Can you keep a secret?
WILLIAM HAM BEVAN didn’t want anyone to find out about the uncrowded slopes and welcoming villages of Switzerland’s Val d’ Anniviers, but we twisted his arm
Anyone who has gone on a package ski trip will be familiar with the torchlight descent – the après-ski classic in which a pack of Brits annexe a mountain restaurant for the night, and eventually knock back enough vin de table to negotiate the 50-yard blue run back to the hotel bar.
All the while, resort reps try their best to keep casualties down to single figures, and mutter dark curses as the wax flares dribble on their expensive gloves.
In the Val d’Anniviers, one of Switzerland’s last package-free zones, they do things a bit differently. On the night of the full moon, we took a cable car to join well over 100 others in a restaurant above the pretty village of Grimentz, and a hearty cheese fondue.
After that, there was no pie-eyed slither home. Instead, we were marshalled up a further three button lifts so we could catch the panorama from the top of the mountain – a breathtaking view of the moonlit Matterhorn on one side and the twinkling lights of Crans Montana on the other.
We then watched as the whooping villagers launched themselves off toward the village, some 1,200 metres below, disappearing one by one. These locals took it all in their stride – they do it once a month, after all. But after 20 minutes in free-fall, navigating by Braille, I was more than glad to catch sight of base camp, and a welcoming party armed with vin chaud.
The welcome is warm in the Val d’Anniviers. Visitors are treated with a hospitality many complain is becoming rare in the valley’s better-known neighbours. Everywhere, the escape from mass tourism shows. Even now that holidaymakers have taken over from dairy cows as the valley’s staple income, the resorts remain in the hands of local, family-run concerns. The narrow, traffic-free streets of old Grimentz have been little affected by the last couple of centuries, with ancient, rickety granaries still standing firm among the chalets.
And accordingly, Grimentz and the other four villages that make up the Val d’Anniviers have escaped the notice of all but the hardiest of British off-piste buffs, as well as the climbers who have been coming here for over 100 years. No UK tour operators yet feature the resorts in their brochures, except for small independent agency Inntravel.
The skiing is varied among the five resorts of the valley: Vercorin, Chandolin, St Luc, Zinal and Grimentz itself. A reasonably priced pass is available to cover the whole network, taking in 46 lifts and 220km of pistes, and a good navette bus service provides a frequent service to the feet of all major lifts.
The most established ski area, around Grimentz, is mostly accessible to intermediate skiers, although the final run back to the resort is the sort of piste that can unexpectedly scupper a tired beginner at the end of a long day.
Vercorin, the lowest resort, is perfect for those who prefer wide, motorway blues and reds, with easy-going, tree-lined runs to station level. Family skiing is also the watchword in the domains of St Luc and Chandolin, linked by a chair lift. Even in mid-season, the lack of people on the slopes will come as a revelation to those more used to the jostle and queues of French purpose-built “family resorts” such as Les Arcs or Meribel.
The most interesting skiing is to be found in Zinal, a resort beginning to find its feet once again after the catastrophic closure of its Club Mediterranee complex. From the summit of the Pointe de Tsirouc is a challenging route back to the small roadside hamlet of Mottec, which is by far the longest listed piste in the valley.
Skied after a light overnight snowfall, this was pretty close to perfection. The payback is a gruelling 20 minutes of cross country along the flat to reach the road – for someone of my level of fitness, more of a challenge than the downhill piste itself.
The only group likely to be too disappointed by the Val d’Anniviers might be classed the “lazy advanced” (although the Swiss have a better word: they call them poseurs). These are the graceful on-piste skiers, usually British, who would rather simper down well-groomed black runs all day than risk losing face in a single off-piste tumble.
This group will soon tire of the few truly tough pistes in the valley – and this is not such a bad thing. With so many off-piste and touring opportunities, it would be a crime to keep to the beaten tracks, and mountain guides in the valley are willing to suggest excursions for any competent skier.
Apres ski, in Grimentz at least, is more than respectable for a village of the size – although those whose ideal holiday involves being sluiced out of Dick’s Tea Bar in the early hours of each morning may be disappointed. Bars are friendly and animated, and the traditional cheese fondue and raclette provide the ideal means of mopping up copious quantities of the local Fendant wine.
There is a lot more to the culinary scene in the valley; for those unsqueamish about tucking into Bambi’s mother, a number of restaurants specialise in local game, including chamois steaks.
The main nightspot, Le Shadock, warrants a visit, if only for the sight of gangly, tipsy Scandinavians gyrating to six-month-stale chart hits. But the real attractions of the Val d’Anniviers are to be found by day, in the area’s unspoilt beauty and in the many alpine activities on offer for resting (or non-) skiers.
We even had a chance to live out our Nanook of the North fantasies by snow-shoeing to a remote frozen lake, drilling through the ice and attempting to catch the trout that were alleged by our guide to be “in a state of semi-hibernation” beneath.
Despite our heeding the advice to bait the hooks with local raclette cheese, not one sleepy fish chose to bite – although I am told polar bears are also less common here than in the frozen north. A fair compromise, perhaps.
Good Ski Guide