Fee and Zermatt have the highest ski runs in Europe and this is why anyone looking to ski outside the regular season should consider them. Zermatt is open all year round, but summer skiing there is very limited. By mid-November, Zermatt had open 26 km of piste and 10 lifts – limited by the lack of access to Cervinia – whereas Saas-Fee claims 43 km and 12 lifts. On the 28th November the lifts up to the Rothorn and Stockhorn are scheduled to begin operating in Zermatt, opening up at least 100 km of piste.
Both resorts have their upper runs on glaciers, which means off-piste is not an option in those areas, and – since glaciers move – the only lifts on the glaciers are surface lifts. However both resorts currently have chairlift-served runs lower down.
From earlier this month the Covid-19 precautions have resulted in all bars and restaurants being closed until at least the start of December in Valais, the canton where Zermatt, Saas-Fee and Verbier are located. This certainly puts a damper on the apres-ski and mountain restaurant scene, although even without Covid many restaurants and bars are not open in the resorts in November. But we’re here for the skiing and snowboarding, right? Right.
The limited skiing available in Zermatt is gentle reds and blues with a little off-piste whereas Saas-Fee has many more steeper sections. The open areas are reasonably well-connected. To get to the top at Saas-Fee you take two gondolas and an underground train, and the return journey is just the one train from Morenia. For Zermatt the trip up is three cable cars, but you have to take two back – from Trockener Steg and Furi. Since only the most southerly section of Zermatt is open it is also a longer transfer from the train station to the lifts than it is from the garages and bus station at Saas-Fee. In fact, at Zermatt, you might want to take the courtesy bus or a taxi to get to your hotel and to the slopes.
Switzerland has had clear unclouded skies since the start of November and this has worked worse for Saas-Fee than Zermatt. The snow is reasonably good at both, but fresh snow would be welcome and the pistes were icier in Saas-Fee. Both ski areas are north-facing, but Zermatt was bathed in sunshine nearly everywhere whilst the slopes were open, whereas many parts of Saas-Fee, with a low sun behind the Allalin, hardly moved out of shadow all day. I think Saas-Fee would have been a lot better with fresher snow, and I enjoyed my skiing more at Zermatt but I will look to visit again before the end of the month to see how the conditions are holding up.
I visited both on weekdays and would expect them to both be busier at the weekend. When I was at the resorts Saas-Fee had more ski racers in training, whereas Zermatt had more ski school instructors under instruction. The runs at Saas-Fee were generally much busier, but at both resorts it was possible to find runs where I was an almost solitary skier. Unfortunately the lifts up and down the mountain at both resorts were quite busy. Masks are compulsory on all lifts.
In broad terms what you are getting in November in these resorts is a similar snow sport experience as you would get mid-week, peak season in a resort like Braunwald or Pizol, albeit at a significantly higher price.
I like Saas-Fee. It is pleasant car-free village, reasonably compact with an excellent lift system and a good range of snow-sure slopes. Zermatt has its downsides but there is probably not a better ski resort on the planet, in my very humble opinion. Both resorts are expensive. Even without the bars and restaurants, ahead of the full season opening, I would on balance choose Zermatt still, but it is a far closer call, especially with Cervinia closed.
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.
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.
Another ski season is not far away, and many Swiss resorts have been busy upgrading their facilities ready for season 2016/17.
In Zermatt the ancient gondola below the Rothorn from Gant to Blauherd is being replaced by a six-seat chairlift.
In Saas-Fee the equally ancient gondola in the Spielboden sector is being replaced by a faster 10-seater gondola.
Andermatt continues its aggressive program of expansion. This season two T-bars will be replaced by six-seater chairlifts. In the following two seasons an additional two six-seater chairlifts and an eight-seater gondola will link the Nätschen area of Andermatt to Sedrun and open up 26km of new piste. Sedrun itself replaces a t-bar with a chairlift, a trend across many Alpine resorts.
Most people know Klosters for the Parsenn area, but the seperate Madrisa area is popular with families. Here an innovative six-seater chairlift, “Schaffürggli”, is being installed, the first of its kind in Switzerland. It features a laser scanner that uses hydraulics to adjust the height of the seat, making it much easier for children to get on and off. The chairlift will also have heated seats and can take wheelchair users up the mountain.
I’ve often thought it would be fun to have a drone film my descent. It would also be useful to give visitors to swisswintersports.co.uk an idea of what to expect. Well Verbier got there first and is offering Europe’s first self-tracking drones. The drones follow you on the slopes using Bluetooth and a GPS-enabled Smartphone App and Téléverbier rents them out the Hexo+ drones for CHF400 per day or CHF250 for a half day, providing assistance and a video at the end of the day.
All of the major airports in Switzerland lie just outside the Alps, but Swiss International Airlines now plan to provide a scheduled service between Sion and London, subject to a number of test flights. Sion Airport is in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and so close to the slopes you can actually see planes take off and landing from the pistes of several nearby resorts, including Verbier and Nendaz. Sion has been used for civilian flights for some time, but the last scheduled service from the UK was withdrawn a few years ago and the military will be withdrawing from using it from next year. The director of Sion airport, Aline Bovier-Gantzer says that “The initiative for the new flight is due to a collaboration with the Swiss tourism industry: Valais is already a favourite destination of British tourists during the winter months thanks to its proximity to some of Switzerland’s most popular ski resorts.”
Of course, if you fly to Switzerland, independent travellers can easily get to their resorts using the fabulous transport infrastructure available without having to resort to lengthy, uncomfortable coach transfers. You can also make the entire trip from many European cities directly by train, including London with the Eurostar ski train, booking for which is now open.
Just outside Switzerland’s borders but very popular with Swiss skiers is the Arlberg area in Austria. I remember that once you could get round the circuit that includes St Anton, Lech and Zürs, but for some years this has not been the case. Now a new gondola is scheduled to open that will link Zürs and Stuben to create the largest ski area in Austria, one of four new lifts that will be built in Ski Alberg over the summer. For the 2016/17 season this means Ski Arlberg will total 305km piste served by 87 lifts, fully linking St Anton, Stuben, St Christoph, Lech, Zürs, Schröcken and Warth.