The Alps contain some of Switzerland's most dramatic landscapes, in a country already well endowed with spectacular scenery and fabulous alpine vistas. Situated at the heart of the Alps, Switzerland shares the mountain range with France, Italy and Austria, and provides winter and summer time enjoyment for skiers, snowboarders, walkers and climbers.
Switzerland has the distinction of being home to the first ever ski resort, and since then, over 200 first-class resorts have attracted thousands of Swiss and international downhill and cross-country skiers and snowboarders. The tradition of skiing goes back two centuries. Today, with more than 1,700 mountain railways and ski lifts, renowned ski schools and instructors, the best ski equipment in the world, and outstanding slopes and facilities catering for all levels of ability, it fully deserves its moniker of 'Europe's winter playground'.
Claiming to occupy the sunniest plateau in the Swiss Alps, the twin villages of Crans and Montana are perched 4920 feet (1,500m) above the Rhone Valley. Crans-Montana provides the best of both a mountain village and modern Swiss ski resort, offering an Alpine shopping paradise, and easy access to nearby attractions like the museums of Sierra, the underground lake near St-Léonard, and the glacier at Plaine Morte.
The resort has a glitzy reputation and enjoys a fashionable nightlife. Crans-Montana offers many summer activities, including water skiing, swimming, mountain climbing, hiking, and a championship golf course.
Leysin has a reputation as one of the most family-friendly ski resorts in Switzerland, offering children's activities year-round at more affordable rates than its fashionable neighbours in the Rhone Valley. There are a number of off-piste diversions, including excursions to Lake Geneva, the museums and castles in Aigle, and the igloos in Teepee Village. The mountain provides a spectacular setting for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and rock climbing in summer. There are a number of good restaurants, including the glass revolving Le Kuklos, which has a panoramic view of the region, and a few bars in town.
While the village is removed from the larger skiing areas, skiing in Leysin's 37 miles (60km) of pistes provides challenges ranging from nursery areas to two black runs for experts, and 24 miles (39km) of cross country trails. There is a ski school that arranges heli-skiing trips, and the glacier at Les Diablerets is included in the ski pass. Leysin is a major snowboarding destination, with a snowboard park and half pipe that have hosted many professional competitions.
The holiday destination of Grindelwald is a picturesque, traditional mountain settlement at the foot of the Eiger Mountain, surrounded by spectacular alpine landscapes. Popular as both a summer and winter holiday spot, it offers miles of slopes and hiking trails across the Alps, and for non-skiers there are a huge variety of winter activities, from tobogganing to groomed winter hiking tracks. For skiers there are three distinct areas to choose from, with slopes for beginners, intermediates and the challenges of the Eiger glacier for the experienced; as well as lift links to Wengen and Mürren, making this one of the best holiday resorts from which to explore the Jungfrau region. Skiing in Grindelwald is best suited to intermediates, and there are plenty of long, gentle runs to keep them busy. There are plenty of options for true beginners as well at the Bodmi Nursery slopes. While advanced skiers won't find much, Grindelwald boasts the famous Lauberhorn World Cup downhill run, as well as the near-vertical Kanonenrohr. The resort is part of the Jungfrau region, and shares mountain space with Wengen. There are roughly 12 miles (20km) of cross-country tracks.
With panoramic views of the Rhone Valley, Veysonnaz forms a part of the Four Valleys ski area together with Nandez, Verbier, Thyon and La Tzoumaz. A more affordable alternative to fashionable resorts like Verbier, the pretty town of Veysonnaz has managed to retain its Alpine charm with traditional architecture and events like the June Cow Processions. There are a range of activities for non-skiers in both summer and winter, including attractions like the pyramids of Euseigne and the Grande Dixence dam. The town itself has a number of restaurants and bars, as well as a few shops and a recreation centre. The Four Valleys ski area has over 250 miles (400km) of runs, which provide ample off piste opportunities for experts, including the Tortin snow bowl. There are also runs for intermediates and beginners, and the runs in general range from 1,640 feet (500m) to 9,842 feet (3,000m) in elevation, though heli-skiing is available to the Pigne d'Arolla at 12,467 feet (3,800m). The 1936 Neypark at La Choux is a haven for snowboarding in Veysonnaz, featuring a skate-style pyramid and a good selection of rails.
The Swiss Alps experiences a largely varied climate, depending on the elevation and altitude of different regions, especially due to the glaciers. The Alps are split into five climate zones, each with their own distinct character: the Névé zone is located in the region above 9,842 feet (3,000m) and is the coldest; the alpine zone lies between the height of 6,561 and 9,842 feet (2,000 and 3,000 m) and is slightly warmer than the Névé zone.
Below this is the subalpine zone which is warmer; below this is the arable zone which is even warmer and is a popular farming area and below this is the lowlands where many villages are located. In the resort area of St Moritz, average daytime temperatures during the summer months average between 46°F and 52°F (8C and 11°C) while the average temperature during the winter is 25°F (-7°C) during the day.
The main attraction in the Swiss Alps is the great selection of skiing that the area boasts. The ideal resort for beginners or families is Grindelwald in the Jungfrau region, while intermediates and snowboarders head for the twin resorts of Davos and Klosters, with miles of excellent ski terrain and acclaimed to be one of the top snowboarding destinations worldwide. Expert skiers can enjoy the challenge of 7,200 ft (2,700m) vertical drops on the Klein Matterhorn at Zermatt, and the ski valley of Verbier is ideal for shoulder-season skiing as its location provides early snow that lingers late into the spring. The stylish resort of St Moritz offers the most energetic and varied nightlife of all the Swiss resorts. The ideal ski season runs from January to late March, but is most crowded during the Christmas holidays and the month of February.
Climbers and walkers head to the Alps between June and September, when the weather is warmer and more settled. There are more than 40,390 miles (65,000km) of well-marked and maintained hiking trails as well as longer treks across the country that will reveal miles and miles of unspoiled beauty. Grindelwald has long been the capital of summer hiking in the Bernese Alps, and more recently added a network of groomed trails for winter hikers. Climbers have long been lured by the challenges of the Matterhorn and there are some memorable hikes up to the cliffs below the summit. The Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) is the best source of information on mountaineering.
The most accessible and visited alpine area is the magnificent Bernese Oberland region in the centre of the country, with its classic Swiss scenery of picturesque peaks, quaint wooden chalets and charming mountain villages, green pastures, lakes and the tinkle of cow bells. This is a fabulous area for walking and provides exceptional winter sports.
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