Rising majestically out of Switzerland’s Rhône basin, the wild and rugged canton of Valais covers an alpine expanse of more than 48 snow-capped peaks, surpassing 13,000 ft. Home to much more than just the world-famous Matterhorn, Valais encompasses verdant vineyards, impressive glaciers, fairytale chateaus, and some of the finest ski resorts in the world, including Verbier, Saas Fee and Portes du Soleil.
1. ALPINE ACCOMMODATIONS
The people of Valais clearly know a thing or two about warding off winter’s chill: from sprawling palatial properties to classically Swiss boutique cabins, the accommodations in the canton strike the perfect balance between luxury comfort and rustic charm. While you’ll be delighted staying at any of the many four- and five-star properties that ring the most popular mountains in the region, 22 Summits Boutique Hotel has established a particular reputation for excellence. Blending a contemporary wooden exterior with an interior dripping in hunting lodge chic, Zermatt’s 22 Summits features lavishly appointed yet unquestionably cozy rooms in proximity to a museum, a nature park and the Matterhorn. The all-new Alaïa lodge caters to guests looking to be at the heart of the action, providing trendy Swiss lodge style with the latest modern conveniences nestled between both the ski lifts and golf course of the Crans-Montana resort.
Your hotel concierge is also your gateway to a host of unmissable excursions in the pristine wilderness and sleepy mountain hamlets of Valais. While the region may be most famous for its skiing, it’s also a hotbed for tobogganing, mountain biking, snowshoeing and dogsledding. For fans of Switzerland’s iconic mountaineering dog breed with a centuries-old pedigree, we recommend taking a day trip to Barryland. Here, the barrel-collared St. Bernards are honoured with both a museum and a kennel full of excited, playful puppies.
To visit the powder-snow peaks of Valais, those looming bastions of arctic exhilaration, without doing a bit of skiing or snowboarding would be a crime against the mountains themselves. When in Valais, do as the Romans (who originally counted the canton as part of their Empire) would likely do and take to the slopes. Veteran and intermediate skiers will find some of the finest steeps, blacks and moguls in the world here, all well-maintained and picturesque in their ivory splendour. The Pas de Chavanette, otherwise known as the “Swiss Wall,” is a true joyride: less than a kilometre long, but with a vertical drop of 400 metres with a gradient as steep as 76 percent in some places. In Saas-Fee, the Galen Piste offers a 770 metre-descent to its valley floor, complete with breathtaking views of the Mischabel massif on the way down.
For beginners and casual enthusiasts looking for something a bit more relaxed, one of the best ways to learn while taking in the mountainous majesty of Valais is at a ski touring park, where guides are on hand to supervise you through carefully signposted routes catering to all skill levels. The parks of Morgins and Torgon remain perennial favourites, each offering a variety of gentle paths through some of the canton’s most revered high and low altitude areas. For true lovers of the sport, many of the most desirable hotels in Valais offer exclusive Ski Safari passes: a customizable, multi-day program that allows visitors to explore a new ski area every day. Upgrade to the Plus version of the program to get gear and transit included—so you have more time to focus on refining your technique, of course!
The unique geography (or rather, geology) of Valais has allowed the canton to broaden its descriptors and emerge as one of Switzerland’s leading wellness destinations. The secret to this success is found not upon its mountains, but under them: in the hot water that bubbles up to the surface and collects in the region’s many profoundly relaxing thermal baths. Rich in mineral content, these natural spas offer a warm respite from the chilly environs, soothing body and soul and leaving the skin reinvigorated. Thermalbad Brigerbad and Leukerbad Therme are top choices for the traveller in dire need of a good soak, offering multiple pools and majestic views of the surrounding mountains.
For a carefully curated, holistic wellness experience, opt to stay at one of Valais’ exceptional wellness resorts and boutique hotels. The charming mountain towns of Zermatt and Crans-Montana can claim the highest concentration of these relaxation destinations, building on their idyllic surroundings with world-class spa offerings to realize true restorative bliss. A collection of classically alpine-style chalets under the shadow of the Matterhorn, the Cervo Mountain Resort in Zermatt combines the bliss of its natural environs with the luxurious amenities of its Mountain Ashram Spa, which combines a steam bath, bhutanese bath, ritual room and sauna to help guests reach new heights (literally!) of relaxation. In Saas-Fee, check in at the regal yet rustic Walliserhof Grand-Hotel & Spa: a new five-star, 74-room property that looks as if it jumped out of a Wes Anderson film and pampers guests within its oak-and-fur walls with extensive massage, bath and cosmetic treatment services.
The collision of French and German cultural influences in Valais has given rise to a gastronomic tradition unique in all of Switzerland. While you’ll certainly find the Swiss staples of bread, chocolate and cheese (including the regional specialty, the oft-melted Raclette), the cuisine of Valais is foremostly defined by the innovative approach of its chefs and the use of fresh, organic produce and meats cultivated within the region’s steppes and valleys. To get a taste of this dynamic cuisine for yourself, we recommend embarking on the Sion Wine & Dine Tour, a guided traipse through the ancient castles, terraces and cellars of the canton’s capital that culminates in a lunch or dinner at one of Valais’ finest eateries.
For a certified fine dining experience in the heart of the mountains, any of the restaurants curated by Gault & Millau are sure to satisfy your craving for true European delicacies. As a specific recommendation, the gourmet restaurant L’Ours, located in the foodie haven of Crans-Montana, certainly lives up to its Michelin Star, focusing on classic French flavours infused with an alpine twist. Dishes like pressed lamb with accompanying tomato confit and Oeuf mollet: a delicate soft-boiled egg served on quinoa with a robust ratatouille characterize the approach of Head Chef Franck Reynaud, who takes pride in serving up regional, seasonal fare. His passion shows in his cooking: each bite is infused with a deep, complex flavour that is both satisfying and replenishing after a day up on the slopes.
The vineyards of Valais, which account for a third of Switzerland’s total wine production, yield some remarkable vintages, an outcome of its geologically rich soil and surprisingly dry yet verdurous valley climate. Infused with a certain alpine terroir, the robust reds and delicate whites that define the canton’s offerings have won admirers across the world. At many of the region’s restaurants, you’ll have the opportunity to sample the emblematic Fendant and Syrah as well as Dole: a light-hearted red blend made from Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes that serves as the perfect pairing to many of the French and German dishes delicacies of the region.
Situated as they are within the green foothills of the Valais countryside, the vineyards make for an incredible hiking destination, even in the winter. While almost all of the canton’s winemakers are happy to host visitors for tastings and cellar tours, we’d especially recommend a tour of Visperterminen, Europe’s highest vineyard. After a tasteful (and tasty) refresher on wine history in the St. Jodern Wine Cellar, you’ll embark on a scenic hike along the Bisse de Beitra escarpment trail and take in unbelievable views of the imposing Matterhorn. For something compelling right in the heart of the canton’s capital, Les Celliers de Sion offers a novel tasting experience within its storied barrel cellar, titillating all five senses in a playful wine tour like no other.