Saas-Fee in Switzerland is the ideal place to learn to ski in idyllic surroundings. At the other extreme, snowboarders flock here year-round to check out the awesome snow park on Mittelallalin glacier
Though I love skiing in the French Alps and in Austria, I always look forward to a ski break in Switzerland. For me, the place has always had a timeless classic appeal. It is so easy for us Brits to head to any number of French resorts or return to a favourite year after year – a trend firmly established over the past 20 years, with about 50 per cent of British winter sports enthusiasts heading to France and staying in its mostly purpose-built and immensely efficient resorts.
One of my favourite ski destinations in the world is Zermatt, the charming Swiss resort that is instantly recognisable by its big pointed "hat" – the Matterhorn. It has everything I wish for: an abundance of snow-sure and varied terrain, spectacular scenery and some great gourmet restaurants both on the mountain and in the "chocolate-box" car-free village. However, its not recommended for mixed-ability groups with beginners. If you fall into that category, make a beeline instead for the fellow Swiss resort of Saas-Fee.
Since the two are only 15km apart, Saas-Fee lies (more than figuratively) in the shadow of its more celebrated peer. If it were anywhere else, it would not play second fiddle to any ski resort due to its wide range of terrains to suit all standards of skier and snowboarder. Besides, it has two big advantages over its glittering neighbour. First, it is a particularly good resort for beginners. Second, it has a larger variety of accommodation options to suit most budgets. Bearing all this in mind, Saas-Fee can rightly be considered one of the world’s top ski and snowboard destinations.
Saas Fee is a quaint, traditional and car-free village with a genuine Alpine atmosphere. Just as its slopes are ideal for those learning to ski and snowboard, so its village will seduce anyone new to the sport. Smart hotels and shops blend in with lovely wooden chalets, farmhouses and cobbled streets plied by horse-drawn sleighs. So photogenic is it, Saas-Fee was used as the location for the video of the enduring Wham! song Last Christmas, filmed 25 years ago in the village. As well as having star quality, Saas-Fee is blessed with long snow-sure seasons – and even in summer, the fun continues on its dramatic glacier. A youthful snowboarding culture has always been strong here, proving that Switzerland does cool as well as classic.
The main skiing areas are at Felskinn and Langfluh, with three possible routes of access. There is also the (often overlooked) area of Plattjen, which is not linked to the other two but worthy of exploration as it offers a contrasting terrain that is tree-lined and non-glacial. The jumbo (30-person) Alpin Express cable car rapidly takes you up to Felskinn. Other options are the Felskinn cable car or the gondola up to Spielboden at 2,450m. All routes require a change of cable car to reach Langfluh, at a lofty 2,870m.
Because the glacier has such a rapidly-moving ice flow (up to 40m per year), it is difficult – if not impossible – to improve the links between Langfluh and Felskinn further than they have already, using specially engineered drag lifts. The glaciers provide a similar challenge for expert skiers, being deeply crevassed and therefore hazardous for off-piste skiing. Only the foolhardy would venture off-limits here without an experienced guide.
Saas-Fee has a fairly even mixture of fast lifts (predominantly cable cars and gondolas) and the dreaded drag lifts. It can also boast the Alpin Metro, the world’s highest underground funicular railway up to the Mittelallalin glacier at 3,500m (11,480ft). There you will find another record-breaking landmark – Allalin, the world’s highest revolving restaurant. Below it is a great glacier grotto and exhibition area called the Ice Pavillion, which is well worth a look. You actually step inside the glacier, and among the displays are a genuine crevasse and a mock-up of a rescue. It's a fascinating insight into both the beauty and the dangers of this type of glacier.
Saas Fee is a great snow-sure destination, with its high altitude glacier you can be assured of guaranteed snow early or late season, if you are seeking an early or late ski break and have beginners in your group it should definitely be added to your list of possible destinations.
To get the full low-down on high altitude resorts that guarantee snow - my top 10 guide is right here on Simonseeks...
Unfortunately, all the lift base stations in Saas-Fee are located – less than conveniently – on the fringes of the village. It is therefore a big advantage if your hotel runs an electric taxi shuttle to them, but there are excellent facilities at the stations themselves for storing your skis and boots for less than £10 per week. Saas-Fee has some excellent nursery slopes close to the base and village, serviced by drag lifts (all part of the fun).
