A glittering Alpine peak show fills the horizon before me.
This mountain spectacular, like a ribbon of crushed diamonds with Mont Blanc and The Matterhorn among many majestic silhouettes, is often hailed as the most beautiful panorama in the Alps.
Welcome to Crans-Montana, the resort in southern Switzerland’s Valais canton, where the pristine big picture is always on display.
A perfect winter playground for sporty and well-being sorts, it offers myriad ways for all abilities to seize the snowy high ground.
For skiers, boarders and bikers the challenging, varied slopes and parks present a feast of adrenalin hits from sun rise to after dark.
Hikers can tone up and calm down snowshoeing along crisp white paths fringed by a tracery of conifers.
But if a sledge takes your fancy, there’s the rush of whooshing down some hairpin bends on a wooden luge.
Snow Island, the winter family hot spot, is just a stroll from the centre offering snowtubing, button lifts and a magic carpet for newbie skiers and sledgers.
Gently undulating snow trails for cross country fans also circle the area winding past frozen lakes. And should that fresh air become too much the Moubra tennis centre features one of the funkiest climbing walls anywhere.
Activities deserve rewards and here they are top quality. The resort is home to artisan chocolate brand David L’Instant Chocolat and its award-winning creator David Pasquiet whose shop is an array of rainbow coloured confections and one staggering chocolate reindeer sculpture.
And, because beneath the snow this is also fine wine country with more than 50 grape varieties, excellent glasses of sparkling whites and rich reds are not to be missed especially after a turn or two on the outdoor ice rink.
Set at 5,000 ft (1,500m), the French-speaking, south-facing Crans-Montana stretches its super sunny way on a plateau along the slopes of Mount Bonvin with the crown of the mighty Plaine Morte Glacier 10,000 ft (3,000m) above and below the river Rhône.
The result of two villages uniting, it first found fame as a place for health cures and clinics thanks to its pure air, and then as a favourite of the luxury ski set – Bond star Sir Roger Moore was a long-time resident.
Its steep and twisting terrains have also made it a fixture on the international ski circuit, hosting a notoriously tough women’s World Cup downhill race every winter.
A long, black, mogul-strewn beast plunging down from Plaine Morte is renowned for requiring epic stamina, but there are plenty of cruisy blue and red runs too.
Today the centre is more a town with many faces than a standard resort where local life flourishes with a vibrant craft food and drinks scene, arts and music festivals and a multitude of fitness get-togethers.
Visitors are never short of melting moments, and that is not just because of the cheese-based fondue and raclette national dishes on every menu.
Look at the fairy light decorations, even on the church tower, that twinkle on long after Christmas and you have a clue to the friendliness and joie-de-vivre bubbling here.
It’s very do-able too as a short break from the UK with the two-hour flight to Geneva followed by a train journey that tracks the vast lake’s shores and then a 20-minute funicular ride up to the town – both treats in themselves.
My hotel, the Arenas Resort & Spa Valaisia, was a smart choice. Close to both centres and in its own grounds, it is just a couple of minutes’ walk from the one of the ski lifts. Wellness is done well here with roomy beds and balconies, plus a salt water pool, spa and a cool, old school-style bar.
I took my first snow-shoeing steps in the Ski Rando Parc. The massive terrain of 13 climbing and touring trails ranges from La X’trème, a nine-hour, 22-mile (34.7km) work-out scaling 10,000 ft (3.059m,) to my beginners path, the Petit Loup, a slo-snow adventure laced with mother Nature that took me up 1,000ft (325m) over two miles (2.9km).
The ‘shoes’, light, slip-on frames with fasteners, were ezeey-peezy to crunch along on, leaving me free to embrace the wild and far-reaching views – 19 peaks at least – while my guide Fanny Ambaz and her magnificent white shepherd dog Luna, both experts too in mountain rescue, led the way.
Taking a break with sips of Fanny’s special bracing brew of medicinal thyme, lemon verbena and mountain vetch flowers, I searched the sky for sights of a bearded vulture, the region’s iconic raptor.
For centuries the subject of legend and fearful superstition, the rare bird has now been successfully reintroduced after persecution drove it almost to extinction.
My path ended at Colombire, a hamlet of mayens, traditional wooden Alpine dwellings housing folk, their livestock and stores. Now a rural museum, Colombire is powerful reminder of how tough life was for herders among the pastures.
Hot vegetable soup at the nearby Relais restaurant set me up for my next new experience, sledging, and I hopped on for the ride back down feeling very confident, which in hindsight was a bit misplaced.
