Make memories to last a lifetime when in Switzerland. In the southwest of Switzerland, in the area around the Saas Valley, visitors will encounter a number of archetypal Swiss experiences, adventures and excursions that can’t be enjoyed anywhere else on the planet. From a rendezvous with sweet animals to trips on hidden waterways, this is a region full of smiles, surprises, and places not to be missed.
Get up close with Saint Bernards, the gentle giants of the Alps
Perhaps no animal is more iconically Swiss than the Saint Bernard, the gentle giant of the Alps. A large, playful breed, with a wrinkled brow and dark eyes, the Saint Bernard has loomed large in the public imagination for centuries as a mountain rescue dog, helping skiers stranded in the snow.
At Barryland in Martigny, founded in 2006, the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard is a museum where visitors can learn about these delightful creatures and even interact with them. The dogs of the Barry Foundation, an organisation that is the oldest and most important Saint Bernard kennel in the world, eat, sleep, play and are groomed here, and travellers can get to know all about the breed, from watching them eat in the outdoor enclosure to accompanying them on hikes in the grounds (the foundation offers these walks throughout the season).
Even more exciting for children is the chance to see the puppies — they are born four or five times a year, with announcements on the foundation’s website and Facebook page. The simple act of just witnessing the clumsy, undisciplined, sleepy little bundles of fur, accompanied by their protective mother, is a heartwarming and truly unforgettable experience for all the family.
A trip to Barryland is also a perfect jumping-off point to other attractions in the Valais region. The Pierre Gianadda Foundation presents a revolving selection of exhibitions from private collections and great museums around the world, while the Tissieres Foundation Geosciences Museum, open since 2001, shines a spotlight on the information, popularisation and animation in geosciences.
Marécottes Alpine Zoo is the highest zoological garden in Europe, set 1100 metres above sea level, surrounded by fir and larch forests and spread over 35000 square metres. Here travellers will see lynx, bear, marmot, fox and deer among the animals that roam.
Western City, which covers 10000 square metres, is a dive into America’s Wild West, but transplanted to the Swiss Alps! This is where 70 challenges are divided among five different worlds that include the Far West, the Gold Rush (where pioneers can search for gold nuggets), and the Western Village. There are even 18 holes of mini-golf, ensuring a day of fun for the whole family.
Millions of years in the making, tour a subterranean lake in Switzerland
A 30-minute drive northeast of Barryland, Lac Souterrain de St. Leonard in the upper Rhône River Valley is a subterranean body of water formed through the actions of geology, plate tectonics, hydrology and location. Millions of years ago, when this area was part of a vast ocean, layers of rock were displaced and reordered during the formation of the Alps, creating conditions for a lake to form between strata of black shale and marble.
Water continues to filter into the lake to keep it growing, and this stunning natural phenomenon, located in the middle of vineyards (though 30-70 metres below them) was once used by viticulturists to cool their bottles. The lake was first opened to the public in 1949, though constant improvements to the visitor experience guarantee that today is it comfortable, safe, fantastically illuminated and easy to access.
Travellers come for a guided boat tour on the otherworldly lake, which at 300 metres in length, is the largest natural underground lake in Europe that can be explored by boat. Some private tours, which typically last around 30 minutes, come with a local aperitif and wine. The experience of raising a glass among the blue-green crystal clear water, with rock reaching overhead in every direction, is a thrilling way to celebrate a visit to this unique, almost-mystical, destination.
Get up close with furry marmots at Saas-Fee
Another exciting adventure for the entire family takes place in the Alpine village of Saas-Fee, in the Saas valley near the border with Italy. Here, the furry marmots are fondly referred to as the sweetest villagers, and in the areas of the mountain called Spieldboden and Stafelwald, marmots are known to wander and play. During the sunny summer months, they enjoy being fed peanuts and carrots, a tasty and deserved reward after a six-month winter hibernation in their caves.
Children can learn all about these alpine creatures on the new circular trail at Spielboden, where seven panels outline interesting facts about the life of these furry explorers, the heaviest members of the squirrel family. For groups that welcome the opportunity to feed marmots, bags of peanuts are sold at the Saas-Fee Tourist Office and in the Spielboden restaurant. The small bag is reusable and in addition to its intended purpose as a receptacle to hold nibbles for the animals, it is a lasting souvenir of a visit to this natural wonderland.
