White Christmas: Skiing in the French and Swiss Alps
We travelled 19,000 kilometres to meet up with our young ones for the White Christmas and Northern Hemisphere family ski holiday we had fantasised about for many years but never really believed would happen. But thanks to my membership of the international home swap website Love Home Swap — which lists over 100,000 homes in 190 countries — and the points I had accumulated, our accommodation was largely free. The dream became reality.
During our month-long family holiday, we stay in a total of three different Love Home Swap properties: two in Switzerland and one in France. We check into our first home on Christmas Eve and gear up for a few weeks of skiing, sightseeing and Christmas cheer.
The Great Snow Goose delivers our Christmas present silently, late on December 25. Tiny white flakes begin to fall as we stand on the balcony of our lovely chalet in the Swiss alpine village of Grindelwald, gazing upward, palms outstretched to catch the precious manna. I stay out there so long that the snow sticks to my eyelashes and they begin to freeze. A celestial pillow fight of monumental proportions is soon declared, and the flurry turns to a full-on blizzard, blanketing the village in white in a matter of hours. Excitedly, we grab the remains of the bubbly to toast the White Christmas we have journeyed so far to experience.
In the days that follow, we travel by Jungfrau Railway to ski at Kleine Scheidegg, part of an extensive domain linked to Lauberhorn, Männlichen and Wengen by a network of chairlifts, gondolas, trains and massive cable cars. It is a huge novelty to be transported to the ski fields by historic cogwheel train. No icy mountain roads, fitting of chains, and walking uphill in ski-boots carrying gear, and no driving home at the end of a long day’s skiing. And the one pass covers all transport, from trains to lifts.
We ski high above the valley and lunch at quaint restaurants in Kleine Scheidegg, a tiny alpine village with Mounts Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfau towering thousands of metres above us. A cluster of hotels, chalets and restaurants nestle at the foot of the Eigergletscher (Eiger Glacier), near the railway station where passengers embark to Jungfraujoch, at 3454 metres the highest-altitude railway station in Europe. The top section of the famous cogwheel railway climbs through a tunnel in the Eiger and Mönch mountains, a masterpiece of engineering completed in 1912 after 16 years of blasting and construction.
We spend an afternoon at the ‘Top of Europe’, where the view from the 3571-metre Sphinx Terrace is literally breathtaking: a spectacular 360-degree panorama with row upon row of mountain peaks and glaciers stretching across Switzerland, France, Italy and Germany. We also ski the high-altitude Oberjoch field, delighting in the sunshine, blue skies and stunning mountain views from the opposite side of the valley. The high-speed access lift, the Grindelwald First gondola, is just five minutes’ walk from our chalet.
Skiing is thrilling enough for me, but the younger members of our family try out the First Flyer, an 800-metre-long flying fox from First to Schreckfeld which reaches speeds of 84 kilometres per hour. There are four harnesses on cables side by side, so no one has to go it alone. I’m reliably informed the experience is an eye-popping adrenaline buzz — and it’s included in the lift pass, so the young ones can fly as many times as their nerves can handle.
Keen to fulfil every aspect of our White Christmas fairy tale, we take a sleigh ride buried under layers of fur and sheepskin blankets, sipping champagne that nearly freezes in our glasses. Our driver, Heinrich Egger, who owns the sleigh business, seems unfazed by the sub-zero temperatures as his two sturdy horses trot along the river and around the little village, even more picturesque at dusk with pretty Christmas decorations suspended from trees and chalet and shop windows, and across the streets. The shadow of the mighty Eiger looms above us and wisps of pink cloud hang in the evening sky, keeping company with a pale sickle moon. It is a magical experience.
Le Tour | chamonix, France
Few people celebrate when a ski lift breaks down on the most glorious day of the season. But for us, it is the best thing that could have happened on a mid-winter day at Le Tour, the sunny ski field at the far end of the Chamonix Valley. Studying the frustrated expressions on the faces of those waiting in line at the access télécabine, or gondola lift, and the nods and winks between the engineers working on the machinery at the lift terminal, we are confident we have it sussed. Sixty minutes later, the carpark is deserted, the lift cranks into gear, and a handful of canny stayers are rewarded with a day of sheer magic.
Le Tour is admittedly less challenging than its well-known neighbours further down the valley, but after the thigh-burningly steep pistes (ski runs), the crowds, and the fierce cold of the Les Grands Montets and Brévent-Flégère, we are deliriously happy to disengage the brain, put away the piste maps, throw caution to the non-existent breeze, and ski the near-deserted, wide open slopes at this friendly field in Domaine de Balme.
