Wild luxury and excellent skiing: a winter in the Valais
Looking for pristine mountains, miles of wide, empty pistes and some of the most out-of-this-world luxury in the Alps? Choose to go VIP in the Swiss ski resort of Valais.
Skiing in Switzerland conjures visions of pristine mountains, steaming hot chocolate and some of the most exclusive luxury in the Alps. One region delivers all this in spades: Valais. As wild as it is luxurious, Valais is home to 45 mountains over 13,000ft. It is a region of rugged natural beauty, where it’s possible to ski for miles without seeing another soul, or walk for hours through forests to a backdrop of birdsong, branches bowing under their coating of snow.
The most notorious peak is the Matterhorn in Zermatt, a looming near-symmetrical mountain and one of the highest in the Alps. The surrounding 223-mile ski area is shared with Italy’s Breuil-Cervinia, and has a slope to suit every ability, including one of the country’s longest runs, the 15.5-mile Matterhorn glacier paradise. To explore the terrain from a traditional base check in to the boutique 30-room Omnia, built into the rock with extraordinary views from its spa.
Verbier, meanwhile, is part of the 4 Vallées ski area incorporating La Tzoumaz, Nendaz, Veysonnaz, Thyon and Bruson, and is perhaps best suited to the adventurous. There are some legendary off-piste routes including Mont-Gelé and Vallon d’Arbi. These two resorts draw clientele from all over the world, yet neither rests on their laurels. Last season, Verbier revamped its Mont-Gelé cable-car offering access to some fabulously challenging, itinerary (ungroomed) runs, while Zermatt is working on a cable-car link to Cervinia, set to open in 2021.
For something a little quieter and more remote, venture down the Rhône Valley to the picturesque Val d’Anniviers and the smaller, lesser-known resorts of Grimentz, Zinal, St-Luc, Chandolin and Vercorin. Here, the pace of life is slow, but no less luxurious. Combined, the Val d’Anniviers resorts offer 125 miles of pistes and are renowned for ski touring; book a bespoke experience through one of the numerous outfits offering excursions out into the surrounding wilderness, the untouched landscape will hold you spellbound. For some old-world charm, stay in Hotel Bella Tola in the village of St-Luc. This hotel has won more awards than it has rooms; where red velvet curtains meet four poster beds and candles burn in ornate silver brackets.
Another captivating Valais ski resort is Saas-Fee, a rustic, car-free village known by some as the pearl of the Alps, where winding streets are bordered by traditional Swiss chalets and cowsheds. With 13 peaks, all higher than 13,000ft, snow here (along with neighbouring Zermatt which is also car free) is reliable all year-round. Book lunch in the world’s highest revolving restaurant; sitting at 11,482ft, Allalin offers panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Finally, Crans-Montana sits on the south side of the Rhône Valley, opposite Val d’Anniviers and the 4 Vallées, with far-reaching views over mountain peaks that unfold from Bietschhorn to Mont Blanc. It’s known for it’s ski touring, snow park, and for the Alaîa Chalet, the first indoor and outdoor extreme sports centre in Switzerland.
Food and drink are also a huge draw in Valais, which is dotted with superb restaurants all in beautiful locations; Chez Vrony in Zermatt, for example, and Chetzeron in Crans-Montana. The region is renowned for its produce, from apricots and mountain-grown saffron to dried meats and Raclette du Valais AOP. It’s the biggest wine producing region in Switzerland. Bathed in sunshine, the charming Rhône Valley produces excellent wines such as Petite Arvine. Alternatively, be sure to try Abricotine, a liqueur made with Valaisan apricots; as well as a wonderfully smooth AOP pear brandy.
Wherever you ski, you’ll find something for every taste and budget — plus some of the most exclusive experiences in the world.
Four out-of-this-world winter experiences
1. Unplug in Zermatt
One of the most exciting events in the Alps, the acoustic music festival Zermatt Unplugged will run from 14-18 April 2020 in open-air venues around the mountains and resort. Artists who have appeared at past festivals include Paolo Nutini, Norah Jones, Michael Kiwanuka and Jack Savoretti. Accommodation packages are available in hotels including the five-star Mont Cervin Palace and the funky Backstage Hotel Vernissage.
2. Ski touring in Crans-Montana
Follow in the footsteps of the hardcore skiers who tackle the biennial Patrouille des Glaciers, the world’s toughest ski touring race from Zermatt to Verbier. Sunny Crans-Montana has created 25 miles of 15 dedicated ski touring routes with fabulous views of the Rhône Valley for everyone from beginners to experts.
3. Wine and dine Michelin-style
Valais has a staggering ten Michelin-starred restaurants. Take After Seven in Zermatt, for example; quite possible the only fine-dining establishment where you can enjoy a three-course meal to the backdrop of a film. Alternatively, try Fletschhorn in Saas-Fee, a cabin restaurant serving up exquisite traditional cuisine from the area.
4. Stay in an eco-pod
Go low-impact and stay in a luxury geodesic pod 4,600ft up the mountainside at Les Cerniers, at the foot of the Dents-du-Midi mountain range and with uninterrupted views of Lake Geneva. The 15-pod hotel features a gastronomic restaurant that uses only locally sourced food. Activities include skiing on four miles of private runs, ski touring and snowshoeing.
To find out more, visit visitvalais.ch
Getting there and around: Known as The Skiers Airline, SWISS operates up to 180 weekly flights to Zürich and Geneva from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin. Fares start from £51 one-way and the carrier also offers free ski carriage. The easiest way to get around is by train; from Zürich to Lucerne takes 45 minutes, while Arosa Lenzerheide takes a little over two hours. If you’re travelling to Valais, you’ll want to fly into Geneva, while the Bernese Oberland sits between the two and from both airports, the journey will around two hours.
When to go: Switzerland’s winter season runs from December until April, although it’s possible to ski on glaciers such as Glacier des Diablerets in the Bernese Oberland from October until May, and all year on Saas-Fee and Zermatt in Valais.
To find out more, visit myswitzerland.com
Published in the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Winter Sports guide 2019
Sign up to the National Geographic Traveller (UK) newsletter and follow on social media: