News from the snow
Saas - Fee Switzerland
One of Switzerland's most important winter sports resorts, Saas-Fee, in the German speaking upper-Valais, also offers one of the five largest Summer skiing areas in Europe. Marketed, like Courmayeur, as 'the pearl of the Alps', the resort is car-free, which means vehicles are parked at a large car-park on arrival at the edge of the village and only small electric taxis, mostly owned by the hotels, hum quietly and slowly around the pedestrianised streets. The resulting tranquillity, coupled with the resort's strict planning regulations which have maintained traditional Swiss chalet style construction for several centuries, and the spectacular high alpine scenery all around, make Saas-Fee a delightful base for a mountain sports holiday. The resort is based at the foot of the Dom, which although not as internationally well known as the Matterhorn, is in fact Switzerland's highest mountain, and one of thirteen 4,000 metre (3,120 feet) plus peaks surrounding the village. These may be viewed at your leisure from the world's highest revolving restaurant on the Mittelallin at 3,500 metres (just under 11,500 feet). Saas-Fee has taken the quality of its environment and facilities seriously for many years, a member of GAST, the association of traffic-free holiday resorts, it was one of the earliest to ban cars in 1951, and as the road from Saas-Grund down in the valley only reached this high-altitude village in that same year, it can be said that Saas-Fee has never truly had car traffic on its streets, possibly a unique status. The resort also has one of the longest traditions of mountain tourism in the world, with local clergyman Johann Josef Imseng recognising the importance of bringing visitors to the Saas Valley way back in 1836. Mr Imseng was also a mountain guide and is popularly regarded as the first skier in the country. Although one of the earlier successes of Swiss tourism (Saas-Fee had a population of 236 back in 1850 when most of today's ski resorts, even the famous ones, at that altitude were just summer cattle pasture with a couple of mountain huts for seasonal farmers), winter sports did not become predominant in the village until as recently as the 1960s, in common with many other Swiss skiing destinations. Saas-Fee's early settlement and success as a tourist destination were helped by its mild climate, being on the same latitude as Ascona, 30km(19 miles) east in Switzerland's only Italian speaking canton, southerly Ticino, where palm trees grow. Today Saas-Fee's lift infrastructure includes some of the most hi-tec installations in the world, most notably the world's highest underground funicular railway, the Metro Alpin, which opened in 1984. Accommodation, eateries and other services and facilities in the village that offer particularly high standards are given a 'Q' symbol in recognition of the quality they offer. The name Zurbriggen is prominent amongst the names in the Saas Valley, and Switzerland's recent skiing greats, Pirmin, Silvan and Heidi Zurbriggen have their home at Saas Almagell down in the valley.
One of the world's top resorts, picturesque, car free, excellent facilities. Year round glacier skiing accessed by underground funicular and other modern, efficient lifts, including the 3-S-Bahn, a 30-person gondola. Sister resort is Steamboat Springs/Colorado.
The area's skiing is particularly well suited to intermediate and advanced level skiers with 75% of the terrain and 60km ( 37 miles ) of the trails suited to good or better skiers. However beginners do have a large plateau right next to the village on which to learn or improve technique, and because of Saas-Fee's high altitude snow-cover on these slopes is far more likely throughout the season than at village level nursery slopes at many other resorts in the Alps, where the snow may only last for a month or two mid-Winter.
There are three main ski areas, the Felskinn, the Plattjen and the Längfluh. The Felskinn is served by the Alpine Express, Saas-Fee's most recent hi-tec lift, a gondola with cabins each capable of holding up to 30 passengers. The regional SAAS lift ticket covers the smaller and lower neighbouring ski areas of Saas-Almagell, Saas-Balen and Saas-Grund which you pass by en route up to Saas-Fee. It also covers use of the normal post bus service between the villages although there is no special ski bus.
Saas-Almagell and Saas-Balen have little to interest skiers much above beginner standard (although you may wish to visit the former just to pay homage to the mightly Zurbriggens) but Saas-Grund's ski area is quite large and possibly worth taking a day down the mountain for. Its seven lifts include a gondola going up to 3100 metres (10,170 feet) from the village base at 1560 metres (5118 feet) giving a vertical of 1540 metres ( 5052 feet ) which is after all only beaten by Whistler on the entire North American continent so shouldn't be sniffed at! The 25km(16 miles) of trails are almost entirely of 'intermediate' standard.
Cross country skiers will find 8km( 5 miles ) of trails around Saas-Fee, with a further 26km of trails in the Saas valley below.
The underground mountain railway and ice pavilion above are also unique and popular with kids. There is a resort kindergarten for children and a number of the hotels offer day-care in their on play rooms for children aged two and a half and up, notably the Murmeli.
On the slopes the Swiss Ski and Snowboard school have special classes for children aged 4 to 5. Snowboarding courses are available for children from age six. The school's weekly entertainments programme includes tests, races and a children's disco.
The restaurant Don Ciccio serves Italian specialities whilst the Spaghetteria da Rasso is another option for Italian.
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings fondues are served at the Hannig mountain restaurant, after which, if you are in the mood, you can strap a headlamp to your forehead and follow the sledging trail back down to the village. A meal in the world's highest revolving restaurant is also not to be missed.
Interesting choices include the Happy Bar, with its impressive carvings and the Metro, which resembles a century old mine shaft! Straight after the lifts close there are a number of small bars near the base of the runs which are usually busy through until dinner.
All of the rental shops have boards to hire, with Popcorn a specialist snowboard rental and sales outlet, complete with bar.