Reflections on Switzerland’s best wave through the prose of a hopeless romantic
Italian journalist Antonio Muglia reached out to us after a trip to Alaia Bay. He had heard discouraging words about wave pools from surfers who came from wave-rich regions. They weren’t impressed with the wave pool concept. This was tough for Antonio to digest – his local spot is the Mediterranean and goes off only a dozen times per year. For Antonio, a wave pool is the perfect solution. Or is it? After his day surfing and soaking up the vibe at Alaia Bay, he came away with the below riff, a wonderfully poetic, fantastically Italian ode to Switzerland’s best wave.
The scorching heat has blanketed Europe, and the thermometer in the Rhone valley shows 38C (100F) degrees. It’s the summer of 2022, and scientists say it’s hotter than it was 19 years ago. The vineyards that climb the mountains are undoubtedly delighted. Green, luxuriant, and bizarre in their vertical nature, they soak up the sun more like their French and Italian counterparts. Around here, surrounded by the Alps, you can sip Fendant, a flinty white wine.
Also near here in Sion, in the Swiss Canton of Valais, something magic is happening. As you drive to the destination you pass roundabouts dotted with wave artwork, monuments, and installations that all seem to have come from a dream: Alaïa Bay is just around the corner, with its artificial but divinely shaped waves.
There are people in Switzerland with a vision: Taking a place known worldwide for everything except surfing and turning it into a surf Mecca on the European continent.
Crans-Montana, thirty minutes by car (and another Alaïa group operating base), is one of Europe’s most renowned ski resorts. The Sion area is a well-known wine destination, and Switzerland itself is recognized as the wealthiest Old-World country. Geneva, the Swiss financial capital, is just two hours away from Sion, and the influence of all that wealth can be seen in even the most mundane urban corners.
But here, before when there were no waves and no surfing it was just a tiny piece of land overlooking the Fendant vineyards and the permanently snow-capped ridges. Being able to see the wave pool via Google Maps isn’t possible yet since the satellite photos were taken on a cloudy day in August 2013, and the Alaïa live webcam surf show doesn’t really give the full picture. These waves, created thanks to a smaller-than-usual configuration of Wavegarden technology, are breathtaking, fabulous and fun.
The world of artificial waves is undoubtedly one of the greatest innovations in surfing: a massive paradigm shift. Only twenty years ago, artificial reef installations were tagged as the solution to overcrowded lineups. They would create new waves, helping to increase tourism, and perhaps prevent coastal erosion. Yet while most of those projects failed, today wave parks are popping up worldwide.
“It’s curious,” said a surfer raised in the consistency of the Pacific and who was now suffering from surfing withdrawal symptoms. He tried the waves during the Longest Surf Days, a two-day event set up by Alaïa in June and was happy. But he was not as enthusiastic as the middle-aged Italian manager I met: “I had twelve waves in an hour: where else does that happen?” Any notions of wave pool skepticism are clearly eclipsed by the smiling faces of those who have just finished their sessions.
Surfing Alaïa in the summertime means you can relax at the Domaine des Îles, a sort of Eden lapped by a lake with transparent water. On a typical warm weekend, families and kids can have fun, swim, dive and sunbathe. ‘Surf the Swiss Alps’ is no longer just an advertising slogan but a reality. Even winter surfing, which is harder and a sort of spiritual experience (water temperatures drop to 3-5 degrees, the air temperature is close to zero and the pool’s edges are icy), is something that many people can try for themselves.
In this corner of Switzerland, as is assumed in almost every other part of this country, everything runs close to perfection. Alaïa employees never stand still, and there are over 200 of them during summertime. By the wave pool, there’s a shaper too, the Portuguese Carlos Lopes, whose little son follows him around in his spare time, sometimes clinging to his dad’s mighty forearms and then running off to go long-boarding. Then there is the Italian Giovanni Piro, the Surf Operations Coordinator whose height helped him play basketball back home but who then got an engineering degree and left his beloved Sardinian homeland to chase his dreams.
By the poolside, the young entrepreneur and Alaïa dream creator Adam Bonvin sips a Bintang beer and peacefully occupies the lifeguard position. Bonvin, black moustache and the inevitable beret on his head, does not seem to need to check that everything is fine: he already knows that just because it has to be okay.
A slight whiff of chlorine tickles the nose. Although the highway traffic is visible from here and could not be avoided, there are no smells and scents of the Ocean or the Mediterranean. The environment is clean with series after series of perfect waves continuing to break. The waves always start from a cusp and rise quickly, but the surf coach advises which height to stay at. Then he winks: “The first of the set is the biggest” and smiles, thereby dispelling a slight and innocent myth: no two waves are the same, thus perhaps the artificial wave concept becomes more natural and acceptable to purists. Good gracious: even if the wave pool waves were always the same – they aren’t, of course, – the surfer’s performance is never the same.
The waves break quickly. There’s not much time to sit and contemplate, to wait for a set, to fight with ignorant queue jumpers or some testosterone-crazed young surfer, nor to think about the previous wave, dinner, girlfriends or boyfriends, children, the sun, the universe or whether the swell is decreasing or increasing. The hiss of the motors is rhythmic; the waves are created out of nowhere and magically appear as a wall with colors ranging from dark to sky blue. It is neither magic nor a dream. ‘Surfing the Alps’ has become an instant classic.
Italian journalist Antonio Muglia covers the Old Country’s greatest surf stories for us here at WavePoolMag. From horse track pool projects tanked by gambling addicts to the frustrations of Mediterranean surf culture. You can read his other WavePoolMag work here and here. And you can purchase his book, One Man, One Wave at this link.