A giant “new” Swiss ski area, the largest in Central Switzerland, has officially “opened” this winter after 10 years of design and construction and an investment of CHF130 million (about £103 million at time of writing).
Of course creating an entirely new ski area in Switzerland where every bit of land is already owned and development strictly controlled isn’t going to happen, and the historic resorts of Andermatt and Sedrun are, well, already famous.
Andermatt, in particular, is famous for its great skiing and deep powder snow (at the time of writing in February 2019 it is lying up to 20 feet/6 metres deep – the deepest in the world at present). At an elevation of 1,444 meters it’s easily accessible by car or train and with just 1,500 inhabitants, it has the enchanting atmosphere of a romantic little mountain village.
The great Swiss skier Bernhard Russi, a Winter Olympic gold medallist who has gone on to design the downhill courses at most of the Olympics for the past 30 years, was born here. In fact, he is now a director of the company that has transformed the ski area around his old village.
So what has actually happened is that the two ski areas have had their lifts and runs almost entirely renewed, extensive snowmaking added and a new connection between them over the Oberalp completed. In other words, the ski area has been almost entirely redeveloped, taken back to the drawing board and started from scratch.
Planning lasted from 2009 to 2014, and construction has been going on since 2015. The result is a ski area of 120km, the largest in central Switzerland, served by 22 lifts including state-of-the-art high-speed chair and gondola lifts to whisk you up the slopes.
The ski area has something for everyone with terrain ranging from the nearly 3,000m-high Gemsstock all the way to Sedrun in the canton of Grisons. The new area also links two Swiss cantons and two cultures.
And although the new area officially opened just before Christmas with the opening of the last key lift in the connection, the Schneehüenerstock-Express gondola, work is now underway on a second connection to another neighbouring ski area, Disentis. Due for completion next winter, 2019/20, this will enlarge the area further to 160km.
BEGINNINGS OF THE EVOLUTION
The transformation began a decade ago when Andermatt’s fortunes were, to put it kindly, a little bit on the slide.
Although beloved by hardcore powder hounds for decades, they only made up about 15% of its turn over. The village’s main business had been supplying the Swiss military that had made it their mountain head-quarters for the best part of a century. A military base adjoined the resort and in the surrounding mountains more facilities were dug in to the rocks. There are reputed to be several fully functioning military hospitals inside the mountain, although you wouldn’t know it as they look like any other mountains.
But in the early ‘noughties’ a big cut in funding and downsizing of military operations was announced. The number of soldiers who used to stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants and ski on the slopes used to be around 1500 at any one time, but dropped dramatically with the cutbacks. The reinvention of Andermatt was proposed to save the village from dangerous depopulation and keep it sustainable.
The big driving force behind this entire project (at one point described as “the biggest building site in Switzerland”) has been Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris (pictured above, now also Chairman of the Board of lift company Andermatt-Sedrun Sport AG), who has also been developing a new year-round resort base, the Andermatt Swiss Alps destination. Originally brought in as a consultant on the project, he fell in love with Andermatt and ‘the plan’ so much he began to bankroll it.
In the resort itself a selection of properties and accommodation have been built, ranging right up to the luxurious 5 stars Chedi Hotel which opened five years ago and has rapidly gained a reputation as one of the world’s great ski hotels. A new Radisson Blu hotel is the latest to open there this winter and more 4 and 5 star hotels are planned in the future as the resort grows.
To make the project viable Andermatt’s developers have been granted property sales rights pretty much unique in Switzerland – allowing foreign buyers to purchase apartments in their new ski property developments. Such sales are normally limited to Swiss buyers only elsewhere in the country.
THE SKI AREA
Andermatt and Sedrun are now connected by a chain of fast gondolas and high-speed chairlifts and ski runs stretching across the mountains and a canton border between them to create an area of some 120km of slopes.
The new gondola to Schneehüenerstock highlights the significance of this new central hub to the whole area. Two ski lifts meet here between the two parts of the ski area at an elevation of 2,500m, and it is here too that the three-way link to the Disentis ski area will be completed in time for next winter (2019/20).
“With this ski region we now have the type of first-class winter attraction we need for successful international marketing of the destination,” Mr Sawiris said at the official inauguration of the ski area in December 2018.
Fortunately, it’s a stunning spot worthy of such an important location at the heart of the new area. There are breathtaking views of the Ursern Valley, and a new mountain restaurant also opened there in December, complete with a huge terrace, so it’s a great place to take a break and take it all in.
The newly developed (and in some parts re-developed) slopes are perfect for families and casual skiers and boarders looking for wide, fast, safe slopes served by fast, comfortable lifts.
