Verbier in renewed Covid scare

Verbier seen from the gondola to Les Ruinettes 8th December 2020.
Verbier today.

Verbier, along with Ischgl, is widely cited as one of the super-spreader centres from the early stages of the Covid pandemic. And it is getting bad press again. Tages Anzeiger published this picture of a melee at the Le Châble valley station on Saturday.

Pandemonium at Le Châble, 5th December 2020.
Melee on Saturday. Photo: Twitter

Verbier has been open at the weekend for most of November but with very limited skiing. Half of the town was still closed when I visited a few weeks ago. Moving into December, a lot of terrain was opened up for the first weekend of the month, and the resort kept open 30km of piste on weekdays ahead of the full opening of the resort next weekend. I think the resort was simply unprepared for the demand, and I’m pleased to say that on my visit today, there was an orderly, fast-moving and relatively well social-distanced queue.

Much improved Covid control at Le Châble, 8th December 2020.
More orderly queues today with stewards reminding people of the 1.5m distance rule.

Normally I would expect mid-week skiing this time of the year to be relatively light, but I think two things are contributing to the high volumes, based on conversations I have had in the queues and on the lifts.

Firstly, French and Italian visitors are significantly up. There are a number of high altitude French and Italian resorts that would normally be open, so I guess that is part of why there is this increase. All trains between Italy and Switzerland are due to be cancelled indefinitely, but the people I spoke to had all driven.

The Tages Anzeiger article is in German and behind a paywall, but it says that there were over 20,000 tourists in town at the weekend with traffic jams normally only associated with high season. As many as half of the total of 50,000 guest beds in town are likely to have been occupied, an unheard of situation at this time of the year. The paper quotes Ami Oreiller from Hotel Les Chamois who says: “Last Thursday our hotel was still half empty, on Friday the phone rang non-stop , and on Saturday the house was full. It is mainly French who come.”

The second major reason for the uptick is that there is a fear that resorts will get closed down sooner or later, and some people are making the most of the opportunity to ski while they can. This is true of both locals from the Lake Geneva and Rhone valley regions, and foreigners, particularly those with chalets in Verbier.

The British make up a large proportion of the tourist trade in Verbier – at least one in five skiers is likely to be British in peak season. Tages Anzeiger estimates that the resident Brits have virtually doubled from the 8,000 who would normally be in Verbier at this time of year. Christmas and New Year bookings are as vibrant as ever. I spoke to some Brits over for a ski instructor training course and they were keen to get the training in while they could.

What hangs over everything is the uncertainty around how the season will develop. Germany, Italy and France had hoped Switzerland would fall in line with their approach and close their resorts until next year, but the Swiss resisted. In theory, the Swiss resorts are supposed to be open only to Swiss residents over the holiday season, but that is unlikely to be policed. Switzerland is also a federal republic and cantons are following different rules. Although Valais and Vaud have closed restaurants, the Bernese Oberland hasn’t. Graubünden is planning to perform mass testing of its residents to protect the ski industry in places like St Moritz and Davos, but to date other cantons only test people who show Covid symptoms.

The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.
The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.

As for the skiing at this time, it is pretty good. On the slopes there are no appreciable queues and the slopes are busy but not excessively so. Today is Immaculate Conception Day in Valais, a public holiday, so that certainly made it busier than it will be tomorrow. Runs were open below Chassure, Attelas and Fontalet down to Les Ruinettes, and although runs below Les Ruinettes to Verbier weren’t technically open, there was sufficient snow cover for people to ski back down to Verbier. The snow depth was good on piste and, following recent snowfall, off-piste wasn’t too tracked out. The Lac des Vaux runs are a lot nicer than they were when they were the only runs open a month ago. Being December, much of the skiing is in shadow. Some mountain restaurants and bars are open for take-away, including alcoholic beverages, but there is no seating. That is due to change next week when Valais relaxes its rules for bars and restaurants.

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Best Swiss Winter Sports Hotels

Switzerland has some of the best winter sports hotels in the world. With Covid, however, many cantons have closed restaurants and bars except those associated with hotels, and these are only open for residents. Now is perhaps a good time to figure out where are some of the best places to stay with full restaurant and bar service and things to do off the slopes, given that there could be various restrictions yet to come.

Hotel Kempinski in St Moritz

Much as I haven’t eaten in many of the restaurants listed in my previous post, I haven’t stayed in enough hotels in Switzerland to tell you which are the best for winter sports from first hand experience.