Perfect for complete novices, Saas-Fee has a traditional wide and gentle green nursery slope at the base, thoughtfully located away from other descending skiers and boarders. There are numerous confidence-building blues that wind down to the village from Felskinn. The picturesque village itself is everything a first-timer could wish a ski resort to be, with a welcoming ambience and a traditional charm. With runs suited to mixed-ability groups and good but value-for-money restaurants, Saas-Fee is an ideal ski resort for families.
Quality not quantity is the watch-word here. With a total terrain of 100km, Saas-Fee is not a vast ski circus like so many interlinked areas these days – though there is talk of creating a tunnel link through the mountain to Zermatt, which would be simply awesome. However, a project of this magnitude is not going to materialise overnight. What Saas-Fee does have, though, is dramatic steep terrain (red) and a huge exhilarating drop from 3,500m right down to 1,800m – enough to make your ears pop!
There is a superb red (Allalin) with a 1,700m vertical drop, and a choice of numerous winding blues and reds to the village from Spielboden and Langfluh. This helps to spread out the traffic on the pistes down to the village; Zermatt, by comparison, tends to get a bit hairy towards the end of the day when the main narrow red run back to town feels a bit like the M25… except with the mountain traffic moving a lot faster.
Experts have a couple of serious black descents over in Saas-Fee's much-forgotten area of Plattjen. At 2,570m, it doesn't have the vertical drop of the other sectors – but it is the site of the official FIS slalom and is serviced by a six-person gondola. There are also some excellent steep, deep tree-lined powder runs which, because they are not glacial, can be enjoyed unaccompanied by a guide. Back over on Felskinn and Langfluh are a couple of steep reds – Allalin and Langfluh. These are real long leg-burners back to the village. The black Kanonenrohr descent is also a memorable challenge.
Overall, the off-piste options are considerably reduced due to the deep glacial crevasses that permeate the mountain's unprepared terrain. However, there is the opportunity to hop off the funicular at the mid-station to experience some rewarding powder, as long as you are accompanied by a qualified guide. It is illegal here not to have one.
Snowboarders will feel at home in Saas-Fee. The sport and accompanying culture have always been actively encouraged here, with many professionals and national teams – including the UK's own – taking advantage of the year-round snow on the glacier and using the superb Mittelallalin snow park for pre-season training. Numerous professional events take place here, notably the Saas-Fee Ride (www.saasfeeride.com) every July.
SAAS-FEE AT A GLANCE
Total number of lifts 23
Cable cars Four
Chair lifts Two
Drag lifts 13
Lowest lift 1,800m
Highest lift 3,500m
Rides per hour 22,690
Snow cannon Eight
Resort altitude 1,800m
Terrain altitude 1,800m-3,500m
Number of pistes 69
(eight green, 26 blue, 27 red, eight black)
Beginner pistes 37 per cent
Intermediate pistes 40 per cent
Expert pistes 23 per cent
Longest run 9km
Total piste length 100km
Pros and cons
Snow-sure high-altitude skiing
World-class snowboard destination
Brilliant for beginners and intermediates alike
Alpine charm, spectacular scenery and a charming traditional village
Off-slope activities for non-skiers
Variety of accommodation to suit most budgets
Limited extent of ski area
Off-piste restricted because of crevassed glaciers
High altitude can lead to bad weather conditions
Village not compact
If dialling from the UK or roaming, prefix all numbers below with 00 41 and omit the first zero.
Unfortunately, Saas-Fee cannot compete (and few resorts can) with the gastronomic capital of world skiing – Zermatt (see my guide to the resort, here at Simonseeks). The main problem with the nine mountain restaurants around Saas-Fee is that few are privately owned; most are run by the lift companies. That said, here are some welcome little exceptions to that rule:
Allalin (027 957 17 71) Billed as the world's highest revolving restaurant, Allalin sits right at the top of Mittelallalin (3,500m). In my view, the food here wasn't that inspiring – but it's still a place you have to visit once. Pizzas cost £13, most main courses about £16, and a steak lunch £23. The table service restaurant upstairs is where the rotation occurs: eat and drink as the panorama unfolds over the course of an hour – the Eiger, Jungfrau, Saaser Mischabel, Mönch... and, oh yes, don’t leave your gloves on the window sill…
Gletscher Grotte (027 957 21 60) Located on the run of the same name, just after it crosses Kanonenrohr (black), this tiny, cosy cabin comes highly recommended. Serving wonderfully homely food, it's particularly known for its excellent rösti and a lovely sunny terrace area. Best to book ahead. Expect to pay £25 for three courses and a beer.
