I recently paid a visit to the resort of Saas Fee in the Swiss Valais or Wallis region. Often overlooked by its more famous cousin, Zermatt, just around the corner, Saas Fee is a large and traditional mountain town that deserves as much recognition as its famous neighbour. In fact, this will be the last time I’ll mention Zermatt because Saas Fee itself provides enough to talk about without being concerned by the competition next door.
My particular entry point into Switzerland on this occasion was Geneva Airport and this provides the closest major airport to Saas Fee, apart from Sion which has a limited service available. Driving around Lake Geneva and through the Valais is one of the most impressive drives, or railway journeys in the world and the final stage up to Saas Fee itself adds about 30 minutes to the 3 hour journey from Geneva with a road typical of this part of the Alps (that is, it is winding and steep!) It is not the closest ski town to Geneva, passing many resorts along the way including Leysin, Morgins, Verbier and Crans Montana, but I believe its special charms are worth the drive in the end.
Like its famous neighbour that I’m not going to mention, Saas Fee itself is a car free zone. This means that you park up in the huge parking area on the edge of town and start walking or using the electric taxis which whine around the cobbled streets. If you are staying in a hotel you should find that they will provide a free pick up service from the car park to the hotel. In my case, I was picked up quickly and whisked off through the streets on arrival. As it was summer time (end of season September) the resort was relatively quiet. Unfortunately, once you are at your hotel the free taxi service ends and you’re on your own, although the staff at our hotel were very helpful and flexible to a point in accommodating our travel needs (mainly getting to the cable car station!)
The Swiss town of Saas Fee
The skiing in Saas Fee is all situated directly behind the town within one huge bowl, with enormous glaciers tumbling down from the wall of mountains that forms a natural border with Italy. In the summertime, all the skiing is situated high up on the Allalin Glacier reached with a three part lift journey finishing with the Metro-Alpin underground railway. This fantastic bit of Swiss engineering cuts through the mountain and takes you up to 3,500 meters where the Mittelallalin station is situated. The first thing you notice at this altitude is shortness of breath, but you quickly adjust. After a quick coffee in the restaurant, you can get your skis on and hit the slopes. The summer ski area is served by three T-Bar lifts that spread out across the glacier. The skiing itself is red run based and it is very unwise to attempt any off piste skiing here. The glacier is covered in crevasses and many are hidden by snow, do not attempt to leave the marked runs.
Although not extensive, there is plenty of skiing to be done in the morning before maybe heading down for lunch and a walk in the local forest. The other reason many people choose to ski in summer is the chance to take a performance improving course like the ones run by the Warren Smith Ski Academy. Brush up on your technique on the glacier for a few days and take that with you on your ‘proper’ winter holiday. You’ll also get the chance to see some of the top ski racers in action as they train off season. Slalom courses are spread out across some of the runs, and you can get in close and watch the skiers in action.
Slalom training courses set-up on the Sass Fee glacier, Switzerland
Saas Fee itself provides plenty of choice in the evenings for eating out, although during September when I was there it’s very quiet, so if you want to party late, forget it. It’s not a cheap place in general although there are options that are affordable. Certainly accommodation during the summer period is reasonable value, and there are plenty of restaurants serving pizza and pasta dishes if you don’t want to splash on some of the finer cuisine on offer.
The mountains in the summer can provide plenty of action and if you want to combine walking, climbing, mountain biking and relaxing in majestic surroundings you could do far worse than a place like Saas Fee.