There are steep and challenging areas here as well though. The run from the Schneehuenerstock station on the Oberalppass is one of Russi’s favourites.
Freestylers will find the 600-metre long AVE terrain park over on the Sedrun side to enjoy, with a wide selection of terrain features to hit offr and a 1.4km long boarder/ski-X course. There’s also a smaller Valtgeva snowpark, complete with tubing runs, located close to the station in Sedrun and several other areas especially designed for families.
In a particularly genius idea, Mr Sawiris suggested that the train line which has always connected the two villages offer an ‘apres ski train’ back to Andermatt at the end of the ski day for the 40-minute journey. The locals thought it wouldn’t work but it proved a huge success and now a second apres ski service has been added.
But not all of Andermatt’s skiing has changed, whilst extensive snowmaking, new or re-shaped runs and fast comfortable lifts have been added on the mostly blue and red graded gentler sunny slopes over towards Sedrun, the separate area at the other end of the village, Gemsstock, has changed little.
Accessed by a 50-year-old cable car and famous for its north facing, steep freeriding terrain this remains the ski area of choice for many of Andermatt’s long term fans.
Andermatt has a reputation for its good, deep snow cover, usually one of the deepest in the Alps all season.
As a result, the ski season at SkiArena Andermatt-Sedrun lasts seven months from November to May. Besides that natural snow, there’s been the heavy investment in snowmaking mentioned as well as snow farming equipment.
In order to enable an early season start on the Gemsstock, snow is stockpiled on the Gemsstock Glacier and St Anna Glacier. Thanks to constant snow farming, around 25,000m3 of top-quality snow can be protected from melting at both locations, with around 10,000m2 of fleece being used for this purpose at the two locations.
GREAT MOUNTAIN DINING
Food is seen as a big factor in the success of the newly revamped ski area, which boasts eight mountain restaurants overseen by restauranteur Marco Però and his team, who place great importance on using local and regional products. The cheese, fruits, sausages and herbs from the Andermatt region help make the cuisine authentic and special. With great attention to detail, specialities from Uri and Grisons are served in a traditional style while also being freshly reinterpreted.
One nice feature is that the spring water from the Gotthard Massif is of especially high quality, and so the restaurants offer still and sparkling mountain water for free. To ensure an environmentally friendly resort, plastic bottles are not used in the SkiArena.
THE NEW RADISSON BLU
The very swish new Radisson Blu (pictured right, above) opened in Andermatt in December, located a short shuttle bus ride or a few hundred metres walk from the ski lifts. It’s part of a new base area development that also includes several restaurants, a bakery and a ski shop as well as residential property.
Rated four-star, the 244-room hotel has a great restaurant and spa as well as very stylish, spacious and well-appointed rooms that would give it a five-star grading in some resorts and countries.
Designed in the style typical of Swiss chalets, inside the hotel, generous use of natural materials elevates the feel-good factor and creates a warm ambience, while the guest rooms, suites and apartments feature free high-speed internet, LED televisions and 24-hour room service.
The open lobby lounge with a bar and fireplace is the ideal space for relaxing after a busy day. Guests eating at the Spun restaurant can enjoy market-fresh local and Italian-inspired creations. The modern health and wellness area pampers visitors with a 25-meter pool featuring a panorama view, a sauna and steam bath – as well as customized treatments.
“We’re honored to open the first Radisson Blu hotel in the heart of the Swiss Alps and the highest Radisson Blu property above sea level in the world,” said Andreas Meier, the hotel’s General Manager.
Franz-Xaver Simmen, CEO Andermatt Swiss Alps, added, “The opening of the Radisson Blu Hotel is a key element in significantly increasing the bed capacity of Andermatt, showing that its development as a destination is flourishing.
Andermatt-Sedrun is situated halfway between Zurich and Milan and 30 minutes away from Lucerne. It’s just 90 minutes from Zurich Airport by road, and rail passengers can make the journey in two hours. Milan is also two hours away coming from the Italian side. The resort has been designed so that Andermatt’s rail station is both close to the Andermatt Swiss Alps destination and has a new gondola up to the slopes departing just across the road from the station itself.
Andermatt’s famous epic snowfalls can sometimes cause problems for road access a few times each season, with the road into the resort closed if the avalanche danger is high, but it does have the unique option of the famous 19th century Gotthard rail tunnel which bypasses any avalanche danger. Skiers simply park up at the station on the Zurich side of the tunnel and hop on the train for the 10-minute journey through the tunnel and into Andermatt, brilliant.