Cozy village provides low-key introduction to skiing in the Alps


January 13, 1991|By F. Lisa Beebe

I arrived in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, on a gauzy, gray afternoon ripe with imminent snow. The skiers heading back from the slopes in their bright-colored gear looked especially vivid in the narrow, dusky streets. The slopes were shrouded in a low cloud cover, and the day drew to a close with no sign of the mountains I had come to tackle in this, my third year of skiing. The first was spent in Vermont, the second in Park City, Utah. Now the time had come to tackle the majors -- the Alps.

I had considered Zermatt the pinnacle of Continental skiing chic. But then I thought it might be better to make my Alpine debut at a more low-key resort, where perhaps my tentative parallel turns would be less likely to proclaim my status as a new kid on the block.

Awakened the next morning by the sun clamoring at the edges of the curtains, I flung the drapes back. I was stunned. Before me gleamed, cliched though it may seem, the backdrop of "The Sound of Music."

These were the whitest, brightest, most spectacular peaks I'd ever seen. I was expecting, of course, a winter wonderland replete with cute chalets and brute-strength mountains, but this vision surpassed even the most picturesque of my imaginings. An auspicious start for someone who appreciates a fine view as much as a well-groomed run.

Just one valley over from Zermatt in the Canton of Valais, lesser-known Saas-Fee indeed is quieter and cozier than its bustling, chichi neighbor at the base of the Matterhorn, but I hadn't realized that it also is much more scenic. Lying at an altitude of 5,900 feet, Saas-Fee is ringed by 13 awesome Alpine peaks, including the 14,900-foot Dom, Switzerland's highest.

The resident glacier dips down within 1,600 feet of Saas-Fee itself, yet despite the village's high altitude, its location in the southern part of Switzerland near Italy makes for a soft mountain climate.

Nestling in the lap of its 13 Alpine guardians, the village is snugly shielded from chilling winds. On the other hand, the altitude permits summer skiing starting at 8,800 feet, making Saas-Fee a favorite training ground for many national ski teams in the summer and fall. The winter season officially begins in the middle of November and snow is virtually guaranteed even on the lower slopes through March.

Like nearby Zermatt, Saas-Fee bans the use of cars in town. Electric carts carry visitors from the bus station or parking lot at the entrance of the village to the hotels, and from the hotels to the slopes at the western end of town. But since the town is little more than a mile long, these toy transports are essential only when you're carrying luggage or an excess of ski gear. The tourist office at the village entrance has a special phone for calling your hotel to have someone come to collect you and your baggage.

Then before you know it the quiet, pollution-free Saas-Fee streets begin to work their special magic. Unlike ski resorts born expressly to that purpose, Saas-Fee exudes a special brand of rustic relaxation. Although the metzgereien (delicatessens), intimate konditoreien (cafes serving hot chocolate and picture-book pastries) and state-of-the-art ski shops are spotlessly modern on the inside, they often occupy wizened structures that exude an old-fashioned tranquillity.

One of the joys of Saas-Fee is simply listening. In the car-free hush one actually can hear the muted footfalls on freshly fallen snow.

Located in the German-speaking part of the Valais Canton, Saas-Fee has welcomed tourists since 1836, when Johann Josef Imseng, a mountain guide and one of Switzerland's first skiers, introduced outsiders to the village's multiple sporting and scenic charms. Since then both skiing and hiking have drawn people to Saas-Fee year round.

In fact, until the mid-1960s, summer tourism dominated in the Swiss Alps. Nowadays, however, two-thirds of Saas-Fee's visitors come for the winter attractions. When the town's 8,500 guest beds are full, the tourist population outnumbers the local citizenry by about 8 to 1.

While Saas-Fee's slopes offer limited trails for beginners, intermediate and advanced skiers will find a challenging variety of trails. Getting to the top of the mountain involves a series of cable car, lift and funicular connections, however. Since for me half the fun of skiing is its scenic context, one morning I decided to take a more circuitous -- but more scenic -- route to the top.

First, the small cable car to Spielboden, then the larger one to Laengfluh. Then the Fee-Chatz (a kind of tractor towing two rows of skiers at a time) to where you can ski to a T-bar lift that takes you to a variety of intermediate slopes. Although this ascent is somewhat cumbersome and time-consuming, I very much enjoyed the breathtaking vistas underscored by the jagged, icy blue splendor of the glacier.

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