While not as well known as St. Moritz and Zermatt, Crans-Montana still has all the glitz — plus epic skiing.
It gives me no pleasure to admit that I undertake a significant proportion of my travel out of sheer spite. I mean, not 100 percent — I’m not an animal. I am theoretically capable of experiencing joy, wanderlust, and many other positive human emotions. I’m talking about the other part of me. The part that hears parents at my kids’ school talking about going on some fancy ski vacation and immediately feels a sense of resentment. A suspicion that everyone is in a club that I’m not a member of — the club where people talk about ski vacations in a jaunty shorthand: “Oh, yeah, we go to Jackson every year. It’s sort of our place.”
For the past year, my family and I have been living in Madrid. When a school break comes around, no one talks about skiing in Jackson or Steamboat or Tahoe. They talk about Zermatt and Courchevel. They talk about Baqueira, the St.-Moritz of the Spanish Pyrenees, where the king often visits, where the après-ski parties start at the very Spanish hour of midnight and everyone apparently leaves their kids alone in hotel rooms and parties until dawn.
So while I did want to visit the Alpine village of Crans-Montana, in southwestern Switzerland, for pretty normal reasons — it’s beautiful, the food is excellent, and the skiing is world-class — the truth is that I also wanted to go to Crans-Montana so that, after break, when people started talking about how they went to Gstaad this year and the snow was kind of disappointing but it was still wonderful, I could say, “Yeah, we just came back from Crans.” Which I would pronounce in the French way (Khhhraaaaaan), even though when I first heard the name two months beforehand I thought it sounded like a brand of cranberry soda marketed to French people by the Pepsi corporation.
So at the end of February we headed to Crans, in the canton of Valais in the Swiss Alps. We believed we knew what to expect. My whole family had done our Google image searches before we arrived, so I thought we’d be kind of inured to the views.
The sun sparkling off the chalets and storefronts in the small town that tumbled down the mountainside before us. Below, the Rhône River Valley snaked wide and flat, like a ribbon shaved off of Iowa. On the opposite side was a wall of massifs rising in progressively higher, whiter peaks.
But we weren’t. At 8 a.m. on the morning after our arrival, the four of us stood at the sliding glass door of our apartment at the Sport Club Residences — my 11-year-old son, Finn; my 13-year-old daughter, Francesca; my wife, and I — the sun sparkling off the chalets and storefronts in the small town that tumbled down the mountainside before us. Below, the Rhône River Valley snaked wide and flat, like a ribbon shaved off of Iowa. On the opposite side was a wall of massifs rising in progressively higher, whiter peaks. A mountain called the Weisshorn dominated the tableau, looking both intimidating at 15,000 feet and sort of adorable in an Alpsy way — you can almost see it reflected in the eye of a St. Bernard carrying a keg of brandy around its neck.
But that morning, I’m not proud to say, the whole scene felt like a gorgeous but not especially convincing Zoom background. We had to slide open the balcony door and step outside before it felt real. Standing there, shivering in our nightclothes, the smell of the air and the sound of slightly agitated trees and the tiny details of the mountains in sharp relief — it burned all the spite off. And for a moment at least, the joy of finding myself in a totally new place made me forget there were rich people to get mad at for being rich and, instead, just hurry to get my ski clothes on.
Gherardo the ski instructor swept into the Cry d’Er gondola station like a matador entering a ring in an Ernest Hemingway novel — in this case a Gen-Z matador who studies international politics in Milan and commutes to Crans on his school breaks. He was 20 years old, and tall, and smelled of espresso, Proraso, and bravado. (Okay, I can’t be totally sure what he smelled like, because it was windy. But I’m willing to bet.) We all introduced ourselves, then strapped our skis to the caddy on the outside of the gondola and stepped in as it swept us upward.
From Cry d’Er we took a short run down to another lift called Violettes Express, which brought us even deeper and higher into the mountains. Another quick run took us to a third lift, the funitel, which would relay us all the way to the farthest, highest point in the mountains. At each lift the crowds grew sparser. And in the funitel we traversed vast empty fields of snow and walls of sheer rock. It felt less like a chunk of mountain processed into a “ski experience” by multinational corporations and more like an inhospitable wilderness. The funitel, by the way, was terrifying. Ten or 15 of us were sealed in a little car suspended on cables strung between stanchions that were sometimes a thousand feet apart while we rode over ravines hundreds of feet below. The only sensible thing to do in a funitel is to imagine what it would be like to die in one.