I had spent days gazing wistfully at Le Tour basking in sun at the far end of the narrow steep-sided Chamonix Valley, waiting for my choice to work its way to the top of our list. The snow has a smooth-as-an-iced-cake look about it, and the slopes face the sun all day. But I had to stick with the team and ski all the other big-name Chamonix ski areas before the lesser-known Le Tour found favour with the majority. When we finally make it to the top, we stand gazing down in disbelief at the perfectly-groomed, open slopes, a coating of fresh powder glistening in the bright sunshine. The village of Chamonix lies far below us, veiled in mist, shaded by the bulk of 4810-metre Mont Blanc and her jagged-edged colleagues.
Le Tour seems too good to be true, like an exquisite mirage, so we behave like skiers possessed, fearful the vision will disappear. We stop only briefly for a quick lunch and a rosé on the sun-drenched balcony at Charamillon mountain restaurant. It is a mild zero degrees so we peel off mittens, helmets and jackets to ‘snowbathe’ and drink in the spectacular alpine panorama of sharp peaks and hanging glaciers. During the day, we unintentionally ski to another resort near the Swiss border: somewhere on a deliciously long, tree-lined piste, Le Tour turns into Vallorcine. Snow guns are blasting tiny white particles into the air, a dazzling sight against the late afternoon sun. Then we ride the chairlift back to Le Tour and do it all again.
We have skied six domains in the valley, all covered by the Chamonix-Mt Blanc Unlimited Pass. There are fields to suit everyone’s ability, from the gentle, scenic, tree-lined Les Houches-Prarion to the steep and seriously challenging Les Grands Montets. But our dreamy day at Le Tour is my favourite.
When we first arrived in Chamonix, an hour’s flat drive from Geneva, the locals were gloomy: “It’s the worst start to the season in 150 years,” they said. But the snow arrived right on cue, just after we had ensconced ourselves in our cosy chalet in Chamonix, whereupon it snowed heavily for two days. I love a serious blizzard, so despite the ferocious cold, I was often outside making snow angels and snowmen, and watching the neighbour’s dogs bounding through the light fluffy drifts. The short-legged ones tunnelled along like moles. All we could see were the ripples on the surface of the snow.
Our youngsters teamed up with a big crew of their friends from all over the world, doing an impressive job of assessing the best après-ski joints in the village, advising us which ones would be most suitable for our age group. Chambre Neuf, an infamous Chamonix institution with a cult following, is definitely not among them. Skiers, snowboarders and alpinists go straight there off the mountain, hanging their jackets, helmets, crampons and ski boots on a giant moose head in the centre of the bar. The place is Swedish-owned with a Swedish band, and things get pretty lively, with patrons dancing on tables, hanging from the rafters and crowd surfing. Even our late-20s offspring had seldom come across such extreme ‘liveliness’.
One snowy night, we all pile into the cheerful, mellow ambiance of the Moo Bar, a fabulous burger joint, with beer on tap in the middle of our wine-barrel table. We down numerous beers and mulled wines, and demolish huge pulled pork, duck and beef burgers while the blizzard rages outside. However, my favourite haunt is the Bar de Moulin: a cosy, atmospheric cellar-style bar with stone walls, low wood-beamed ceilings and comfy sofas. We are invited there to join the young crowd early on New Year’s Eve. Located on Rue des Moulins, a street lined with bars, the place has hundreds of hooks to hang all the jackets, hats, scarves, woollies and paraphernalia necessary for a night out in mid-winter.
On New Year’s Day, while Chamonix is recovering from the celebrations of the night before, we use our lift passes to travel the cable car to Aiguille du Midi, a rocky pinnacle 3842 metres high which dominates the skyline above the valley. I have been studying the terrifyingly high cable car for several days, wondering if I will ever muster enough courage to get into it. January 1 dawned crystal clear without a hint of wind, so I knew I had no excuse. The two-stage trip in the huge rectangular capsule is hair-raising, but the awesome sight of the glaciers, crevasses, seracs and ice fields beneath us soon obliterate my fears. And the panorama from the viewing platforms and walkways at the top of Aiguille du Midi is utterly jaw dropping.
