IT might be pushing it a bit to say that I’ve found my Shangri-La, but I’ve certainly had a nudge in that direction.
And it’s no Lost Horizon, it’s a new-found, almost magical horizon, made up of the most glorious mountain scenery you could wish for.
New-found? Very much so, for even after 30-odd years of skiing and being lucky enough to travel to the Alps many times, I was introduced to a glittering little gem in Switzerland that my companions and I were ashamed to admit we’d never heard of.
Just imagine an almost secret, postcard-pretty, car-free and sun-drenched village high above the emerging Rhone on a plateau you can only reach by aerial cablecar, in an idyllic setting and with an astonishing panorama of the Valais and Bernese mountains. I could hardly believe it, either, but it just got better.
After a couple of days in well-known Crans Montana, we had taken the MGB (Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn) train from Brig, passed through the wonderfully-named village of Bitsch and got off at the next stop in Mörel, with no trace of snow on the valley floor. A short walk across the street and we stepped into the cablecar to our unknown destination . . . and as we crested the edge of the escarpment to the still snow-blanketed village of Riederalp, we all gasped and you could almost hear the sound of jaws dropping.
My fellow skiers were from as far afield as China, Thailand, Australia, Canada, Lebanon, Israel, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, and we couldn’t stop grinning with delight at our first sight of the Aletsch Arena – Riederalp and its neighbouring villages of Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp, quietly marketed as being ‘Uniquely cool’. They’re not wrong.
First thing on the agenda was a chairlift ride to the top of the 2227m Hohfluh, for an impromptu picnic of local Hobelkäse cheese and wine in time for the stunning sunset, before a walk back to the village on one of the many dedicated winter and summer hiking trails, past the wonderfully-over-the-top Villa Cassel, now the Aletsch Pro Natura Center, but the sort of eccentric, Victorian creation which could only have been built by a rich Englishman as a holiday home. It was, we were told to our surprise, where Winston Churchill used to spend summer breaks.
An excellent dinner at the Walliser Spycher, opened 53 years ago by Marc and Armin Berchtold, who still run the classy, chalet-style hotel, and then up at the crack of dawn to enjoy every possible minute, with a lift to the Moosfluh at 2333m opening up views which have you groping for superlatives.
Towards the south is the ever-beautiful Matterhorn, tucked between the Weisshorn and the Mishabel Group, with the Dom; to the north are the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau – and almost at your feet is the 23km-long Aletsch glacier, the largest in mainland Europe and the heart of the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The views are helped by the clear skies, with up to 3,000 hours (really!) of sun a year on the south and south-west facing plateau, but that doesn’t seem to detract from the snow quality, for the altitude and extensive snow-making guarantees cover from December to the end of April. The three villages have 35 modern lifts opening up 104kms of groomed pistes, including beginners’ slopes, snow parks, half-pipes and floodlit runs, as well as free-rider pistes and guided off-piste runs from Eggishorn to, and even across, the glacier.
And carrying your skis or board more than a few yards is a no-no, because with no traffic, there’s no need to clear any snow, so it's straight out of your door and onto the slopes, via streets only used by other skiers, pedestrians, wooden sleds and the odd (sometimes very odd) caterpillar-tracked local vehicle.
I found the skiing sublime, with lovely, swooping runs in the sunshine; but I also enjoyed the quiet solitude on some of the 72kms of marked winter hiking trails (gasping all the way), taking note that there are more than 100kms of marked trails in summer, along with another 100kms of mountain bike trails.
If long summer climbs put you off, use the chairlifts or gondolas to gain height and walk across and/or down; and if you want a bit of excitement, take the 124m (407ft) suspension bridge high above the glacier from Riederfurka to Belalp. If you’re good on your feet and have a real head for heights in summer, the UNESCO World Heritage high trail from Bettmerhorn to Eggishorn is a genuine challenge and there is a magnificent mountain route leading high over the glacier from the Bettmerhorn top station down to to the Märjelensee lake . . . but you need some ‘bottle’ for the fixed-rope route on the Eggishorn.
Reach even higher and you can see even further by literally hanging in the air, because the area is a Mecca for paragliders and delta flyers and you can book a tandem ride if you really want to be short of breath, with even more breathtaking views guaranteed.
Keep your feet on the ground, though, and there's still plenty to do, with loads of special walks like the marmot discovery path to the Bettmesee lake, frozen in winter and focus of a cross-country ski trail, or almost a beach resort in summer, where you can swim, rent a boat, relax with a spot of fishing and cook a picnic in a campfire pit.
If you are a grandparent and (a) get lumbered with the kids; or (b) choose to escape with them, it would be hard to find a better place to enjoy a second childhood at any time of year. Apart from all the adventures you can share, there are day nurseries for the really tiny, while in winter there are snowsport taster lessons for littlies from 2½ years old, ski and boarding classes for older ones and all manner of play areas and snow gardens; balanced in summer by eight playgrounds and handy diversions like renting scooters, in-line skates and skateboards.
There’s summer mini-golf as well, along with an adult, nine-hole version at Riederalp, on the highest golf course in Europe. Not my scene, but the course does make a good cross-country ski track in winter and I did sneak a gleeful walk across a hallowed green, albeit on at least a meter of hard-packed snow.
Literally high on anyone’s agenda, winter or summer, has to be a lunch stop at the Bettmerhorn’s panoramic restaurant at 2647m, where they do an excellent chateaubriand and a nice choice of Swiss wines. If, afterwards, you don’t fancy anything too energetic, do what lots of locals do . . . relax in a deck chair on the sun terrace next to the bar in an old, grounded cablecar, gaze at the view – and people-watch – while you enjoy a coffee, then take the gondola back down to Bettmeralp.
From there, a not-too-testing walk back to Riederalp, but if mobility is an issue, take a taxi ride with a difference, on board a Snocat-style tracked vehicle like those used by Arctic expditions.
You’re almost spoilt for choice with restaurants across all three villages, from hearty rustic to slick fast food and to fine dining – and there just isn’t room for a bad one, from what I could gather.
Aprés ski, aprés trek . . . or just aprés? Again, there's a fair old number of decent bars to choose from, but in Riederalp, a popular open-air choice as the lifts closed was the Schirmbar Alpenrose, looking like a yellow and white umbrella as dusk approached and the roof was unfurled; followed much later on, perhaps, by the aptly-named On the Rocks, almost too handy by being only a few yards from the Walliser Spycher and with a stunning view of the silhouetted mountains and the valley far below.
The visit was all too brief for all of us and we almost felt reluctant to tell anyone else about the Aletsch Arena for fear of it being swamped and spoiled for any future visits.
But that would be churlish. And quite honestly, I don't think that could happen, because the size of this Valais paradise sets its own limits and the villages could only take a certain number of people.
I just want to be one of them – Life is Good.
David Graham (aka SilverCoyote) travelled with Switzerland Tourism: www.MySwitzerland.com or call Switzerland Travel Centre on freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail [email protected]. For packages, trains and air tickets [email protected].
Swiss International Air Lines – SWISS – operates 36 daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to either Zurich, Geneva or Basle. Reservations 0845 601 0956 or visit: www.swiss.com