Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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I’m forever in love with snow but growing up in the south Pacific, I didn’t really learn to ski as a child. When most French kids went on “snow field trips” in February, I was enjoying beach summer days down-under. No wonder that for me, any snow day is a good day. It was therefore with great snow expectations that I took my girls to the small village of Villars-sur-Ollon in Switzerland.
Lodged on a south-facing balcony in the Swiss Alps, Villars is conveniently close to Geneva and at 1,300m/4,200ft, stands a fair chance of winter snow. The seller for me, though, was the variety of activities for non-skiers. I knew that my girls and my husband were going to hit the slopes–what else would they do with access to 220 km of trails of the Villars-Gryon-Les Diablerets and Glacier 3000 ski areas? But what of my father and I? At the end of the day, Villars had everything needed to satisfy the whole family.
The village of Villars is nothing special but it’s small enough that you can park and walk around all day, which we did. We rented our ski and snowshoe gear at a gear shop on the way and arrived in town just in time to buy lift tickets for the skiers in our group. Eager to hit the slopes, they bade us goodbye and we agreed to rendez-vous in the afternoon.
The plan was for my girls to ski with their dad the first day….
… and to ski with the Swiss ski school the next day. That way, my husband would have some free time to hit more challenging slopes. It worked like a charm!
They hopped on a ski lift and were carried away to higher altitudes where views and snow are plentiful. Free as winter birds, my dad and I headed to the tourist office, pas the Club Med in a former 1920s palace, to grab of map of snowshoe trails in Villars. Good thing, winter hiking is quite big in Switzerland and they had just the map ready to browse. We bought a non-skier day pass (valid on local buses and gondolas) and checked the suggested routes. Complete with elevation gain, distance and time, the map showed snowshoe, winter hiking, cross-country skiing, skating and stroller trails, as well as sled runs. Pretty cool, huh?
The first day, we opted for a level route starting at Roches Grises towards La Verneyre. As the trail doubled as cross-country ski run, it was quite large (it’s a road in the summer) and we met locals walking their dogs as well as families cross-country skiing. However the snow was packed and it was such a warm day that we ended up carrying our snowshoes rather than wearing them on our feet. Look at my dad carrying his snow shoes.
One by one, our winter layers found their way into my backpack. Ski pants, gloves, hat, scarf–you name it. It was way too sunny and we were kitted for arctic weather! Around lunch time, our tummies rumbled as we found the perfect spot. An Alpine restaurant hut with a gloriously sunny terrace.
The Buvette Les Verneyres was an awesome place to enjoy local delicacies such as rosti, raclette, grilled meats or cheese sandwiches. Arrived early, we watched the terrace fill up with hungry walkers and skiers as time went by. Perfectly stuffed (the rosti is not for the faint-hearted), we walked back and enjoyed a cup of tea in the village before meeting up with our famished and weary ski group.
The following day, we had a sure-fire plan not to repeat mistakes of the first day. We would leave our snowshoes in the car, hike around a lake with our hiking boots and stop for a picnic lunch somewhere along the way on the snow. To reach the trailhead, we boarded the scenic narrow-gauge mountain train to Bretaye at the base of the ski runs.
Rubbing shoulders with skiers, we took in the amazing vistas on the surrounding summits as the train snaked up the mountain. At the top, we found all the restaurants, cafes, shops and benches that welcome skiers between ski runs. It was a real beehive! I tried to spot my girls in the ski school corner but they were probably off improving their turns and balance.
My dad and I headed west for a lake loop and initially, couldn’t spot the signs for the snowshoe trail. Boldly, we decided to cut across the first hill to reach the trail and what was bound to happen, happened.
Damn it! Where were the snow shoes now? Laughing to tears, I sunk through deep powder just like my dad and it took us a while to escape to firmer ground with other snowshoers. The loop was really nice and took us to the lake, completely covered by snow. On its shores, we stopped for drinks at a Swisser-than-Swiss chalet with cowbells hanging from the roof outside.
Judging by the overpowering smell, raclette was clearly the main dish on their menu. Granted, we could have had lunch there but we had our sandwiches in the backpack and trailed on. Just across the lake, we found a nice spot in the sun under a fir tree. This was our view.
Lots of snow, right? You can clearly see where the lake is, right under the flat oval area. After lunch, we resumed our walk and reached the other side of the mountain with views on the Diablerets ski area. What gorgeous views!
We then closed the loop and reached the base of the mountain just in time to enjoy hot chocolate with my girls. A success!
Now, some practical info.
Happy snow to you!
Ski & Snowshoe Rental
Swiss Ski School
Villars (ages 3 years+): http://www.ecole-suisse-de-ski-villars.ch/en
Buvette de La Verneyre: http://www.buvette-alpage.ch/verneyre (hike-in, ski-in)
Hotel Restaurant Lac des Chavonnes : http://www.restaurant-lac-chavonnes.ch/fr/ (hike-in, ski-in)
Tea Room La Chaumiere de Mon Pere: http://www.heiz-villars.ch/boutiques.html (downtown Villars)
Villars-Sur-Ollon Tourist Information Office: http://www.villars.ch/en/