The best resorts for escaping the crowds
Just a few hairpins up from the city of Brig, in the wide Rhone valley, is the little village of Blatten. It’s a place of sun-burnt wooden chalets with a reassuring sense that things continue much as they did before those pesky British tourists came over and started climbing the mountains in the late 1800s. The one concession to modernity is the cable-car station which sits practically in the car park of the Hotel Blattnerhof. Stay here, and you can’t complain of the walk to the lift, but having got this far why not do it properly? Pile your luggage into the cable car for the journey up to beautiful Belalp, a scattering of chalets at 2,100m, surrounded by high pastures where livestock graze in the summer.
It’s completely car-free – no roads disturb the peace up here.Accommodation is limited to a few hotels (try Hamilton Lodge) or simple self-catered chalets.
There’s skiing into April each year thanks to both altitude and the influence of the storms which come in over the Bernese Oberland, on whose southern flanks Belalp basks. And what skiing it is: the mountainside is perfectly shaped for the sport – steeper up high and flattening towards the alp – and seems endlessly broad, giving 60km of wide, well-groomed and uncrowded pistes. To the east, there’s the Aletsch glacier, which will take a great deal more global warming to render it less than breathtaking. The old Hotel Belalp looks out over this vast tongue of ice as it curves down from behind the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
This may sound like the perfect place to take your young family, and granny too, but there’s another side to Belalp, quite literally. West of a rib of rock leading to the Hohstock is where you will find the serious terrain. A whole slab of mountain is reached from the very highest lift at 3,100m – and here’s the good bit – through a 150m mountain tunnel. It’s a nifty trick: not only does the world at the end of the tunnel feel uniquely wild and unspoilt, but it’s an area they can control in dangerous conditions, as local guide and avalanche expert Peter Schwitter told me, “by simply locking the door to the tunnel”.
Assuming the tunnel door is open – and having survived the extraordinary finish to the T-bar – you’re on a black run with 1,000 vertical metres of descent. A bit of traversing or even climbing gives access to lots of variations, which range from just steep enough to really quite exciting. The effortless ski back into the bottom of the domain is a bonus.
If you like to be the last one on the mountain, it’s hard to imagine a better spot. When you finally take your skis off, Belalp’s version of après-ski – gazing, drink in hand, at the sun setting over one of the Alps’ greatest views, from Monte Rosa towards distant Mont Blanc – takes some beating.
2 Bonneval sur, Arc, France
At the end of the Maurienne valley, Bonneval is only six miles as the crow flies from the centre of big, brash Val d’Isère, but it could scarcely be more different. Bonneval’s 250 inhabitants have so far resisted the development that has blighted many French resorts, earning recognition as one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”. The ski area is small (11 lifts, 25km of pistes), but high (3,000m), and ski tourers can strike out into the 1,250sq km Vanoise National Park.
3 Bruson, Switzerland
This small village sits on the opposite side of the Val de Bagnes from Verbier’s celebrated slopes. To get there, skiers from Verbier must take a cable car down the valley, then catch a bus. Few make the effort, so it remains a delightful secret with empty, north-facing slopes. “It’s got the best tree-skiing in Europe, but it’s hardly used,” says ski coach Warren Smith. Don’t delay: a new lift to open in winter 2013-14 could bring many more skiers to its slopes.
4 Zinal, Switzerland
“My clients always expect me to find them untracked powder,” says Nick Parks, guide and founder of Mountain Tracks. “I’ve found my best chance of delivering their wish is Zinal.” The village is one of four small, unspoilt and uncrowded resorts in the Val d’Anniviers. At 1,670m, Zinal is the highest and the best base for serious skiers, with stunning views up to the Weisshorn and Matterhorn. Together, the resorts can muster 44 lifts and 220km of pistes, but the four ski areas are only connected by bus – until a major new lift between Grimentz and Zinal opens in November 2013.
5 Gargellen, Austria
Ernest Hemingway came ski touring in Austria’s Montafon valley in the 1920s, and it’s often said that not much has changed since. Tiny and charming, Gargellen is home to 110 people and is the highest of the valley’s 11 villages.
It offers around 45km of usually deserted pistes, but one ski pass and a bus network covers the whole valley, which in total offers 62 lifts and 222km of pistes.
There are a number of day tours for skiers of all levels to choose from, including the renowned Madrisa circuit, which passes over the border to Klosters, Switzerland.