The funitel spat us out, and we clicked into our skis, reinvigorated by our sense of good luck at not having been crushed into a ball of metal and Swiss people in the kind of accident you might read about on page seven of the International Herald Tribune. All around us was vast whiteness and sky. Half a mile below on the slope we could see a group of figures no bigger than grains of rice in tiny pink and yellow and blue jackets, emerging from the tufts of cloud that clung to the mountain, then disappearing again behind a bend.
We were in a wide ring of snowy peaks, in the middle of which was a frozen lake where two sets of fine tracks marked the path of dog-sledders who’d been training earlier that morning. Beyond that was a glacier called Plaine Morte, meaning “dead plain,” which is what they could have named Deadwood if it had been a three-square-mile chunk of ice in the Swiss Alps instead of a Wild West town. The run from Plaine Morte to the base of the mountain is, at 7½ miles, the longest in Crans. Gherardo started down, and we followed him. Then he followed us, giving my kids pointers on their technique.
My kids believe they’re great skiers who’ve seen pretty much everything. It’s not true. They learned to ski in Massachusetts. They think because they went on a run that was labeled as a black diamond, they’ve basically starred in a Red Bull extreme-sports documentary. Gherardo had no desire to kill that confidence. He just wanted to impart two simple lessons. First, he wanted my daughter to be more zen when she skied. “Franchi, Franchi, Franchi,” Gherardo said, using the Italian diminutive for Francesca. “You need to relax. You have too much an-zee-a-tee in your body.”
The other thing he really wanted was for my son, Finn, to achieve some kind of flow state in his skiing. The concept was hard to explain — there was a word for it in Italian but Gherardo couldn’t come up with the English translation. After a great deal of deliberation, he decided the word was amortizing. I’m not sure he was right. But who am I to tell him that amortizing is what happens to a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage? We hung out with Gherardo for a few days, and he probably said amortizing five hundred times. “Finn, Finn you are not amortizing!” Or “That run was good, but more amortizing.” “Look at that guy doing the moguls. His legs go up and down but his head stays flat because he’s amortizing.”
One day, after a morning of vigorous amortizing, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Cabane des Violettes. It’s a gray stone building all the way out at the edge of an enormous cliff, the kind of place where an onanistic order of Swiss monks would make a quasi-hallucinogenic herbal liqueur, or train Batman.
There’s a lot to recommend a skiing trip to the Swiss Alps. Like, for instance, the fact that it’s in the Swiss Alps, where it’s beautiful and you can take the train to Milan or Lyon or Germany for the day. The fact that, at least at Crans, there are no enormous resorts. You don’t feel like you’re skiing on a giant cruise ship the way you do in the U.S. sometimes. The fact that there is a local culture, in which normal civilians like to raise cows for fun and are really proud of them and enter them in competitions, and when they win, the trophies are giant cowbells.
Those are all great attributes, but really it’s the food. Even when ski lodges in America have good food you somehow still feel like you’re eating at a concession stand at a Six Flags. There’s a lurking danger that someone’s going to offer you a sundae in a miniature Yankees helmet, a palpable sense that some actuary calculated the absolute most you’d be willing to pay for a Bud Light or a Blue Moon when you know there is nowhere else within 10 miles to buy a Bud Light or a Blue Moon ($17? $23? I bet they teach classes at Harvard Business School about ski-lodge beer pricing).
But at Crans you just sit down outside at Cabane des Violettes and order a glass of excellent minerally Swiss white wine for a few dollars, while three handsome Danish men on a ski weekend sit at a table next to you drinking large Swiss beers and dipping bread in a fondue pot. At Crans there are many good restaurants actually on the mountain. Like the fine-dining Chetzeron, where you can order fondue or lamb stew or a veal chop (and an excellent bottle of wine). Or the more rustic Merbé, where you can sit on sheepskins in the sun drinking slightly different beer and eating a slightly different fondue.
