I’ve blogged about the delights of rail travel in Switzerland here before… so the opportunity for Cathy and I to take a 4 day trip to the Swiss Alps, travelling entirely by public transport sounded like a great way to test exactly how easy it is. Now let me begin by saying that I’m not a train geek, but it’s such an easy way to travel and what could be better than sitting in comfort watching the Swiss Alps roll past your window.
Our journey began early. Turns out it was the beginning of the school half term holidays and Edinburgh Airport was busier than I’ve ever seen it.. a queue is bad any time, but at 6am it seems so much worse so it was a relief to arrive into Geneva Airport. By 10.45 we were on our train, just 20 minutes after landing!
Our First Class travel passes (thanks Switzerland Tourism!) were good for 4 days of travel, and as with transfer tickets you are required to write the date on the ticket yourself. We struggled with this concept – used to the UK where they would never trust us to write our own tickets. However, ticket inspectors seem well used to foreigner visitors and helped us fill the tickets out without a hint of a reprimand. A victory for humanity over bureaucracy in my book!
Our first port of call was Villars. This pretty town perches on a ledge above the town of Aigle and there’s two ways to get there on public transport: We opted to change at Aigle and take a bus up the road, but you can stay on the train to Bex and take a cog railway: Both journeys take about the same length of time – 2 hrs 40 mins – and the connections are seamless. As the train rolled into the station we could see the bus parked up 50 metres away. The driver cheerfully helped us with our luggage and we wound our way up the hill through vineyards and farmland. Villars was a surprise to me: ski resorts out of season can be depressing ghost-towns, but Villars is home to 5 international schools so shops were open and restaurants were buzzing. Ski Independence features two hotels in Villars and we stayed at the Hotel du Golf. This is a 3 star + family run hotel which sits 50 metres from the train station and the ski train. The rooms are huge and though the décor is a bit old fashioned, the overall feel of the hotel is very pleasant. Fact fans will be pleased to learn that this is the hotel in the Valais region to have an outdoor hot-tub. We felt obliged to test this out and the weather even obliged with some snowflakes to make it feel truly like winter! The other hotel in Villars is the stunning Chalet Roy’alp. After a trip visiting a lot of hotels it’s always interesting to reflect on which hotels stand out. This one does! From the beautiful solid oak and stone in reception, to the careful planning of spaces for different age groups to enjoy, to the spacious rooms and the playful sculptures. This is a hotel that makes you smile!
And so with smiles on our faces we continued our journey to Verbier.
Descending to Aigle by bus again we were met by the same cheery driver and started out on the most complex day of travel. From Aigle it was back on the train to Martigny and then a quick change onto the St Bernard Express – a shiny red train with St Bernard dogs tattooed on its exterior for the journey to Le Chable – directly below Verbier. From Le Chable there are two options: pay a supplement of CHF 11 per person to take a cable car up to Verbier, or take the bus. Being Scottish that was an easy decision!
I don’t mind admitting that previous visits to Verbier have left me cold, but I went with open mind, and this time I was won over. Well, the sunshine helped.. and then there was the snow as well.. We had a wander and a picnic (the boulangerie de la poste makes a cracking sarnie) and checked out the hotels that Ski Independence works with here. The Hotel Phenix has a great location – right by the bus station with everything on the doorstep. Though the rooms are a bit old fashioned, they are really spacious. As with everything in Verbier there’s a mountain view from all rooms and most have a balcony. Just a few metres down the road is the Kings Park Hotel and the Hotel Nevai. These two hotels share the same owners but there the similarities end. The Kings Park is an older hotel with an elegant classic style which contrasts with the modern zen styling of the Nevai. The Kings Park is an all suite hotel and the rooms are huge. Rooms are a bit smaller at the Nevai and there are hotel rooms as well as suites. We especially loved the luxury penthouses with their private hot-tubs overlooking the mountains!
We were due to get the first turns of the season in Saas Fee: however high winds and blizzards scuppered that. However, that left us free to experience ‘things to do in Saas fee when you don’t ski’. We started with a trip up to the top of the mountain where we went to the glacier grotto – an eerie system of caves underneath the ice. Very impressive. Then we headed off into the mist for a walk to find a special restaurant. And special it was: camels, llamas, black swans and ducks were running amuck outside the Waldhus Bodmen, but thankfully they were not on the menu, nor were the guinea pigs and rabbits that occupy their own glass paneled room inside. Yep – dining with a difference! And for excellent venison and hospitality it comes highly recommended! A few games of skittles and a walk round the museum rounded off our afternoon and we turned our attention to our hotels. The Hotel Allalin is a favourite of ours in the Ski Independence office. It’s unprepossessing from the outside, but from the second you enter through the elaborately carved front door there’s a really nice feeling. The Standard Rooms are nice, the Superior Rooms are exceptional and the blend of traditional and modern materials is really well done. The same family have a number of apartments all around Saas Fee and we were impressed by these as well. We stayed in the Hotel Ferienart – new to Ski Independence this year and they certainly looked after us well. From the complimentary glass of wine as we checked in, to the enormous rooms – we could tell this was a bit special. The Ferienart manages to be quite a large hotel without you noticing as it’s actually 3 buildings linked underground. This took us some time to figure out how when stood on the balcony we should appear to be on the opposite side of the road to the reception. There are room configurations to suit all needs here – and families or couples will feel equally at home. The food here deserves special mention – the breakfast buffet has everything from champagne and strawberries to bacon and eggs – and the full spectrum of doughy delights in between.. dinners are a 5 course affair with one course from each meal being served buffet style. We were presented with an enormous buffet of starters on our first night, and on the second night we were presented with about 50 different types of cheese. Delicious!
Following some psychedelic cheese fueled dreams we were on the move again – this time our destination was Zermatt – just 2 hours from Saas Fee. Should anyone be looking for inspiration for a European twin centre holiday then these two resorts work very well together – and the journey is amazing. We swapped our bus for a train at Stalden Saas and ascended through Heidi country. You don’t see the Matterhorn until you’re almost underneath it: cue ‘wow’ moment!
Our stay was to be brief so we headed for our hotels on foot to get a feel for the place. The Mirabeau and Ambassador are close to the station but in a quiet spot. The hotels share a swimming pool – which is being renovated at the moment – but are quite different apart from that. We loved the Junior Suites in the Mirabeau’s Alpine Residence – muted restful colours and modern luxury – but without losing the mountain feel. On the other side of the resort we found the Hotels Julen and Daniela. These sister hotels have been in the Julen family for generations and we were impressed. The Julen is the larger of the two and has colourful modern rooms and great facilities, including a fantastic spa – which guests from the Daniela can use as well.
Our final destination was Champery in the Portes du Soleil. Champery is charming and has great facilities for a small town – a lovely pool and icerink, several restaurants and great scenery. Access into the Portes du Soleil is easy too. The cable car takes you right up to 2300 metres so there’s no need to worry about the altitude here. Our home for the night was the gorgeous Lodge at Champery. These 5 star self catering apartments are 300 metres from the train station and gondola and right next to the sports centre. The apartments are huge – and have either two or three bedrooms, a large living room with fireplace and a kitchen that is filled with appliances and gadgets – should you be inclined there is ample space to cook a Christmas dinner with all the bells and whistles here! Oh, and you can catch a train back to Geneva Airport at 6am – reluctantly we had to do that, but we’ll be back!