You Don’t Have to Cancel That Alps Ski Trip After All
It might not be the best snow year, but conditions at high-elevation ski areas like Crans Montana make it worth the trip.
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With all of the news surrounding Europe’s lack of snow, I worried that my long-planned trip to Crans-Montana would be a slush fest filled with unearned raclette and gratuitous spa afternoons. I considered canceling, but ultimately decided that if the pistes were open, I would make the best of it.
I mind-over-mattered myself into positivity as my flight hovered above an unseasonably green Zurich and, again, a few hours later, as the train snaked through sad, brown mountain passes towards Visp. The environs began to shift at a higher elevation. About 30 minutes into the transfer from the Sierre (1,759 feet) train station to the ski resort of Crans Montana (4,985 feet), the landscape finally turned wintry. Thigh-high snow drifts there were not. But the ground was white, and the sloped chalet roofs were still coated from the last storm. At sunset, the temperature dipped, and it began to snow.
To most Americans, skiing in Switzerland means St. Moritz, Gstaad, Zermatt, or Verbier. Which is precisely why I wanted to go elsewhere. My criteria: a lesser-known resort with top-tier terrain and a town that felt classic. The classic part was imperative. For the past few years, the glitzier resorts seem to attract irksome social media “stars”—swarms of non-skiers in over-the-top ensembles who ruin the ambiance with their obsessive capturing of manufactured moments. What Tik Tokers find boring—quiet elegance, passion for heritage, turning in by 9 p.m. —sounded like heaven to me. Crans-Montana checked all of these boxes.
Situated just above the Rhône Valley in the south-facing, French-speaking canton of Valais, the resort is known for sunny days and vistas of the “Imperial Crown.” a chain of five mountain peaks (Weisshorn, Obergabelhorn, Matterhorn, Dent Blanche, and Zinalrothorn) all 13,000 feet above sea level. It’s also the country’s chief wine-making region. Terraced vineyards fed by glacial water and nuanced terroir translate into complex reds, crisp whites, and grand crus that are tough to find outside of Switzerland. Culture is another hallmark of this region. Beyond the many art galleries and concerts, a local organization called Swiss Made Culture offers year-round programming pegged to Swiss creatives in fields like architecture, contemporary art, cinema, dance, literature, and design.
And the town? That’s picture-perfect too. Two interconnected villages—Crans-sur-Sierre and Montana—are lined with shops and plenty of high-fashion boutiques, particularly in Crans, which is decidedly more posh. Nine lakes in and around the town add a shimmer to the cobblestoned landscape. Higher-up hamlets are dotted with barns, frozen ponds, and the kind of gingerbread-trimmed chalets that inspired the faux-Alps villages at places like Vail and Alpental. Here, I came across a crew of old timers playing a massive pipe-like instrument called the alphorn (traditionally used by shepherds to summon cows from the pasture) during a sky-running competition. The Swiss on steroids moment was a highlight of my visit.
Experts may be disappointed by the terrain, which is 75 percent red (intermediate) and only 9 percent black. But the stop-in-your-tracks scenery and lunches at quintessential mountain huts make up for the lack of steeps. Ninety miles of pistes vary from wide-open groomers at tree level to slopes at the Plaine Morte Glacier (9,020 ft), which lead to Piste Nationale, the most challenging run, which doubles as a men’s World Cup downhill course. For those looking to get off-piste, there are 10 ungroomed ski routes marked on the map, plus areas such as Faverges that require a guide. My favorite run was Kandahar, a seven-and-a-half mile descent from the glacier to Barzettes, which included schussing past imposing cliffs (some with Steinbock, a breed of alpine goats that can scamper sideways up the mountain) and through pine-scented woods.
The snow was packed and crunchy. But, on-piste lunches made me forget the non-idyllic conditions. At stylish Merbé, just off the Crans-Merbé-Cry d’Er gondola, I tucked into a plate of alpine cheese and air-dried beef before my burger arrived glistening under a layer of alpage cheese (a dairy distinction signifying that the milk was from cows that had grazed on wild grass). The next day at Cabane des Violettes, things were rowdier. This classic stone hut owned by the Swiss Alpine Club has communal dining tables inside and a massive sun deck to enjoy classic dishes like rösti complimented by Fendant, the excellent local white wine. For a quick fuel up, an Adirondack chair at Amadaeus 2006 is the perfect perch for a panini or coffee, especially if a DJ is spinning.
On The Town
With more than 150 restaurants, committing to a handful of meals was challenging. For fine dining, Le Mont Blanc’s modern melange of French dishes with Swiss ingredients is complimented by 180-degree views of the Alps. Le Bistro des Ours, the “casual” eatery by Chef Franck Reynaud (his gastronomic restaurant is in the same building), wows with dishes like truffle-dusted chicken and cassoulet served fireside. At homey Le Mayen, it’s all about raclette. Here, you are handed a paper spotlighting the regions of the day’s cheese degustation. You can watch owner Jean-Daniel Clivaz scrape the giant fromage wheels as he explains the impact of geography on cheese flavor. When Ravet opened this December, helmed by Nathalie Ravet, the seasoned sommelier from L’hermitage in Lausanne (her father’s now-shuttered, Michelin-starred restaurant), Crans Montana’s culinary scene got a boost. From noon until 6 p.m., the lakefront space is a contemporary cool wine bar serving wine flights (60 percent from the Valais valley) and “snacks” such as foie gras on dried-fruit-stippled rye bread with a smear of late-harvest vinegar gelee. Later, it morphs into a restaurant with a swanky four-course pairing dinner. The best part? Food is prepared by revered (and supposedly retired) chef Bernard Ravet, who seems delighted to give his daughter the spotlight.
Where to Stay
If your idea of alpine oomph is a 15-room, pine-paneled bolthole at the edge of a forest with your own fireplace, views of the Valais peaks from your bathtub, and an outdoor pool kept steaming at all hours, book Le Crans, a hotel with a distinct sense of place. The just-opened 45-room Six Senses offers a different sort of experience. There is a massive spa with Biohacking Recovery Lounge, a high-end Japanese restaurant, and contemporary decor that mirrors the surrounding nature. Over in Montana, cheap(er) and cheery options include Hotel Du Lac and Olympic Hotel which are both near the ice skating rink.
What to Know
Fly to either Zurich or Geneva and then hop on the train (there are stations at the airport) and take it to Sierre (from Zurich, 3 hours; Geneva, 2.5; roughly $75). You can either take a taxi or the handy cable car (12 minutes) to Crans Montana. Within the town, free shuttles are available as well as taxis.
Crans Montana isn’t on any of the megapasses, but don’t worry, lift tickets are much more reasonable than they are here and are priced dynamically. They range from 20 chf ($21) if you buy in advance to 89chf ($94) for a full-priced ticket.