Licensed to thrill downhill
Winter wonderland ... Crans Montana action. Photo: Getty Images
In the alpine playground of Valais, Kerry van der Jagt discovers two alternatives to the more famous Swiss ski resorts.
At first the sled creaks in protest, but once the runners are free of the packed snow it thunders across the frigid landscape with me clinging on like Wile E. Coyote to an ACME rocket. I know enough about the laws of cartoon physics to know I'm going to end up folded like an accordion or flipped off a cliff.
A timber chalet emerges, half buried in snow with tendrils of smoke sneaking from its chimney.
Thankfully, neither happens. After experimenting with the steering (right foot in the snow for right turn, left foot for left turn) and brakes (both feet down) I gradually wrestle control of the missile, torpedoing around hairpin bends with Jack Frost hard on my heels and head torch carving a tunnel of light out of the darkness.
The magestic setting of Crans Montana. Photo: Getty Images
It's almost midnight in the Swiss Alps, near the ski resort town of Crans-Montana in the canton of Valais, and this magic carpet ride is our reward for an earlier two-hour snowshoe trek.
Our eight-person tour starts at dusk in the village of Aminona, where we meet Anne Rey, our ruddy-faced, sturdy-legged guide, who gears us up with snowshoes, walking poles and head torches.
As we plod past platoons of fir trees, the setting sun splashes fairy-floss clouds across the Rhone Valley. In the distance, the tips of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn catch the last rays of light. Once darkness falls, we navigate by the stars. Rey teaches us how to locate the North Star, Polaris, by tracing a straight line from the two bright pointer stars of the Big Dipper.
On the slopes at Riederalp's Aletsch Arena resort. Photo: Alamy
"Find Polaris and you'll always find north," says Rey, pointing to the saucepan-shaped constellation. "Polaris is like the hub of a wheel, holding position while the whole sky circles it," she says.
Rey stops often, to hand out shortbreads and hot chocolate from her bottomless backpack and to urge us on with the promise of an open fire and a hot meal. And she's not kidding. Eventually a timber chalet emerges, half buried in the snow with tendrils of smoke sneaking away from its chimney.
Colombire hamlet is a collection of chalets dedicated to preserving the cultural history of high-altitude cattle farming. For generations families lived in these simple wooden huts (called mayens in Swiss French), driving their cattle from village to village. Today, Relais de Colombire serves up mountain fare to famished skiers and hikers using local ingredients based on traditional recipes.
After consuming our body weight in macaroni and washing it down with Sierre wine, our host swaps our snowshoes for wooden sleds and sends us on our way. While the others compare our exit to James Bond, I'm Looney Tunes all the way.
The next morning, Agent 007 comes up in conversation again. Actor Roger Moore fell in love with Crans-Montana after shooting scenes in For Your Eyes Only in 1981 and now lives here. We've been told to keep our eyes out for him on the slopes or in any of the coffee shops around town.
Comprising two French-speaking towns, upmarket Crans and slightly more down-to-earth Montana, this south-facing resort is one of the sunniest in the Alps. Set on a high plateau overlooking the Rhone Valley, Crans-Montana offers something for everyone - broad slopes for beginners and intermediates, high-altitude glacier skiing for advanced skiers and plenty off-piste for adrenalin junkies - yet somehow flies below the international ski-scene radar.
It is a blue bird-day late in the season when I push off from the top of Cry d'Er, the gaping abyss of the Rhone Valley stretching below me. The huge white slope is empty under a cerulean sky. After a couple of tree runs, where the powder covers my boots and tickles my nose, I meet the others for coffee on the outdoor deck of Violettes restaurant. "We are surrounded by more than 50 mountains higher than 4000 metres," says local guide Eugenio, waving his arm in the direction of the saw-toothed Alps. For him, this is just another day in the office. For me, it's something close to nirvana.
Crans-Montana is also famous for its food. In true Swiss-French style there are more restaurants than lifts (25 v 21). Moore is said to prefer Pepinet, but we rendezvous at Chetzeron, a short ski from the Cry d'Er gondola. On the sunny terrace overlooking the mighty Matterhorn we enjoy a Valaisian platter of cheese and cured meat, mountain trout on potato waffle and poached pear with vanilla ice-cream. Afterwards, we stretch out on fur-lined deckchairs to enjoy a glass of La Marmotte, a boutique beer brewed in the village.
