When I stepped out onto my hotel balcony in Zermatt, Switzerland, my first impression was simply, "Wow"! North American resorts like Whistler or Vail may have similar terrain, but they certainly don’t have mountains that look as dramatic as the Alps. I quickly realized that this would be the ski trip of a lifetime.
Situated at the southern end of Switzerland, along the border of Italy, Zermatt is enclosed between incredibly steep mountains and dominated by a quiver of peaks that tower above 14,000 feet. The village was “discovered” by British mountaineers in the mid-nineteenth century, but its roots go far deeper. Roman coins found on the Theodul Pass (the gap between Zermatt and Bruel-Cervinia) indicate that the area was once an access route to Gaul and Helvetia between 200 and 400 B.C. Imagine, a ski resort that is over 2000 years old! Today, the streets are lined with elegant restaurants and grand hotels and the resort is continually regarded as a world-class destination. Although Zermatt may appear as a real-life Disneyland (complete with its own version of the Matterhorn), its sun-browned stodels and traditional mountain culture allow its authenticity and appeal to persevere.
The train system in Switzerland really does run like clockwork. When I arrived in Zurich, I only had to make a short walk to the station, which was conveniently located across from the airport’s baggage claim area. My train was waiting at the correct gate and departed on schedule – just as the second hand swept past 12. For the next three hours, I was able to sit back and enjoy Switzerland’s sparkling landscape from the cozy comfort of my cabin.
When I arrived in Zermatt, I found myself in a bustling square where ranks of electric taxis, hotel shuttles and horse-drawn sleighs were competing to ferry me to my hotel. Cars are forbidden in Zermatt but, never the less, the scene was quite overwhelming as vacationers poured out of the train. Luckily, I had made arrangements beforehand. Waiting for me at the platform was David Court from Alpine Exposure, the owner of a small tour company specializing in ski and snowboard vacations in the European Alps. He had conveniently arranged my entire itinerary and within a few minutes, we were loaded onto a small electro-wagon and quietly zipping off to the hotel.
After just a few email exchanges to find the best fit for my budget, Alpine Exposure had booked a room for me at Hotel Bristol, a reasonably priced three-star establishment with many pluses. First, it’s literally within walking distance to everything – a great attribute in a car-free resort. Second, at a time of year when it is cold and icy, the hotel’s alpine decor offered warmth and color. Third, the owners and their staff were very pleasant and did everything to make me feel comfortable, cozy and happy.
My room was a traditional “Swiss” style with wood paneling and lots of natural light. The bed was topped with a comfy down duvet, the bathroom was large and modern, and the view of the Matterhorn from my private balcony was absolutely breathtaking. Breakfast included an assortment of cereals, yogurts, eggs, juices, coffee, tea, with the good selection of cheeses, cold cuts, fresh fruit, bread, rolls and croissants. The Bristol also offered some surprising amenities including a Jacuzzi and a steam bath, which were a welcome retreat after a long day of skiing.
There’s certainly no shortage of shops that offer ski and snowboard equipment and prices are actually quite reasonable at about $150 for the week (including skis, boots and poles). Even better was that my all-inclusive package included a discounted rate with the rental shop conveniently located at the ground floor of the hotel. The staff were friendly, spoke English, and I was back at the hotel in a matter of minutes with a pair top-of-the-line all-terrain Salomons in hand.
The Skiing Experience
My skiing experience began with David greeting me at my hotel on the first morning. One of the added benefits of signing up with his company includes a full day of guiding – a service that ultimately helps one get familiar with the different ski areas, which collectively, are absolutely enormous.
There are three distinct locations in Zermatt: Sunnegga, Gornergrat and Klein Matterhon. However, if you purchase the International Pass you can also ski in Cervinia and Valtournenche, which are just across the border in Italy yet completely accessible on skis. In all, the different areas cover over 360km of trails alone - not including the off-piste terrain.