The authentic wooden luge (none of those plastic trays) felt fine at first and the sloping path seemed wide enough. But the hand and rope steering was trickier than it appeared and my inner rock wall hugger took control.
My instinct to steer away from the edge and brake at every turn ended in my grinding to a halt. But frustration eventually got the better of fear and I let the luge have its way. Resisting the desire to dig in my heels, suddenly I realised we were gliding freely, it was brilliant but then all too quickly we were back in town.
Wine tasting here also offers something unexpectedly special, not least because Swiss wine is excellent but locals soak up 98 percent of it so it’s little known in the UK.
Crans-Montana winery La Cave Romaine and maker Joël Briquet are renowned for the fine whites and reds they produce with grapes such as Cornalin, the distinguished red variety common to the region.
Tastings here are definitely recommended and the subtly fizzy Fendant and wonderfully smokey L’Etreinte were my favourites but other corkers included a dark, chocolatey Syrah and Valais native, La Petite Arvine, its light dryness perfect as an aperitif.
All paired well too with the meal of raclette presented with great ceremony that followed. This dish, so close to Swiss hearts and stomachs, requires the skilled grilling and slicing of rounds of semi-hard cow’s milk cheese heated to just the right temperature for eating (the clever chef bit), then served in a succession of bite-sized portions with sides of potatoes and pickles.
In another off-the-snow grid visit with guide and wine expert Christine Antille Emery I went deeper into the Valais, visiting the neighbouring village of Lens whose surrounding hills are wonderful for sunset watching.
Overlooked by a 92ft bronze Christ statue and towering church, the town is fine example of changing times in the Valais from its new Alaïa Chalet indoor and outdoor extreme sports complex to the patchwork of narrow streets and traditionally carved wooden houses conjuring life dominated by the seasons and the church in centuries past.
To get a deeper sense of the place there is the Valaisan des Bisses museum charting rural life and, for private groups wanting to time travel, in the recently restored 17th century Maison de Chèvres, where chef Benjamin Meng recreates Valais dishes of yesteryear on a log burning stove – the cake made from rye bread and marinated in red wine is a speciality.
On my return to Crans-Montana that evening I joined cheering crowds, oblivious to the biting cold, to marvel at the ski pros, who included Britain’s Dave Ryding, powering down one very steep and icy slope in an exhibition slalom race staged by the International Ski Federation (FIS).
The slopes’ magic – who can resist it? Well not me and on my last day the pulling power was too much. I had to try a run before I left.
Under an azure blue sky and guided by instructor Nicola Gerosa, we took a sweeping blue-red piste from the Cry d’Er (7,437 ft) down to the gondola at Arnouva (5,639 ft).
Discovering downhill again in this magnificent setting gave me such a sense of achievement I almost felt like ringing a few cowbells. It was all such fun. Pay a visit to Crans-Montana and you’ll find the same too.
CRANS-MONTANA: All you need to know
Switzerland Tourism:For more information visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call Switzerland Travel Centre on the International freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail, for information [email protected]; for packages, trains and air tickets [email protected].
Swiss International Air Lines
SWISS offers more than 150 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick (seasonal), Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh to Zurich, Geneva or Sion (seasonal).
One way fares start from £74 to Zurich and £83 to Geneva including all taxes, fees and surcharges, one piece of hold and hand luggage.
SWISS are also happy to transport your first set of ski or snowboard equipment and boots free of charge in addition to your standard free baggage allowance subject to availability. (excluding hand luggage only fares)
For more information visit swiss.com or call 0345 601 0956
Swiss Travel System
The Swiss Travel System provides a range of exclusive travel passes and other tickets for visitors from abroad.
The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat Swiss Travel System network. This pass also covers scenic routes and local trams and buses in around 90 towns and cities. The Swiss Travel Pass also includes the Swiss Museum Pass, allowing you free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices from £185 for 3 days in second class.
For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.
