From the Fall 2009 issue
Hard times need not rule out high times. Even if you’re on a gap year, don’t write off that dream trip to the Alps just yet. True, even a less than luxurious hotel room can easily cost $500 to $1,000 in a top resort. But there are plenty of high-altitude, low-budget alternatives—even in some of the most chic resorts.
Sadly, one of the best and certainly one of the most unusual of inexpensive hostels is slamming shut its two-foot-thick concrete and steel portals this winter. Ten years ago Verbier’s Jürgen Taudien did something very un-Swiss. He went downmarket. Taudien saw that in the decades since he (and I) had been ski bums in Verbier, young skiers and boarders were literally being priced out of the resort.
As director of Verbier’s sports centre, Taudien inherited a huge, cavernous underground bomb shelter, something found in every Swiss village, indeed in every Swiss apartment house. With bunk beds, showers but no windows and little in creature comforts, The Bunker had instant appeal for the impecunious.
Downtown Verbier for $25 a night and free passes to the indoor swimming pool! The guestbook counts more than 2,000 Canadian visitors. None of those paid $10,000 for the house special cocktail at Verbier’s swank Coco Club. And few would have been in the market for a week at the Septième Ciel, where former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham and other celebrities have stayed in Verbier, at prices soaring to $80,000 a week.
Alas, all the teen spirit and hijinks, like removing the plate-glass panels in the bar above The Bunker and snowboarding down a ramp into the swimming pool, proved too much for the town elders, who equate underground with infra dig. But Jürgen Taudien’s bunker idea lives on since it has been officially approved by the Swiss government, and the concept is spreading. Below Verbier, a short walk from the valley lifts, a new bunker, called Le Stop, has opened at $29 a night and is run by a top paragliding instructor.
The good news is that the Alps also abounds with ample choice of inexpensive accommodation, from downright dirt bag to cheap and cheerful for the family. At the top end of the scale, but on average five times cheaper than a three-star hotel, is the bed and breakfast. The B&B concept is relatively new in Switzerland but is spreading rapidly.
There is a subtle social difference between the new B&B and the traditional “rooming house” concept of the pension or gasthaus. The latter date back a century or more and tend to be purpose-built. The B&B is more of an afterthought. And the hosts tend to regard you more as potential friends than as overnight nuisances.
Take the example of the most charming B&B I have visited in Switzerland, situated in a tiny valley village between Verbier and the ski area of Bruson (where Intrawest has a resort in the planning stages). Their children grown and gone, Andrée-Noëlle Filliez and her ski instructor husband, Francis, transformed the upstairs of their stone tower into two huge bedrooms with a sitting/TV room area in between. It’s an authentic home and a rare chance to see how the Swiss (who never invite foreigners home) really live.
Time is money. Take your time and scour the Internet for accommodation in towns or cities with good public transport links to ski areas. You will lose time in travelling to the skiing, but save a lot on sleeping.
Alas, encore, Verbier’s authorities, in addition to closing The Bunker, have destroyed the last of its dozen poubelle huts. These small wooden chalets with pine floors were the dirt bag’s last resort. Built as receptacles for plastic garbage bags, these huts had a habit of burning down. Some say the cause was sleeping ski bums whose candles set rubbish alight.
SAGER’S GUIDE TO AFFORDABLE ACCOMMODATION
Switzerland is thought to be an expensive ski nation, but ironically it also has some of the best budget accommodation. Here’s my short guide of places I can personally vouch for:
Under the Eiger in a ski pass area that covers Mürren, Wengen and Grindelwald, this collection of single-storey wooden shacks is the antithesis of Swiss chalet architecture. But inside comfort rules: polished wood floors, comprehensive game room and families can have their own building. From $36, with breakfast.
The Matterhorn Hostel dates back to the days of Edward Whymper’s conquest of the eponymous mountain. It’s clean, simple and charming with free Internet, a restaurant offering $20 menus and a lively bar. A bunk bed costs $34 a night.
Europe’s most expensive country offers an expansive choice of 33 inexpensive city and countryside hostels—no membership required and big discounts for Swiss rail pass holders. These are not youth hostels but independently owned lodges. Ski resort locations include St. Moritz, Lenzerheide, Kandersteg, Grindelwald and Flims-Laax.
Mixing youth hostel accommodation with private inns, this site offers 13 ski resorts in Switzerland, half a dozen each in Italy and Austria, but only two in France.
Filliez family, $70 a night, wifi, ski guiding.
Bombproof bedding from $29 a night.
Offer straw beds for $20-30 a night. Low on night life but plenty of dairy products, plus many Swiss farmers have daughters.
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