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Ski cheap in Switzerland's sunny Valais region

Hear “Switzerland,” and your first thought might be “too expensive.” Ritzy ski resorts like St. Moritz, Klosters and Zermatt that attract rock stars and royalty fuel the country’s reputation as an exclusive destination.

But there are some relatively inexpensive resorts that offer interesting terrain and a glimpse of local culture. And with Switzerland’s incomparable network of trains, buses and boats, you don’t need to rent a car to get to your destination, no matter how off-the-trendy-track it is. (Buy a Swiss Pass and the entire transportation system is yours to use.)

Three resorts in the Valais region, the sunniest part of Switzerland, are worth investigating:

Crans-Montana

Situated on a plateau almost a mile above sea level, Crans-Montana offers panoramic views, broad pistes and — according to a medical study — the cleanest air in Switzerland. It’s just the place to spend your days outdoors, including lunching on a restaurant terrace, basking in the sun.

Crans-Montana hosted the first downhill event in the history of skiing, in 1911. Today, the resort encompasses six villages and offers lots to do aside from skiing. One evening, I joined a guided hike on snowshoes to the Relais restaurant, which focuses on preserving local history by serving traditional food such as polenta and cheese fondue. While you’re eating, black-and-white photos from days gone by flash on the walls, showing how families once practiced “vertical” farming, driving cattle from village to village and living in high-altitude chalets. The most fun was at the end of the evening when we put on head lamps, mounted sledges (small sleds on runners) and practically flew back down the path we hiked up earlier.

• Special for 2013: “Ski for All, All for Ski” package for two people. Includes three nights in a three-star hotel, half-board, daily ski passes and lunch on the slopes. From 419 Swiss francs (about $450) per person. Some dates are exempt.

• Stay: Hotel Valaisia (hotel-valaisia.ch) offers smallish rooms with big mountain views.

• Guided hiking: Colombire (colombire.ch/en-hameau).

Riederalp

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The antithesis of busy ski resorts like Zermatt, Riederalp has virtually no après-ski scene and few restaurants or hotels.

But what this family-friendly resort does offer is tranquility and stunning views over the Aletsch Glacier. According to Swissinfo.ch, the Aletsch is the longest ice flow in the Alps, about 14 miles. Even in winter, covered with snow, the winding ribbon of ice is spectacular, with mountains rising up on both sides.

Take time from skiing to hike along the ridge on a hard-packed trail with views over the glacier. The walk from the Moosfluh cable car station back to the village takes about 2.5 hours and descends through pine-scented forest.

Speaking of walking, you’ll be doing lots of it in Riederalp, as there are no streets and no cars! People pull children or groceries — or both — on toboggans. (When you arrive with luggage, you can take a snow “cat” taxi — an enclosed truck on tracks — to your accommodations.)

• Stay: Walliser Spycher is a beautifully furnished family-run hotel. (walliser-spycher.ch).

Zurshmitten Tea-Room rents rooms with small kitchens (email: a.zurschmitten@bluewin.ch). Note: A seven-day package including hotel, half-board and a six-day ski pass, per person in a double room, starts at 1,040 francs; http:// tinyurl.com/9vhgujj.

Leukerbad

Tucked between two mountains, one with near-vertical walls, Leukerbad used to be hammered by avalanches. It was destroyed seven times in the 16th century alone.

Today, those mountains provide easily accessible outdoor recreation while avalanche barriers keep everyone safe. It’s hard to overstate just how much there is to do here. Besides downhill, back country and cross-country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing and sledging, the village offers indoor skating, tennis, soccer, climbing; you name it.

But what Leukerbad is best known for is the hot mineral water that bubbles out of the ground and fills 30 pools every day, including 10 at Burgerbad Therme, an enormous complex that also boasts saunas, steam rooms, spa treatments and water slides for children.

I spent one perfect day hiking the Gemmi Pass, an old Roman road and trading route that links Leukerbad with Kanderstag in the next valley, returning the same way (about 10 miles round-trip), then immersing myself in the steaming outdoor pool at Lindner Alpentherme, another thermal bath complex.

A one-day all-inclusive snow-and-spa pass (lift tickets and access to the thermal pools at both Burgerbad and Linderbad) costs 78 francs.

• Stay: Hotel Grichting-Badnerhof is family-run with an excellent restaurant specializing in local cuisine such as trout from the Rhone River and Petite Arvine, a wine made from grapes grown in the valley below; hotel-grichting.ch.

Suzanne Morphet is a freelance writer who lives in Victoria, B.C., Canada.

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