As a side note, please know that if you go to Crans you’ll eat fondue. Even if you’re deathly lactose-intolerant — sorry, this might be the literal hill you die on. Raclette cheese is the foundational substance of Crans. You might think you will eat fondue once, because how many times can you sit down in front of a pot of boiling cheese and just kind of drink it slowly? The answer is five. And you’ll leave knowing you’re capable of so much more than you thought.
Crans sort of peaked 20 or 30 years ago and, until recently, had been frozen in time. It’s dominated by chalets of 1980s and 90s vintage, with a small casino in a low-slung turquoise building right next to an ice rink. Crans is in the midst of becoming more subtly luxurious and aspirational.
After lunch at Violettes, we took it easy as we worked through our food coma. We passed a narrow turn toward a steep downhill, where medics were working on a man who’d had a fall. We carefully skied around as they loaded him onto a stretcher, his knee in a brace. I saw it as a reminder that one beer is more than enough at lunch. Gherardo saw it as something else.
“It is a shame,” he called, nodding toward the man and shaking his head. “He did not amortize.”
We spent the last days of the trip at Six Senses Crans-Montana, a brand-new ski-in, ski-out hotel built at the base of the mountain. Six Senses is a sleek Modernist grayed-out version of a mountain house with darkened windows — like Paul Allen’s yacht if it were a chalet.
It’s a surprising addition to Crans-Montana, which is one of the sleepier Swiss ski towns. When I talked to Neil Jacobs, the CEO of Six Senses, he explained that Crans sort of peaked 20 or 30 years ago and, until recently, had been frozen in time. It’s dominated by chalets of 1980s and 90s vintage, with a small casino in a low-slung turquoise building right next to an ice rink. This is what Jacobs liked about the town, and I liked it, too. Crans is in the midst of becoming more subtly luxurious and aspirational, and the main shopping street now has stores like Prada, Moncler, the Italian cashmere emporium Loro Piana, and a Louis Vuitton housed in a refurbished chalet. But there had been no new-vintage luxury hotel projects, really. Until Six Senses.
The vibe of the hotel is a very hushed, low-lit, understated luxury. The rooms are enormous, with huge glass doors that lead onto big patios and giant tubs in the middle of the bathrooms, which is where hotel designers like to put them these days.
The Six Senses is what is known as a “high-touch” place: it’s predicated on the idea of personal service. When you check in, you’re assigned a GEM, which stands for guest experience manager — in our case, a woman named Clémence in a blue blazer with brightly embroidered edelweiss flowers. There is a dedicated concierge who whisks your wet, icy equipment into some hidden room when you ski in, then brings it out to you dried and cleaned the next day when you’re ready to ski out. The success of any high-touch place depends on your belief that other people are absolutely delighted to spend all day doing the stuff you despise. That there are people for whom dragging strangers’ suitcases upstairs and unpacking socks and underwear is completely their pleasure.
Six Senses has excellent restaurants. One is called Wild Cabin and serves pizzas, breakfast smoothies, and rustic Swiss mountain dinners out of an open kitchen. The other, Byakko, is a Japanese restaurant in a lacquered room with a glowing little bar at the center. In the evenings, the hotel puts together a local wine/meat/cheese event in the lounge, featuring raclette from the farm of Pascal Cordonnier, not five miles away. That cheese is worth the whole trip.
But the main attraction at Six Senses Crans-Montana, IMO, is the spa. The indoor-outdoor pool, the chaise longues, the endless reservoirs of water. I was given a massage by a woman from Portugal who used essential oils and herbs native to the Valais that, I was told, would imbue me with a Swiss kind of centeredness.
At Crans you just sit down outside at Cabane des Violettes and order a glass of excellent minerally Swiss white wine for a few dollars, while three handsome Danish men on a ski weekend sit at a table next to you drinking large Swiss beers and dipping bread in a fondue pot.
Buried deep in the center of the spa, which is itself deep in the center of Six Senses, is what I think is the heart of the hotel. It is called the “Wet Area.” (No jokes, please! It’s probably not a funny name if you’re Swiss and English is only your third language. It’s cheap to laugh at people who make slight malapropisms in their second, third, or eighth languages — especially if you, yourself, only speak about 1.2 languages. So sue me, and apologies to Gherardo.)
