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SKI

Seven things to get you excited for the Swiss winter

Winter is coming, and across Switzerland a roster of intriguing developments – from laser-controlled ski lifts to winter kayaking – will make you want to wrap up and head out, says The Local’s Emily Rose Mawson.

Seven things to get you excited for the Swiss winter

Go paddling


Photo: High Tide Kayak School

Kayaking in winter sounds wet and cold, right? Wrong, according to Dave Storey of the Hightide Kayak School on Lake Brienz, which is offering winter kayak tours for the first time this year. In fact, the season offers some of the best days on the water, he says.

“The lake can be as still as a mirror, with snow piled around its banks and beautiful reflections of the mountains on its surface. Best of all, there is usually no one else out there … it really is stunning.”

The school provides dry suits, booties and poggies (paddler’s gloves) so participants stay warm and dry – even if they choose to swim in the water, which tends to be a chill five degrees Celsius.

No previous experience is required. A half-day guided tour costs 130 francs per person. More info: hightide.ch

Cycle on snow


Photo: Snow Bike Festival

The crazy alpine craze of biking on snow on contraptions with extra-wide tyres – so-called fat bikes – has taken Switzerland by storm. Hone your skills at the country’s first Snow Bike Park in Lenzerheide. Featuring bumps, dips and jumps, it piloted last March and is now getting into gear for its first full season.

If you’d rather be a spectator, it doesn’t get better than the third European Snow Bike Festival, from January 19th to 22nd in Gstaad. As well as showcasing some of the world’s best riders, this year’s programme includes a four-day stage race with up to 1,000 metres of climbing; an eliminator night race, with riders racing under floodlights; and the first ever UCI (International Cycling Union) race on snow.

Entrance to the Snow Bike Park, including cable car up, costs 42 francs for adults. See the programme for the best spectator points: snowbikefestival.com

Ride a laser-controlled lift

Switzerland already lays claim to Europe’s highest, steepest and longest cable cars, but this winter it’s all getting very high-tech. Controlled by a laser, the new Schaffürggli chairlift in Klosters, which cost a whopping 11 million francs, scans skiers then uses hydraulics to nudge the seat up or down to accommodate different heights. It also has an adaptable safety bar for small children and offers the luxury of an automatic hood and seat cushions.

Over in the canton of Valais, Saas-Fee has replaced its outdated Spielboden lift with a niftier version that will cut the journey time by more than half, travelling just over 2.4 kilometres in eight minutes. The modern ten-person gondolas will also be equipped with free WiFi.

Go fishing


Photo: Sportbahnen Melchsee-Frutt

Ice fishing is more Scandinavian than Swiss, and, offered at only a few locations across the country, is still more niche than mainstream here. But it has proven so popular in Melchsee-Frutt, Obwalden since it launched there ten years ago, that the resort has this year created a new package: ice fishing-cum-wellness. You spend two days fishing with an instructor in the frozen Melchsee and Tannensee at 2,000 metres above sea level, and have unlimited access to the facilities at nearby Frutt Family Lodge and Hotel Frutt Lodge & Spa, Europe’s highest altitude four-star superior.

“Ice fishing is perfect for forgetting your everyday concerns for a while and soaking up the peace and quiet of the mountains,” says Julia Mathis of Sportbahnen Melchsee-Frutt.

A day’s ice fishing costs from CHF 50. For all packages and prices visit melchsee-frutt.ch   

Walk on ice


Photo: Martin Keller

“Ice skating is so 2015”, according to the campaign behind the new 'UNESCO Ice Walk' above Kandersteg, which is instead promoting ice walking.

The first of its kind in Switzerland, the Ice Walk comprises two prepared routes of 30 and 90 minutes around the frozen Oeschinensee, a glacial lake that’s part of  the Unesco-protected  Jungfrau-Aletsch area.

“The scenery is truly unique: you can spy on ice fishers, watch climbers as they cross frozen waterfalls and witness snow-covered 1,000-metre walls of rock all around,” gushes Doris Kallen, of the Info Center Kandersteg. She recommends sledging back down to the village afterwards – “It’s the fast track option”.

