Valais: Skiing's tricky but the food is great

Even if you're not a veteran on the piste, you can drink in the stunning views around Valais, with the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc visible in the distance

Gavin's getting the hang of things

Village of Nendaz is beautifully picturesque, and peaceful

thumbnail: Even if you're not a veteran on the piste, you can drink in the stunning views around Valais, with the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc visible in the distance
thumbnail: Gavin's getting the hang of things
thumbnail: Village of Nendaz is beautifully picturesque, and peaceful
Gavin McLoughlin

'You know how to stop, you know how to stop!" my skiing instructor Vincent yells.

I do know how but unfortunately I can't quite execute the right manoeuvre and I crash five seconds later into a small inflatable lion.

I'm on the baby slope - the place where small children are taught how to ski. Hence the inflatable animals.

I'm a skiing virgin and picking it up is harder than I thought.

A good chunk of my first few hours are spent on the ground or trying to get off the ground - not easy when you have a pair of skis stuck to your feet.

Slowly but surely though I start to improve, but not enough to progress to the grown up slopes by the end of the day.

Gavin's getting the hang of things

We're in the Alps, in the Valais region of south-west Switzerland near the French and Italian borders. The landscape is simply jaw-dropping - vast, jagged peaks, snow-covered valleys, and bright sunshine.

Travelling here was pleasingly efficient. We flew to Zurich with Swiss International Airlines - clean, on-time and with free Swiss chocolates.

Then it's on to the train service, Swiss Travel System. We have to change along the way and, worryingly, our hosts Switzerland Tourism have left just five minutes or so to get off one train and on to the next.

In Ireland this would be a recipe for disaster - a small delay and you have missed your next train.

But everything works perfectly smoothly and we arrive in the evening in the city of Sion at the foot of the Alps.

We're staying in Nendaz, an alpine village above Sion, in a beautiful chalet called Etoiles de Montagne.

It has stunning views, but what really sets it apart is the quality of the food.

The hosts have hired a chef who used to work in a local restaurant, who cooks for the group every night. The meals are excellent - tasty, high-quality ingredients and creative without being pretentious.

Indeed the food and drink, I must confess, presents more of an attraction to me than the skiing at the outset. On our first day on the slopes we have lunch on a terrace, at a log cabin high up in the mountains, looking out at the range. I'd just as well stay here and look out all day rather than return to the piste.

As it turns out, our instructors decide to bring us up to the tallest point in the resort - Mont Fort, 3,330m above sea level. Here there are more stunning views, with the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc visible in the distance.

But the next day I wake with renewed determination to master the art of skiing. The previous evening over a few beers the other, more experienced skiers on the trip have told me what a wonderful time they are having. I feel like I'm missing out a bit.

It's a short stay - we have to leave in the afternoon - so this morning will be my last chance to make it off the baby slopes and on to the piste proper.

Yesterday's experience has stood to me - I'm now able to stop (most of the time) - so we move on to learn the art of the slalom.

This involves moving down the slope in a corkscrew pattern, turning left and then right over and over again in order to be able to descend with control.

It's tricky enough - you have to distribute your weight correctly in order to make it work.

Today we're in a different skiing area with a couple of different baby slopes of varying difficulty and despite a few more thrills and spills I manage at least to progress from the most gentle to a slightly more challenging part.

My struggles make me marvel at the proficiency some of the small children are able to demonstrate. Kids barely of school-going age are out on the piste proper, whizzing past as I observe from the adjacent baby slopes.

Unfortunately I don't manage to achieve a level of expertise that enables me to get out there alongside them - but another morning of instruction would probably have done it.

Although I'm not an expert skier, I do feel qualified to provide some tips on what to do if you're hitting the slopes for the first time. I'm not particularly disappointed - I got some sense at least of the fun you can have on the slope.

First, make sure to bring goggles or sunglasses. The sun reflects off the white snow and the result is that the general environment is extremely bright if it's a clear day. Good gloves are also a must.

Second, be prepared to have sore feet. Ski boots are supposed to be pretty snug so that you can have proper control of your skis, which are clipped to the boots.

Third, see if you can borrow some gear from a pal. Ski gear isn't cheap, and if the holiday is costing you a pretty penny too, it might be no harm to save a few bob where you can.

And even if you don't fancy hitting the piste, there's lots to recommend the Valais region.

The food is in general excellent. Switzerland's famous fondue - a big pot of melted cheese in which bread is dipped, does not disappoint. It's rich though - a few bites were enough for me. The wine is good too - Valais accounts for a sizeable proportion of Swiss wine production and we tried some very nice reds and whites.

We also get a demonstration of the alphorn - an instrument like an enormous long tobacco pipe that was used to communicate to villages on the other side of mountain valleys.

In the summer, the area is popular for hiking and biking. I'd like to return for some of that in the warmer months - it's more up my alley than the skiing.

But if it's the nightlife you're after - Nendaz may not be for you. The town is large but very quiet at night - at least in any of the districts we explored.

But it's not everywhere you'll get the stunning mountain landscape found in Valais, which is truly a treasure.

Getting there

Village of Nendaz is beautifully picturesque, and peaceful

Gavin travelled with Swiss International Air Lines from Dublin to Zurich. Visit for bookings, travel information and more.

He travelled from Zurich to Sion with Swiss Travel System, which can provide you with a first-class Swiss Pass. This all-in-one ticket allows you to travel the length and breadth of Switzerland by train, bus and boat, including scenic train routes.

For information about Valais, including skiing and accommodation, visit the region's website at

For more Switzerland highlights visit - the official website of Switzerland Tourism which has thousands of tips and ideas about the country.