Berghaus Plattjen (027 957 12 05) Again, this restaurant is highly recommended – and, with Gletscher Grotte, is one of the best two on the mountain. Located on Plattjen (at 2,418m), in the little Hotel Vernissage, it is also highly regarded for its rösti (£14). Nourishing soups are all under a tenner, and a steak with Béarnaise sauce and chips costs £26. There is also a sunny terrace to sit on and enjoy the mountain views.
Most of Saas-Fee's high-quality restaurants can be found at hotels in and around the village. There is a good choice of about 60 in total – and the standard is high. Here are a select few:
Best for gourmets
Fletschhorn (027 957 21 31) One of Switzerland's top restaurants, this one occupies the number one slot in my personal recommendations too. This Michelin-starred hotel restaurant is a 10-minute taxi ride from the centre. Book ahead, and expect to pay about €100 per person for three courses and wine.
Hohnegg's Restaurant und Gourmetstübli (027 957 22 68) Located in the eco-friendly Ferienneck Hohnegg Resort and Spa at 1,920m, this superb modern restaurant is a 10-minute walk above the town. Widely acknowledged as one of Switzerland's top 10 mountain restaurants, it serves modern international and award-winning vegetarian cuisine. There is also the great little Hohnegg Fondue Hut, with a lovely sunny terrace and panoramic views. Fondues cost about £24 for two – and, surprisingly, the restaurant has menus starting from as little as £15. Expect to pay £35-£45 for a three-course dinner with wine.
Le Mandarin Thai (027 958 19 00) Located in the Ferienart Resort and Spa, this serves superb Thai fusion cuisine. Assorted starter platters cost about £15, the delicious red curry soup and dim sum just £7,and a typical main course – such as shrimps in a tempura pastry with crispy vegetables – about £19.
Del Ponte (027 958 19 02) The excellent Italian ristorante in the same Ferienart hotel serves appetising and authentic wood-fired pizzas costing £13 on average. Other Italian favourites such as ravioli and good old-fashioned spaghetti alla Bolognese cost about £12.
Cäsar Ritz (027 958 19 00) This is yet another fine-dining restaurant in the Ferienart, serving international cuisine. A six-course set menu (weekdays) costs £52, a Sunday seven-course special £64.
Restaurant Swiss Chalet (027 957 11 65) A charming little hotel restaurant with a typical Alpine ambience, the Swiss Chalet serves a good range of fondues for two to share, served with hot peppers or a jacket potato, for £16. Meat fondues with beef or venison cost £30. If a good entrecôte is more your thing, an 8oz steak with peppercorn sauce and herb butter costs £25.
Best for informal pizza and pasta
Boccalino (027 957 17 31) Situated in front of the Saaserhof, this lovely relaxed Italian restaurant is my number-one choice for great-value pasta and pizza for all the family. These dishes, plus Italian risottos, cost £10-14.
Spaghetteria Da Rosso (027 957 15 26) Located under the Hotel Beau-Site, this is another good family-friendly Italian. Pizzas and main dishes are all in the £10-15 range.
Saas-Fee may have a quaint, old-fashioned ambiance – but when it comes to the après-ski, it is definitely young-at-heart. The sheer height of the surrounding landscape means the sun disappears behind the mountains early, around 3pm. As it does, things begin to hot up in the bars. There are favourite hang-outs for snowboarders and lively bars dotted all along the main street. When the sun is going down, the terraces beside the slopes are buzzing with crowds and live music, while DJs are busy getting the party atmosphere off to a rocking start.
Nesti’s Bar (027 957 42 11) A hugely popular bar, Nesti's is always packed to the rafters. It has a great atmosphere, the staff are great and it does a roaring trade in shots. Arrive here early, or you simply won’t get in.
