Nestled in the Swiss Alps, Crans-Montana has a star-studded name-dropping backdrop with both the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc showcasing its spectacular panoramic scenery. We were there for this snowboarding review in December for the opening week of the season.
Worryingly, snow conditions were not good, but the snow gods must have been appeased, and we were lucky enough to have a fresh dump of snow that night.
We were staying at the sumptuous 5-star Aida Hotel & Spa. My room was larger than the first apartment that I lived in, with a huge walk-in wardrobe, an enormous open-plan lounge area, a balcony with a view of the Alps, and, the cherry on top, a TV that seamlessly rose from the bottom of the bed frame. My bed was so comfortable that I struggled to get up the next morning. Which, considering it was a powder day, is a crime in snowboarding law punished by being pounded with ice-laden snowballs. Having said that, we were surprised how quiet the slopes were. Most of the runs were still shut, and despite getting up there late, we still, unbelievably, had fresh tracks!
Day 1: Snowboarding in Crans Montana
From Montana, we headed up the gondola and then the ski lift. From here, we managed to keep high by shuffling along to the left of the slope to find the Holy Snowboarding Grail – fresh snow to surf! Because of the conditions, most of the slopes were still shut, but we had so much fun in the powder to the sides of the pistes it didn’t matter. We spent the whole morning looping back down to the chairlift and making fresh tracks in the snow. Word must have gotten out, as the afternoon was busier, and it was a lot more tracked out off-piste. Considering it was Saturday, I was more than happy with the morning’s riding. The fresh snow would have been tracked out within 10 minutes of the lifts opening in any of the big-gun resorts.
Day 2: Ski Touring with a difference!
At the last minute, we had a change of plan! The original plan was to meet Michelin star chef Franck Reynaud and splitboard up to his La Cabane des Violettes, before snowboarding back down.
For those of you who do not know, a splitboard is a snowboard that can be separated into two skis for uphill travel in off-piste terrain. It allows snowboarders to experience both snowboarding and ski touring by converting between the two modes. The board is split down the middle, and bindings can be repositioned on each ski for climbing uphill. When reaching the desired location, the skis are rejoined to form a regular snowboard for downhill riding. Splitboards enable riders to access untracked snow and explore remote areas that are inaccessible with traditional snowboarding.
This would have been the first time I had experienced splitboarding and was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, because it was still early in the season and they were being ultra precious about protecting their new equipment, the ski hire shop was unwilling to give me a splitboard! Instead, I had to use touring skis instead.
This presented another problem as I am not experienced enough to ski off-piste back down (after all, I am a snowboarder, and we slide sideways!). But after meeting Franck, this really was not a problem.
Franck, a Michelin star Franco-Swiss chef, is very charismatic. He is full of life, engaging, and was eager to start ski touring up to his La Cabane des Violettes restaurant. He makes this journey every morning so it goes without saying that Frank is super fit, and his solution to my snowboarding problem was to tie a rope to my board with my boots in the bindings and tow it up the whole mountain. This may not sound like much effort, but ski touring is an endurance test on its own, let alone pulling a board behind you!
With many of the slopes still closed, the trek was probably quieter than usual. Because of this, we mainly stuck to walking up the slopes to the top. I have never done ski touring before but got the hang of it quickly enough.
The key to ski-touring is wearing the right gear. Even when it is very cold, you can quickly bring up a sweat when you get moving. The danger of wearing clothes that are too warm is that you will start sweating and that can then freeze, and this can give you hypothermia. I wore a base layer and a thin midlayer. In my bag, I had a fleece midlayer jacket and my outer shell jacket.
We made slow progress at first. But Frank was encouraging and in high spirits, and we soon got into our stride. Every so often, Frank would look over and tweak my technique. As he explained, just the slightest difference in your movement can save invaluable energy and make such a difference. With ski-touring, it is more a big sliding motion rather than lifting your feet, keeping the skis parallel and close together. The back of the heel lifts, and the binding has 3 settings. For flat, slight incline, and steep.
The hardest part was at the end because you can see the flags of the hut. We were so close, and the finish line was in reach, but the slope was so steep. I really had to dig in deep into my reserves to make it up that last bit. I felt a massive sense of achievement after a year where I had been very ill with Covid, and then long covid that followed. I had not been able to retain my normal level of fitness and needed to have an asthma inhaler with me just in case. It took 3 hours, which wasn’t exactly a record-breaking time, but I had made the whole journey without the use of the inhaler once.
On the other hand, I could not believe the fitness and endurance of Franck. Not only did he make it up there without breaking a sweat. He lugged my snowboard all the way up!
The view from the top was incredible, and due to the lifts and slopes being closed on this side of the mountain, it was so quiet. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch with free-flowing conversation, splendid food, and Franck’s own branded exquisite wine. It was definitely worth the journey up.
I was also impressed with Franck’s commitment to preserving the local environment and his willingness to embrace veganism. He was a vegan for many years and told me that he enjoyed the health aspect of it and that it gave him so much more energy.
The La Cabane des Violettes offers gourmet mountain food and is suited for those who want to enjoy a leisurely lunch and not for those who are foaming at the mouth to get back on the slopes to get in as many runs as they can.
It was good to get a snowboard under my feet for the ride back down in which we enjoyed empty slopes.
With the majestic Matterhorn and Mont Blanc giving you a nod of approval in the background, the former municipalities of Chermignon, Mollens, Montana, and Randogne have merged to form the new municipality of Crans-Montana.
Wandering through the streets here feels like stepping into one of those classic alpine stories. The chalets that line the way have that timeless appeal, like they’ve been plucked right out of the pages of an old novel. And what’s intriguing is how Crans Montana marries that traditional alpine vibe with modern comfort, giving you the best of both worlds.
We enjoyed the lantern walk which is a beautiful walk through tree-lined snow-laden paths with Christmas-style lighting illuminating the way. There is nothing like snow and fairy lights dangling from trees to get into the Christmas spirit!
We flew with Swiss Airlines to Geneva airport and from there took the train to Montana Gare. It was a leisurely route that runs parallel to the beautiful and spectacular Lake Geneva. From there, we took the newly renovated funicular which takes you up to Crans Montana in only 12 minutes. There is also a bus that winds its way up the mountain roads in a more leisurely time.
What an amazing start to the season! Crans Montana is a typically Swiss beautiful resort that marinates traditionalism with a fresh modern outlook. Despite being blessed with a sudden snow dump the night I arrived, I did not get to see the resort in its full glory. However, I did see enough to know that it is on my selective list of resorts I want to return to.
Meeting Franck was a real pleasure. It was so refreshing to meet a Michelin star chef that has the fitness and strength of an alpine mountaineer. With this in mind, it was refreshing to hear him speak about veganism with such vigor. If you enjoy good food and wine, then Franck’s La Cabane des Violettes is worth a visit.