The mighty Matterhorn put this corner of southern Switzerland on the map, but now it is home to ski and snowboard enthusiasts, and more leisurely pursuits besides.
Arena Skiing in the Aletsch Arena ski area, with its 65 miles of easy or intermediate ski runs, is utterly beautiful, with some runs skirting the Aletsch Glacier. Base yourself in the twin villages of Bettmeralp and Riederalp, only accessible by cable car, where kids are pulled around in traditional sledges and skis are the best way to get to the supermarket (one-day ski pass £40).
Champéry is a small and beautiful resort with cosy log chalets and friendly locals. But for adrenalin junkies it means just one thing – the Swiss Wall at Chavanette, a heart-stopping, hell-for-leather mogul run famed as one of the world’s toughest. An orange run (outside the usual blue to black rating), it’s a 400m drop and in places the incline is 50 per cent, so is only for experienced skiers (one-day pass for Portes du Soleil ski area £38).
Verbier is all things to all people – from schnapps-fuelled high jinks to VIP lounges, from burgers to a Michelin star. The skiing, which is billed as some of Europe’s finest, also offers plenty of variety. Comprising a whopping 255 miles of pistes and 94 ski lifts, the resort sits at the heart of the Quatre Vallées and has varied terrain, a good snow record and some of the best off-piste powder in Switzerland (regional day ski pass £46).
Other winter sports
Hemmed in by a magnificent amphitheatre of 13 implacable peaks over 4,000m, Saas Fee is a stylish, car-free resort, perfect for snowboarding. Its slopes are snow-sure and attract snowboarders who come for the deep powder and big air. In winter the resort maintains a half-pipe and boarders head lower down the slopes at Morenia. A three-hour course costs £40.
Zermatt is a holy grail of mountaineering. Rock climbers have been successfully reaching the 4,478m summit of the mighty Matterhorn since 1865. You’ll need to be an experienced climber to take it on, so if you’re after something a little less daunting, try your hand at ice climbing (beginners’ 4–5 hour session £130) or fixed rope climbing on a gorge adventure (3–4 hour session £90), courtesy of the Zermatt Alpin Center.
Whenever there’s a beautiful breeze and a mountain, there’s tandem paragliding in Switzerland. Bordering on the icy realms of the Aletsch Glacier – the longest and most voluminous glacier in the European Alps – the resort of Fiescheralp is a prime spot to catch thermals. Strap into your harness, take a run, jump and be blown away by a 14 mile-long swirl of deeply crevassed ice (from £105 for a 30-minute tandem flight).
Up until the 1950s St Bernard dogs were used to rescue lost souls in the snow on the Col du Grand St Bernard. Now Fondation Barry has come up with a master plan – you can take a St Bernard out for a 1½-hour walk, and a stroke, among Alpine scenery, or along the vineyard-clad Chemin du Vignoble from the foundation’s kennels in Martigny (winter walks £30).
Views from Zermatt’s cable cars and gondolas are remarkable but the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise tops them all. Ride Europe’s highest-altitude cable car up to 3,883m and gawp at a panorama of 14 glaciers and 38 mountain peaks over 4,000m. Don’t miss the Glacier Palace – an ice palace with glittering ice sculptures and a glacier crevasse to walk through (lift £65 return, Glacier Palace £5.40).
Take to the waters at Leukerbad, Europe’s largest thermal spa resort. Lindner Alpentherme is the luxurious choice – these baths have two warm pools (one inside, one out) with whirlpools, jets and a mountain view you won’t be able to get enough of. To lounge in the traditional Valais Sauna Village or the Roman-Irish bath you’ll need to go starkers (Dorfplatz; thermal baths £16 for three hours).
Geneva has the closest airport for most destinations in the Valais. Airlines including BA, easyJet, Jet2 and Swiss fly there from most UK airports, although many routes operate only during the Dec–Apr ski season (from £80). As an alternative to flights, there are train routes to get to Swiss ski resorts. Rail travel within Switzerland is efficient but expensive; consider buying a Swiss travel pass for unlimited travel on trains, buses and boats, plus free museum entry (eight-day pass £256).
Where to stay
If you want to splurge on ski passes in Verbier and save on accommodation, Les Touristes is your best bet. This rustic chalet has a restaurant which does a mean fondue (doubles with bathroom from £120).
In the heart of Saas Fee, the country-style Sunstar Hotel Beau-Site is a beautiful hotel from 1893. In winter nothing beats the fireplace bar or the spa’s steam baths, grotto-like pool and saunas (Obere Dorfstrasse 30; from £200).
Comfortably Switzerland’s highest hotel, the Kulmhotel Gornergrat is a late 19th century stone redoubt at 3,100m and reached by cog train, with magical views of the Matterhorn and other peaks (from £230 half-board).
The article 'Mini guide to winter activities in Valais' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.