Everyone should know that Switzerland is probably the best country in the world to visit for a ski holiday, but the strength of the Swiss Franc has put increasing numbers of cost-conscious tourists off in recent years. However Switzerland has uniquely been able to maintain ski facilities throughout the pandemic, and continue to look like the most likely destination to guarantee a great ski experience this winter.
Details of Ingham holidays are at Inghams web site. Additionally they have a really good Coronavirus hub, letting you know what coronavirus restrictions apply in all of the destinations they serve.
Switzerland is fortunate to have some of the very best ski resorts in the world, and Zermatt and Verbier are amongst the very best. But how do they compare?
Location Both resorts are in the Pennine Alps in the Swiss canton of Valais, and both are high, particularly Zermatt. The most obvious difference between them is that Zermatt is in the part of Switzerland where a uniquely Swiss form of German is spoken, whereas Verbier is French-speaking. Verbier rests on a sunny plateau above the valley of Bagnes, whereas Zermatt lies right at the head of a long steep valley. The nearest international airport to Verbier is Geneva, whilst Zermatt is equally served by Geneva and Zurich airports. Both relatively convenient for international visitors.
Pistes Zermatt has 360km of piste spread over four highly integrated ski areas in Switzerland and two across the border in Italy. Although Verbier is part of the extensive Four Valleys, with 412km of piste, the valleys are less well connected than Zermatt, and you will probably not get round to visiting some of the more remote slopes beyond Siviez. Honours even.
Season Pretty much nowhere in the world can beat Zermatt for year-round skiing. Granted that summer skiing is something of a novelty, Zermatt nonetheless offers extensive glacier skiing from the beginning of November right through to the end of May, with the full extent of the resort available from the beginning of December until the end of April. Verbier normally opens up one piste in November, and the resort progressively opens up in the following weeks. Normally the season finishes in mid-April. For early and late season skiing, nothing beats Zermatt, but it can get very cold in the heart of the winter. Zermatt for early and late season, Verbier edges it for mid-season.
Beginners Neither resort is especially good for beginners, but Verbier does have a nursery area in the village. Unless you are coming with a mixed ability party which includes experts, or you just want to party, neither resort is recommended for beginners. You pay a premium in these resorts because of challenging slopes a beginner will never get to experience. Beginners should look elsewhere but, if you had to choose, Verbier is better.
Intermediates I think both resorts are excellent for intermediates. If you come for a week or two you will never want for more variety or challenge, or for nice cruisy runs when you have a hangover to shake off. Even Stevens.
Expert Both resorts have good skiing for experts, but if you want to stick to ungroomed trails and challenging lift-served off-piste, Verbier has more to offer. For back-country ski touring they both make excellent bases, and both lie on the famous Haute Route (Verbier only on a variation of the classic route). Verbier is my recommendation.
Apres-ski Apres-ski in Switzerland is generally more subdued than in other Alpine nations, but Verbier and Zermatt are exceptions to the rule. They both rock, but I prefer… Zermatt.
Mountain Restaurants Both resorts have a mix of cafeteria restaurants with sunny balconies and charming restaurants in the mountains. However Zermatt is something of an epicurean’s delight with some of the most outstanding mountain restaurants in the world. Not really a contest if you want haute cuisine for lunch. But it comes at a price. In the resorts themselves there is a wide range of options from street food to Michelin-starred restaurants. The Blue Ribbon goes to Zermatt.
Resort Charm Lying beneath the Matterhorn, nowhere quite matches Zermatt for chocolate box pretty. It is car-free, although not traffic-free as the electric taxis and service vehicles mean some streets are quite busy. It has a fabulous Alpine tradition stretching back many centuries, and was well-established as a tourist destination by the middle of the 19th Century. Verbier, conversely, is largely a post-war resort, but it’s ubiquitous chalet-style architecture is not without its charm. Zermatt has it all.
Access – Car You can’t drive to Zermatt, you have to pay to leave your car in a car park in a neighbouring town and take a train for the last section. Verbier does have full car access, but you generally need to pay for parking unless it comes with your chalet. There is free parking at the bottom station of the gondola that passes through Verbier at Le Châble . Assuming you are driving from the Lake Geneva Region, it will take you about 3 hours to get to Täsch, the end of the road, and then 10 minutes by train to Zermatt. Verbier is one of the easiest resorts to get to from Geneva, 2 hours of mainly motorway to Le Châble, and about another 10 minutes drive from there up to Verbier. Verbier is the easier to get to from almost anywhere.
