Wide and well-groomed

Villars is a refreshing choice for those who have intermediate skills
Arnie Wilson, Financial Times skiing correspondent - FT - 05.03.2000
© the Financial Times, 2000

As dawn broke, Mont Blanc appeared to be still where I had left it the night before - a huge dome-shaped cream bun on the horizon. However, its companions had changed. Instead of the Grand Massif, the rugged peaks of the Dents du Midi shared centre stage with the beautiful Vaudoises Alps, the Riviera Alps as the locals call them. And instead of the harsh 'moon-base' contours of purpose-built apartment blocks, I was surrounded by a pastoral winter scene: the Swiss resort of Villars-sur-Ollon in its full glory.

It reminded me of an apocryphal story. A chalet girl who spent a season working in Villars became besotted with the view of Mont Blanc. The following winter she moved to Verbier. Her companion drew her attention to a familiar mountain on the horizon. 'That's Mont Blanc,' he said. 'Oh' she responded. 'Do they have one of those in each resort?' True or not, there can be few more startling contrasts in the mountains than leaving a brave-new-world, ski-in, ski-out resort in France after dark and waking up in an idyllic Swiss village of snow decked chalets. It was like going to bed in Manhattan and waking up in Tuscany.

In terms of breathtaking challenging runs Villars may not be a world-beater, but Villars aficionados would, justifiably, in my view, give it ten out of ten for scenery and charm. I would suggest that skiers looking for a delightful Swiss destination without the more daunting reputation of Verbier or Zermatt, would find Villars a refreshing and charming choice. It also has the reputation of being cheaper than many of its rivals.

The village is picturesque, the shops vibrant, the atmosphere one of a true Alpine community. There are however, only three ways to get to the slopes - via a railway and two new gondolas.

An Edwardian mountain railway and a growing snowboard culture may seem strange bedfellows but, with the help of plenty of sunshine and joie de vivre, Villars manages to make its old world charm attractive to a younger clientele who are encouraged, no doubt, by its vibrant nightlife: a night at Le Gringo or Le Fox can persuade even the most fervent discotheque dancer that Villars' peaceful surroundings can be a blessing the following morning.

The railway is the most picturesque way of accessing the slopes at Bretaye, and can be the quickest, when the new gondola from the Chesières side of town up to the Roc d'Orsay is busy. All the brochures and guides will say parrot-fashion, that Villars is 'perched on a sunny shelf at 4'265 ft (1,300 meters) overlooking the Rhône Valley, Aigle, Bex and Ollon, just 90 minutes from Geneva airport'. It is indeed a natural, south-facing balcony, and is often remarkably sunny.

The skiing is extensive and enjoyable for both skiers and boarders, 75 miles of predominantly intermediate terrain - wide, rolling, well-groomed alpine boulevards - served by 45 lifts. There is a vastly improved link with Les Diablerets (8,775 ft) - the two-way Perche-Conche double chair with wonderfully squidgy seats to ensure you are nice and comfortable as you journey gently through a wooded canyon in either direction.

Les Diablerets itself is only a short bus-ride away from its eponymous glacier, which was recently equipped with a gigantic, brand new cable-car, whisking skiers up from Col du Pillon to Cabane at 8,280 ft. Another cable car completes the journey to Scex-Rouge. The glacier, according to the Swiss locals is the 'roesti border' - where the French-speaking region gives way to those who favour Schweizerdeutsch in such resorts as Gstaad.

Snowboarders are well catered for: there are fun parks both at Bretaye and Les Chaux. From Bretaye a network of lifts and runs fans out on both sides of the valley. There are chairs both to the Grand and Petit Chamossaire at almost 7,000 ft with enjoyable sunny cruising runs back down again. On the eastern flank, a variety of lifts takes skiers to Chaux de Conche at 6,650 ft. From here, easy, sunny runs radiate in almost all directions, ending up at La Rasses, which links with the other main sector Les Chaux, well away from the busier pistes around Bretaye.

Les Chaux is mainly reached by gondola from La Barboleuse, just above the village of Gryon (3,850ft). Croix Les Chaux (6,627 ft) now easily accessible via a new four person chair, is the starting point for some wonderful cruising; you can hurtle all the way down to La Barboleuse, a vertical descent of 2,690 ft. This is a favourite with racing driver Jacques Villeneuve, a Villars local who likes to take a run at full tilt. Other recently installed chairs, include the high speed six seater up to Chaux Ronde (6,650 ft) and Grand Chamossaire (7,000 ft), have also proved to be a great success….

When I was a small child my parents abandoned me at the local school in Chesières while they were walking in the mountains around Villars. I cried for a week. However having experienced the joys of Villars myself, I can see why they wanted to go exploring. I have forgiven them.

Click here for Villars ski map