Off the beaten slope

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It was a sign of good things to come – Swiss hospitality less than an hour after arriving, courtesy of a kindly stranger on the train offering to share his Toblerone. In search of a tranquil Alpine retreat, we were heading to Valais, a region with vast mountainsides with deep valleys and dizzying heights (including Switzerland’s ten highest peaks). The remote Lötschental valley ticked all our boxes – scenery that caught the attention of UNESCO World Heritage; traditional villages (Ferden, Kippel, Wiler and Blatten, as well as several tiny hamlets); and a medium-sized ski resort with activities for non-skiers.

Nowadays Lötschental is little-known outside Switzerland, but it wasn’t always so. The very first guestbook at the charming Hotel Nest-und-Bietschhorn, the oldest hotel in the valley, records tales of intrepid 19th century alpinists who came to the valley, some, tragically, never to return. More local stories are told at the Lötschentaler Museum in Kippel village, including the tradition of Tschäggättä, surreal masked figures (now the cultural icon of Lötschental) who haunt the valley during a carnival every February. The painstaking work that goes into creating each of the grotesque wooden masks is evident and examples are proudly displayed throughout the valley, from keyring versions to full-sized and miniatures – so travel with empty space in your luggage There is no need to hire a car when you arrive, thanks to a regular bus service connecting the villages.
The ski resort of Lauchernalp, situated above Wiler village at 1,950 m, is the main winter attraction and on arrival you feel worlds away from the typical purpose-built resort experience. Head for the viewing platforms near the highest point (3,111 m), which showcase the dramatic landscape, while further mountain-gazing opportunities await at the panoramic Zudili restaurant in Lauchernalp. For an afternoon change of pace, we head to Blatten village to explore one of the wonderfully named winterwanderwege (winter hiking trails) that line the whole valley.
It is an easy hike through woodland and past traditional timber-and-stone houses. The setting sun has turned the mountains glowing pink as we wander back to the Nest-und-Bietschhorn hotel and I wonder what we will do all evening (being located in the tiny hamlet of Ried, which probably has more bovine than human inhabitants). Fortunately, dinner in the hotel restaurant turns out to be evening-filling, with four delicious courses and plenty of local wine.
Sheltered between two high mountain ranges, Valais enjoys a sunny climate perfect for vineyards and, incidentally, James Joyce’s favourite tipple was a white wine from this region. Lötschental is another distinctive Valais village, with a remote location but well connected, and another short bus-train-bus trip (all running like clockwork, in typical Swiss style) a complete change of scene awaits in Leukerbad. Thanks to a treasure trove of  thermal springs bubbling away under the village, Leukerbad has developed from an ancient Roman bathing spot into the largest spa resort in the Alps but, with relatively few international visitors, it feels surprisingly like a well-kept secret.
Before hitting the spas, we try some more energetic mountain activities. These are concentrated in two areas, the Gemmi and the Torrent, both reached by cable cars to 2350 m, but each offering a very different experience. While the Torrent is dedicated to downhill skiing and snowboarding (with 52 km of slopes winding down the mountain), the Gemmi is a more natural area for hiking, cross-country skiing, sledging and playing in the snow.
Many of the trails around the starkly beautiful frozen lake at the heart of the Gemmi can be managed in sturdy shoes, but for further grip (and comic effect) you can strap on a pair of snow-shoes. After a morning of snow-shoe hiking and a hearty lunch of roesti (a rustic baked dish of grated potatoes and cheese with bacon and mushrooms) at the Berghotel Wildstrubel, we are ready for a good soak. Bored of soaking in one pool? No problem, at Burgerbad Therme there are 10 others to try, some indoors, others outdoors, some hot (one little cauldron of a pool in particular) and others neutrally warm. Two giant waterslides further increase the fun factor.
Across town, near the Torrent cablecar (and our hotel, the lovely Parkhotel Quellenhof), is the luxurious Lindner Alpentherme. From the elegant design of the beautiful indoor and outdoor pools to the clothing-strictly-disallowed areas, this is a more grown-up bathing experience. The Valais region is a terrific low-key winter destination, suitable for non-skiers and skiers, with an appealing range of outdoor activities, a choice of accommodation to suit different budgets and, always, good wine and food.
by Thea Macaulay
All photos by Danny Levy Sheehan
Find more information about Valais tourism please visit here