UK Tour Operators and agents with holidays available to Crans-Montana
www.luxurychaletbook.com www.powderwhite.com www.oxfordski.com www.skisolutions.com www.sno.co.uk www.skiclub.co.uk www.ski-i.com www.skisafari.com www.skiweekends.com
Crans Montana at a glance
· 140 km of pistes
· Several World Cup runs
· 61 different ski runs blue, red and black
· 15 marked ski touring trails
· The top snowpark in French-speaking Switzerland
· The one and only 22″ superpipe in French-speaking Switzerland
· More than 20 restaurants on the mountain
· On-mountain après-ski at Cry d’Er Club d’Altitude
· 1 club at the top of the slopes
· Modern ski lifts
· 65 hectares of mechanical snowmaking slopes
· An igloo village on the Plaine Morte glacier
· An 8 km long slope from the glacier to the village
· 4 adapted areas : the family area, the fun area, the glacier area and the nature area
Festivals and events:
· Choc Altitude – chocolate festival, February 29 to March 1, 2020
· Caprices Festival – electronic music festival, April 16-19, 2020
· Le Crans Hotel & Spa is an exclusive hotel with only 15 rooms and 3 suites, indoor and outdoor pool, spa facilities and a one-star Michelin restaurant. Like a bird nest it overlooks the whole resort. Leading hotels of the world www.lecrans.com
· Crans Ambassador is an iconic hotel sitting above the town and housing the largest spa in the resort. Most of the rooms face across the valley to the mountains and there’s three restaurant options to choose from. The hotel has a relaxed feel and during summer, it’s an official Swiss Tourism bike hotel – it’s part of the Victoria Jungfrau collection. cransambassador.ch
· Guarda Golf hotel & residences has 24 rooms and 7 apartments with 3 bedrooms each. Located in the centre of Crans along the Jack Nicklaus golf course. The restaurant serves high quality Japanese dishes. All the recipes are in the pure Japanese tradition. Their Sunday buffet is a must do when spending the week-end in Crans-Montana. www.guardagolf.ch
· Hostellerie du Pas de L’Ours has a true mountain chalet feeling. Interior design includes a lot stone and old wood. With only 15 rooms it is very cosy. They use the spa and pool of the connecting 4* Hotel Etrier. The Chef Frank Reynaud is the first one to have a Michelin star in Crans Montana. There are two restaurants: the gastronomic ”L’Ours” and the more casual “Bistro de l’Ours”. www.pasdelours.ch
· Hotel Art de Vivre 4* is a family run 24 room hotel. It focuses on health with a nice spa and gym, a small pool and outdoor Jacuzzi. Several massage rooms and in-house physiotherapist and chiropractor. The restaurant has 13 points at Gault & Millau. Quiet location in between Crans and Montana center. www.art-vivre.ch
· Hotel l’Etrier 4* offers large rooms with southern views. 2 restaurants, one with Mediterranean inspiration and the Carnotzet serving Swiss cheese dishes. The pool is quite large and combines indoor and outdoor experience. Since this winter they offer a in house professional nursery service for children from 2 to 8 years old. www.hoteletrier.ch
· Valaisia Hotel 3* is one of Crans-Montana’s wellness hotels and family friendly with a large bar and well located for the town centre and the ski lift for Anouva. The rooms have views across the valley and the location, slightly tucked away from the road, means it’s always peaceful and quiet. www.arenasresorts.com/en/crans-montana
· Olympic 3* is a family hotel in the centre of Montana next to the Casino and Ice ring. Easy access to the slopes. Rooms are modern and charming. www.hotelolympic.ch/
· Hotel Elite 3* has been recently refurbished. Rooms have southern views and very nicely decorated. Contemporary look with some vintage touch which give all the charm to this place. Like Guarda Golf Hotel it is located also along the peaceful Jack Nicklaus course. The lobby bar and fire place are perfect for lively evenings. www.elite-hotel.com
· Hotel La Prairie 3* has a lot of charm and great atmosphere mainly because of the large restaurant, lively bar with pool tables and large sofas. 33 comfortable rooms with family connections. Perfect place for small groups of friends coming for a fun ski trip. www.prairie.ch
· Hotel du Lac and Lago Lodge: Hotel du Lac is faces Lake Grenon on the north and the mountains on the south this family hotel is only few minutes’ walk from the Signal /Arnouva gondola. Rooms are small but very cosy. Management is very friendly and helpful. They brew their own beer and roast their own coffee. It’s a nice experience to visit the brewery when they produce the beer. Lago lodge is dedicated to large group with small budget. www.boutique-hotel-du-lac.ch
· Bellalui Youth hostel: established in a clinic built in1930 it has been turned into a modern youth hostel but respecting the history of the building. Works like any youth hostel with shared rooms (4 and 6 beds) but also family rooms and double bed rooms. Quite a nice experience to try even if you can afford to pay more. www.youthhostel.ch
· Sport Palace: this a residence with studios and small apartment. All of them are with a kitchenette. The facility has a large swimming pool. www.sportpalace.ch
Restaurants in town:
· Le Mayen in central Montana: good atmosphere, with the special cheese and tomato fondue, typical dishes from Valais. ££
· La Dent Blanche: haunt of the famous, raclette, cheese fondue, meat fondue and other grilled meats, Located on the way to LeCrans. Run by the same family for three generations. ££
· Le Continental: classic French cuisine with a touch of fantasy. The chef Paul has worked in many fancy restaurants before opening his own. Prices are reasonable and quality is always there. ££
· La Desalpes: In the centre of Crans this large restaurant serves excellent grilled meat on the grill as well as hot pots. £££
· Mosaic: in front of the Ycoor centre next to the escalator to the Signal gondola station, this restaurant serves bistro dishes using top quality ingredients. Excellent quality, urban style dining.