In the afternoon the hardcore head to La Toula for some serious off-piste skiing, while the rest of us tackle the leg-burning 12-kilometre run from the 2927-metre Plaine Morte back to the village. We finish the day with drinks at Zerodix, an apres-ski bar at the base of the main gondola. Zerodix, named after the Rotterdam dialling code 010, is Crans at its unorthodox best. While I stretch out on a red beanbag, the band plays Men at Work's Down Under and a Geneva banker dressed in an Elvis jumpsuit buys me a beer.
The next day fatigue hits like an anvil - skiing by day, snowshoeing by night and drinking with Elvis has flattened me. Fortunately, Crans-Montana has plenty of activities for non-skiers. In the morning I try dog-sledding, racing through the snow behind a string of bobbing tails, before heading to the ice-skating rink with a blanket and a hot chocolate. I'm content to watch as the children zip past like little steam engines, puffs of smoke coming from open mouths, beanie braids flying.
After lunch we take a train to Riederalp, a village in the ski resort of Aletsch Arena in the eastern Valais. After a 30-minute train ride from Sierre to Brig we board the little red Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn for the short but spectacular journey to Morel, where we catch a funicular to the ski slopes.
A Swiss Pass is a beautiful thing - travellers glide from plane to train to ski resort like skiers on a well-groomed run. Not only are the trains fast and efficient, the pass also includes boats and buses, plus free entry to 450 museums.
German-speaking Riederalp is everything you imagine a ski village to be: frosted gingerbread houses, dramatic peaks and a snow-covered 400-year-old church in the centre. With fewer than 200 permanent residents, it's not a shopping haunt or a place to be seen; you come to ski like the locals do and to enjoy the pristine surroundings of the World Heritage-listed Aletsch glacier.
The next morning I ski alongside a section of the 22-kilometre glacier on a wide, cruisy trail that takes me past Villa Cassel, the fairytale castle at the edge of the Aletsch forest, where it is said a young Winston Churchill came to write the biography of his father. From here it is easy to access the entire Aletsch Arena ski area, including Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp.
The great thing about Aletsch Arena is that most of the mountain is accessible to all levels of skier or snowboarder. Of the 104 kilometres of groomed pistes, about 80 per cent are classified as easy to medium (Fiescheralp is the only place with serious black runs). Add to this excellent signage, a fast and efficient lift system, ski-in, ski-out accommodation and no cars and you have the perfect family-friendly resort.
On my last evening I catch the chairlift to the glacier to enjoy the sunset and a guided hike. In the Swiss manner that I've grown to love, our guide conjures up a wheel of Hobel cheese (including a shoebox-size wooden cutter to slice it with) and a bottle of Valais wine. As darkness falls I look up at the glacier and back down at the village and wonder - where's a snow sled when you need one?
The writer was a guest of Switzerland Tourism and the Swiss Travel System.
Three for the family
1 Riederalp has been awarded the seal "Families Welcome" by Swiss Tourism. The Riederalp ski school offers a children's snow sports school, kids' club, day care and an afternoon entertainment program. skischule-riederalp.ch.
2 Swiss Ski School Montana offers four classes of kids' club — BibiClub (3-4 years), SnowliClub (4-6 years), MiniClub (7-11) and RidersClub (12-15). Montana's Snow Island is on the golf course and safely away from the main ski runs. essmontana.ch.
3 As well as snowshoeing tours, Colombire hamlet offers guided tours of its museum, cheesemaking demonstrations and Animal Footprint and Secret of Crystals tours. colombire.ch.
Swiss International Air Lines offers daily connections from Sydney and Melbourne to Zurich via Hong Kong or Bangkok in combination with airline partners. 1300 724 666, swiss.com. The ski resorts mentioned are about three hours' train ride from Zurich (allowing for connections).
An adult first-class, eight-day continuous Swiss Pass starts from 549 Swiss francs ($564) and offers unlimited travel on the Swiss Travel System network of trains, buses and boats. myswitzerland.com/rail.
Hotel Valaisia is within a short walk of the Montana gondola. 10-12 Route de Vermala, Crans-Montana. South-facing doubles start from 140 Swiss francs. +41 27 481 26 12, hotel-valaisia.ch.
Walliser Spycher is a family-run, ski-in, ski-out chalet in Riederalp offering great views. Double rooms start from 130 Swiss francs. +41 27 927 22 23, walliser-spycher.ch.
See + do
The night tour in snow shoes costs 100 Swiss francs for adults, 80 Swiss francs for children 12-15 years, which includes museum visit and raclette meal without drinks. Departs on selected dates during December to April. colombire.ch.