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.
The ski areas of the holiday region Saas-Fee/Saastal are some of the highest in Europe and are surrounded by 18 four-thousand-metre peaks. The car-free, charming and lively village of Saas-Fee and the breathtaking glacier landscape are the epitome of most people's idea of an idyllic Swiss Alpine resort. Perfect for a family ski holiday, it’s also got it all going on for young and lively beginners and intermediates.
The setting is spectacular, nestled beneath permanently snow-capped four-thousand-metre peaks and looking out over the Saas Valley (the Saastal). At 3,500 metres, the highest point accessible by mountain railways is also a highlight for non-skiers, as the highest revolving restaurant in the world is located here.
The slopes here are snow-sure and the resort facilities are modern, its restaurants are very good, and its après ski is lively; Saas-Fee/Saastal is every bit an Alpine gem.
Introducing Max Prater, Saas-Fee/Saastal
Max Prater, an instructor at the Ski School Ski Zenit in Saas-Fee, first learned to ski on Christchurch/Dorset dryslope, near his native Bournemouth. But like many Brits who catch ‘the bug,’ he moved to the mountains as soon as he could. Having gained his instructor qualifications, he worked multiple seasons across Europe and in North America, before finally deciding to settle in the Valais. Here, Max explains how he fell in love with the high altitude Mecca of Saas-Fee/Saastal, and why he still believes it’s the best place in the world to ski.
What’s the best thing about living in Saas-Fee/Saastal? It’s all about the skiing. I did several seasons elsewhere and I consistently wasn’t getting great snow years, but then I came here, and the snow’s always good from start to finish.
It comes down to the aspect of the mountain—we’re north facing in Saas-Fee, so we get a little bit of protection from the sun and that keeps the snow consistently firm and good for skiing. It also helps that Saas-Fee is really high. The village is at 1,800 metres, and our lifts take us up to 3,600 metres. That means you’ve got a huge vertical descent, one of the longest in Europe, and on top of that, we’re surrounded by eighteen 4,000m-plus peaks. We’ve got the highest mountain that’s solely in Switzerland looking down on us, the Dom (4,545 metres). So it’s pretty impressive just looking around. I’ve never skied anywhere else quite like it.
What’s your favourite run to rip down in the resort, and why? Especially first thing in the morning, when it’s freshly groomed, my favourite run to ski down is a red called Glacier promenade (17A). It comes off the glacier at 3,600m, and it’s just endless turns, top to bottom. It’s usually pretty quiet too, so you just feel like an absolute hero skiing it [laughs].
Where’s the first place you go when there’s fresh snow? On a powder day? I can’t tell you where I’m going, I’m afraid [laughs].
OK, fair enough. Where would you go when it’s totally tracked out? It’s still kind of a secret, but I’ll let you in. You can drop off the back of the resort towards a reservoir called Mattmark. That’s a really cool run. It’s about 15 kilometres all the way down to the next village. You can ride it right down to a bus stop and get the bus back up to Saas-Fee. It’s all South facing, so it gets nice sunshine, and good snow. It’s pretty unique, but should only be tackled with an experienced ski instructor!
Where’s the best tree run for when the weather’s bad? The best trees are around Plattjen. They’re nicely gladed, super steep, fall-line, top to bottom and they’ve usually been quite sheltered from the wind as well, so the snow stays really good.
Where’s your favourite place for après? Towards the end of the day, I usually head to the Pit Stop. It’s just at the bottom of the Funpark Morenia, so you can sit in the deck chairs, and watch everybody attempting to do jumps—some people better than others [laughs]. There’s always good music, good beer, and a good time to be had.
Saas-Fee/Saastal in numbers
Ski area: 150km
Altitude range: 1,500m - 3,600m
Resort height: 1,800m (Saas-Fee)
Where to stay in Saas-Fee/Saastal
The three-star Hotel Feehof is conveniently located in the centre of the car-free resort.
Where to eat in Saas-Fee/Saastal
“My favourite mountain restaurant is Spielboden,” says Max. It’s a really nice little sun trap. I can highly recommend the pulled pork burger.”
Pizzeria Boccalino is a Swiss and Italian kitchen. The pizzas are a real treat!
Asian restaurant Chämi-Stuba
Asian delicacies prepared fresh daily by Thai, Chinese and Italian chefs at Chämi-Stuba. For wine buffs, the restaurant only serves Valais wines!
Must-do’s in Saas-Fee/Saastal
Everyone must visit the Viewpoint Allalin, perched at 3,500m at least once! Eat at the world’s highest revolving restaurant, visit the Ice Cave Allalin, and just generally soak up the scenery.
Try Alpine canyoning - a high-speed Tyrolean zip-line and cable pulleys are the highlights of a trip through the wild and rugged Fee gorge leading from Saas-Fee down to Saas-Grund. A mountain guide will take you past frozen waterfalls and across suspension bridges, ladders and steel ropes.
Explore the Fee Glacier with snowshoes. The trail over untouched powder leads up to the Panoramaplatz, one of the best viewpoints in the area.
Go night tobogganing, either in Saas-Grund or Saas-Almagell. Hire a headlamp and sled, and head off down the slope, even in the moonlight. An unforgettable experience, especially for families.
Tackle one of the sensationally long home runs to Saas-Fee village via both the Felskinn and Längfluh sectors.