Access – Train Zermatt is very easy to get to from either Zurich or Geneva airport by train – both airports actually have railway stations in the airports themselves and you can get to the resort with as few as one change (in Visp). Journey time from Zurich Airport is just under 4 hours, from Geneva Airport just over 4 hours. For Verbier, Le Châble is just over 2 hours from Geneva Airport with a change at Martigny. From Le Châble you can either take the gondola or the local bus service into Verbier. The train to Zermatt is a joy even if the journey time is longer.
Cost You would struggle to find two more expensive resorts in the Alps than Zermatt and Verbier, but it is possible to enjoy them both on a budget. First of all the lift passes are probably cheaper than in comparable French and Austrian resorts – a typical day pass for Verbier is SFr 71, and SFr 92 for Zermatt, and longer stays are substantially cheper per diem. For accommodation, there are affordable hostels and basic accommodation in Zermatt itself and in Le Châble for Verbier. You can also ski the slopes of Zermatt from Cervinia in Italy. Although eating and drinking out is expensive in Switzerland, supermarket prices for alcohol and, to a lesser extent, food staples are not expensive by European standards so self-catering will certainly make your francs go further. Neither resort is cheap, but there aren’t many resorts that come close to being this good.
In the extreme East of Switzerland lies the astonishingly beautiful Romansch-speaking Müstair valley, and within it the Minschuns ski slopes. Although the area is small it has affordable lift passes, queue-free lifts, uncrowded runs, family-friendly facilities and good options for going off-piste and ski touring. The population of the valley is around 1600, with the most significant villages being Müstair, Tschierv and Santa Maria.
Winter Sports Minschuns The Minschuns ski area is about 5km outside Tschierv, and 16km from Müstair. The valley lift station is at Era Sot where there is also free parking and a bus stop, “Tschierv, Talstation Minschuns”. The planned opening and closing dates for the ski area in 2021/22 are Saturday, December 18, 2021 and Sunday, March 20, 2022. The heart of the ski area is Alp da Munt at 2150m where the surface lift from the valley station terminates and where there is a beginners area serviced by a short surface lift. A longer surface lift connects Alp da Munt to the summit of Minschuns, from where a blue run descends to the runs served by the surface lift at Fantauna da S-charf. In total there are 10 pistes totalling 25km between 1,670m and 2,700m. 3km are rated black, 5km are rated red and 17km are rated blue. Additionally there are off-piste opportunities, and a trail from Minschuns all the way to Tschierv, snow conditions permitting. There are 4km of cross-country at 2,180m, a winter hiking trail and a toboggan run. An avalanche training centre is located at Alp da Munt. An 8 man gondola is currently proposed between Tschierv and Alp da Munt.
Müstair and Tschierv There are rinks in both villages for ice skating and ice hockey. It is also possible to play curling on the rink in Tschierv.
Getting There By car: Landquart – Klosters – Vereina car transport – Zernez – Ofenpass.
By Public Transport There are SBB train connections to Landquart, from where you take a Rhaetian Railway train to Zernez and then a Postbus. The SBB operate a door-to-door luggage service.
Mobility in the Valley From the winter season 2021/22, guests can now use all public transport in the Münstertal from Buffalora to Müstair free of charge. There is an hourly Postbus with a route between Zernez, Tschierv, Sta. Maria and Müstair. Less frequently a Postbus runs between Fuldera and Lü. A free ski bus runs through the valley to the Era Sot ski lift valley station. New to the valley is a BMW i3 rental electric car in Tschierv. For electric vehicles there are 8 charging points in 3 locations.
Accommodation In Müstair there are the some well-regarded hotels: the historic Chasa de Capol, Wellnesshotel Liun, Hotel Münsterhof and Hotel Helvetia. In Sta. Maria there is the three star Hotel Schweizerhof and a youth hostel, whilst in Tschierv there is the Hotel al Rom. There are also various bed & breakfast establishments, self-catering apartments, farms offering accommodation and bunk houses in the valley.
Activities In the ski area, there are two mountain restaurants, Alp da Munt and Alp Champatsch, as well as the Aunta snow bar. Restaurants throughout the valley provide regional specialities. The smallest whiskey bar in the world, with an associated museum, can be found at the High Glen Distillery in Sta. Maria. The Antica Distilleria Beretta in Tschierv is also open for tastings and visits. A guided tour is available through the UNESCO World Heritage St. Johann Monastery, Müstair. There is also the 17th Century Muglin Mall Flour Mill, the Tessandra hand weaving mill and the Chasa Jaura Valley Museum in Sta. Maria. Factory tours can be made of the pine joinery at Fuldera. At Buffalora there is an ancient Ore Mine (only visitable with a guide during the summer months). The regional nature park that was established in Val Müstair in 2011 together with the Swiss National Park and parts of the municipality of Scuol, forms the first high alpine UNESCO biosphere reserve in Switzerland. Certified organic products from the reserve can be purchased at the producers and in all village shops.
