Zermatt: Swiss Alps ski dream
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Jennifer had no idea where we were going as we packed up the car and headed to the airport. Well, she had a clue since we packed our ski gear and warm clothes. But the actual destination was a mystery.
She had started this for my 50th birthday with a surprise trip to Germany. So I decided to make it a tradition for Jennifer's 50th. There could be no better way to combine our love of European travel and skiing than with a visit to the Swiss Alps. When we arrived at the airport, I handed her our surprise itinerary. A gleaming smile lit up her face as we made our way towards the Swissair check-in counter.
The flight was comfortable and uneventful. Swissair is a lovely airline with excellent service and the added benefit of being the "skier's airline," which means that all long-haul flights include complimentary checked skis and ski boots. Bonus!
We managed to catch a few hours of sleep on the way over, so we arrived at least semi-rested. We landed in Zurich and made our way to the train station connected to the airport. The train ride was around 4 hours with some delightful scenery along the way, so we stopped at the store conveniently located at the edge of the airport and picked up some cheese & crackers, wine, and Swiss beer for the scenic ride. Yes, a rolling picnic!
The train ride requires an easy change of trains at one stop and then a direct drop off right in the village of Zermatt. Upon arrival I secretly contacted the hotel to let them know we had arrived. There was another surprise for Jennifer that was not described in our itinerary. Just a few minutes later a gorgeous horse drawn carriage came clip clopping down the street and turned in front of us.
Jennifer was intrigued but somewhat oblivious until I told her that the carriage was for us.
There was a look of amazement and joy in her tearful eyes as this most romantic mode of transport carried us and our gear up the street toward our hotel. It was going to be an amazing week!
Zermatt is one of Europe's most renowned ski destinations, famous for world class skiing, shopping, multi-cultural and Michelin starred restaurants, and forever views of the jagged peaks of the Alps. In particular, the centerpiece of Zermatt's views and one of the most recognizable mountains in the world: the Matterhorn.
Upon arrival at the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, our room was not quite ready, so we left our luggage with the bellman and explored the village. Zermatt is a lovely town with a population of just 5,800 year-round residents with triple that many tourists arriving during peak seasons.
We window shopped and looked at stylish euro ski wear and luxury watches while we waited the promised one hour for our room to be ready, and then we headed back to the hotel.
As we were handed our room key, we were told our luggage had been delivered to our room and we were eager to freshen up and get a hot shower after our long journey. However...upon entering our room something was conspicuously missing. Our luggage. Back to the front desk we went, where they apologetically offered us a cocktail at the bar while they sought out our luggage. Never ones to resist a complimentary drink, we were only too happy to oblige. Ten minutes and two empty Edelweiss gin cocktail glasses later, I once again inquired about our luggage. "I'm sorry sir, we are still looking. Please give us a few more minutes." After some more waiting, I once again approached the front desk with the inevitable conclusion: they had delivered our luggage to the wrong room.
For some reason this possibility had not occurred to them but once they followed my request to open every room from top to bottom until they found our luggage, it magically appeared, albeit two hours after it was supposed to be there. That was the first and last issue we had as the rest of the experience there was nothing less than amazing. The hotel even delivered a wonderful chocolate treat to our room on Jennifer's birthday - her favorite!
Our first full day in Zermatt was earmarked for skiing and we were raring to go. The weather was cooperating, and our plan was to take the lifts all the way to the top and make our way all the way to the bottom for lunch.
This is a vast place, and you can ski in multiple directions and be gone all day long while only seeing 1/4 of the trails. The views are absolutely amazing as you quickly get above the tree line and snow-covered peaks dominate the landscape. If you are a hardcore off-piste or tree skier Zermatt may not quite meet those needs.
But if you want boundless, wide trails that go on and on for miles while giving you constant incredible views, then Zermatt is for you. Don't get me wrong, there are steeps and switchbacks and bumps and moguls here and there.
There are some spots of trees for those that love the glades. But these are the exceptions and not the dominant terrain. That was just fine with us because we were in the Alps and we could see Italy to our left, Switzerland in front of us, and France off in the distance to the right. And on one particular run that was steep, smooth, and not another skier in sight, I clocked 71mph according to my Ski Tracks app. Yikes that was fast. I don't really need to do that again! The conditions back home would never allow a run like that given the inevitable ice, bumps, snowboarders, and snow plowers.
After zipping around for a few hours joyfully taking it all in, we were famished and ready to head south to the bottom for lunch. Pizza to be exact. In Italy! We both adore Italy. Who doesn't? But no one loves Italy more than Jennifer and how fun to ski from the top of the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise to the village of Cervinia, Italy.
It was a glorious, long run across twelve miles of packed powder. Down, down, down we went for a good half hour before the tops of buildings appeared and then all of a sudden whoomp, we arrived at the bottom and suddenly we were on a paved asphalt street.
We released our skis, threw them over our shoulders and proceeded to walk down the street in search of the perfect pizzeria for lunch. Sure enough, just a few minutes of clomping in our ski boots led us to a delightful little place that was cute and cozy and smelled like heavenly pizza baking away. We both had the margherita pizza with arugula (known in Europe as rocket) and it was loaded with the delicious, fresh, green spicy goodness.
Let me tell you, once you've experienced a ski lunch break pizza like this, you will never again grab the big, limp orange slice from beneath the heat lamp at a ski resort cafeteria. It was scrumptious!
