Crans-Montana was one of the destinations for skiers in the 1980s looking for Swiss chic, extensive pistes, high quality dining and spectacular views. It was overtaken in the fashion stakes by the likes of Courchevel, but is now coming back with a bang into the consciousness of high-end winter sports visitors. Darius Sanai visits, and likes what he sees
7:30 am at the LeCrans hotel in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Wandering the considerable distance in our wood panelled room between the bed and the glass door to the balcony, past the living area, I draw back the curtains. A sea of white and blue floods in. We are on a south-facing shelf high above a broad valley far below. In front of me, far away on the other side of the valley, is a jagged range of peaks. The view extends for 40 km in either direction.
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I step onto the balcony. It snowed all night, before clearing at dawn. My bare feet crunch through the powder. I wonder about spending the day in the spa, pool and jacuzzi. I could admire the view, go for a walk, progress effortlessly from lunch through dinner in the classy, intimate dining spaces in this uber-chic boutique luxury hotel in a forest above Crans, the old-new (more on that shortly) swanky destination in Switzerland.
But that would be wrong. I order room service: some home made Bircher muesli, green juice, an oat latte, taken inside with a view onto the whole of Switzerland, so it seems. So many resorts in the Alps are buried deep in valleys: you need to take the lift up for the views. Or they have featureless views of anonymous mountainsides with endless motorway pistes. Here I am gazing from Mont Blanc to the St Bernard Pass, through the Zermatt valley and the sabre-tooth shaped Weisshorn, to the peaks above Andermatt, looking at the full range of the highest peaks in Switzerland, the focus of Alpinists through the generations, without moving from my room. Below (way below) are the vineyards of the Valais.
I have to move. I squeeze on my boots, walk out of the ski room and across a snow covered lane, and clip on my skis. There is a shuttle to the lift station in Crans, visible below through the woods. But where’s the fun in that. Skis on, I follow a track made by a couple of other skiers across the woods, gently downwards, close to the trees, and shoot down a little vertical section, turning smartly onto the piste. I am on the main run into the resort, before anyone has had the chance to explore it.
It’s an old-fashioned piste, in the nicest way. It weaves and turns and flattens through real scenery, forests and glades and past lakes. Not a motorway with slip roads and parallel pistes leading to the same place. There’s a fun chicane near the new Six Senses Resort, and then the lift station appears.
Crans-Montana is having a moment. Prominent in the 20th century as a ski/golf resort, a year round destination before that was fashionable, it lost social kudos to places like Verbier (across the broad Rhône valley) and Courchevel more recently. Now, it has rediscovered its own qualities. Its sunshine and views are exceptional, as it is on a high shelf above the deep Rhône valley, facing south. It has a good, if not exceptional, vertical drop for skiing and both high and tree-lined pistes. Being less than a kilometre (vertically) from some of the best vineyards in Switzerland guarantees excellent wine and, not coincidentally, some very gourmet focussed resort and mountain restaurants – it has four Michelin-starred restaurants.
It also has good snow: at 1550m, it is at a good altitude, with top station at just under 3000m. On the one hand, the south facing, sunny aspect means warm spring days create early melt, but being high above a deep valley in the west of the Alps means relatively high snowfall during the winter, when fronts come in either from the west or the southwest, as a counterpoint. When it snows in Switzerland, it really snows in Crans.
The last couple of years have reflected this revival: where previously it was the domain of smart middle class families from northern Europe, Crans is now seeing more LUX-type people move in. The Six Senses opens this February, with Residences being snapped up by ultra high net worths. We hear of the Swiss elite snapping up apartments near the resort centre. It’s not as expensive to buy property in Crans as in Verbier or Gstaad, and it may lack the ski breadth of the former and the social kudos of the latter, but it is sunnier and less hectic than Verbier and higher than Gstaad. Locals say prices are heading up: but as a counterpoint, there is a lot of property in Crans and its neighbour, Montana, and parts of the resort are a bit 20th century modern for some tastes.
I ponder all this while in the gondola up to the top station. I spend the day shooting down an array of high and low runs, all of them interesting in a classic kind of way. I don’t know enough about ski resort design to analyse why Crans, like Lech or Klosters, seems classic in the way you ski. There’s something about the shape of the pistes, shaped to the mountain rather than trying to conquer the mountain; compromised but interesting, unpredictable. It seems organic and classical, somehow, compared to skiing at Courchevel or Val d’Isere, which have bigger ski areas, but also many runs that look like each other. The runs below the tree line here are gorgeous, wide and curving through the forest.
Getting back to the hotel from the main run down, you have to know which section of trees to turn off at, and then whiz along a flattish forest path which finishes at the hotel’s doorstep. It’s not officially a piste, but it’s a lot of fun. (You can always ski down to the end of the piste and the hotel will collect you).
Read more: The serene beauty of little-known Alpine resort Drei Zinnen
That evening, I dine at Le Crans. The hotel is snuggled in the forest above the resort. There are a few other chalets dotted around, otherwise only trees. The design, a reworking of a 1960s hotel in contemporary wood and stone, is both relaxing and striking. The restaurant, with its Michelin star, is quite minimalist and relaxed in feel, with plenty of space and broad views. The menu is poetry: dishes called They Flutter in the Light Wind (Jerusalem artichoke, fig, hay, lime and shimeji) or Like A Melancholic Garden (chestnuts, chanterelles, salsify, broccoli). The wine is also poetic: I try a Cornalin, made from a Swiss red grape, from a vineyard in the valley below. It is spicy, with autumn berries and a soft, velvet length. The best Swiss wines are worthy of shining on the international stage, but are prevented from doing so by the Swiss, who know that and have the means to buy them all themselves.
The next evening, after skiing the length of the resorts runs to above Montana, a considerable horizontal and vertical distance, I go for room service along with a bottle of Heida, made with another Swiss grape, from a terraced vineyard below Montana. The Heida is full of lemon-herb creaminess, and stands up to a very high quality grilled chicken salad. I sip the last glass on the balcony; the snow has melted a little during the day and now refrozen under the stars. A gentle wind blows the scent of pine cones from the woods and the silhouette of 100 kilometres of Alps stands out in the moonlight in front of me. Whether or not Crans’s new moment has truly come, I, like many others, will certainly be coming back.
Find out more: https://lecrans.com/