The Wet Area is a windowless warren of rooms that offer all kinds of ways to manipulate your corporeal experience. Hot and cold air, dry air and moist. Pools, saunas, steam rooms, even a ring of pebbled flooring that I thought might be a portal where your soul can be transported to another dimension if your GEM pressed a button located behind a panel at the front desk, but was in fact a reflexology experience you could have by just standing there.
After a day of skiing, my wife and I went down to the spa with our kids, who parted ways with us when we got there. I went into the men’s changing room while my wife went into the women’s changing room. I took off the terry-cloth bathrobe and slippers that I got from my room, placed them in a locker, and put on a different terry-cloth bathrobe and slippers. (It’s important to change terry-cloths at least three times every day at any Six Senses property.)
Then my wife and I went into the Finnish sauna. I lay down on the dry wood planks and counted my breaths until I forgot that I was even a human being. When I opened my eyes my wife was gone. I got out and went into the cold plunge pool for seven seconds until I thought I would die. Then I went from the rock sauna (hot and dry) to the infrared sauna (where you can sit next to glowing orange infrared coils so you can finally know what bread feels like when it’s in the toaster oven) to the shower to the steam room to the salt sauna (a wall of glowing yellow bricks made from Himalayan salt) and back to the Finnish sauna.
Occasionally I would see my kids. They’d be paddling around in the pool or chugging cups of cucumber water. Or sitting on chaise longues wrapped in bathrobes. They always looked slightly ridiculous, and they always looked the way a lot of people do on vacation: like they knew they were supposed to be having fun but weren’t really and were wondering if it was their fault. They knew at some level that the greatest powers of global capitalism, the supply chain, private equity, and essential-oil technology had all come together to create this, one of the greatest series of heated rooms known to mankind. They knew it was supposed to please them and they also knew it didn’t. The Wet Area didn’t allow them to forget themselves the way a trampoline park or paintball or sledding or watching any of the Scream movies I through VI could. They were not amortizing.
Not the same for me. The truth is that all I wanted to do is spend about six days by myself in the Wet Area and ignore every single thing that was even vaguely important to me. To me, that is what a luxury hotel is for. I want to drink martinis at the bar and then go back to my room and watch The Last of Us while I eat $45 peanut M&M’s and then wake up and try all the local European breakfast cheeses and breads and coffees for two hours and then do a mildly taxing yoga class and then start drinking “skin-contact” wines in the lounge at 4 p.m. I want to be back in my room watching The Last of Us and ordering a hot-fudge sundae by 8 p.m., and then at midnight I want to push the room service cart with all my crusted-over dishes out into the hallway and go to sleep. All while I’m not telling someone to do their homework or get off their phone, or uploading my tax documents or downloading my insurance forms or hustling to get on a Zoom call that started five minutes ago.
The great realization I had in the Wet Area is that what I really want at this point in my life isn’t to be able to tell some parent from Madrid that I went to a fancy ski resort over spring break. It’s to lay down in a sauna and never get up again. And for a few hours, at least, I got as close to that as I probably ever will.
Crans-Montana, Inside and Out
Where to Stay
Six Senses Crans-Montana: Come to this chic, ski-in, ski-out reimagining of a Swiss chalet for the spacious rooms. Stay for the two chef-led restaurants and the enormous spa.
Sport Club Residences: These 12 apartment-style accommodations are decorated with bright, contemporary flair. Skiing, mountain biking, and dog-sledding facilities are all close by.
Where to Eat
Byakko: A jewel-box restaurant with Japanese-inspired dishes at the Six Senses Crans-Montana resort.
Cabane des Violettes: Eat cheese fondue and other classic Swiss dishes at an old stone house on a cliff overlooking the ski area.
Chetzeron: Dinner at this trailside restaurant, attached to a sleek, modern hotel, includes transportation up and down the mountain.
Le Bistrot des Ours: The younger sibling of the Michelin-starred L’Ours — both are housed in Hostellerie du Pas de l’Ours, a luxury hotel — has a traditional Swiss menu. Entrées
Merbé: The menu at this restaurant, located midway on the Cry d’Er Gondola in the Crans-Montana ski resort, leans international, from oyster-mushroom tacos to salmon ceviche.
Wild Cabin: This brasserie at Six Senses has a California-style juice bar, if you’re feeling sprouty, and wood-fired meats and fish, if you’re not.
Source: Travel And Leisure