Belalp & Blatten b. Naters

View across to the Dom and MatterhornBelalp (2047-3112m) is the nearest significant winter sports area to Brig, reached by cable car from the pretty village of Blatten b. Naters.  Buses from Brig station run every half hour and cover the breathtaking 8km journey to the ticket office for the cable railway in less than half an hour.

Belalp has 9 lifts and a reasonable 60km of piste with enough variety for all standards of skier. There is a fun park and a kid’s village, half a dozen hiking trails, a couple of toboggan runs, a cross-country ski circuit (although the best cross-country in Valais is found in nearby Goms) and a range of other winter sports diversions in both Blatten and Brig. From the main (covered) Sparrhorn six-seat chairlift there is a range of delightful red and blue runs back down to Belalp, and from the Hohbiel at the top of the Sparrhorn there are lifts to access more challenging runs. However, what makes Belalp special are the acres of accessible off-piste in both the main Sparrhorn area and underneath the Hohstock (via a tunnel off the Hostock draglift).  The Hohstock area is not open if there is avalanche risk (check at the resort site here), but when open there are few areas so easy to get to that provide such relatively safe off-piste (although a guide is recommended to access the more challenging runs).  Everywhere is pretty well linked, with no real flat sections provided you keep your speed up.

Apart from the resort run to Blatten, all the slopes are above 2000m, and face south across to the Dom and the Matterhorn to provide breathtaking views and a delightful sun trap. The longest run, from the Hostock (3112m) down to Blatten (1322m) along black 1, red 4 and 21, and blue 24 and 25, has an impressive vertical drop of  1790m.  The glacier run from Sparrhorngrat and the Aletschbord run also provide a glimpse of the Aletsch glacier, the longest in the Alps (although the best views are from the nearby Aletsch Arena).

Weekend queues are short to non-existent, making this a fabulous destination for a weekend break or a day trip. Discounts are available for a combined rail ticket and area pass with the Swiss Railways Snow’n’Rail scheme.

So what are the downsides? Well, being south facing some narrow or busy parts of the runs can get a little bare over the course of the day, even with the excellent grooming and snow cannons. The very highest slopes (above 2680m) are also only accessible by surface lifts and the resort run to Blatten is basically a narrow snow-covered road, which skiers, snowboarders, tobogganists and walkers have to share – the better option is to take the cable car back down.  Minor gripes, however, for this is a little known jewel of a resort.

Belalp is a wonderful ski-in/ski-out car-free hamlet, mostly comprised of chalets but hotel luxury is available at the excellent Hamilton Lodge or the historic Hotel Belalp, a short distance outside the main resort on the Aletschbord. With a smattering of bars and restaurants, Belalp makes a delightful location for a family holiday or a romantic break. Blatten b. Naters (not to be confused with another Blatten in Valais, at the head of the Lötschental) also offers a range of accommodation, dining and entertainment, whilst Brig itself is a busy town with a range of diversions and amenities.

Celebrating a famous local tale, when one of the witches who lived in the area was executed for murdering her husband, every year around 1500 participants set off in the 12km Belalp Hexe race down to Blatten, many of them dressed as witches. This year the race takes place on 15th January 2011. Pre-registration is required to participate, but it makes for a spectacular spectator event.

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Villars is free!

Well, for one day at least – on the 18th December 2010. Apparently it is to celebrate the inauguration of 85 new environment-friendly snowmakers. Electronic keycards are not needed on this day.

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The 2010/11 season begins

Well, in truth the season never went away, with glacier skiing in Zermatt throughout the summer and only the shortest of breaks at Saas-Fee. The Engadin, Engelberg, Davos/Klosters, Flims/Laax and a handful of other higher resorts have been opening their lifts for limited piste and some good early-season off-piste, but everything has changed. The huge dumps and cold spell have opened up a vast amount of terrain, even if the pistes are not all open. Flumserberg opened on 1st December and is now open daily, and the 4th December is the official opening day for a host of resorts, including Lenzerheide, the Jungfrau and the Aletsch Arena. Many lifts will only be operating at the weekends before Christmas, but this is not only in the Alpine resorts – many of the Jura resorts are also taking advantage of the excellent snow conditions to open early.  Langenbruck in Baselland, for instance, is open on 4th December from 1p until 4.30pm and on Sunday 5th December from 10am until 4.30pm, and the snow is reported as good to fair and between 20 and 30cm deep.

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