Saas Fee obviously gets into the blood as successive generations come to ski in this low-key and very relaxed resort. The large village is car-free and whilst there are plenty of shops, bars and restaurants, they are not adorned with the intrusive signage seen all too frequently these days.
As expected, there is a good range of accommodation including village rooms whilst at the top end there are; the Fereinart Hotel where the staff are dressed in traditional costume to complement the décor but does not lack any modern amenities. I was particularly taken with both the swimming pool that enjoys great mountain views; together with the added bonus of a Michelin starred restaurant. Another good option is the more sophisticated Hotel Schweizerhof Gourmet & Spa. This is traditionally elegant and, with no pun intended; it is cool with its light colours and airy feel, however still retains a feeling of intimacy.
When choosing accommodation, be aware that the lifts are at one end of the resort and it can be an unwelcome hike at the end of a good day’s skiing. On the latest visit, we stayed in the unpretentious Hotel Europa with a Wellness centre with sauna, steam room and whirlpool, plus a shuttle service to the slopes so it represents good value for money. The hotel is central within the village but they have a sister hotel near the lifts where skis may be left.
Traditional chalets are there in abundance so there is something for everyone. They have numerous very small, ancient barns dotted around the village that are just begging for someone to adapt into the equivalent of the product of yesteryear; the yurt and the now fashionable shepherds’ huts.
To the slopes! The pistes are immaculately groomed to the extent that on checking the app at the end of the day we had unconsciously reached 70 mph as the pistes were so smooth.
The resort’s nursery slopes are gentle and there is no perception that you might ski off the mountain’s edges if you fail to stop. However, they really do need a ‘magic carpet’ as some really find the drag lifts are just that.
Graduating from the nursery slopes is easy as there are simple steps to make in progressing skills and later challenges. There is a good range to suit ‘family’ skiing and more adventurous skiers, although the emphasis is really on the former. In talking to a rep. he said that many of the guests wanted to escape the challenges of the vast ski terrains as they feel under pressure to ski them out. In Saas Fee, many people explore for a couple of days and then tend to focus on their favourite runs. That would account for the high standard of skiing styles I observed as everyone seemed very comfortable within their capabilities.
Most of the alternative skiing is off-piste and through the glacier areas where a guide is absolutely essential, obviously the glaciers are constantly moving and so changes to routes are frequent. Two glaciers converge which produces many fissures which sometimes are evidenced from observation, but more dangerously they are frequently below the unsupported snow. However, we much enjoyed the experience with our guide as we had rather different circumstances than in most off-piste areas; on occasion, we were right in the middle of the skiing area which was totally silent and undisturbed, whilst there were people around us but at a significant distance. We also tackled some of the little used steeper inclines to give us further challenges.
The Saas Fee lift pass also covers the neighbouring satellite hamlets of Saas-Grund, Saas-Bagen and Saas-Almagell. These are only a short distance away, accessible by bus (included in the pass), from Saas Fee. The bus leaves from the opposite end to the local slopes so it is best to make a day of it to ski these additional slopes; Saas-Grund having the most runs.
Interesting food to accompany skiing is a great combination; something new to me was a fondue ‘hutte’. As the name implies, you have a hut shaped, flame-heated metal ‘stove’ on your table and you cook the meat on the roof. A great success and lots of fun. There are many enticing restaurants around so you are spoilt for choice. Our best alfresco lunch was at the Spielboden restaurant, the food had to be good to match the views; no problem as the restaurant has been acquired by the Fereinart Hotel and the shine of their Michelin star had certainly given our food a sparkle.
Still on or rather in the mountain is the Ice Pavilion on Allalin (3,500m.), reached by the world’s highest funicular railway, where you find the world’s biggest ice grotto. You walk along seemingly endless passages through the ice which open up a whole range of different displays. Not the sort of feature that would normally divert me from skiing, but it was an enjoyable although very cold diversion.
Every village has its museum of local history with a range of frequently dusty artefacts, sepia-toned photographs, normally rather depressing. However, Saas Fee’s museum (competing with extra time to be spent with a Gluwein) was of a different order. The building was fascinating; the collections were such that they truly represented the span of everything they had to make a hard life easier to bear. Back to the depressing; the photographs showed how fast the glaciers have receded in recent decades; from being on the very doorstep of the village to being way off in the distance. Their very existence in the next century will be under threat.
There is a bit of a surprise in store; Saas Fee’s skiing and village is the equivalent of a well-behaved and well-presented individual as you would expect in this family oriented resort. However, the ‘wild child’ lurks in the dark; the Hannig lift which no longer serves skiers during the daytime and is used solely by hikers seeking peaceful, quiet meanderings, comes to life at night. The cable car reaches 2,350m. and here you kit yourself out with a head torch with elasticated strap and a single-seat toboggan. A short walk and you find a gaggle of people all wondering what was ahead. I lay down, Cresta Run style, and disappeared rapidly into the dark, the torch gave out a token level of light as I struggled to control the fast accelerating toboggan. Big mistake; as I quickly found out as there are hairpin bends where literally nearly everyone collides with other toboggans. Much laughter and fun enjoyed by all. Sitting upright, feet forward was much better in the circumstances, the best tactic on arriving at hairpin bends proved to be to jump off and dash round the bend to avoid being hit in the ankles by following toboggans.
The run went on and on, someone even had a happy dog on his toboggan, it turned out that the run is a full five kilometres long. It is one of those experiences where, at the finish, you immediately want another run and quickly make for the cable car. No one was hurt or even mentioned bruising but do check your insurances too often it is excluded! On that point, choice of insurances is fundamentally important, particularly in North America, as many of the so-called comprehensive winter sports policies are very narrow in their risks and age coverage. The approach of MPI Brokers is right, it is family run and they all are keen on winter sports. You can actually speak to individuals and if there is a knotty question, you might as I found out when I ‘phoned, be put on to Michael, the Owner. I wanted to know if kite skiing was included and he said “everything is included unless specifically excluded – winter sports is winter sports”. No wonder for the last two seasons, they have been awarded ‘Best Specialist Insurance Provider at the World Snow Awards’. Skiers are frequently sailors; their annual travel package includes off-shore sailing another thorny exclusion elsewhere. If anyone has found better travel insurances and premiums please let us know.