· La Plage: on the lake Moubra this cosy wooden little chalet only seats 50. The view on the take makes it a good spot for lunch. The menu is seasonal. This winter they serve less familiar dishes like snails, deer tenderloin as well as the oven baked Vacherin Mont d’Or. www.restaurantlaplage.ch ££
· Burger lounge: this little underground restaurant serves homemade tasty burgers. www.burgerlounge.org £
· Chez Chico: Argentinian grill room.www.parrilla-argentina.ch ££
Restaurants on the slopes:
· Zero dix: this place is a trendy restaurant at lunch time and becomes the best après ski of Crans-Montana after 3pm www.zerodix.ch ££
· Cabane des Violettes: this place is an authentic Swiss mountain hut. It is run by starred chef Frank Reynaud of Pas de l’Ours and Pierrot Bagnoud a well know mountain guide. The chef uses selected local products and his know how to prepare his recipes. www.cabanedesviolettes.ch
· Cabane des Taules: only raclette and soup and only when it is sunny! That’s the philosophy of this tiny hut in the middle of the slopes. www.mycma.ch/en/restaurants £
· Cry D’Er: on top of the Blue gondola. This place has a huge terrace and 2 types of restaurant: free flow self-service restaurant where you can see the cook preparing wok, pasta, burgers, or a daily special and a seated restaurant, La Table, mainly focused on grilled meat. £££ Note that when buying a pedestrian pass you can get a CHF20.- discount on your restaurant bill. www.mycma.ch/en/pages/food-panorama-357
· Chez Erwin: a small chalet side of low part of Chetseron slope with a wooden terrace facing the southern peaks of Valais Alps. You can also access by foot from top of Plan Mayen area at the level of LeCrans Hotel. They mainly serve raclette, traditional cold cut plates, a daily special and home made pastries. 35 seats inside and 100 outside. £ www.buvettes-alpage.ch/erwin
· Chetzeron :Creative cuisine with local products. This is the most upscale restaurant on the slopes. £££
Bars on Crans side
Monkis Bar: next to Taillens bakery tea room, a party bar with dance and electronic music. Every Thursday there is a special do. Targeted clientele is between 18 – 35 open from 5pm to 2am www.monkis.ch £
Moon Bar: located just below the Postillon wine bar, it is a lounge bar with a whole section with big chairs and coach. Big cocktail list and DJs from 6pm to 2am. www.facebook.com/Moonbarcrans ££
Bar 66: Perfect for a night cap after restaurant if you are looking for a comfortable and not loud place. ££
Le Pub: facing Monkis bar you can enjoy a large choice of beers and play billiards, pin ball and dart. DJ playing every night. Special party every Wednesday during season. www.nightlifecransmontana.com/lepub
Amadeus: under the Mayen restaurant, this the oldest bar for apres ski and night drinks. Live music www.baramadeus.ch £
Bodega: the latest one on the market. Little bar serving tapas and cocktails. £
New Pub: traditional pub but with a great view on the mountains and the lake Grenon. Live bands during the season. fr-fr.facebook.com/newpubcm/
· Zerodixat Crans-Cry d’Er : perfect location for a drink with your ski boots on. Great atmosphere and friendly staff. Regular live DJ gigs www.zerodix.ch ££
· La Petite Maison: aste local wines and eat snacks until 2am. The good location on top of the pedestrian street in Montana. www.nightlifecransmontana.com/lapetitemaison ££
· 1900: more bistro kind of bar, wines as well as hot drinks. Many tables ££
· Le Tirebouchon: in the middle of the pedestrian street (Rue de la Gare) you can taste local wines. This bar has the largest choice of bottles of winemaker from all over canton Valais. 90+ different ones you can buy and drink there. Large choice by the glass too. Open until 8pm www.letirbouchon.ch/ ££
There are two night clubs both on the Crans side of the resort: Pacha Club and Sky Club. Both open until 4am.
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