Zermatt: skiing on top of the world

by Cathy W

Have you always wanted to go to Zermatt but just weren't sure? Well it really is as good as everyone says. Read on to find out more

Some ski resorts boast of the world’s longest runs or steepest couloirs; others talk of unrivalled lift systems and locations beyond compare.

And then there’s Zermatt, in the German-speaking Valais canton of Switzerland. Once a farming village with simple aspirations it welcomed its first visitors in 1838 when an inn with three beds opened. Today a place of international renown it is, undeniably, one of the most beautiful, dramatic and majestic resorts in the world. And that’s with or without the skiers.

Zermatt is a year-round destination; summer walkers are as keen to see and enjoy the most naturally shaped and instantly recognisable Matterhorn, as much as winter skiers are. Add to this mix extensive skiing, the best mountain restaurants in the world and a dizzying high point of 3,820 metres, which ensures snow reliability at altitude, and it’s easy to see why Zermatt is a resort without easy equal.

Of course there are drawbacks. It’s not great for beginners despite recent progress in this area and any holiday here usually involves plenty of walking to and from the lift departure points. But, in an impatient world of instant satisfaction, a little walking in fresh mountain air surrounded by stunning mountain peaks really isn’t such a hardship. Part of the Matterhorn’s uniqueness is that it stands, in all its glory, completely alone. Rather like the resort.

The skiing

One thing Zermatt isn’t is a ski-in, ski-out resort. Ease of access to the resort’s main ski areas – Rothorn, Gornergrat and the Klein Matterhorn – depends largely on where you stay but expect to start and end each day with a walk.

The Sunnegga/Blauherd/Rothorn sector is reached by the fast underground funicular, the Sunnegga Express, and then two over-ground lifts to the top. For beginners there’s now a good, relatively new beginner area just below the Sunnegga lift station. For skiers who go on up to Rothorn there’s a good selection of red runs once you get to the top while from Blauherd it’s easily possible to connect to the neighbouring Gornergrat/Stockholm ski area via the Gant to Hohtalli cable car.

Gornergrat, the second ski area, is as memorable for the way you get to it as it is for the skiing itself. The old cog railway, which marked its 100-year anniversary in 1998, still winds its way to the top. Get there early, get a seat and enjoy the view. It’s a long way if you have to stand.

Below Gornergrat the slopes are mainly blues with some reds. Skiers in search of more challenging runs, like the impressive bump runs at Triftji, need to go head up rather than down the mountain.

Klein, means ‘small’ in German but there’s nothing small about the Zermatt’s third sector, the Klein Matterhorn ski area. For a start these are the highest runs in Europe and this wide, open glacier will flatter, and entertain, the most nervous skier. It’s also the access point to nearby Cervinia in Italy if any more skiing, or indeed culinary, options were needed.

Mountain restaurants

Talking of which there aren’t many resorts where the restaurants are as famous as the ski runs, but in Zermatt they are. Particular favourites include Zum See (www.zumsee.ch) below Furi, which has fabulous Matterhorn views and a menu to match including delicious home-made pasta and fresh calf’s liver. At Findeln, the Julen family has run Chez Vrony (www.chezvrony.ch) for generations. Ingredients are both organic and local. If this is full try the excellent food and views at nearby Adler (www.adler-hitta.ch). On that note, as with all Zermatt’s distinguished eateries, booking is essential.

The village

No matter how much you want to make the most of Zermatt’s skiing area and ensure value from the lift pass it is worth taking time to have a wander around. Away from the bustle and glamour of the main Bahnhofstrasse with its shops, cafés and international clientele you don’t have to go far to find quieter, narrow streets offering a glimpse of time gone by. It’s also car free, if not traffic free, which makes it easier to get around. With so many great shops, cafés, restaurants, a cinema, museum and spas, this really is a resort where non-skiers won’t feel out on a limb. There are also winter hiking paths allowing non-skiers the freedom to access the mountains without skis.

Where to stay

If budget is not an issue then stay in five-star style at the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof which, as the name suggests, sits in a grand, imposing manner on the main street. Two-thirds of all rooms have Matterhorn views.

Close to the train station the Hotel Alex is a friendly, welcoming hotel with good rooms and food. There’s a pool and men’s and women’s saunas to relax in after a day on the slopes.

The three-star Hotel Derby, in the main street just up from the train station, is small, understated and accordingly priced.

Where to eat

For serious gourmet try Le Corbeau d’Or in the Hotel Mirabeau (www.hotel-mirabeau.ch). Le Mazot does excellent meat dishes (www.lemazotzermatt.ch) while the Whymperstube, named after British climber, Edward Whymper, the first man to successfully ascend the Matterhorn in 1865, keeps the spirit of adventure alive with great food, friendly service and reasonable prices (www.whymper-stube.ch).