I’m going to tell you how to take a ski break for a day. You can literally check out the snow reports one day, be skiing or snowboarding the next, and be back in the office the following day. In other words, you can take one day off work and ski the Swiss Alps for a full day in the mountains. How’s that for a day out the office!
Why Switzerland? Well it has fabulous resorts within easy reach of Geneva Airport; you can use public transport to get to the slopes; and accommodation at short notice is widely available if you stay in the valleys rather than the mountains. And it is no more expensive than France for a quick break and much more convenient than Italy or Austria. Although Innsbruck in Austria is quite convenient for a number of resorts, there are fewer flights.
I’m not going to push Easyjet, but it is a good choice for getting to Geneva from the UK, with several flights a year from Gatwick and regional airports. BA is also a good choice if you have lots of Avios points. And if you want to take your skis with you, Swiss will carry them for free. Typically Easyjet flights start from about £26, but get pricey at weekends. At a day’s notice it can cost less than £100 pounds return for an evening flight out, and either an evening flight back the next day or an early morning flight the following day – both of which will get you back in the office the next day with a full day’s skiing.
Geneva Airport has a station in the airport itself with direct trains running to hub towns from where you can get to the slopes, either by a single train journey or a very reliable bus service.
You can stay in a resort, but with a late flight and an hour time difference it is a push if you leave the office to take an evening flight. I would recommend you stay in one of those “hub” towns, somewhere like Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux, Aigle, Martigny, Sion, Sierre or Visp. It all depends on how much travel time you are prepared to put in to and from respectively the airport and your preferred ski resort. Some towns on the main line service to Brig from Geneva Airport are particularly convenient for specific resorts, e.g. Aigle for Portes du Soleil (Champéry), Villars, Les Diablerets and Leysin; Martigny for Verbier and Les Marécottes; Sion for the central section of the 4 Valleys (Nendaz, Veysonnaz or Siviez) and Anzère; Sierre for Crans-Montana; and Visp for Saas-Fee or Zermatt. I could mention other resorts, but on the whole they require longer transfers or are much smaller.
Most towns have convenient and reasonably priced accommodation near the main railway station that can be booked at short notice, typically via Bookings.com.
You are spoilt for choice about which resort to go to. Saas-Fee and Zermatt are open for longer seasons than the rest, and mid-week skiing is usually only available at the others from the start of December. During peak season Leysin, Villars, Les Diablerets and the Portes du Soleil are the nearest significant resorts to Geneva.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Flying out of Gatwick on a Wednesday at 6.20pm, arriving at Geneva at 8.55pm, book into the Lausanne Youth Hostel or Hotel AlaGare both walking district from Lausanne station. Get up early and get a full day skiing in Verbier, leaving your stuff in a locker at the base station for Verbier. Return to Lausanne in the evening and take the 7.00am Easy jet flight getting you into Gatwick at 7.35am.
Another example: Take the same evening flight and book into a hotel in Aigle. Ski Leysin the next day, then take the 9.35pm flight back getting you into Gatwick at 10.05pm.
The costs depend on a number of factors. Costing out the first option, you might spend £100 on flights, plus transit costs to a UK airport. You can bring your skis on Easyjet for £39 or hire in resort for about the same if you book in advance. With Avios points I’ve done a return BA flight for £60. The return train fare on Swiss Railways from Geneva Airport to Lausanne is about £40 and the cost of a combined ski and travel pass (the Snow’n’rail scheme) for Verbier will be about £100. Lausanne is about 50 minutes from Geneva Airport and just over 2 hours from the gondola station serving Verbier. Accommodation near the station will cost you about £80 for a night. Food and drink are best bought from supermarkets and it is totally acceptable to drink alcohol on the trains.
On my trip to Saas-Fee last week I took advantage of an all-season ski pass I bought for under £200. I also have a half-fare card which halves the cost of rail transfer in Switzerland and I have Easyjet+ which gives some perks flying Easyjet. I am over 60 so travel in the UK is free or heavily discounted. And I have a pad in Switzerland about 1 hour 30 minutes from Geneva Airport and half an hour from the nearest ski resort.
I also have a pass for 25 other leading Swiss resorts that cost me around £200 for the whole season. The benefit of also having the Saas-Fee pass is it gives me good skiing early and late in the season.
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.
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.
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.
I’m not so sure it would be my first choice for a weekend break though. Flims/Laax and Engelberg are about the same distance from Zurich Airport. The Jungfrau is feasible for a weekend break via Basel’s Euroairport, and Chamonix, Verbier, Portes du Soleil, Leysin, Les Diablerets and Villars are about the same distance from Geneva Airport. Plus there are a handful of smaller resorts much closer to the airports – Feldberg from Basel or Flumserberg, Pizol, Hoch-Ybrig and Braunwald from Zurich.
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.
New lifts and replacement lifts are planned for a number of other resorts including Flumserberg, The Four Valleys, Corvatsch, Crans-Montana, Pizol, Les Diablerets, Villars-Gryon, Grüsch-Danusa and Val Müstair.
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.