I would like to make it clear from the start that I love Grimentz, the prettiest ski village in Switzerland. Like many others, I fell for it at first sight which in my case was on an excursion from Crans Montana in 1991 or ’2, courtesy of the enterprising Bladon Lines rep.
‘Does your employer know you organise this every week?’ I asked her afterwards, and: ‘do you use a cattle prod to get your guests back in the bus?’ At the time I was no great fan of Crans Montana, with its tower blocks, traffic jams and slushy south facing slopes. Compare and contrast postcard-pretty Grimentz with its blackened old raccard chalets, no queues and grippy winter snow.
I gave the BL girl a mention in my end of season review and thanked her for giving me a shoe-in for my annual ‘resort to watch’ award (Grimentz came after Vaujany, and before Alagna). Within minutes the phone rang; it was a cousin who had a bone to pick. “What are you doing writing about Grimentz?” he asked, audibly wagging his finger at the phone. “We’ve been going there for years and we don’t want people like you writing about it. OK?” I made the usual excuses: no one reads travel articles (although in this instance my cousin obviously had). “Don’t blame me, blame Bladon Lines,” I may have said.
A couple of seasons later I tried to set up an off-piste ski week with an Andermatt guide who said he would prefer me to join a group he was sending to Grimentz. One of the most tiring weeks of my life – on skins and, for the first time, fat skis and an avalanche balloon backpack – showed me that Grimentz was not just a pretty face but also a dream resort for easy access to the untracked.
On the strength of it I organised a long weekend for a group of friends and on the strength of that weekend one of them bought a flat in Grimentz. He told his friends, many of whom followed his example, building new chalets where they hosted their friends, their children, their children’s friends and drinks parties for the growing British community. We encouraged our children’s schoolfriends’ parents to try Grimentz for their first family ski holiday, they told their friends and so it went on – for our network and those of other Grimophiles. Many words have been written and the Grimentz chalet boom has featured on the property pages of the Telegraph, Financial Times etc.
Last February I asked my friend to stop the car on the way to a day’s skiing in the sun at St Luc. We got out and looked back across the valley at the chalet town that now sprawls across the hillside like a mini-Meribel or Verbier, with hairpin access roads snaking up the mountain like bindweed.
How should I and my fellow writers feel about this? My friend certainly doesn’t mind. His investment has more than doubled in value.
Last season a young skier introduced himself as the son of a friend of my friend. “I want to say thank you,” he said. “If it wasn’t for you, we’d be in Verbier.” This came as a shock. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously has a plaque in Davos thanking him for Switzerland’s ski tourism industry, but I have never thought of my efforts in that league. We travel writers are more used to having angry fingers poked in our chests. “Don’t thank me, thank Bladon Lines,” perhaps I said.
Still the ‘best-kept secret’ articles keep appearing; Grimentz must be the most famous best-kept secret in the Alps. I came across one a few weeks ago, painting the familiar picture of Grimentz the hidden gem with ‘very few’ English. According to the British operator who invited the writer and doubtless fed him the line about Grimentz being a secret, the best thing about it is ‘a marvellous absence’ of British operators. By his own admission the writer skied with not one British operator, but two, apparently not feeling that this undermined his thesis in any way. His fellow skiers pleaded with him not to spill the beans. ‘Sorry guys,’ he wrote ….
From which, I observe:
1 you can flog a horse for much longer than is commonly supposed.
2 travel editors like to feed their readers a diet of hidden gems and best kept secrets, so that angle is always a good pitch.
3 for ‘undiscovered’, ‘little-known’, ‘hidden’, ‘best-kept secret’ … read: ‘a resort I hadn’t visited before.’
4 when holiday companies use the absence of holiday companies as their promotional pitch, I recall the cautionary tale of Ski Vacances Franco Britanniques, which made a huge play of specialising in Franco resorts ignored by the mass-market Britannique operators: La Clusaz, for example. Such was the demand they created for La Clusaz holidays, the big tour operators moved in, thereby obliging Ski VFB to move out. And before long cease trading.
