News from the snow
Located on a sunny, south-west facing plateau above the Rhone, Villars has been a famous health resort for many years, with visitors arriving by rail in large numbers since the start of the twentieth century. The village's importance was secured with the decision to stop the Orient Express in the area en route through the Simplon Pass in to Italy. Today the resort continues to stress both its family-friendly skiing credentials and its decision not to do battle to be the best in any one area, but instead to endeavour to offer its guests the highest standards in all the aspects which make up a wonderful holiday. For Villars that means good quality, good service and good value in accommodation, resort facilities, and on the slopes. Marketed with its smaller neighbour, the village of Gryon, Villars also has an unusual reputation - as a centre of educational excellence - there are no less than five establishments offering courses in languages, sports and all other academic disciplines.
A pretty traditional Swiss resort on a sunny south-west facing plateau above the Rhone Valley. The large ski area reached by funnicular will suit most skiers, with a link to the glacier of Les Diablerets.
The longest journey possible, when the glacier lifts are open, is to take the chair rides over to Les Diablerets, cross the village, then take the lift up to Iseneau and the trail down to the road at Col du Pillon from where a series of cable-cars take you up to the Diablerets glacier and the long run of 14km (9 miles) down to the road and a bus ride back to les Diablerets to get the lift back over. A day should be allowed for this epic, lift-served touring but it can be done almost entirely on easy or intermediate level trails, with one short (100 yards?) unavoidable black stretch as you come down the glacier. More blacks can be added in to the route if you'd prefer more!
There is a mix of terrain both above and below the treeline, most of it being of intermediate standard (European red runs). The fastest way to reach the skiing is to take the gondola from the edge of the village up to the Roc, a key launch pad for lifts across the area. Experts have several black runs to enjoy including a long descent from the Roc d'Orsay to Villars and shorter runs from Chaux Ronde and Petit Chamossaire down to Bretaye. A further black run offers a route down from Croix des Chaux above Barboleuse and Gryon, down the edge of one of the Snowboard Parks in to the valley at La Rasse from where the chair returns over to Villars. There's also off piste opportunities all over the area with the ski school guides and other expert routes over at the glacier.
Intermediates have pretty well all the rest of the terrain suited to them and, as with experts, can double the available trails and lifts by purchasing the Alpes Vaudoises Pass, which covers 220km (125miles) of terrain at key resorts in the area, as well as the transportation between them in many cases. The pass covers the Diablerets glacier, Gryon Les Diablerets, Les Mosses and Leysin as well as Villars. Passes of 4 Days or more additionally entitle holders to unconditional use of the lifts of Château d'Oex ( La Lécherette ), Gstaad, Gsteig, Lauenen, Rougemont, Saanen, Saanenmöser, St Stephan, Schönried and Zweisimmen. Purchasers of passes of 6 days or more also entitle holders to a day on the lifts of Les Portes du Soleil, Les Márecottes, Ovronnaz, Crans Montana, Aminona, Vercorin, Grimentz, St Luc, Chandolin, Loèche-les-Bains or Anzère).
A second route into the skiing is to take the old mountain railway from the village centre up to Bretaye at 1800m (5900 feet) from where a network of chairs and surface lifts branch out in all directions. It's a 20 minute rail trip through wonderful scenery and is well worth doing even without the skiing waiting above. This makes Villars an excellent place to get started on skis - a traditional village base with good facilities, a hassle-free train ride up to a sunny but snow sure area of gentle slopes - all the ingredients are right. If snow is good at village level there are also nursery slopes just behind the railway station there.
There is a choice of two friendly ski schools (and an additional snowboarding one), one offering innovative learning techniques. The Modern Ski School is one of the few in the Alps to use the GLM(r) (Gradual Length Method) of tuition made famous as 'Ski Evolutif' in Les Arcs, France. This means that beginners start on skis a metre (3 feet, 4 inches) in length, perhaps half the length that they will eventually end up on, but far easier to turn when you're starting off. It also means you can progress straight to parallel turns without needing to spend time mastering the infamous 'snow plough' or 'pizza pie' technique. The next stage is to progress to 1.35m (4 foot, 6 inch) skis and then 160m (5 feet, 4 inches). The school offers a free trial lesson to anyone interested. The school also offers carving lessons on parabolic skis, and has its own rental and retail shop.
There are 44km of marked cross-country trails. A brochure detailing the route is on sale from the tourist office.
The whole village is geared up to a positive attitude towards children's happiness and well-being, and it feels like this goes beyond an underlying desire to attract families to maximise profits by being the best. Instead there seems to be some higher purpose. Villars operates the 'Families Welcome' initiative which indicates hotels especially keen to welcome and entertain families. Both of the ski schools have 'Snow Gardens' for the kids for children aged from three.
Both the Villars Ski School and the Swiss Ski school offers care for full or half days in groups of up to seven children, with 90 minutes snow play each morning. Older children can join the Kid's Club which offers skiing for a full or half day.
Villars reputation as an education centre is rarely reported, however there are five establishments offering some form of sports and education packages for children. The largest, the Aiglon College, is a British International Day and Boarding School (www.aiglon.ch) which takes 280 boys and girls aged 9 to 18 years with bilingual classes until age 11.
The College Alpin Beau Soleil (www.beau-soleil.ch) accepts children from aged 10 to 18 and is an Anglo-American college, teaching in French. La Garenne (www.la-garenne.ch) accepts children from age 3 to 14 and offers holiday courses, with French language tuition, as well as providing a nursery and snow garden. The Pré-Fleuri is an Alpine International School with 2 hectares of grounds for specialist Summer and Winter Sports training. Les Ecureuils has classes for 3 to 13 year olds in French and English, mixing cultural instruction and sporting activities.
Finally the Petit Poucet is a multisports holiday club for children aged 7 to 14. Most of the clubs in these establishments are in the village of Chesières by Villars.
Over in the Gryon sector the Refuge de Frience and Rraclette Feu de Bois offer typical regional ayre. But if you prefer a night 'away from the tastes of the Region' then try the Gourmandine which has a good reputation for its crêpes. The Mazarin restaurant in the five-star Grand Hotel du Parc is generally regarded as the best (and most expensive) establishment in the resort.
Folklore evenings are staged regularly and there are sometimes ice hockey matches to watch at the rink.