Skiing out of Sion

Sion - Castle of Valère
I have always liked Sion, but one of its main attractions in the winter is how convenient it is for hitting the slopes – you can even see pistes from the city centre. The city is on the main line between Geneva and Milan and, reputedly, has the largest bus station in Switzerland in terms of destinations served (23 in total). From the bus station you can get direct services to Anzère, Veysonnaz and Nendaz (both in the Four Vallées), the resorts of Val d’Herens, including Arolla and even the lifts serving Vercorin (in the amazing Val D’Anniviers). By train, with just one change, you can get to Zermatt, Verbier, Crans-Montana and a bunch of other resorts. Incidentally, my tip for getting quickly to the best of the pistes is to go to Haut-Nendaz Télécabine and jump on the free shuttle bus to Siviez, where you are right at the heart of 412km of piste.

One other useful thing about Sion is that it has a youth hostel right next to the station, although unfortunately it does not open until late March. However, with so many high altitude resorts in the area it still works well for late season skiing. I recently stayed there and, as a result, got to refresh a lot of content at the Swiss Winter Sports web site. Even though it was April, I found some amazing lift-served powder in Les Marrécottes and a resort run in reasonable condition at Grächen.

There is surprisingly little variety of accommodation along the Rhône valley, with most of the beds in the ski resorts themselves. Sion does have a few hotels, though, and also a good variety of bars and restaurants in the old town.

Perhaps I will get one ski weekend in before the season finally closes, presumably in Valais. It has been a strange winter season. Much heralded as being the 150th anniversary of winter holidays, there was little snow before the New Year and lower resorts will have definitely suffered from lower visitor numbers.

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The Best Three Star Hotels in the Swiss Alps

Last winter the Swiss newspaper, the Sonntags Zeitung, published a list of the best hotels in Switzerland. The full article is here, but I have listed what they consider the best three star hotels:

skier gets ready to hit the piste

1. (Last Year: 4) Alpine Lodge,Saanen-Gstaad BE
Tel 033 748 41 51,
Doubleroom from 360 Fr.

2. (1) Waldhaus am See,St. Moritz GR
Tel 081 836 60 00,
Doubleroom from 310 Fr.

3. (3) Romantik Hotel Schönegg, Wengen BE
Tel 033 855 34 22,
Doubleroom from 380 Fr.

4. (2) Krone, La Punt GR
Tel 081 854 12 69,
Doubleroom 250 Fr.

5. (5) Misani, Celerina GR
Tel 081 839 89 89,
Doubleroom from 230 Fr.

6. (6) Jungfrau, Wengernalp BE
Tel 033 855 16 22,
Doubleroom from 440 Fr.

7. (8) Hotel Kernen,Schönried-Gstaad BE
Tel 033 748 40 20,
Doubleroom from 320 Fr.

8. (-) Chesa Randolin,Sils Baselgia GR
Tel 081 830 83 83,
Doubleroom from 236 Fr.

9. (11) Eienwäldli, Engelberg OW
Tel 041 637 19 49,
Doubleroom from 280 Fr.

10. (-) La Couronne, Zermatt VS
Tel 027 966 23 00,
Doubleroom from 256 Fr.

11. (7) Sporthotel, Pontresina GR
Tel 081 838 94 00,
Doubleroom from 250 Fr.

12. (13) Bella Vista, Zermatt VS
Tel 027 966 28 10,
Doubleroom from 235 Fr.

13. (12) Parkhotel Schönegg, Grindelwald BE
Tel 033 854 18 18,
Doubleroom from 340 Fr.

14. (16) Alphubel, Saas-Fee VS
Tel 027 958 63 63,
Doubleroom from 314 Fr.

15. (15) Chesa Grischuna, Klosters GR
Tel 081 422 22 22,
Doubleroom from 439 Fr.

16. (20) Alpenblick, Fiesch VS
Tel 027 970 16 60,
Doubleroom from 150 Fr.

17. (9) Le Mont Paisible,Crans-Montana VS
Tel 027 480 21 61,
Doubleroom from 220 Fr.

18. (14) Romantik Hotel Muottas Muragl, Samedan GR
Tel 081 842 82 32,
Doubleroom from 240 Fr.

19. (18) Adler, Adelboden BE
Tel 033 673 41 41,
Doubleroom from 308 Fr.

20. (19) Müller Mountain Lodge, Pontresina GR
Tel 081 839 30 00,
Doubleroom from 300 Fr.

21. (24) Meisser, Guarda GR
Tel 081 862 21 32,
Doubleroom from 230 Fr.

22. (17) Bodmi, Grindelwald BE
Tel 033 853 12 20,
Doubleroom from 294 Fr.

23. (10) Homann,Samnaun-Ravaisch GR
Tel 081 861 91 91,
Doubleroom from 290 Fr.

24. (21) Europe, Zinal VS
Tel 027 475 44 04,
Doubleroom from 200 Fr.

25. (25) Alphorn, Gstaad BE
Tel 033 748 45 45,
Doubleroom from 252 Fr.