Hotel Metropol. (027 957 10 01) There are a number of bars to suit everyone in this four-star hotel, ranging from a pub with pool tables to a sophisticated and relaxed whisky bar and the stylish Art club disco.
The Iglu Bar (027 958 12 58) This trendy bar opens early when bad weather draws in.
Alpen Pub (027 957 38 28) A no-frills, straightforward "pub in the Alps", the Alpen is a little more laid-back and is a good place to chill out and have a chat and a beer.
Zur Muhle (no telephone) Situated right by the slopes, this is a great place to catch the last of the sun's rays as people spill out of the bar on to the busy terrace.
Black Bull (no telephone) Like the Zur Muhle, this rocking bar and terrace is packed as it gets the last of the sun’s rays. The music is pumping from the afternoon until late.
Popcorn (027 957 40 06) Located in the Hotel Dom, this is a popular snowboarder's shop and bar that morphs into a really buzzing pub/club after hours. With its regular live bands, this is the place to be when many of the pro events take place in the village.
Poison (027 957 50 51) This bar/club should be called insomnia, as it stays open until 6am.
Feriernart Resort & Spa 5* This wonderful chalet-style hotel has a slope-side location, five superb restaurants and a top-class spa and pool. It has recently expanded its off-slope activities with a sumptuous sports complex opposite, called the Rainbow – superbly equipped for almost any sport,and truly outstanding.
Schweizerhof Gourmet and Spa deluxe 4* A warm and welcoming atmosphere is guaranteed at this luxurious property, together with excellent childcare facilities. Scrumptious five-course dinners and excellent breakfasts are served in the restaurant. Facilities include a very impressive indoor pool and spa, with various saunas and relaxation treatments. Second only to the Ferienart for sheer quality.
Hohnegg Alpine Resort 4* The Hohnegg's Restaurant und Gourmetstübli (see The Dining, above) is reason enough to stay here. The comfortable, eco-friendly hotel also has log-cabin apartments individually styled for two to six people. It's a 10-minute climb up from the village on foot, but being ski-to-door offsets the inconvenience.
Allalin Relais du Silence 3*+ Positioned at the far end of town from the lifts (where, luckily, the hotel has ski storage facilities), this a great package-deal option. The truly excellent restaurant is atmospheric and serves modern international cuisine. Completely refurbished to a very high standard in 2007, the hotel has spacious rooms and suites with leather chairs.
Best Western Metropol Grand Hotel 4* This truly impressive, well-appointed hotel has excellent facilities. They include an indoor pool and spa, several of Saas-Fee's best bars and a nightclub on-site for quick access to the après-ski. The restaurant serves an excellent six-course dinner and a choice of hot or cold buffet breakfasts in the morning. This is a popular choice of hotel for Crystalski clients.
Hotel Saaserhof 4* With an enviable slope-side location and doorstep skiing, the Saaserhof is a firm favourite with many Brits. The lavish five-course dinners go down well, while for relaxaiton there is a sauna and steam room with a whirlpool bath.
Christiania 3* This very popular family-run hotel is centrally located and just a three-minute walk from the slopes. Nesti's Bar (see The Après-ski, above) is conveniently within staggering distance. The hotel restaurant does a good, homely five-course evening set meal with waiter service. A good-value choice.
Ski chalets and apartments
Saas-Fee has about 1,500 chalets and apartments for rent. Write to the tourist office (www.tumbl.it/saastouristinfo), which will send a list of available apartments.
The nearest airports are Geneva (3.5 hours away) and Zürich (4 hours).
From Geneva, trains run directly to Brig or Visp. There are then hourly buses to Saas-Fee. From Zürich, travel to Brig on the new direct train, then change to the bus service.
From Geneva, take the autobahns A1 and A9 to Brig. From Zürich, take the autobahns A1 and A6 towards Thun; from there, you can pick up route 223 for Brig. Once in Saas-Fee, park in the public lot at the town entrance. Call your hotel for a pickup, or take a taxi. Taxis, either horse-drawn sleighs or small electric vehicles, go from the parking lot and bus station to town and cost about €10.
Tourist office (00 41 27 958 18 58)