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?
My private paradise is in a little corner of Switzerland known as Chablais. It straddles the Swiss cantons of Vaud and Valais, and a part of France, at the point where the Alps meet Lake Geneva, a few miles from Montreux.
At the heart of this area is the sleepy town of Aigle, surrounded by vineyards that make some of the best wines in all of Switzerland. Aigle is also the home of the International Cycling Union (Union Cycliste Internationale), is a major stop on the trains that run from Geneva Airport to Brig and has a prominent castle, but for skiers and snowboarders Aigle is noteworthy because it lies at the nexus of a number of railways and roads that take you to some of the best winter sports resorts in the Alps and is the gateway to the Vaud Alps.
From Aigle direct trains run to the resorts of Leysin, Les Diablerets and Les Portes du Soleil. Villars and Torgon are only half an hour away by bus. With only one change of train, it is also an easy day trip to Verbier in the Four Valleys, Les Marécottes and several resorts in Gstaad Mountain Rides (including Rougemont and Château-d’Oex). From Les Diablerets a courtesy bus runs to Glacier 3000 (Glacier des Diablerets).
Les Diablerets was in the papers for all the wrong reasons this week, with news of a 21yo English skier dying when he hit a tree on the edge of the Vers-l’Eglise piste, a relatively straight-forward red run. I would count Les Diablerets and the connected resort of Villars as being amongst the safest resorts in the Alps, and I can only imagine that this was a freakish accident. It’s always tragic to hear of a skiing fatality, and this was a slope I was skiing on only last week when conditions seemed near perfect.
Vilars was also in the news this week, when the Swiss skier, Fanny Smith, gained a bronze medal in Skicross. Fanny has won nearly everything there is to win in skicross, but an Olympic medal has eluded her until now. Despite her English-sounding name – she was born to an American father and English mother – Fanny skis for Switzerland, was born in Aigle and brought up in Villars where she no doubt honed her skicross skills.
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.
We love visiting resorts with spas, the best of which is probably Leukerbad, but there is plenty of choice. Villars opened a new spa this year.
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.