THE swish Swiss resort of Crans-Montana has long been a haunt of the rich and famous, popular as a sun-soaked, high-altitude retreat with crisp, clear and clean air since Victorian times . . . with good reason.
A glance at a map shows it’s handy to get to from Bern or Geneva and it’s only just down the valley from the smaller airport at Sion, but the superb Swiss railway system means it’s no problem to get there from Zurich, or anywhere else for that matter, with the train ride through the picturesque country just part of the treat of being there.
It’s even fun just getting to Crans-Montana from the nearest train station, leaving the platform at Sierre/Siders and just following the red line across the road and along the pavement on the main street to the base of the funicular, which climbs steeply up to the resort centre in a matter of minutes and saves a tortuous, lengthy drive by taxi or bus.
Once up there, it’s tempting to use adjectives and clichés as flowery as the Alpine meadows, because ordinary descriptions tend to be just that – ordinary – whereas your surroundings are anything but. Easy on superlatives, then, but please take them as read, because the mountain scenery here, along with the Valais canton as a whole, is simply breathtaking.
The group of villages making up the resort has the seal of approval of suave, bon viveur Bond star Sir Roger Moor – “nowhere in the world will you find a place more peaceful or more beautiful” – and keen foodies will have seen on TV that inspirational chef Michel Roux also has his retirement chalet there amid lush slopes high on the vast, south-facing plateau with its lakes and forests.
Food and excellent, abundant wine is very much a part of this fertile Valais region and as well as sumptuous fine dining – and there’s plenty of that around – there’s the simply wonderful, habit-forming Raclette. This traditional dish can be a satisfying, leisurely fusion of taste and theatre, deserving star billing at Mayen de la Cure, owned by Chantal Crausaz, when the chef melts the half-wheel of delicious mountain cheese by the aromatic log fire and then scrapes it onto your plate to go with hot baked potatoes, pickles and fresh-baked bread. Calories? What calories?
The Valais also rejoices in being the largest wine-producing region in the country and it would be failing in our duty not to try some with the tasty Raclette, or with anything else, for that matter.
And ‘anything else’ has to include echoes of being trendy in the 1970s with more cheese . . . and a fondue. But in this part of the world, it’s the real deal, especially welcome if you’ve had an exhilarating, if exhausting, snowshoe trek to the extraordinary ‘eco’ hamlet of Colombire. Easy to get to in summer by hiking or even driving, reaching the unique heritage site in winter is quite a pull, but made magical by using just the light of the moon and stars to follow the path.
After a delicious fondue, along with a traditional local pasta dish and salad, the penny then drops that to get back down will take a good hour or so on foot . . . or a fraction of the time by toboggan, which is when a decent helping of wine is a big help in making your mind up to put a head-torch on and just go for it, before turning in at the traditional Hotel Valaisia. Wheeeeeee!
With food and wine aplenty to fuel the body, from other restaurants like Le Mayen in the resort or Chetzeron on the slopes, there’s also plenty to feed the senses in one of the most beautiful parts of the world you could want to be in, discovered as a tempting tourist haven in the late 1800s. By 1906, Sir Henry Lunn was there knocking a golf ball about, and just a few years later, his son Arnold really put Crans-Montana on the map with what is credited as being the first genuine Alpine skiing downhill race in history. The two sports have been the bedrock of the area’s success ever since, but there’s an awful lot more to it.
Winter delights include every snowsport you can possibly imagine, plus the aaaah factor of dog-sledding and patting the husky pups, but as a skier, I love the way you can launch yourself down lovely, open ‘motorway’ reds – there are no less than 70kms of reds on 20 marked pistes – relax, maybe, on some of the 17 blues, or get the adrenaline pumping on the four blacks and World Cup courses . . . and linking some long, swinging turns on the 12km Piste Nationale descent to the valley, which has to figure on everyone’s agenda.
Even when it’ s freezing, it’s cool to be cool, so there’s no better place to head for a touch of aprés-ski or aprés-anything than Zerodix (check out www.zerodix.ch), watering hole of the stars, one of THE places to see and be seen, and possibly some of the most tremendous (public) fun you can have with ski boots on.
Carving turns over for the season, summer brings swings of a different kind, with four golf courses in Crans Montana headed by the Sevvy Ballasteros 18-hole European Masters (just so long as your handicap is 36 or under!); the nine-hole Jack Nicklaus course and two nine-holers open to all. There’s a state-of-the-art performance centre, a driving range and three other 18-hole courses within a half-hour drive, and no less a golfer than our own Lee Westwood says: “There is no more beautiful and picturesque place. It’s spectacular wherever you look.” So there.
Couple all that golf and the ‘usual’ mountain activities of hiking and climbing with virtually every other summer sport and adventure you can think of – even high-altitude beach volleyball, would you believe – and you have an amazing place to spend a holiday, which I guarantee won’t seem half long enough.
*Have fun surfing around on the web for all the places mentioned, as well as the Valais tourism site and various links for all manner of offers, ideas and tips.
Swiss International Airlines – Swiss – operates 36 daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester and Birmingham to either Zurich, Geneva or Basle: Call 0845 601 0956 or visit www.myswiss.com.