However, as is the case with Gault & Millau when it comes to the rating restaurants with the best food in Switzerland, the influential Zurich newspaper, Tages-Anzeiger, annually surveys which are the best 3, 4 and 5 star hotels in Switzerland for winter sports visitors.

The resulting lists are behind a paywall, but I shared the lists from 10 years ago on my “Where to Stay” page at the Swiss Winter Sports web site. Last week the newspaper published their latest annual survey (now up from the top 15 in each category to the top 25) and here are some of the best value choices, based on two people sharing:

For 3 star hotels, the Revier Mountain Lodge (Swiss Lodge) in both Adelboden and Lenzerheide are an impressively affordable at SFr 99 per person per night, although breakfast is an extra SFr 18 and dinner is not included. 3 star hotels offering full board at less than SFr 200 per person per night include the #1 pick Spitzhorn in Saanen (Gstaad), Sporthotel in Pontresina, Kernen in Schönried (Gstaad), Spescha in Lenzerheide and Des Alpes in Flims.

Amongst highly ranked 4 star hotels, there are some that come in cheaper than many 3 star establishments, notably the Ameron Swiss Mountain Hotel in Davos, at SFr 170, followed by the Radisson Blu Hotel Reussen in Andermatt at SFr 190, both full board.

The Gstaad Palace dominates the village of Gstaad.

Prices ratchet up quite a bit for the 5 star hotels. However the Lenkerhof Gourmet Spa Resort in Lenk, the Chalet Royalp Hotel & Spa in Villars, the Capra Saas-Fee and the Cervo Zermatt, appear to offer full board mid-season for less than SFr 400 per person per night. The famous Badrutt’s Palace seemed to offer the lowest prices in St Moritz at SFr 495 per night. Gstaad‘s top hotels were even more expensive, but there are options on a lesser budget in both St Moritz and Gstaad.

Schönried gives good access to the best slopes of Gstaad Mountain Rides.

The prices I quoted are taken from Tages-Anzeiger. I did a spot check and they seemed to be broadly correct, but do check at the hotel itself, the Swiss Tourist Board, Bookings.com, TripAdvisor or some other aggregator. Given the Covid situation, you might find some bargains are to be had – I certainly have so far this season.

You may well ask what the different star ratings represent and how durable the Tages-Anzeiger ranking system is by comparing the list of ten years ago with the latest.

Not surprisingly, it was Switzerland who first introduced an independent hotel classification in 1979. In 2010 this became the European Hotelstars .Union, and its classification has been adopted by most Alpine hotels (but not those in France). The full list of criteria is here. However you might want to know what the minimum criteria would be for a hotel selected by Tages-Anzeiger (i.e. three stars):

  • Reception opened 14 hours, accessible by phone 24 hours from inside and outside, bilingual staff
  • Lounge suite at the reception, luggage service on demand
  • Beverage offer in the room
  • Telephone in the room
  • hair-dryer, cleansing tissue
  • Dressing mirror, adequate place or rack to put the luggage/suitcase
  • Sewing kit, shoe polish utensils, laundry and ironing service
  • Additional pillow and additional blanket on demand
  • Systematic complaint management system

For many people a one star hotel will offer everything they want, such as half-board, TV, ensuite bathroom, daily room cleaning and towels. Indeed, I would happily recommend most hostels and many no star hotels in Switzerland to skiers and snowboarders based on my own experience. On the whole Switzerland is an orderly, clean and safe country and I have found even the most basic hostel in the country better than the best hostel I have stayed in elsewhere. Hostels usually offer full board, provide a bar service and have a range of accommodation, – from dormitories to en-suite. Indeed, normally you might prefer a ski-in, ski-out hostel to luxury accommodation where you would need a hotel transfer to get to the slopes. However many of the budget hotels do not offer a dinner or bar service at this time, and many hostels will not be offering shared accommodation any time soon.

It is difficult maintaining a web site dedicated to Swiss winter sports when it is impossible to visit every resort, hotel and restaurant every year and anecdotal information can be inconsistent, so it is useful to have independent input. One question, however, is whether the information is largely consistent from one year to the next and not faddish like many sources. I also wondered whether it is true that the most highly rated establishments tend to maintain more consistent standards over time. If I am right, the best Swiss winter sports hotels in Tages-Anzeiger will have changed less amongst 5 star than 4 and 3 star hotels, comparing 2010 to 2020 and 2020 to last year. Let’s see how it goes.