Toboggan rental from 12 francs at Intersport Oeschinen, at the bottom of the Oeschinensee gondola, which carries walkers to the lake. More info: oeschinensee.ch

Experience an avalanche


Photo: Bruno Schaub

At the top of Saas-Fee’s Metro Alpin cableway, buried into the Fee Glacier at an altitude of 3,500 metres, is the chilly warren of the Ice Pavilion. Completely revamped this year, the grotto tells the tale of the glacier.

There’s a timeline to show how old the ice is (some of it predates Jesus); a model of a mountain rescue; and a viewing platform that overlooks the basin of 4,000-metre summits that encircles Saas-Fee. The undoubted – if slightly terrifying – highlight is an avalanche simulation with lighting effects, shockwaves and all.

“Avalanches are dangers that can occur on glaciers. As the Ice Pavilion is also intended to be educational, we wanted to raise awareness of this issue,” explains Claudine Perrothon from the tourist office.

Entrance costs ten francs or free with the Citizens’ Pass. More info: saas-fee.ch

Sleep in an island igloo

There’s nothing more magical than spending a winter’s night high in the mountains. With that in mind, bed down in Iglu Dorf’s new Igloo Hotel – its fifth in Switzerland – on the Stockhorn, high above Thun.

Set on the Hinterstockensee lake, the hotel is part of the Igloo Village, a secluded winter wonderland with plenty of creature comforts. There is a bar and fondue restaurant, as well as wellness in the shape of a whirlpool, and even icy art – the theme this year is ‘knights and forts’. Room, or ‘igloo’, categories range from romantic to family, but the best option is the ‘island igloo’, secreted away in the middle of the lake.

Prices from 159 francs per person per night including breakfast. More info: iglu-dorf.com

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SKI

Switzerland heavily criticised for welcoming foreign skiers

Italy has hit out at Switzerland for failing to prevent foreign skiers from hitting the slopes. Some have gone so far as to blame Switzerland for the spread of virus mutations across Europe.

Switzerland heavily criticised for welcoming foreign skiers
The mighty Matterhorn lies on the border with Italy. Photo by AFP
Italy's government last week blocked ski resorts from reopening, the day before skiing was due to be allowed for the first time this winter season due to coronavirus restrictions.
There is also a ban on non-essential travel until February 25th.

“It's a disaster. For a week now, we have been readying the slopes for the opening and preparing the health protocol,” said Denis Trabucchi, an Italian ski instructor. 

But the ban has not stopped Italian snow enthusiasts from hitting the slopes on the Swiss side of the border, as Switzerland has kept its ski infrastructure open despite the pandemic.

Many Swiss and Italian pistes lie close to each other so it is an easy commute from one resort to another.

The mayors of Italian border towns are annoyed that local skiers are ‘emigrating’ to Swiss ski slopes, according to the Provincio di Como newspaper.

“Cross-border skiers are not as numerous as cross-border workers, of course, but ski traffic has increased,” said Massimiliano Tam, mayor of Villa di Chiavenna, a town in Lombardy.

He said that despite bans on such border hopping, many Italians rent apartments on the Swiss side of the frontier so they can ski.

Roberto Galli, the mayor of Livigno, a ski resort in the Italian Alps, is also livid at the “cross-border ski mobility”.

“Customs controls are really limited” he said, calling for more rigorous checks “especially for Italian cars with ski racks and snow on the roof”.

Italian authorities even went as far as blaming Switzerland for the spread of the pandemic across Europe. 

Walter Ricciardi, the head of the Italian government's coronavirus task force, said Switzerland's decision to keep ski slopes open throughout winter, while neighbouring countries shut down theirs, allowed the British strain of coronavirus to arrive on the continent.

READ MORE: Is Switzerland to blame for Europe’s third wave of coronavirus?

A similar situation occurred in December, when French skiers tried to sneak into Switzerland to ski.

France’s authorities quickly announced that French residents heading abroad to ski would have to self-isolate for seven days on return and that border checks would be stepped up in certain areas. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What are the Covid-19 rules for skiing in Switzerland this winter? 
 

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