How to make the most of the Swiss Alps in winter
It was a dazzling day. Fresh, crisp snow underfoot, powder-laden pines all around, big blue sky overhead. Yet, my attention was elsewhere as I was astride a traditional wooden sledge peering down a dauntingly steep slope.
At 7.2 km, the sledge run, or 'luge', which snakes down from Les Mazots to Les Diablerets, is the longest in Switzerland. Having been shown, albeit briefly, how to steer the thing, I shuffled towards the crest of the hill and watched as my companions headed off at a steady pace.
I cautiously followed suit, sliding closer to the first bend before a panic-induced run-in with a snowbank made me realise just how incredibly fun this was going to be.
And so it continued for some 45 minutes as our group of luge beginners swooshed, collided and glided into mounds of snow, each other and more adept passers-by, all to the soundtrack of raucous laughter and much guffawing.
Eventual periods of smooth sledging combined with adrenaline to make this one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating experiences, not to mention proof that not every winter activity has to include skis.
Here, we share just some of the other surprising ways to make the most of a winter escape to the easy-going resort of Villars-sur-Ollon in the Vaud Alps, southwest Switzerland.
Getting to Villars: it's easy to get to this area by public transport. Whether you fly with SWISS* to Geneva*, which is closer, or Zurich*, ride the highly efficient trains to Aigle. Here, catch the 144 bus up to Villars.
It's worth purchasing a Swiss Travel Pass, which gives you unlimited access to public trains, buses and boats for three to 15 days and includes free entry to hundreds of museums and discounts on selected activities.
The resort of Villars has welcomed skiers since the turn of the last century. It sits in the middle of a wide skiing zone incorporating the neighbouring areas of Les Diablerets to the northeast and Gryon to the south, all linked by some 44 ski lifts and 125 km of slopes for beginners to pros.
The ski base of Bretaye, which was first connected to Villars by a cog-driven mountain railway in 1913, is the gateway to this broad network of lifts and slopes.
It's also where you'll find Villars Ski School, whose blue and yellow-clad instructors are more than willing to show you the ropes (should that be poles?), just be prepared for your cautious snowplough to be overtaken by a fearless toddler.
Get the gear: hire your skis, boots, helmets, poles and more from Daetwyler Sports opposite the main station in Villars.
Talking of snowshoeing, banish thoughts of unwieldy wooden-framed giant tennis rackets; today, it's a sophisticated and seemingly very popular no-experience-necessary pastime with thoroughly modern equipment.
The mountains surrounding Villars are zig-zagged with snowshoeing trails, all thoughtfully waymarked with bright pink discs, handy for keeping you right even in a flurry of snow.
Although you can tackle these on your own, you'll get immeasurably more from any trek if you seek out local guide and qualified mountain leader, Boudewijn van Doorn of Peak2Peace.
His passion and knowledge about the area's geology, terrain, environment and wildlife make him an essential for any mountain-escapade at any time of year.
Top tip: it's easy to get hot and sweaty snowshoeing, especially on a sunny winter's day. Be sure to wear layers that can be whipped on and off and to pack plenty of water too.
Conversely, snowshoeing is both physical and relaxing. Unlike whizzing down a slope, it's possible to chat, listen, stop and absorb your surroundings, be it the peaceful embrace of the woods, repetitive clackety-clack of snowshoes or nuthatch chirps from high in the trees. It's slow, snow travel at its very best.
Another way to get out and about is on a winter's hike, something you might not have thought possible given the snow. However, you'll find waymarked routes across all altitudes that have been compressed and smoothed over, often by a type of ski-doo. You'll wind through forests, out to quiet lakes and secluded viewpoints.
There's something quite ethereal about hiking through the snowy landscape in winter. Although well-signposted, and depending on your chosen route, you're not likely to see many other people and can quickly find yourself revelling in the seclusion of a path whose snow remains untouched and enveloped in silence.
As with every activity, the secret is to ensure you have the right gear. Good, sturdy hiking boots and suitable waterproof trousers are essential, while decent grippers and poles only add to the effect.
The high peak of Glacier 3000 is an outdoor playground home to a wealth of exciting activities from dog sledding to visiting an ice cathedral. It can be reached via cable car from Col du Pillon, which travels up to station at Scex Rouge.
From here, you can really test your nerve by stepping out onto the only suspension bridge in the world that connects two mountain peaks, known as the Peak Walk by Tissot. The bridge, which is free to cross, is 107 m long and, on clear days, offers views over the Swiss Alps to the likes of the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and Eiger.
Alternatively, take to the glacier on foot: hike the 3 km from Scex Rouge station up to peak-straddling Restaurant Refuge l'Espace. This hour-long glacier walk is accessible all year round and tried legs can take the cable car back down.
Where to stay & eat
Villars is, as you might expect, well stocked with accommodation options, restaurants and fun-filled après ski haunts. For laidback luxury, look no further than Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa, whose chalet chic artfully blends traditional and modern with all the trimmings you'd expect from one of the Leading Hotels of the World.
Be sure to visit the spa, with its steam room, sauna, treatment rooms and inviting swimming pool accessorised with day beds and a roaring fireplace; it's the place to be after a day snowventuring. Meanwhile, onsite Le Grizzly restaurant serves up truffle-infused cheese fondue like no other.
For a stylish dinner accompanied with fine wines, head to nearby Italian, Peppino. Whether you go for the freshly made ravioli, oozing burrata salad or hand-stretched pizza, you know you've earned it after a day in the mountains.
Villars snow report (ski season)
Ready to book your winter adventure? Check out the latest offers on fares to Switzerland with SWISS.
Please note: Weather2Travel.com experienced Villars in February 2022 with support from MySwitzerland. All views expressed are those of the writer.
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