This is the domain of hardcore mountaineers, death-defying rock-climbers, adrenaline-hungry extreme skiers, and madmen in wing-suits who jump from helicopters and fly under viewing platforms suspended between rocky peaks. Below us, a man without ropes or climbing equipment casually strolls up a narrow snowy ridge no more than 50 centimetres wide, with sheer drops thousands of metres on either side. We turn around and there are skiers heading off down the glacier on the famous Vallée Blanche run, where cavernous crevasses could swallow them without a trace.
I have to keep blinking to make sure I am not suffering hallucinations due to altitude sickness. The atmosphere is seriously thin at the top of Aiguille du Midi and we feel quite wobbly and light-headed, as if moderately intoxicated, the whole time we are up there. For sheer spectacularity of scenery, Chamonix wins the prize. The horizon on both sides of the valley is like a child’s scribble of a mountain range, with improbable sharp points and jagged edges. One doesn’t have to be content to gaze at them in wonder from a distance — to masquerade as a mountaineer and stand on the highest peak, all that’s required is the courage to get in that cable car.
The exquisitely beautiful historic alpine village of Grimentz, one of a cluster of small settlements in Val d’Anniviers in Switzerland’s Valais region, is not as easy to get to as it first seems on Google Maps. The first two hours from Geneva are easy going, but negotiating the narrow, winding road up the valley from Sierre to Grimentz is an adventure in itself. On the return trip, we discover that we have taken the wrong turn-off and driven on a secondary rather than main route, but it is well worth it for the sheer thrill factor.
We stay at a luxurious, five-bedroom, two-bathroom holiday home on the top two floors of a traditional Swiss chalet-style complex. Elegantly designed with oak floors and enormous cathedral windows in the apex of the steeply-pitched roof, the chalet overlooks the Val d’Anniviers. What’s more, it is just a few steps from the télécabine to the Grimentz ski area – the brand new high-speed cable car linking Grimentz with the neighbouring Zinal ski area — and directly opposite the best après-ski bar in the valley.
As I stand on the balcony drinking in the sweet alpine air, the breathtaking mountain and valley panorama, and the picturesque historic village — with its sun-blackened wooden granaries on stone stilts dating back to the 1500s — a few wispy snowflakes begin to drift down from the silver-grey heavens. The Great Snow Goose is right on cue again. By next morning, the weather has cleared and we have the best blue-sky powder day of our lives. The snow is the lightest, driest fluff one could ever dream of. We ski every on-piste and off-piste run on the entire mountain until the lifts close.
In addition to an excellent, efficient, logically-designed network of chairlifts at Grimentz, we are astonished to ride poma and T-bar lifts that turn corners and carry on even further up the mountain — just when we expect to unload. And nothing ever breaks down on a Swiss ski field, unlike elsewhere on our month-long tour. From the top of the Grimentz field, we can see the majestic Matterhorn in the distance, standing aristocratically apart from the dozens of other 4000 metre-plus peaks. Jets from the Swiss Air Force thunder over us during the day, leaving the sky crisscrossed with vapour trails, like a drunken game of noughts and crosses.
Riding the shiny new cable car linking Grimentz and Zinal is a thrilling scenic experience. The huge rectangular capsules transport 125 people at a time, up and over the steep mountain between the two resorts in just eight and a half minutes. The cable car took two years to construct at a cost of 32 million Swiss francs, a huge vote of confidence in the future of tourism in the region. For variety, we also rent snow shoes and spend a day hiking the tracks above the village, lunching in deck chairs in the sun outside the stone Marais Restaurant, one of many on the mountain.
Rosy-cheeked, we stop off for a glass or two of local wine and beer at Après Ski before heading across the road to our cosy, warm chalet. It is such a novelty for us to be within strolling distance of the lifts, supermarket, restaurants, butcher, boulangerie, pâtisserie, ski shops and bars. As soon as the skiers and snowboarders leave the slopes, the mountains become the domain of the snowcats. I find that I love watching the groomers at work just above our chalet, preparing the pistes for the next day, pushing mounds of snow ahead of them and creating smooth corduroy trails in their wake. The powerful lights of the massive machines illuminate the white darkness and the plumes from the snow guns on the lower slopes.
We have five unforgettable days’ skiing at gorgeous Grimentz, Zinal and neighbouring St Luc in bright sunshine, with few people and perfect snow conditions — the best in the alps, thanks to the high altitude. I had never before heard of Grimentz and neither had many of the Swiss people we talked to. But this remote, relatively-unknown jewel of a resort turned out to be the highlight of our ski touring adventures.