You know the old travel cliché: if you want to know where to visit, buy a guidebook; if you want to know what’s worth visiting, ask a local. Well, we believe the same applies to skiing, only more so. Think about it: even the best-drawn piste maps struggle to show how mountains fit together, and they often miss out off-piste valleys, where the best powder is to be found, altogether.
TripAdvisor restaurant guides can’t really be trusted, and as useful as they are, Google Maps’ knife and fork symbols can’t ever capture a café’s vibe, or tell you if there’s a cool cover band playing in a particular bar, on a particular night. With that in mind, when we set about compiling a guide to the highlights of Switzerland’s Valais region, we thought we’d go straight to the source. We asked four locals, from a variety of different backgrounds, to tell us what they love most about four of the region’s most storied resorts. Here we focus on the glacier world of the Aletsch Arena...
Skiing in the Aletsch Arena
With a reputation as something of an insider’s ski area, the Aletsch Arena at the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site is a family-friendly ski area of 104km centred upon the three car-free, ski-in, ski-out holiday villages of Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp, set on a high plateau, with views of over 40 four-thousand-metre peaks and the largest glacier in the Alps. Thanks to the altitude between 1,845m and 2,869m, perfect winter sports conditions are guaranteed from December to April.
The ski domain has a healthy range of beginners’ slopes, four snow parks, half-pipes and floodlit night runs. And there are plenty of opportunities for ski touring, tobogganing, winter walks and snowshoeing. However, the main appeal of the Aletsch Arena is undoubtedly the ski-in, ski-out nature of its villages.
Introducing David Kestens, Aletsch Arena
Originally from Belgium, David Kestens swapped the plains of his home country for the peaks of Spain, and then New Zealand, before eventually settling in the ultimate mountain destination: the Valais. Attracted by the pace of life, the peace, and his neighbours’ innate love for nature, he found his dream job working for Aletsch Arena.
What is it you love the most about living in the mountains? The whole quality of life in Switzerland is exceptional, but what I love the most here is that when you step out of your door, you’re in the middle of all this incredible nature. If you’re into sports, which I obviously am, it’s like stepping into paradise every time you leave the house.
What was it that made you first fall in love with Aletsch Arena? The atmosphere is really special. It’s high, so there’s guaranteed snow in the winter time, but it’s also very relaxed. You don’t have the stressy life of cities, or even larger resorts. It helps that it’s car free, so it’s very quiet.
The views here are just superb, too. You can look one way and see the Matterhorn in the distance, and then in the other direction, you have the Great Aletsch glacier, the biggest glacier in the Alps. It’s like a quiet thing in the background the whole time. Anytime you get to the top of one of the lifts, you get a view over that big giant, and it is just like: ‘wow’.
What’s your favourite run in resort, and why? I don’t have one particular favourite run, but being from Belgium, I’m not exactly a professional skier, so I love all the wide, blue slopes. I also love the fact that it’s never really crowded here. Thinking about it, if I wasn’t working for the resort, I would actually be the perfect client for the Aletsch Arena. The slopes are mostly reds and blues, so a lot of families visit, but also a lot of people like me: 50-plus, who are just enjoying life.
What’s the best thing about your job? A lot of the time, I don’t really feel like I’m working. Of course, tourism is a seven day a week business, and sometimes they’re 24-hour days. But my job is great because it’s really varied. Every day is a little bit different. I like talking about how great this resort is too— I sometimes feel like it’s a hobby that I get paid for.
What’s the worst thing about your job? Hmmm… actually, there are no negative things about my job [laughs].
Where’s your favourite place for a morning coffee? The Café Imhof in the middle of the town centre is spectacular. There’s a beautiful view of the Church, the ‘Grand Tour of Switzerland’ photo point, and the Matterhorn. The whole town is ski-in, ski-out, so you can catch a lift and ski right up to the terrace.
What’s your favourite mountain restaurant, and what’s your favourite dish? There are lots of great options, and I like to mix it up, but one good one is the Chüestall, in the middle of the slopes. They have a really interesting special dish called “cholera”. It’s a kind of vegetable pastry which dates back to 1836, when there was an epidemic of the disease. Locals baked whatever food they had in the house into pastries, because they were too scared to go outside in case they got infected. It’s actually very tasty though [laughs].
Aletsch Arena in numbers
Ski area: 104km
Altitude range: 1,895m - 2,869m
Resort height: 1,925m
Where to Stay in the Aletsch Arena
The Hotel Waldhaus in Bettmeralp serves traditional food, craft beer, and local wines in a relaxed atmosphere. The lounge has a vinyl player and a fantastic record collection.
Where to drink in the Aletsch Arena
“There’s a great bar called Bähnli-Bar Bettmerhorn built into an old cable car,” says David Kestens. “You can enjoy a last drink and then ski down almost empty slopes at the end of the day.”
Lounge and Bar Corner, Fiescheralp
Cosy atmosphere where you can drink or eat almost around the clock, making it popular as an uncomplicated meeting place for guests and locals alike.
Where to eat in the Aletsch Arena
Restaurant Chüestall, a former cow barn, which is now one of Aletsch Arena’s most popular slopeside restaurants.
Try the Panoramic-Restaurant at Bettmerhorn for a spectacular dining experience.
Must-do’s in the Aletsch Arena
The Glacier Panoramic Tour is ski touring at its finest, flitting from highlight to highlight with spectacular views all round.
And speaking of viewpoints… Viewpoint Eggishorn is a real hidden gem, one of Switzerland’s best sightseeing spots.
Instantly Instagrammable: Chapel Mary of the Snow - the newest Grand Tour of Switzerland spot, a picture-postcard photo-stop.
For fun: try night skiing on the Riederalp, Bettmeralp or Fieschertal on selected Tuesdays until March.
First Tracks: An instructor-led experience. At 8.15 am. you take the Bettmerhorn gondola to the Bettmerhorn, from where you enjoy the breathtaking view of the Great Aletsch Glacier, before descending over the freshly prepared, untouched slopes down to the gondola station.
Take time out for a winter hiking trail! There are 72km of prepared hiking trails in the Aletsch Arena, including the Moosfluh-Chüestall-Riederalp trail, which runs for 6.4km, takes about 2 hours and gives you unforgettable glacier views.
We were hosted by Valais/Wallis Promotion and the Switzerland Tourist Board. Go to aletscharena.ch for more information about this fantastic ski area, and for great offers, visit the Valais Online Shop.