Crans-Montana; FOR SKIERS WHO LIKE THE SUNSHINE
| Crans-Montana, Switzerland
IT is mid-February. The Swiss Alps here form a spectacular panorama, their white tops glistening in the sun like brilliant diamonds. Above the treeline at 7,000 feet on Mt. Tuborg, skiers are schussing down wide-open snowy slopes.
I am taking my lunch break from skiing. The ''wurst'' -- German-style sausage eaten with crusty, thick-doughed Swiss bread -- is filling. But the real treat of the lunch is something usually reserved for a summer trip to the beach: I lie back in a comfortable chaise chair, take off my ski jacket, and bathe in the radiant sunshine.
A suntan is one of the advantages of a midwinter ski trip to Crans-Montana, in French-speaking southeastern Switzerland, over a vacation at an American ski resort or even other stations in the Alps. Situated on the sunny side of the Rhone Valley in the Valais, Crans-Montana receives the most sun and least rain of any Swiss ski resort, according to statistics of the Swiss Tourist Bureau. From December to February it receives an average of 4 hours' daily sunshine compared with Davos's 3 and Zurich's 11/2, and during the rest of the year it is sunny an average of 51/2 hours each day.
But sunny weather is just one of the joys of Crans-Montana. There are 80 miles of fantastic skiing on slopes stitched together by 20 ski lifts, including cable cars and gondolas. Top this off with a sampling of such delicious Swiss culinary specialties as raclette and fondue and a rousing night life, all at a pace much more relaxed and leisurely than I have encountered in my previous ski trips in Vermont, and one has the recipe for a nearly perfect vacation.
Unlike in Vermont, where I felt obliged to rouse myself at 7 a.m., I slept in to 9 or so every morning in Crans-Montana. Then I would relax over croissants and juice. Few people are on the slopes here before 10 a.m., and with good reason, because it takes until that time for the snow to soften from its nightly freezing. Since the lifts stay open until 4:30 p.m. when the sun begins to fall behind the mountains, an early start is not necessary to get in a full day of skiing.
The trails at Crans-Montana were so vast that in a week I rarely repeated one of them. But there was one run, Plaine Morte, that is so spectacular I felt it was worth skiing at least once a day. It starts at 11,000 feet on the glacier of Plaine Morte. To get there takes at least 45 minutes from the bottom; first there is a gondola, then a tram.
At the summit, summer skiing is offered. While many regulars told me the relatively small run open during the summer does not provide a real skiing challenge, the view alone from the top would lure me here during July and August. The mountains spread out in every direction: the Simplon Range to the east, Mt. Blanc to the west, and Weisshorn, Zinal Rohorn, Dent Blanche, and the Matterhorn in between.
The descent is equally spectacular. Since the top half is on a glacier, the snow is almost always perfect: Soft yet crisp, it is easy to turn in no matter how steep the run becomes. But Plaine Morte, despite its name -- Dead Plain -- does not impose itself on the skier. Instead, it lets him decide how difficult, how challenging, how fast, to descend.
I also learned to savor the long run down Plaine Morte instead of speeding down to the bottom as I probably would have in the States. Following European custom, I would stop at one of the many restaurants along the way and set myself down to an hour-long lunch from a perch staring out onto the mountain majesty.
Some of the restaurants were merely satisfactory self-service stops, but others like Le Merbe offered authentic Swiss treats such as ''fondue savoyarde, '' cubes of bread dipped in hot, melted cheese, and ''raclette,'' melted cheese served with boiled potatoes, sour pickles, and small white onions in vinegar on the side.
After a long day skiing, I found I could have a long night too in Crans-Montana, if I so desired. If I felt like dancing, I went to one of the area's three discos, the best of which was the 400 Club. And if I just felt like relaxing in a homey atmosphere, there were numerous English-style pubs to pick from.
Still, neither Crans nor Montana, twin towns set about a five-minute walk apart, has the charm of such older famous Swiss skiing villages as St. Moritz and Davos. The swiss-chalet style of architecture, with its sloping wood-shingled roofs and prominent balconies, is widespread here, but most of the buildings are modern imitations. And in the rush to develop the area's wonderful natural advantages, bland-looking blocks of condominiums have been built, cluttering up the two towns.
Perhaps that is the reason so few Americans seem to have discovered Crans-Montana, preferring to visit the older, more famous resorts. But Crans-Montana offers more things to do than most resorts, both in the summer and winter. In addition to the skiing, during the winter, ice skating, bobsledding, and luge are offered. During the summer one can horseback ride and play ice hockey on an artificial rink, tennis on the numerous courts, and golf on the course where the Swiss Open is held annually. And all year round there is a full assortment of shopping one can do at the fancy shops in both towns. Many visitors seemed to spend their days promenading through town and the beautiful surrounding woods rather than skiing.
These are the reasons the Europeans -- Germans, French, Italians, and others -- come to Crans-Montana. They flooded into the town the week I was there, giving my only real complaint with my vacation, and the only real similarity with my skiing trips to Vermont: long lift lines.
Getting there: Take the train to Sierre, from which there are frequent buses or a funicular along the picturesque hillside to Crans-Montana. The ride takes about 40 minutes by either method. Sierre is about two hours by train from Geneva, three hours from Milan, and seven hours from Paris. There is also an auto route from Geneva to Sierre. One can make the trip in a little more than an hour and a half; then it's the mountain road to Crans-Montana.
Hotels: It is best to make a reservation. A complete listing of hotels is available from the Swiss Tourist Office in New York (608 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. (212) 757-5944) or from the Tourist Office in either Crans or Montana (3963 Crans (027) 41-21-32 or 3962 Montana (027) 41-30-41). The two towns are similar in appearance and facilities as well as being equally close to the lifts.
Both towns offer accommodations ranging from five-star luxury hotels to one-star inns, but there is no youth hostel. Five-star hotels are about $40 to $ 75, depending on the season. One-star hotels run from $13 to $20. These prices include a continental breakfast. Special packages are available for stays of three days or longer. Some hotels have covered pools and saunas.
High season is from Dec. 19 through Jan. 2, and prices are higher during the month of Feburary.
Skis: Ski rental is about $10 a day, including boots. Ski lift tickets for a day are about $18. Season tickets are available.