Skiing in Cervinia, Italy
It was a clear and sunny day, but David mentioned that snow was expected later in the week, so he suggested that we make the trip to Cervinia, before access would be prohibited. He clarified that, for safety reasons, they close the runs if visibility is poor or if the winds are too fierce. Without a cloud in sight, I doubted the coming of a storm, but I also knew that David has been skiing in Zermatt for over 20 years, so I took his word and we started our long journey up a series of cable cars to the Klein Matterhorn station. From the moment we reached the top, I realized why skiing in Europe is such a different experience from that of skiing in the US, particularly since I grew up skiing in the northeast. The wide open spaces can appear somewhat intimidating at first - especially as most of the runs are above tree-line. And starting at 12,500 feet (the highest lift station in Europe) can also be a bit daunting. But David turns to me with a re-assuring smile and we begin our descent to Cervinia – more than 8 miles away!
There are precious few opportunities in the world to ski over international borders but doing so for this long without ever needing to take a lift was clearly one of my most favorite experiences. I couldn’t imagine anything that could top it – until David took me to Principe delle Nevi (the Prince of the Snow), where we stopped for an amazing lunch of potato gnocchi with porcini mushrooms, a bottle of red wine, and then a coffee with a freshly made tiramizu. Wow! Italy just got even more beautiful.
Skiing in Zermatt
Just as David had expected, the weather had turned the next day and, wanting to ski some powder, I hired him for a second day. Since the light was flat, we skied at Sunnegga – an area that is lower and covered more by trees. The skiing was fun, but the visibility was still poor. He could sense my frustration so he did what came naturally for any European skier: he suggested we stop for a long lunch.
We went to Chez Vrony, a mountain restaurant that –at first glance – looked like something of a Swiss cliché hidden among the stodels along the hillside. But the interior was quite a surprise. It was decorated with modern furniture upholstered in black leather and cowhides and from the ceiling dangled an assortment of unique chandeliers made of discarded plumbing material – all the work of Vrony’s brother, Heinz Julen. Foodies will revel in the fact that they raise their own cattle for their beef and make their own cheese in the basement. We were positioned in a small private room upstairs and started with a glass of Prosecco and the air-dried beef, which is accompanied by curls of mountain cheese, tiny pickled onions, cornichons and freshly baked black bread. My main course was a saffron risotto topped with veal and sage. To drink: a red varietal from the Valais region. Our starter, two mains, an excellent bottle of wine, and sparkling water, totaled about 165 Swiss francs. Not cheap, but very high quality with a very pleasant surrounding, a friendly professional staff, and certainly a warm escape from an otherwise snowy day.
It turns out that Heinz Julen (Vrony’s brother) owns the most hip spot in town for late night cocktails and dancing. His place is called Vernissage and it is located in the very center of Zermatt. The venue is split into three levels. From the entrance at the top floor one walks down a spiral staircase to the main bar, which, keeping to his style, is bedecked with blocky leather couches and illuminated glass tables that appear to be floating from the floor. A private lounge sits off to the side behind sheer white curtains and, walking out to it, you’ll find that it is actually suspended thirty feet above his art gallery, which is located on the next level below. Walking down those final set of stairs, you’ll also find the dance floor, which becomes quite popular by midnight. I also found Gees Pop-Up Bar to be a fun spot. Located on the main street across from the legendary Hotel Post, Gees offers live music for a wide range of ages. And no one seemed too shy to dance.
Of all the resorts I’ve ever been to, Zermatt will be my favorite. On the morning I departed, I gazed up at the Matterhorn for one last time. The early sun colored its east face with a warm orange light that off-set the jagged grey crags. Despite the cold weather, the mountain looked inviting and seemed to be saying one last farewell as I was about to board the train back to Zurich. It’s an image I won’t forget and I hope that I will be able to return someday soon.
Undoubtedly, I could have planned this all myself and relied on a resort map while navigating the slopes, but David’s local knowledge truly paid off. His hotel and restaurant suggestions were spot-on and he really does have an instinct for where the best conditions will be on any given day. In the end, he was able to tailor the trip to my own specific needs. Whether I needed an extra little push to get down a black run or just a quick stop for a coffee and apple strudel, he made for a fantastic experience..