See Switzerland in a new light at World Nature Forum
World Nature Forum, by UNESCO World Heritage, is suitably located in a World Heritage Site, the Swiss Alps region of Jungfrau-Aletsch, near the largest glacier in Europe and in one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world.
The impressive topography here is strikingly presented in the Panorama area through two films projected on a 100-square-metre screen. Each film runs about 15 minutes — current titles are The Flight of the Butterfly Painted Lady, and The Man in the World Heritage. The first film traces the evolution of the Vanessa Cardui butterfly, a species that lives in the region during the four seasons and is fondly known as the Painted Lady for its beautifully patterned orange and black colours. The latter film focuses on the men and women that work and live in the region, from the mountain farmer to the researcher, giving viewers an insightful window onto daily life in the Jungfrau-Aletsch.
Another exhibition with local significance is the Jungfrau railway car, which completed its maiden journey to the Jungfraujoch in 1912, an example of a visionary tourism project that launched early last century. Museum-goers can climb on the wagon and virtually experience the climb to the Top of Europe, as Jungfraujoch is known. Upon entry to the museum, which received the Sustainability Award at the European Museum of the Year in 2019, visitors receive small balls from the reception desk to place in tracks around the exhibits and there are even hidden playgrounds around the building, creative diversions to keep the young ones entertained.
Find your perfect bath temperature at the Leukerbad, the thermal bath destination in the Swiss Alps
The outdoors is celebrated in style, and heat, at the Leukerbad Therme baths in Leukerbad. With 10 relaxing baths to choose from, a modern sauna with wellness and natural healing alternatives, and slides for family fun, this water complex is the largest thermal bath destination in the entire Alpine region.
The temperature of the waters ranges from a comfortable high-20s to a searing mid-40s (perfect for seasoned bathers), a variation that allows everyone in the family to find the level that’s right for them. Throughout the baths, visitors will encounter a multitude of loungers and seats with bubble jets, meaning that relaxation and rejuvenation are guaranteed.
For youngsters, the Children’s Pool has a slide, playhouse, and a toddlers’ corner loaded with play equipment where kids can splash to their hearts’ content. The new pool Kids’ Paradise is designed for toddlers up to four years of age, and focuses on fun with safety in mind. For the more adventurous family groups, Waterslides get the heart and adrenaline pumping, with trips down slides on inflatable tyres, or the 126-metre-long Badnerblitz which features two thrilling 360-degree twists.
Elsewhere, the Indoor Pool features a therapeutic circuit of underwater massage jets, and is a good way to loosen the muscles before venturing on to the other water facilities. The Waterfall is a powerful channel of water falling from a mushroom-shaped cascade, and helps bathers to relax muscles tired from their daily activities. Aching limbs are catered for in the Tread Bath, a classic Kneipp therapy of hot and cold pools for the legs, forearms and hands that stimulates the cardiovascular system.
The natural stone Grotto is fed by unfiltered thermal water, and the steam generator bumps the temperature up to 44 Celsius, allowing guests to warm up while clearing their airways. For more steam, mixed with the drama of light, the Adventure Pool feature bubble jets, gargoyles, and light effects, all combining to create thermal theatre. The Vitality Bath is also an entertaining spectacle of light, accompanied by powerful floor bubbles, soothing back and bench bubbles and energising water jets.
For visitors that are more serious about their water endeavours, the Sports Pool caters to lap swimmers, aqua joggers, and anyone wanting to perfect their diving technique. Next door, an 11×16 metre Beach Volleyball playing field comes with high-quality quartz sand and has a large sunbathing area for summer fun, providing yet another way for visitors to this fascinating part of Switzerland to effortlessly revel in the region’s glorious outdoors.
If you’re looking for an unforgettable family adventure, the Swiss Alps are definitely worth a visit. You can get up close and personal with some of the biggest and friendliest animals in the area, explore subterranean lakes that have been around for millions of years, and see Switzerland from a whole new perspective.
Where can I stay when visiting Valais
Martigny : Hotel Vatel.
Saint-Léonard : Hotel Crans Ambassador, Hotel Guarda Golf, Hotel Royal, Hotel Guarda Golf, W Verbier and Hotel Nendaz 4 Vallées.
Saas-Fee : Walliserhof Grand-Hotel & Spa, The Capra Saas-Fee and Wellnesshotel Schweizerhof.
Leukerbad : Les Sources des Alpes, Hotel de France and Therme51. ◼
© This article was first published online in May 2022 – World Travel Magazine.