SWITZERLAND'S CAREFREE SAAS-FEE Cozy village provides low-key introduction to skiing in the Alps


I arrived in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, on a gauzy, gray afternoon ripe with imminent snow. The skiers heading back from the slopes in their bright-colored gear looked especially vivid in the narrow, dusky streets. The slopes were shrouded in a low cloud cover, and the day drew to a close with no sign of the mountains I had come to tackle in this, my third year of skiing. The first was spent in Vermont, the second in Park City, Utah. Now the time had come to tackle the majors -- the Alps.

I had considered Zermatt the pinnacle of Continental skiing chic. But then I thought it might be better to make my Alpine debut at a more low-key resort, where perhaps my tentative parallel turns would be less likely to proclaim my status as a new kid on the block.

Awakened the next morning by the sun clamoring at the edges of the curtains, I flung the drapes back. I was stunned. Before me gleamed, cliched though it may seem, the backdrop of "The Sound of Music."

These were the whitest, brightest, most spectacular peaks I'd ever seen. I was expecting, of course, a winter wonderland replete with cute chalets and brute-strength mountains, but this vision surpassed even the most picturesque of my imaginings. An auspicious start for someone who appreciates a fine view as much as a well-groomed run.

Just one valley over from Zermatt in the Canton of Valais, lesser-known Saas-Fee indeed is quieter and cozier than its bustling, chichi neighbor at the base of the Matterhorn, but I hadn't realized that it also is much more scenic. Lying at an altitude of 5,900 feet, Saas-Fee is ringed by 13 awesome Alpine peaks, including the 14,900-foot Dom, Switzerland's highest.

The resident glacier dips down within 1,600 feet of Saas-Fee itself, yet despite the village's high altitude, its location in the southern part of Switzerland near Italy makes for a soft mountain climate.

Nestling in the lap of its 13 Alpine guardians, the village is snugly shielded from chilling winds. On the other hand, the altitude permits summer skiing starting at 8,800 feet, making Saas-Fee a favorite training ground for many national ski teams in the summer and fall. The winter season officially begins in the middle of November and snow is virtually guaranteed even on the lower slopes through March.

Like nearby Zermatt, Saas-Fee bans the use of cars in town. Electric carts carry visitors from the bus station or parking lot at the entrance of the village to the hotels, and from the hotels to the slopes at the western end of town. But since the town is little more than a mile long, these toy transports are essential only when you're carrying luggage or an excess of ski gear. The tourist office at the village entrance has a special phone for calling your hotel to have someone come to collect you and your baggage.

Then before you know it the quiet, pollution-free Saas-Fee streets begin to work their special magic. Unlike ski resorts born expressly to that purpose, Saas-Fee exudes a special brand of rustic relaxation. Although the metzgereien (delicatessens), intimate konditoreien (cafes serving hot chocolate and picture-book pastries) and state-of-the-art ski shops are spotlessly modern on the inside, they often occupy wizened structures that exude an old-fashioned tranquillity.

One of the joys of Saas-Fee is simply listening. In the car-free hush one actually can hear the muted footfalls on freshly fallen snow.

Located in the German-speaking part of the Valais Canton, Saas-Fee has welcomed tourists since 1836, when Johann Josef Imseng, a mountain guide and one of Switzerland's first skiers, introduced outsiders to the village's multiple sporting and scenic charms. Since then both skiing and hiking have drawn people to Saas-Fee year round.

In fact, until the mid-1960s, summer tourism dominated in the Swiss Alps. Nowadays, however, two-thirds of Saas-Fee's visitors come for the winter attractions. When the town's 8,500 guest beds are full, the tourist population outnumbers the local citizenry by about 8 to 1.

While Saas-Fee's slopes offer limited trails for beginners, intermediate and advanced skiers will find a challenging variety of trails. Getting to the top of the mountain involves a series of cable car, lift and funicular connections, however. Since for me half the fun of skiing is its scenic context, one morning I decided to take a more circuitous -- but more scenic -- route to the top.

First, the small cable car to Spielboden, then the larger one to Laengfluh. Then the Fee-Chatz (a kind of tractor towing two rows of skiers at a time) to where you can ski to a T-bar lift that takes you to a variety of intermediate slopes. Although this ascent is somewhat cumbersome and time-consuming, I very much enjoyed the breathtaking vistas underscored by the jagged, icy blue splendor of the glacier.

A more direct and faster route involves taking a T-bar to the Felskinn Gondola and continuing on to Mittelallalin in the Alpine Metro, the world's highest underground funicular, which deposits skiers at the gateway to 50 miles of trails in winter and 10 in summer. Also at the Alpine Metro's upper terminus one finds the world's highest (11,500 feet) rotating restaurant, whose panoramic views are not to be missed even by non-skiers (they can ride the funicular and gondolas back down).

Saas-Fee's very high tree line (7,200 feet) makes for broad stretches of open skiing terrain, but the glaciers are treacherous and should be negotiated under the aegis of an expert guide.

Cross country skiers can choose among five miles of track in Saas-Fee and an additional 10 miles in the greater Saas Valley. Non-skiers can opt for tennis, swimming, steam baths and saunas, ice skating and hiking. There also is a small museum housed in a typical Saas house of the 18th century, exhibiting cultural, sociological and geological tidbits from the area.

In summer, besides high-altitude skiing, Saas-Fee offers more than 175 miles of marked hiking trails. Pick up the "Excursion Map of Saas-Fee" and "The Summer in Saas-Fee," by Werner Imseng, and enjoy the fresh air, exercise and scenery.

If you go . . .

Swissair offers daily flights from New York to Geneva and Zurich. Both airports afford excellent train and bus connections to Saas-Fee via Brig, where direct postal bus service continues onto the skiing village. If you're going by car, there is a good road to Saas-Fee from Visp.

The four-star Hotel Walliserhof (telephone 028/57-20-21) is among the best in town. It features an indoor pool and sauna, and has live music and dancing in the disco-bar. Depending on the time of year, a double room with half board runs from 210 to 400 Swiss francs (a Swiss franc currently is worth about 80 cents). A quaint, three-star alternative is the Hotel Tenne (telephone 028/57-12-12), which runs from 134 to 220 Swiss francs for a double with half board. The hotel's small bar attracts a lively apres-ski crowd.

For further information contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020; or telephone (212) 757-5944.

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