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Ski for 25 Swiss francs a day… in St Moritz

Cable Car up Corviglia from St Moritz BadSeems hardly credible, but a ski pass in the Upper Engadine throughout the season (20th October 2012 until 20th May 2013) costs only 25 Swiss francs a day, provided you stay at least two nights in a participating hotel. And the list of hotels is extensive (see here) – and it even includes the wonderful youth hostel in St Moritz plus a range of budget accommodation throughout the Upper Engadine.

The ski pass also includes unlimited use of public transport around the area, which includes the Corviglia, Corvatsch and Diavolezza pistes.

Expect more dazzling deals in Switzerland as the season approaches.

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St Moritz Youth Hostel

St Moritz has a glitzy reputation, but it also has some awesome skiing. The main resort area is Corviglia, which has 160km of piste between 1730 and 3057m, mostly cruisy reds with a respectable amount of off-piste, largely around Piz Nair, and the old Olympic downhill run from Corviglia itself. You can access the runs from Celerina, downtown St Moritz and the St Moritz Bad Signalbahn cable car. Across the Engadine valley is Corvatsch, with 130km of piste between 1797 and 3303m and the highest lift station in the Eastern Alps. Corvatsch is a short bus ride from St Moritz with access via the Surlej Corvatschbahn, or further up the valley at Sils, and for my money provides best runs in the valley. There are also a few runs up beyond Pontresina, on Lagalb and Diavolezza, which are definitetly worth a visit and take about 30 minutes or so to get to from St Moritz.

St Moritz Youth HostelSt Moritz is more than a ski and snowboard mecca, however. Cross-country skiing is at least as well catered for, with beautiful circuits all around the valley. Snowshoe walks, winter walks, toboggan runs, skating, curling and a range of other diversions ensure nobody is bored in st Moritz. Sadly there seems to be no public spa in the resort, although there clearly was one and it looks like one is planned, but the Kempinski has a spa open ot the public at a fee. Indeed many of the swanky hotels allow the hoi polloi to enjoy their facilities at rates that are not unduly extravagent.

Despite the stream of private jets flying into Samedan, the swanky hotels, the furs and the Michelin-starred restaurants, St Moritz caters well for those of more modest means. The railway line across the Albula pass is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and it is indeed spectacular. Once in the Engadine public transport is good, although you suspect run by those of the Italian-speaking community rather than the Schweizerdeutsch – Italian-speakers are indeed much in evidence, and the traditional Romansh tongue is limited to some place names and remote communities. Prices in bars and restaurants are generally-speaking the same as anywhere else in Switzerland, but you clearly have more top-end options – including what some consider the best mountain restaurant in the Alps, La Marmite at the Corviglia top station.

I’ve stayed before in St Moritz in low-end hotels and the prices, service and character have been good. However this Christmas we decided to stay as a family in the St Moritz Youth Hostel. it is located in St Moritz Bad, right on the edge of the town, but it is on the end of the #9 bus line, which also serves Signalbahn, St Moritz railway station and the stop for the Corviglia mountain railway, Schulhaus. As a result getting there from Basel was a doddle: direct train from Basel to Chur with a family carriage that includes an in-train playground; walk across the platform for the connecting train to St Moritz, and then pick up a bus from the same carriage to be dropped at the door of the Youth Hostel. Even with two kids and gear for four people, it really was very painless. Similarly getting to the slopes was also very easy, with Signalbahn being the most convenient stop five minutes away. In addition there were a couple of convivial bars near the stop for apres ski despite St Moritz Bad being a generally quieter community than St Moritz Dorf. It is also easy enough to get off at Signalbahn to switch to bus #1 or #6 for a 10 minute trip to Surlej Corvatschbahn.

The Youth Hostel itself is fabulous. A modern building, spotlessly clean with genuinely friendly staff and a range of sleeping options. We chose a four-person dorm for the four of us, and had a shared WC and shower opposite. The hostel boasts a games room, a children’s play room, a TV room, a boot room, a ski room and a good communal area with a roaring log fire.  Drinks are available from reception or in the restaurant at a reasonable price. Both breakfast and dinner were simple but adequate fare, the lack of choice in the main dinner course compensated for by the excellent salad bar.

The kids were booked into the Ski School St Moritz at Salastrains. This purpose-built ski school facility is part of the oldest ski school in the world. It isn’t particularly convenient for non-skiers though. You can walk or ski down from the top of Signalbahn or walk up (or take a horse drawn carriage) from the mountain railway at Chantarella. The school is very good, however, and the kids loved it.

I would recommend St Moritz to anyone who hasn’t been there before, and I think the choices we made in terms of transport, accomodation and ski school were perfect. It really is a most beautiful spot with a unique microclimate, fabulous winter sports activities and spectacular scenery. And if you like people-watching, there is nowhere quite like it.

One last tip, the Swiss Railways Snow’n’Rail scheme, if you have a half-price card, effectively gives you six days of skiing with the rail travel thrown in for free.

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