Add a backdrop of the Matterhorn, one of the world’s most iconic mountains (yes, that’s right, it’s the one on the Toblerone wrapper), and you’ve got to be in Zermatt.
Most of the world’s big ski resorts make bold claims about why they are better than everywhere else – it’s called marketing – but a check on Zermatt’s credentials suggests they have the wherewithal to make good those claims. Linked to the Italian resort of Cervinia, there’s some 360 kilometres of beautifully maintained pistes, mountain-top hotels and restaurants reached by an efficient cog railway as a delightful alternative to cable cars and chairlifts (although they’ve lots of those, too), a chic and busy town with plenty of entertainment on offer after the pistes have closed... and then there’s the ever-present (weather permitting) sight of the Matterhorn looming behind it all. It really does make for a combination that’s hard to beat if you are looking for the authentic Alpine ski experience.
All this comes at a price, of course, and if you are after a budget skiing holiday you will probably need to look elsewhere. The Zermatt lift pass is one of the most expensive in the Alps, and a chic, sophisticated ski resort in Switzerland is never going to be a cheap option – but the resort stresses that its pricy lift pass (adult six-days £254 for the Zermatt area, £290 for the full area including Cervinia) are actually good value for money as they have more, and swifter, lifts and trains to whisk you up the mountain and their 360 kilometres of piste are better maintained. I’m not sure how they can prove that, but I can confirm that the lifts are plentiful and quick, and the pistes are beautifully groomed and maintained for every level from green to black.
It’s also worth noting that passes for under nines are free, and there are good reductions for children aged nine to 16 and young people aged 16-20, which can help make a family holiday a whole lot more affordable.
I travelled to Zermatt late in the season, and while there was little or no snow in resort, the slopes above were in near-perfect condition – a combination of decent snowfall, high altitude and painstaking perfectionism from the resort’s army of piste bashers and groomers. Visit a French resort late season and you’ll likely find worn and rock-strewn pistes to catch out the unwary and rip the bottom out of your skis – not so in Zermatt, where the efficient grooming meant the pistes were in superb condition, even later in the afternoon when the spring sun had done its work in softening up the snow. There’s a good variety of pistes to suit all ski abilities too, with 19 blues, 33 reds and 15 blacks, often allowing a mixed ability group to ski the same area and reach the same destination using a mix of runs over the four main ski areas in the resort.
Our trip coincided with Zermatt’s celebrations of 150 years since the first ascent of the Matterhorn by local guide Peter Taugwalder, his son (also Peter) and the intrepid Englishman Edward Whymper, and there were numerous events to mark the anniversary. It also served to bring home the fact that Zermatt is also a resort for climbers, not just skiers and boarders, and it is well worth a visit to the Zermatlantis museum in the town, which vividly chronicles and illustrates the triumphs and tragedies that have taken place on the iconic mountain over the past century-and-a-half.
Of course the best ski resorts also have fine mountain pit stops to refuel and recharge the batteries, and I am happy to report that Zermatt excels in this area – their mountain restaurants, and indeed hotels, provide some of the best gourmet experiences I have encountered in the Alps.
And the amazing Gornergrat cog railway, the highest open-air cog railway in Europe, means that you can enjoy the gourmet dining experience whether skiing or on foot – the Gornergrat Gourmet ticket will take you from the town right up to the Kulmhotel at 3100 metres where you can enjoy an Apéro Riche with local Valais delicacies followed by a trip (we did it on skis but you can do it on a sledge) down the mountain a short way to the amazing Hotel Riffelberg where they served a delicious three-course lunch. Finally you can catch the train (or ski) to the rustic Alphitta Chez Freddy restaurant where they serve a rich dessert and special (alcoholic) coffee. We could have skied back down to Zermatt, but thankfully took the short walk to the train for the return journey...
There are many fine mountain restaurants you can enjoy without diving in to the full gourmet experience, with menus to suit most budgets, and the same apples to the town itself, where you can eat out at anything from Michelin starred restaurants to basic burger bars and pizza takeaways.
And that’s one of the joys of Zermatt – while it is undoubtedly an upmarket ski resort in upmarket Switzerland, it provides a welcome for all levels of skiers and a wide variety of tastes. Having sampled its delights, I’m certainly planning to go back!
Jan Henderson travelled to Zermatt with Crystal Ski Holidays, staying at the four star Alpen Resort Hotel.
For more information about skiing and boarding in Zermatt, and other Crystal winter holidays, visit crystalski.co.uk