Looking for the perfect early-season ski break? Crans-Montana has it all, from sunny slopes to spectacular views across the Swiss Alps – and an epicure’s delight of a Christmas market as LUX Editor-in-Chief Darius Sanai discovers
Matterhorn; Mont Blanc; Weisshorn; Dent Blanche: for Alpinists these are among the superstar peaks of Europe, rising 4500m or higher above sea level. When you go skiing, you are usually tied to a vista of one or two of these celebrity peaks: think Zermatt and the Matterhorn, or Chamonix and Mont Blanc.
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In this Swiss resort of Crans-Montana, though, you are treated to a panorama of all of them, at once. The resort sits on a high, sunny, tree-lined shelf above the deep Rhône valley which runs from Lake Geneva towards central Switzerland. From the top lift station, Plaine Morte, you have in front of you a vista that encompasses the peaks of every ski resort from Saas-Fee, in the east, via Zermatt and Verbier, to Chamonix, in the west. Even the view from the village itself is exceptional, sweeping across the vineyards of the Rhône valley far below and over towards Italy.
The view in itself would be a reason to visit this most established of Swiss resorts, but right now there are numerous others. The resort is split into two main villages, Crans and Montana, a kilometre or so apart on the high shelf. We visited last week when Crans had just opened its annual Etoile Bella Lui festival on its high street. Stemming from a local myth, the festival features more than a dozen restaurateurs (some of them Michelin-starred) setting up shop in wooden huts along the high street, selling one food dish each – ranging from venison burgers to foie gras, via the most delicious fillet steak/balsamic glaze/garlic chip and truffle brochettes we have ever had.
The stalls each also sell a pair of local wines by the glass. And you can dismiss your memories of gauche Alpine vino right now: the vineyards in the valley below Sion make some of Europe’s most celebrated “small producer” wines, from white grapes such as Petite Arvine and Heida, and rounded Pinot Noir based reds. Our favourite is Cornalin, a Swiss red grape variety; we were served an example suffused with spicy, plummy zinginess at one of the stalls and couldn’t bear to leave. These are wines to match the Michelin-starred food huts.
Below the high street is the Lantern walk, an enchanting night-lit path illuminating the story of they local legend, and a Christmas market with a Ferris wheel with a difference: ride to the top, and you have an enhanced 360 degree view of the valley below, mountains beyond, the lakes around Crans, and the ski pistes above.
Ah, and the skiing. The snow fell big last week, with more (hopefully) scheduled for next week. Crans-Montana is one of Switzerland’s most established ski areas, although it is better known among the Swiss and French than the international crowd that visits nearby resorts like Verbier or Gstaad. The runs are mainly a mixture of reds and blacks, and they are a delight: long, winding, interesting, starting at nearly 3000m and dropping down to resort level at 1500m, through a variety of landscapes from glacial rockscapes where mountain goats balance precariously on rock towers above you, to wide, sunny runs through the woods. The whole mountain is south facing, making ideal for now, when any sun is a welcome respite from winter temperatures. And everywhere, you have the views: from the top station you can see the three highest mountains wholly inside Switzerland (Dom, Taschhorn and Weisshorn, since you asked), the highest mountain in Europe (Mont Blanc) and the most famous (Matterhorn), all towering across distant valleys. From the village the view is hardly any worse, and there is a feeling of light and space and panorama everywhere you go.
The perfect resort for an early-season ski trip? We think so, and we are going back.
The Etoile Bella Lui festival runs until January 5. For more information visit: crans-montana.ch