A handful of Swiss ski resorts can rightfully claim to rank among the best known holiday destinations on earth. The “big four” of Saint Moritz, Zermatt, Davos and Verbier attract the wealthy and glamorous from all over the world – with prices to match.
But across the country there are dozens of smaller village resorts that rarely make it on to the shortlists of British winter holidaymakers but offer quieter, cheaper alternative options to the fabled snowy Swiss fleshpots. One such is Anzère in the French speaking Valais Alps, which ranks only as Switzerland’s 30th biggest resort, according to skiresort.info. My two sons and I found ourselves taking the train to Anzère in search of an “authentic” Swiss skiing experience away from the “beautiful people.”
The two-hour connection from Geneva airport skirts a spectacular route alongside Lac Léman to the town of Sion, where a free post-bus service provides a link to the resort. Just for a few weeks of the season there is also a direct Swiss Air flight from Heathrow to Sion, this year operating on Saturdays from February 8-29.
The village, built in the Seventies around a pedestrianised square, is perched high above the Rhone Valley at 1500 metres with jaw dropping views towards Mont Blanc and at least a dozen other peaks over 4000 metres high, including the Weisshorn, the Dent Blanche and the Grand Combin massif.
With 13 lifts and 58 km of runs, Anzère is never going to rival its better known neighbours – the much higher profile Crans Montana is just a few miles away – for the range of its skiing. Every few years plans to build a link to Crans to create a far bigger ski domain are dusted down – and duly put away again. Partly on grounds of cost – the bill is estimated at nearly £30 million – but also because there is a feeling that Anzère works better as a charming “independent” resort rather than a distant satellite of a bigger mass market destination. Locals point to traditional attractions such as the cow sheds dotting the slopes where skiers can cook their own meat on open fires.
Anzère also tries to differentiate itself from the skiing super-resorts by bigging up its “green” credentials. Few people would claim that skiing is ever going to be the most environmentally friendly pastime, but the resort insists it is doing its best. Much of the village enjoys hot water and heating from Europe’s biggest wood pellet burner, which is fuelled by sawdust and offcuts from a wood plant 10 miles away. Its ovens are said to save 1.5 million litres of oil a year.
It also heats the indoors and outdoor pool to a soothing 34 degrees centigrade at the village’s impressive spa and wellness centre, which must have some of the most spectacular views of any facility of its kind in Europe
The village is ski in-ski out with a “magic carpet” lift that takes guests up to a drag lift connecting them with the Pas de Maimbre telecabine that accesses the main ski areas and saving a good ten minutes trudge up to the base station.
Once up top, Anzère provides decently challenging, mainly red run, intermediate level pistes extensive enough to keep most holiday makers happy for three to four days, though a full week might be a stretch for those used to the seemingly limitless runs of the big linked resort complexes.
The pick of the bunch is the exhilarating three-mile long red from Le Bâté down to the restaurant at Les Rousses. For the strong of thigh it is a terrific, potentially non-stop, knee jangling descent from bare mountain top to tree lined valley bottom with a beer on a sun lit terrace at the end as a reward.
It also runs parallel to another Anzère attraction, the deceptively fast toboggan run that provides a diverting alternative to the skiing pistes.
Almost all the runs are south facing and, when we visited in early April last year, remarkably quiet with virtually no lift queues. There are just three hotels in the resort, including the Hotel Zodiaque (double rooms from £95 a night) on the village square where we stayed. Three quarters of the visitors to Anzère are Swiss and Britons are relatively few and far between.
One Brit you are likely to bump into is jolly Liz Schick, who with her Swiss husband René has run the excellent Central Sports ski hire shop for the past 20 years. It was one of the rare day one kitting out sessions when I did not feel I was being mechanically processed like a tuna in a canning factory. We were even offered a cup of tea.
Evening entertainment is generally low key though, with 14 restaurants and 13 bars in resort, there is a reasonable choice of places to eat or drink, although late night apres ski is not Anzère’s biggest sell.
Anzère is never going to challenge the Swiss super-resorts for the scale and variety of its skiing, or for its throbbing glitzy nightlife. But as a cheaper, far less crowded alternative, perhaps ideally for a long weekend, its very obscurity makes it an appealing alternative for skiers who value quiet pistes above 3am clubbing.
SWISS AIR is offering Saturday flights from Heathrow direct to Sion from February 8-29 only. For prices check www.swiss.ch but they are usually £350 return. Then train to Sion, bus or taxi to Anzère.
Day lift passes in Anzère are £44 for adults and £26 for children.