Although I have been skiing for over 50 years, I don’t have a great sense of it changing much since I first tumbled down a Scottish mountain. OK, we did wear some uncool ski outfits back then, nobody snowboarded and there were a higher proportion of surface lifts. But I don’t remember it being so different. Largely the same resorts and the same vibe in them.
Track back another 50 years, and what was often called ski running involved very long wooden skis, one stick and a pair of stout leather ski boots. And it was by no means the major attraction for people visiting the Alps in winter.
I’ve been reading “Things Seen in Switzerland in Winter”, written by Charles Domville-Fife in 1925. He writes that interest in visiting Switzerland was divided between those for whom it was termed “The Playground of Europe”, and those who went hoping to recover from tubercolosis.
Until 1946 there was no effective medication to treat tubercolosis, a disease that killed as many as one in four people in England in the 19th Century. Swiss mountain air and sunshine achieved a remarkable recovery rate in the clinics that sprung up in hitherto sleepy hamlets like Davos and Arosa in the late nineteenth century. And the therapeutic benefits were enjoyed as much, or even more, in the winter.
St Moritz had also become a popular destination for its winter sun and the many diversions organised in the sophisticated hotels there – the hotelier Badrutt taking a lot of credit for popularising winter holidays in the Engadine. In 1873 for the first time St Moritz recorded more winter visitors than summer ones.
One English visitor to Switzerland in the late nineteenth century was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who stayed in Davos where his wife was recuperating from tuberculosis. Ever impatient to be doing something, he imported some skis from Norway (where skiing had long been a practical means of transport) and became the first person to ski from Davos to Arosa – still a popular back country route. In 1893 he wrote an article in the English press of his experiences and helped popularise what was to diverge from Norwegian ski techniques to become what we now know as the sport of downhill skiing.
Skiing was by no means the only winter sport that became popular in Switzerland. Domville-Fife records that skating was introduced as a winter sport in 1876 (from England), curling (from Scotland) in 1882, tobogganing (from Canada) in 1884, ice hockey (also from Canada) in 1992 and the quaint sport of skijoring (from Scandinavia) in 1906.
In the second half of the nineteenth century Switzerland benefitted from a growing electrified rail system, opening up destinations such as the new sanatoria in Montana and Leysin, and new winter sports destinations like Klosters, Celerina, Grindelwald, Wengen, Murren, Gstaad, Villars, Engelberg and Andermatt. Adelboden later emerged as both a health centre and a ski destination, with the world’s first winter sports holiday package organised by Sir Henry Lunn in 1903. Outside of Switzerland, Chamonix and St Anton – both with rail links – were early adopters of sport skiing, St Anton claiming to have founded the first ski club in 1901.
Most of the new winter sports were introduced by the British, but soon became popular with the Swiss and visiting Germans. The opening of the cog railways in winter in Grindelwald, Wengen and Villars are attributed to British requests that they be available outside the summer timetable.
It’s noteworthy that, at this time, British tourists tended to come over only in December and January, and what we now largely associate with the peak winter sports period was left to the locals. Domville-Fife declares that “at nearly all the best known resorts the predominance of British people during Christmas and New Year festivities is usually so great that even the Swiss themselves are scarcely seen. It is during this period and for about five weeks afterwards that a sojourn at any of the winter sports centres becomes one of the most delightful experiences of life”.
Domville-Fife, writing in 1925, doesn’t mention a single ski destination in the canton of Valais, now probably the pre-eminent ski region in the world. Champéry, in the Portes du Soleil did not have its first lift access to the slopes until 1939, Verbier’s first lift arrived in 1946, Saas-Fee a popular summer spa destination did not have road access until 1950 and Zermatt, although it has had the Gornergrat cog railway since 1898, was primarily known as a summer destination for climbers, and did not open the railway to the summit during the winter season until 1941. Only Montana (later Crans-Montana), had adopted skiing by 1925, following the opening of the funicular railway in 1911. However the village was still mostly popular for its sanatoria and, from 1906, for golfing.
Skijoring, meanwhile, has its adherents but has achieved only a limited popularity. Although my Swiss mother-in-law recalls skiing to school on skis, I don’t think it looks anything like this today at Aiglon College!