Switzerland’s mega international resorts like Verbier and Zermatt are world beaters, but for a change of pace and culture try areas like Villars in the Lake Geneva region. Swiss French culture, cuisine, wine, history, scenery and sunshine all combine to make the Lake Geneva region very special. The skiing is both varied and accessible. For families deals like kids to 9 ski free and many kids stay free options in conjunction are a bonus at Villars.
For 2018-2019 it will be even easier to get around the whole vast area thanks to the new Les Diablerets Express gondola which will take skiers, tobogganists and walkers from Les Diablerets via La Jorasse to Les Mazots in 6 minutes and 30 seconds.
As part of the improvements on the slopes, a new run at La Jorasse will be lighted for night skiing (from the gondola’s intermediate station to Les Diablerets). At Les Mazots, there will be a new learning area featuring a 100-metre long carpet for the youngest skiers
In Europe it’s easy to switch from country to country. In Switzerland it’s easy to switch from culture to culture without even leaving the country – just cross a mountain pass and you’ve swapped Swiss German for Swiss French.
Architecture, perhaps most noticeable in the numerous old churches, cuisine, and attitudes all change, along with the language obviously. How such diverse cultures united as one country centuries ago is a fascinating story we don’t have space for here, but the result is a key part of what makes a Swiss snow holiday so diverse and different.
Dropping down into the beautiful upper Rhône valley, past terraced vineyards clinging precariously to steep slopes in Switzerland’s most westerly canton, Vaud, we could see the difference immediately, and after winding our way back up to sunny, laid-back Villars village we could feel it in the ambience.
Villars has one of the best outlooks of any ski resort in the world, sitting on a sun-trap natural mountain bench with incredible views west to the high ranges across the Rhône Valley. Sunsets are extra special as the lights of the Ports du Soleil resorts creeping up the opposite side start to twinkle beneath the twilight glow.
Villars Les Diablerets skiing
No wonder it was one of the first choices for alpine tourism, which started here 153 years ago. The railway from historic Bex in the valley to Villars was built from 1898-1901, then extended to its present day terminus at Bretaye in 1913, which must make it one of the first ski lifts anywhere. The trains are faster and more frequent now, with the happy fringe benefit of providing ideal access for disabled skiers, and Villars is a major centre for that; sit skis are lined up waiting beside the platform. Bretaye is an 18 minute train journey up 500 vertical metres from the village, and the hub for the main Villars slopes, with an excellent restaurant, coffee shop and choice of two ski schools in the protected bowl beside the station. It’s a bit faster to take the Roc d’Orsay gondola from the middle of the village up 700m to a ridge above Bretaye.
The cruisy runs here are ideal for families and intermediate skiers, with three 6 pac chairs keeping things moving. But they only scratch the surface of the 125km of trails in the inter-linked Villars-Gryon-Les Diablerets-Glacier 3000 ski region.
Ski on to Diablerets village and take the short bus ride up to the Glacier 3000 cable car base station for one of the best high altitude ski experiences in Switzerland, and a view that runs from the Jungfrau peaks in the east past the Matterhorn to Mt Blanc in the west. Despite the altitude there’s no skill requirement, a beginner skier or young child can enjoy the long, easy runs served by 3 t-bars on the glacier. Anyone can enjoy the new Peak Walk at the top station, the restaurant, or browsing at Switzerland’s highest watch shop.
It’s not all cruisy on the glacier though – advanced skiers can hit the 5km black run down to Oldenalp, or with a guide there are freeride opportunities back under the top stage of the cable car.
New express chairs have made the link across from Villars to Diablerets much quicker, but you’ll still need to plan your day well to allow plenty of time at Glacier 3000. The little restaurant tucked away next to the ‘Devil’s Bowling Pin’ rock at the far end is worth visiting for the food and the view.
Don’t forget to ski over to Gryon either, with a long run down over the Villars golf course from Bretaye to access it. Apart from the open main runs in the Les Chaux area above Gryon there are some steep freeride return options past the traditional hamlet of Taveyanne, where guests can sample an old world no electricity experience. If it’s getting late, or you get tempted by too much early aprés watching the sun drop, you can always ski down to Gryon and just come back up on the train to Villars.
Villars village and where to stay
Villars is by far the best place to stay, offering good hotels from 3 to 5 star, a Club Med, and plenty of chalet and apartment options. The relaxed town centre has a little outdoor market where locals and ski instructors like to gather for a cheap beer or vin chaud, some nice restaurants, and nightlife centred on the El Gringo complex of bars, food outlets and a disco. Everything is within easy walk from the central hotel district around the station.
They have some great deals, like lift passes for just CHF 20 a day with accommodation for most of January and March to mid-April, and kids to 9 years ski and stay free (in same rooming as parents) all season.
Villars has a long history as an international schooling centre, and is now home to 5 prestigious colleges.
The region offers numerous other attractions, readily accessible self driving or using the trains, buses and boats on Lake Geneva/Lac Léman. These start as close as the salt mine experience at Bex, or venture further to Montreux, Lausanne and Geneva, perfect for down days or just a break from skiing.
As someone who generally prefers to drink wine rather than talk about it I am no expert, but contemplating how much sheer hard work is involved in tending the steep vineyards does get you thinking that maybe ‘Terroir’ makes a difference. Tasting the local pinot confirms that opinion, best done in conjunction with the local food, with many restaurants concentrating on authentic local produce and ingredients.
Put together it makes Villars ideal for anyone wanting a classic ski resort experience, without the need to be a super keen skier – non skiers will enjoy themselves as much as skiers here, and if you’re thinking of adding a few ski days to a Europe trip it’s perfect.
Getting to Villars
by train: to Aigle, 1½ hours from Geneva, 3 hours from Zurich and 3 hours from Basel. Change to local bus service in Aigle for the short (but steep) journey from Aigle to Villars. This final leg of the journey takes around 30 minutes with stops en route and brings you to the bus station in the centre of Villars.
by car: A9/E27/E62 to Aigle. On the E27 out of Aigle, follow the signposts to Ollon and the steep and winding road will take you to the centre of Villars.
resort info here
Lake Geneva region www.lake-geneva-region.ch
Villars Les Diablerets combined mountain statistics
• Summit 3100m, vertical 1800m
• 4.8m snowfall
• 78 trails longest 10km; terrain 50% beginner, 36% intermediate, 14% advanced/expert
• 3 parks
• 47 lifts including 4 gondolas, 3 cable cars, 11 chairlifts
Swiss Tourism are a great source of info, follow the links here for the latest news.