In any A-Z of World ski resorts Zermatt is truly saving the best till last. Zermatt gets no arguments from us about being the best ski resort on the planet. If it loses anything to Verbier for steep freeride terrain it picks up points for the historic village character, more classic hotels, and being car free. Of course the only way to have a valid opinion on the subject is to check them both out!
Over the twenty plus years since our last visit, Zermatt has grown substantially. On the mountain that includes some fantastic additions to the lift and train network that mean apart from the morning rush out of the village you can spread out and ski straight on to lifts over a vast area. Even the last bottleneck of the queue for the Klein Matterhorn cable car to get to the highest point at 3,800m is being tackled with a massive new multi cabin cable car lift under construction to open for the 2018-19 season. The effort, and investment – the company expect to spend CHF 55 million on the project by the time it opens next year (over AUD 70 million) is huge, but the company has been on a mission for years to keep re-investing and do whatever they can to prove that Zermatt is indeed the best in the World.
The recently installed Hirli bubble cover 6 seat express tucked up right beside the Matterhorn is an example – midweek the super comfortable chairs are mostly empty, and the 570m vertical runs it directly accesses largely deserted. We did a laps with no competition at all.
All three main mountain areas are connected now too, so there’s no need to go all the way back down to the village to ski the different zones. This opens up endless options. After a morning in the Matterhorn area ski back down to the Furi mid-station for lunch and take Riffelberg gondola up to Gornergrat for example. The railway up to the Gornergrat summit offers numerous and rapid trains, with more express 6 pac lifts for back up there.
From here you can work your way over to the Stockhorn summit, at 3,532m the second highest lifted point in the whole area, set between the mighty Gorner and Findel glaciers.
Then if you’re quick scoot down to Gant at the base of the Hohtalli cable car and ride the new Hublot-Express 6 pac lift opposite up the Sunnegga/Rothorn side of the resort to Blauherd. The lower section of the run down here is rated Zermatt’s steepest piste.
The link to Italy depends on riding long t-bars, or taking the cable car to the top, so it can take a bit of time either way, but on the Cervinia side new lifts make the return much faster now. We had no trouble scooting over for a delicious early lunch at Igloo, about two thirds of the way down the main run to Cervinia, then getting Mrs SnowAction back down to Zermatt in time for her 2pm spa appointment at the classic Mont Cervin Palace Hotel.
It’s challenging for fast skiers to see how far they can go, and a challenge for cruising skiers to work out what they can fit in.
Once you’ve got your ski legs for last run of the day at Zermatt try Europe’s longest ski run, all 25km of it, dropping 2,260 vertical metres from the Klein Matterhorn back to town. That’s more than the top of Kosciuszko to sea level in Aussie terms, and if you do it non-stop you know you’re ready for anything. It’s starts eassily enough on the mellow glacier at the top. But there are some steeper sections that bump up bigtime by afternoon so don’t do it if you’re tired. For more at Zermatt go beyond the 360km of pistes. Why not get a guide to explore the freeride options on the glaciers, or, the ultimate, go heliskiing on Monte Rossa.
Skiing is year round. In summer they used to have more vertical than Australia in winter, but the retreating glaciers mean it operates only on the Plateau Rosa now. It’s well worth a look, and is a key part of many national ski teams training schedules.
However good the skiing is it’s just half the equation that makes Zermatt so special. The village has everything you could possibly want in a ski town, from a huge range of accommodation – start with 110 hotels – to an equally impressive selection of restaurants and pumping aprés that turns into genuine nightlife, never mind more shopping than is probably good for your financial health.
Wellness is a big item for ladies, and more and more men, and Zermatt has top class facilities like the Mont Cervin Palace Spa.
“I didn’t walk, I floated back to our hotel after my one hour facial!” says Carmen Price. “The spa is beautiful and the whole experience well worth it. You don’t need to be a guest.”
The village is car free, but the silent electric taxis and delivery vans whizz around erratically, so keep your wits about you.
Other ski villages might boast some of the above, but Zermatt has not lost contact with its historic roots as a humble farming village. Five hundred year old wooden buildings in the historic quarter are testament to that. Their ingenious stone capped posts that separate the upper level from the barn level below to keep out rodents, much like ant-capping on a modern house. Some have been converted into businesses, like the Cardinal Pub, a local’s favourite for quieter nightlife.
The farming families became hoteliers several generations ago, but those like the Julen family still keep their farm active, as Paul Julen proudly showed us.
The Blacknose sheep herd and a couple of local cattle breeds are his pride and joy, supplying wool used in duvets and pillows in their hotels, and of course meat – fabulous lamb, or air dried meat from the ewes. It has a very low fat content, and distinctive taste from grazing summers in the traditional way up in the alpine meadows.
You can visit the family farm behind the village on wednesdays. A visit is great for adults with a dried meat & cheese tasting, and an absolute delight for young kids with the chance to pet the cutest spotty lambs and meet the friendly local cattle. A biomass electric plant at the farm converts waste from Zermatt restaurants and the farms into enough electricity to power 250 houses.
As a final incentive, our January holidays after New Year week, and spring season, are shoulder season here and ideal times to visit.
Getting to Zermatt
by train: Air travellers take the train directly from the airport to Zermatt in 3½ hours from Zurich-Kloten, and 4 hours from Geneva-Cointrin. Change trains in Visp. Or take the scenic Glacier Express.
by car: driving time to Zermatt is 3½ hours from Geneva, 4½ from Zürich, 4 hours from Milan in Italy. Zermatt is in southern Switzerland, at the end of the remote and beautiful Zermatt/Visp valley. You drive as far as Täsch, where you either get the train (every 20 mins, CHF 8 per person) or taxi (CHF 30 for 1-3 people, night rate CHF 40) the last 7km. Zermatt’s electric taxis run from the station if your accommodation is not within easy walk (for around CHF 12-15).
Or grab an Air Zermatt heli taxi from the airports and arrive in style.
Zermatt resort info packages www.skimax.com
Check out more Swiss resorts & the Glacier Express
• Jungfrau Region (Grindelwald / Wengen / MÜrren)
• Villars / Gryon / Les Diablerets / Glacier 3000
• Verbier / 4-Vallées
• Take a shot at the Murren Inferno race.
• Glacier Express