Skiing in the Alps
Four countries. Four key resorts. Four limbs in good working order and just a fortnight in which to experience them all. It is hard work but somebody’s got to do it! The Alps is one of the world’s greatest and oldest mountain ranges, stretching for 750 miles from France in the west, through Switzerland and Germany, taking in Italy in the south and Austria and Slovenia in the east. It is magnificent and little wonder that the word ‘alpine’ has become accepted terminology for anything to do with mountains, snow, winter sports and aprèsski.
My personal fascination and relationship with Alpine Europe is both long-standing and well practised. No matter which of the countries I have visited, including the ‘newer’ resorts in Slovenia, new to westerners, at least, although they are developing fast and keenly, their Alpine welcome and innate sense of being are exceedingly well-honed. Yet, despite the relative age of some of the key centres, they have also moved with the times and created some outstanding novelties that are set to tease and excite in equal measure.
Skiing is not the only attraction. Sometimes, as was proven a couple of seasons ago, when snow conditions and levels were at an all-time low, the Alpine resorts reacted speedily, partly to protect their enduring integrity but also to ensure that their booked-in visitors did not depart feeling short-changed and disillusioned. As a result, countless new endeavours and attractions were
created and, rather than the resorts suffering from climatic changes, vacationer numbers grew, as they realised that visiting alpine locations did not demand only an awareness of skiing.
Excitement is delivered by the truckload, whether on the slopes, in the shopping complexes, deep in the valleys, on ice-rinks and at ice-racing venues, or in the pubs, clubs, dining establishments, or even the accommodation. Yet, while the out-of-season breaks are now somewhat shorter than they used to be for local residents and the myriad helpers that provide support and services in-season, time is the precursor and it can pass as slowly, or as speedily, as you might wish it to, according to your personal taste. There are times, when I just want to lounge, not luge, and relaxation is as well considered in the alpine resorts, as expending energy is on the slopes.
In geological terms, the Alps was formed over hundreds of millennia, as the Eurasian and African tectonic plates clashed. Marine sedimentary rock strata were hefted skywards and the ‘fourthousanders’, a mountainous region in which several peaks are taller than 4,000 metres above sea level, were created. Mont Blanc (15,782ft) spans the Italian and Gallic borders and is the tallest. With a resident population of around 14m people, no less than 120m annual visitors make The Alps one of the most popular holiday
destinations in the world.
Let’s start the ball rolling with Switzerland. Always at the forefront of ecological awareness, one of the most interesting resorts that I have visited has been Saas Valley collection of (what they call) the ‘Free Republic of Holidays’. Taking in Saas-Fee, Saas-Grund, Saas-Almagell and Saas-Balen, the 14th Century sister resorts share an identical green ethos. The electricity supplies are clean and eco-friendly, the atmosphere is dust-free, the resorts are car-free locations and the entire package arises from the ‘Alliance dans les Alpes’, by which over 200 resorts have signed-up for a premise of sustainability. The Alliance actually dates back to 1996, although its relevance has never been more critical.
All residents/visitors are provided with a ‘Citizen’s Passport’, which grants them free rides on the local postal buses and all cableways, including the Metro Alpin mountain service. There is also free entry to the Adventure Forest rope course. A local TV service informs and entertains visitors, providing immediate weather reports. Prices have also been reduced on the 6- day destination pass, which promises 150 rather than just 100 kilometres of slopes, and it costs just £235. Even a week-long hiking pass is reduced to just £81, so value does look to be the key.
Naturally, Davos and St Moritz, both fairly close to the Italian border, are among the premier league of Swiss ski resorts, notable for their wondrous views, albeit with humungous price tags attached to them. Home to the International Olympic Committee,
Lausanne, at the north end of Lake Geneva, which is adjacent to the French border, can promise some of the finest ski slopes in the world. However, the town hosts brilliant arts and culture scenes, with a truly varied mix of evening entertainments and daylight diversions.
The Olympic Museum is fabulous and, as a means of providing some useful history of winter sports, a visit would be invaluable. From a personal standpoint, I have always loved the quality of the snow at Lausanne. Quite what causes it to be more pleasant to ski on than, let’s say, the slopes at Verbier, I am afraid that I cannot explain. However, the off-piste skiing is also eminently enjoyable and, if you are up to the challenge of crosscountry, there are some of the finest tracks and routes through the Sauvablein Forest that will maintain interest levels for hours and they are also eminently suitable for teaching the disciplines to children.
Opt for Verbier and you might be able to tackle a four-centre stay, taking in the resorts at La Tzoumaz, Nendaz and Veysonnaz. The impression of total Alpine immersion is omnipresent but visitors just let it waft over them and places like La Tzoumaz, which is part of the four Vallees that covers no less than 410km of pistes, served by 92 ski-lifts, is simply amazing. The entire area is geared towards family entertainment and there are plenty of training grounds and nursery slopes for beginners, although the more experienced can tackle anything up to and including the infamous black runs. Blessed with north-facing slopes that retain their firstclass quality throughout the season, while the snow might be less consistent on the south-facers, at least the near guarantee of glorious sunshine will have you returning home with an appropriately tanned visage, or anything else anatomical that you allow to take the rays.
Swiss ski facts:
Getting there: flying from any of London’s airports is possible. A typical Heathrow to Lake Lugano flight (Swiss) will cost around £243 return in early-December, although you will need to either book transport, or take advantage of group transport. Should you take a package deal (perhaps with Monarch) London Gatwick to Friedrichshafen, can cost as little as £82 return in mid to late-December. It is always going to be beneficial to book flights and accommodation together, as savings can be made, over what it might cost to turn-up and hope to obtain a room on spec.
Staying there: mention the word ‘ski’ and the licence to print money emerges. Some resorts are significantly better value for money (such as four Vallees, or Saas Valley) than others. However, accommodation is seldom cheap. Again package deals have the advantage. Seven nights for two in a selfcatering apartment in Saas Fee will cost from £609pp inc. return flights from Gatwick.
Getting about: as you might notice, a lot of Swiss resorts are trying to clean up their acts even more, which means that many of them are becoming car-free zones. Look out for this, as it might not always be advantageous. Where you need them, rental vehicles should be available. Otherwise, rely on good public transport, which is often included.