Well, all but two of the 15 top 5 star hotels in 2010 are in in the top 25 for 2020. The two that have dropped out have been rebranded and appear to be under new ownership, and the two that snuck in to replace them were ranked 23rd and 24th. The ones that dropped out still get good reviews online, but clearly are rebuilding their reputations. The top 10 are the same as last year, with some small differences in ranking. Interestingly, the W in Verbier, which the Telegraph rated 9/10, does not make the top 25 – which may be because the Tages-Anzeiger list addresses Swiss rather than UK tastes.

When it comes to 4 star hotels, only 7 that were in the top 15 are still in the top 15, 10 years later. All the others had dropped out of top 25 altogether. There have been some changes of ownership, but the list for 2020 has a different feel. However only 2 have dropped out from the top 10 of last year, to 14 and 15th places. There are 4 new entrants from last year, 2 of which made it straight into the top 15.

For the 3 star hotels, 6 have retained a place in the top 15, and 9 in the top 25. Only 1 has dropped out of the top 10, down to 16th. There were 5 new entrants, none higher than 17th place.

So it is not very scientific, but it does look like 5 star hotels have more durability than 4 or 3 star hotels but no real difference between 3 and 4 star hotels in terms of durability of reputation.

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Best restaurants in Zermatt

Diners at the restaurant at Matterhorn Glacier Palace.
The restaurant at Matterhorn Glacier Palace has great views, but the toilets are not free!

The winter season officially opens in Zermatt on 5th December with lifts on the Rothorn and Gornergrat adding to the ski area already open above Furgg.

Sadly the mountain restaurants won’t open fully until 13th December because of covid restrictions, but six mountain restaurants are offering a take-away service during this period. Annoyingly all the seats have also been removed up the mountains, so you need to find a nice rock to sit on to enjoy your fare. My experience so far during this lockdown period is alcohol is not generally served as part of the take-way service.

Socially distanced tables at Trockener Steg under the Matterhorn.
Restaurant at Trockener Steg before lockdown, but with socially distanced tables.

When the restaurants do open up, Zermatt probably offers the best culinary options in the Alps – both on the slopes and in the town. Gault Millau, who rate the best culinary experiences in Switzerland identified 15 in Zermatt out of 830 throughout Switzerland to deserve special note.

The marking system is as follows:
17 points: mark for the best quality and high consistency
16 and 15 points: high level of the culinary arts and quality
14 and 13 points: very good cuisine and offering much more than everyday dining
12 points: conventional, good cuisine without special ambitions

The restaurants are:

PointsName of the restaurants
17After Seven (Backstage Hotel)
17Ristorante Capri (Mont Cervin Palace)
16Alpine Gourmet Prato Borni (Grand Hotel Zermatterhof)
15The Omnia
14Chez Heini
14Chez Vrony
14China Garden
14Findlerhof bei Franz und Heidi
14Grill le Cervin (Mont Cervin Palace)
14Restaurant Saveurs (Chalet Hotel Schönegg)
14Zum See bei Max und Greti
13Lusi Brasserie & Lounge (Grand Hotel Zermatterhof)
13Myoko
13Restaurant Sonnmatten
13Restaurant 1818
Simon Hughes enjoying the fabulous fish stew at Chalet Etoile.

Not included in the list, of course, are the restaurants on the Cervinia side – sadly off-limits for the time being due to covid. At the web site, SwissWinterSports.co.uk, I opine that “the small serving of fish soup in Chalet Etoile off Plain Maison in Cervinia is not only an inexpensive and filling repast, it is probably the best fish soup you will experience anywhere in the world, at least above 2000m.” 

So now you know.

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Covid-19 impact on Skiing and Snowboarding

Verbier has one run open.

Most Alpine resorts are holding fire on when, and whether, to begin the 2020/21 ski season. Currently the only ski resorts with unrestricted public access are in Switzerland, but most resorts still seem to be planning to open in December.

Ski instructor at Zermatt

There is no consensus on which measures ski resorts should take to avoid the outbreaks that occurred last season, but it is likely that it will be local Covid-19 regulations that dictate the viability of ski resort openings and operation and – critically – the ability of people from outside the area to be allowed to visit. Unfortunately the promising trials of vaccines to prevent Covid-19 look to arrive too late to impact on the 2020/21 season – indeed they might embolden some authorities to increase restrictions in the short-term. At this time it is not altogether certain that the authorities won’t order ski resorts to close if they are seen to be responsible again for spreading the virus.

So what is the situation in Switzerland? I have been in the country for some weeks now, and have visited Zermatt both before and after a local lockdown was introduced, and Verbier afterwards. This what I learned.

Covid-19 safeguards in Verbier

The rate of infection with Covid-19 in Switzerland is the highest of the Alpine nations, and higher than that of most countries where visitors to Switzerland come from. As a result Switzerland decided to dump their quarantine requirements for visitors from most countries, including the UK. Most cantons had not previously imposed stringent lockdowns, but that has since changed.

The canton of Valais in Switzerland is home to some of the world’s leading ski resorts, including Saas-Fee, Zermatt and Verbier. These resorts, alongside Engelberg and Glacier3000, have begun their winter season, albeit only for selected runs above the snowline.

The recent good weather means the snowline may recede in the next week or so, which could jeopardise Verbier’s limited opening – less so those resorts with runs on the glaciers. However the resorts suffered a bigger blow when the Valais cantonal authorities declared – in the face of accelerating Covid-19 infections – that all restaurants and bars, including those in the mountains, must shut from 10pm on 6th November. Hotels, however, may remain open for business.

Cable Car Station in Zermatt
Cable car to Furi from Zermatt

Before the lockdown Zermatt had already required customers to wear a mask on all lifts, including T-bars, and inside all facilities except when sitting down to eat or drink. It seemed to be working and was enforced, although some people seemed to think that as long as the mask covered their mouth, they were adhering to the requirements. Social distancing was not followed in settings where people were wearing a mask, and the lifts were all working with pre-Covid capacities in place. in the summer I had seen that some resorts, such as Champéry, restricted numbers on lifts – but this does not seem to be the case for the winter season.

Lift queue at Verbier
Lac des Vaux chairlift, Verbier

Verbier seemed to be operating along broadly similar lines. On the Lac des Vaux chairlift the staff were insisting suitable face coverings were used, handing out disposable masks to people who were deemed to be wearing unsuitable coverings, such as a scarf. There was no attempt to apply social distancing on the lifts, although the 1.5m rule seemed to apply in other indoor settings.

Eating at Trockener Steg under the Matterhorn

Mountain restaurants on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ( 3883m ) and at Trockener Steg ( 2939m ) were open until the lockdown and following reasonably effective-looking controls. The border with Italy was closed so it was not possible to visit the wonderful Chalet Etoile, and it will be a concern for many visitors to Zermatt if the world-famous mountain restaurants are not open in peak season.

Mountain restaurant at Attelas following contanonal covid restrictions

By the time I got to Verbier (where I stayed at the excellent Hotel Bristol), lockdown was in effect and the mountain restaurants only provided a fairly basic take-away menu. They had also removed all of the access to seating inside or outside. With the fine weather that wasn’t too much of a problem.

Lunch break at Attelas, Verbier

Being early season most bars and restaurants are not yet ordinarily open in either Zermatt or Verbier. Some hotels and restaurants that have opened early are providing take-away menus, and can still provide restaurant facilities to residents if they have a restaurant on site. There is a kebab takeaway in Zermatt, which when I visited had run out of kebab, and a good takeaway just off the roundabout in Verbier, which also serves beer.

One of the most popular bars in Zermatt is Papperla, and it was open for business when I was there, albeit with severe restrictions on numbers. At 10pm it was due to close for the duration of the lockdown. I turned up at 9pm but wasn’t allowed in because of restrictions on numbers. However Yves, a genial skier from Lausanne on an outing with his football team, invited me to join his party on the deck. As we all downed Jager bombs, I asked him what he would be doing for après ski now. “We have some beers from the Spar and will party in our hotel rooms”, he said, “Do you want to come?”. I declined.

Papperla bar, Zermatt

As Yves and his friends were shooed from the bar I asked Charlotte, who works as a barmaid at Papperla, what would happen to her now. She shrugged. “I guess I get to ski more”.

Less sanguine was Isabelle from the Hotel Adonis where I was staying in Zermatt. She glumly told me that 80% of the guests due to stay for the weekend had cancelled once the new Valais restrictions were announced. “Do you think everything will be back to normal by next summer?”, she asked, hopefully.

It strikes me that the Swiss resorts are gambling that the measures that the authorities have taken will allow them to exit lockdown before the ski season gets going in earnest, and that the measures they have taken within the resorts will avoid them from once again being centres of the spread of infection. Only time will tell.

La Tzoumaz
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