5 there is a lot of snobbery in skiing. In this case, it is the snobbery that distinguishes between big bad tour operators, for the mass market, and good little ones for the PLU crowd. Inghams and Crystal, for example, send their customers to many Swiss resorts, but not to Grimentz. Why not? Tour operators are good judges of the market, and if they leave a resort out of the brochure, skiers keeping it secret is probably not the reason. As mentioned, Bladon Lines knew about Grimentz before I did.
What might those reasons be?
The lift ‘system’ is not exactly state of the art. To travel from mid-mountain to top station at Grimentz requires two chair-lift rides (neither with pull-down windshields) and a long slow T-bar to the foot of a steepish slope up which we must sidestep to reach the start of the best piste. There is an alternative route to the same place, avoiding the climb, via an antiquated two-seater chair followed by two long pomas. Six of one way to freeze on a cold morning, half a dozen of another. At the top you might like to spend ten minutes warming up in the mountain restaurant. Bad luck: there isn’t one.
Nor is lunch on the mountain the day’s most uplifting punctuation mark: it usually boils down to a functional refuelling exercise in the unlovely self-service hall at mid-mountain, with a small waiter-served section for those who want to pay more slowly through the nose. Zinal is no better.
The ski area is great for toddlers, beginners and off-piste adventurers; and top-to-bottom down the Lona is one of the ski world’s great cruises. But for the great majority of regular skiers, who love to rack up the miles on red and blue runs in resorts like La Plagne, Meribel and Crans Montana, Grimentz must seem extremely limited. The Zinal-Grimentz link will improve the seamless piste-bashing experience considerably, albeit without adding any extra skiing.
Après-ski? Scrabble, spillikins, War and Peace.
It is often suggested that the hairpins of the access road put tour operators off. I doubt this, and a more likely reason is that Grimentz has only a few score hotel rooms, scattered around its handful of simple hotels. Why this should be, is an interesting question. Perhaps it has something to do with the local approach to hospitality. Maybe the Grimentzards are not cut out for hotel-keeping, which requires an openness of spirit – to visitors and investors – not typical of all mountain communities. I am not an expert on this subject, so I won’t speculate further.
I once asked a Grimentz shopkeeper to improvise a repair to my ski boot. The repair didn’t work, so I took the boot back the next day. He repeated the repair, and charged me again. This is quite normal in Grimentz, and if the edges of your rental skis need sharpening half way through the week, expect to be charged for that too. If you want a piece of bread with your soup in Grimentz, or a glass of water, don’t expect a freebie.
“Restaurants: all good,” says my friend’s page of concisely worded notes for visitors to the flat. Last week, we arrived late and hungry, and headed for the pizzeria. Someone in the party was too hungry to wait for pizza, and wanted garlic bread, pronto. In my experience garlic bread is always anti-social and, by the time it arrives, usually surplus to requirements. ‘I don’t think they do garlic bread in Switzerland’ I said, but the waitress interrupted.
‘mais si, le Garlic Bread, pas de problème!’ she said (in the resort where English visitors are so rare, remember, as to be all but unknown). Hungry person ordered three portions for all to share. In the fulness of time the waitress delivered six small pieces of finger roll smeared thickly with garlic paste. They tasted foul, and at the day of reckoning six pieces of bread contributed nearly £30 to the bill. I know: anyone who goes to Switzerland on a tight budget is asking for a miserable holiday. But there are limits.
Restaurants all good? ‘No they’re not’ I felt like scrawling across the page when we returned to the flat breathing bitter garlic fumes …. but didn’t. The pizzas were actually not bad. But they were more expensive than those enjoyed by Osborne, Cameron and Boris at the Alte Post in Davos.
Very soon Grimentz will open its long, if not eagerly, awaited new lift link to Zinal, with loud fanfares. Stand by for a bumper crop of Best-Kept Secret articles.