|Skiing and winter sports in Switzerland|
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It goes without saying that Switzerland is one of the best winter sports destinations in the world. Ski resorts of all grades, facilities, atmospheres and costs cover the country. The best-known, such as Zermatt, Wengen, Crans-Montana, Verbier, St Moritz, Davos and Klosters, need no introduction, but although they’re the best equipped they’re far from the end of the story. It’s quite possible – especially for first-timers or relative novices – that less renowned resorts will turn out to be more rewarding; cheaper and less crowded, to start with, but also with a greater emphasis on the personal touch, if you’re looking for lessons, and less of a daunting competitive edge as well. The invaluable Good Skiing and Snowboarding Guide, edited by Peter Hardy and Felice Eyston (Which Books, UK) and updated annually, is highly recommended.
These days you can often get better value for money skiing in Switzerland than in France or Italy. The general tenor of Swiss ski resorts is much more cosy and village-based than elsewhere, and although Switzerland is only now starting to catch up on investment in cable-cars and gondolas to ease peak-time queues, the country’s resorts benefit from peaceful, mostly entirely natural Alpine runs set against some of the greatest mountain vistas to be seen anywhere.
Skiing is generally split into two varieties. Alpine or downhill skiing (skifahren, ski alpin, sci) gets all the glamour, and tends to be most expensive, while Nordic or cross-country skiing (Ski Langlauf, Ski Wandern; ski de fond, ski nordique; sci di fondo) is seen as much harder work for much less thrill. However, cross-country eliminates all the queues, most of the expensive equipment and all the hassle, it allows you to get way out into the countryside, and – for your body – is much less punishing and a much better workout. Prepared trails, known as Loipen or loipes, are laid on signposted routes fanning out from most resorts, with the cream of the crop in the Engadine Valley in Graubünden. The Swiss Ski Federation has plenty of information in English on cross-country skiing in Switzerland, and can be contacted at Haus des Skisports, Worbstrasse 52, Postfach 478, CH-3074 Muri bei Bern (031/950 61 11). Snowboarding is massively popular throughout the country.
The winter season runs from December to April with the busiest times clustered together in early January and mid-February: these peak times are when you’ll pay most for ski passes and accommodation. The last week of March and first week of April are when you can take advantage of late snow and snap up deals on resort accommodation, since winter skiing is finished across the board by mid-April – though at altitudes above 2000 or 2500m the season extends from November to May. Year-round summer skiing is possible in a few resorts on glaciers at around 3000m.
Ski passes vary hugely in price, but a rough average is around Fr.40–60 per day, decreasing for longer periods. Use of buses in and around resorts is usually included. You can always rent any amount of equipment after you arrive at a resort: one day’s downhill gear is approximately Fr.45–50, cross-country gear around Fr.20–25. InterSport (www.rentasport.ch) and SwissRent (www.swissrent.com) have outlets in virtually every resort in the country, and both also allow you to reserve equipment via the Internet before you leave home.
If you’re an absolute beginner, all Swiss resorts have ski schools attached, where you can, in most cases, just turn up and pay for a day’s or a week’s tuition in a group or one-to-one. Prices vary dramatically, from Fr.150 to Fr.200 for five mornings’ tuition; for more information, contact the Swiss Ski School Federation, Oberalpstrasse, CH-6490 Andermatt (041/887 12 40, fax 887 13 69). Joining a ski club at home gives you access to plenty of information and impartial recommendations for resorts around Switzerland and the rest of the world that can be geared to your particular needs. Most can also provide details of tour operators which concentrate on ski- or winter-packages (or occasionally may offer such packages themselves). In the UK, contact the Ski Club of Great Britain, The White House, 57–63 Church Rd, London SW19 5SB (020/8410 2000, fax 8410 2001, www.skiclub.co.uk) – their Web site is particularly impressive.
There’s any number of more or less crazed minor sports which tag along on the heels of skiing and snowboarding. Mono-skiing, like head-on snowboarding, uses a single extra-wide ski into which both feet are strapped side by side. Ski-joring, where you’re pulled along by galloping horses, is one of the more exhilarating thrills in the snow, as is snow-biking or snow-bobbing – essentially cycling on snow. Tobogganing or sledding is hugely popular, and many places have pistes reserved for it; bobsleighing (for instance at St Moritz’s death-defying Cresta Run), is the pro’s version, while luge – a one-person tea-tray, on which you shoot feet-first down a bob-run – is for nutters. If you’re getting bored with all those black runs, try heli-skiing, where you pay a helicopter pilot to dump you in an inaccessible spot at 4000m and fly off, or ski hang-gliding, where you float to earth out of an aeroplane, and then ski back to the pub. Zorbing, which can count as a winter or a summer “sport”, has gained new devotees in the classier “been-there done-that” resorts of the Valais in particular, and involves being strapped immobile inside a giant plastic sphere, arms and legs spread, and then rolled down a mountainside.
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