We walked around Cervinia a bit more after lunch. It is a much smaller and quieter place than Zermatt, but totally charming. But it was time to go. We had to make sure we were back to the Swiss side before the lifts closed. Otherwise, you run into big problems. The ski lift from Cervinia back up the mountain is only about 15 minutes. But beware: if you get stuck there after the last lift and need to get back to Zermatt by taxi, that is a 4–5-hour drive through and around the mountains and about 800 Euros. Yikes! We ended our day with a few more runs on the other side, loving every minute of the incredible conditions and forever views.
The next day was a big one. It was Jennifer's 50th birthday. It was purposefully planned as a day off from skiing so we could enjoy Zermatt, the spa at the hotel, and a 7-course dinner. After a late breakfast, we wandered through the streets of Zermatt, enjoying the beautiful traditional alpine timber architecture of all the buildings.
Even many of the newer buildings adhere to the traditional chalet style but you will also find modern glass and steel building fronts that somehow compliment and blend in quite nicely with the centuries old buildings. In spite of the cold weather, all of the restaurants were fully set up for outdoor seating, complete with furry blankets and heat lamps to keep you warm. We obliged and had some hot chocolate with Baileys to warm up.
We wandered back to the hotel to indulge in a searing hot sauna, replete with the requisite nude Europeans. Whether it was the intense heat, or the awkward naked chit chat I'm not sure, but eventually we felt compelled to leave the sauna for a dip in the 92-degree indoor pool. Ah, such a refreshing dip was so soothing and relaxing. Naturally the hot and cold experience was followed by a nap on the lounge chairs. Now we were ready for the evening.
I was prepared to go anywhere in the village for this momentous occasion, but my research led me straight to Prato Borni, a highly acclaimed, Michelin starred and Gault Millau reviewed restaurant conveniently located... right in our hotel. We arrived in our evening attire (although the birthday girl donned her slippers because, well, it was her birthday and she could), and perused the 7-course tasting menu. We both noticed that the sixth course, just before desert was an array of exotic European cheeses. We saw a cart of these cheeses being showcased and served to another couple who had been seated when we arrived, and it looked incredible. Without thinking much of it, we decided to inquire with our server if we could have the cheese as an appetizer rather than post dinner, like Americans typically do. And without thinking much of it, the server promptly and curtly replied "No." And that was the end of that. It was at this point that we realized that our American ways needed to be put aside on travels such as this and we needed to embrace everything about the cuisine and culture of our host country. Never again would we make such a ridiculous and (in hindsight) embarrassing request - but it always makes us laugh when we remember the look on the servers face.
The dinner was nothing short of fantastic as each course was revealed and described by our server in great detail. The flavors and textures of each course were a treat, only to be outdone by the next course, and the next. The grand finale was right up Jennifer's alley. I don't recall the exact name, but it was dark, smooth, decadent, and chocolatey. She loved it, as did I. We capped off the night with drinks at the adjacent piano bar where the pianist played lively tunes just for us in celebration of Jennifer's birthday. We even got to sing along!
We should have been ready to wrap up our night at this point. But it was February 5th, Superbowl Sunday! And the Patriots were playing the Eagles in a rematch of 2005's Superbowl XXXIV. Kickoff was at 12:20AM local time. Snow was gently falling outside our window, the fireplace was glowing, the wine bottle was opened, and we were ready to cheer on our Pats to victory (while following along with the German speaking commentators). It was an exciting game of back-and-forth scoring. We pledged to see the entire game, but our droopy eyes got the best of us by 3am at the end of the third quarter with the Patriots down by 3 points. We hoped for the best and called it a night.
We awoke in the morning to learn that the Eagles pulled off the win and we were resigned to seeing the Pats go for the win next year (they did). The next two days were dedicated to skiing and seeing all that the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise had to offer. From nearly any trail and angle, the foreboding Matterhorn peak is in view. We headed up to the very top where a viewing station lies at 12,739 feet above sea level. From here there is a 360-degree view of fourteen glaciers and 38 mountain peaks greater than 13,000 feet. Photos will never do this justice. You have to see it to believe it. You are truly at the top of the world.
Skiing back down, the Iglu-Dorf is not to be missed. This is an ice oasis parked in the middle of converging ski trails in the middle of the mountain. Here you'll find gigantic igloos that are reconstructed every year and local artists are invited to create ice sculptures. There is a restaurant, an ice hotel (yes you sleep in a cold room with walls and ceilings of ice), and indoor and outdoor bars. This was quite a sight to see on a sunny warmish afternoon but outdoor drinks on the patio chairs basking in the sun was enough for us before we moved on. For those looking to spend more time here, the only way to get there aside from skiing is horse drawn carriage or snowmobile.
The ski trails of Zermatt will also meander through tiny villages consisting of timber structures with plumes of smoke billowing from their chimneys and the scent of tasty Swiss lunch specialties wafting through the air. These huts just appear out of nowhere on the side of a trail, ready to serve the heartiest of lunches (and some local beverages) to skiers.
Hungry and drawn in by the promise of warm food and cold beer, we skied up to the patio of one of these and had a fantastic local meal and beer, including Zermatt Bier and Quollfrisch helles bier. Sorry Vail resorts, but your cafeteria food and overpriced IPAs can't hold a candle to the delicious and wholesome mountain hut food and drink that is found on the slopes of the Alps. Our stomachs full, we strapped on our skis and continued to explore.
The apres-ski scene here is solid and we found our way to many local bars after full days of tearing up the slopes. One of our favorites was the Hexen Bar. This is a small unassuming place that is not a wild party scene but more of a chill, relaxing experience with great music and fun staff and patrons.
The Hexen themed decor means lots of witches, brooms, and cauldrons, which harken back to the dark days of Europe when witchery was apparently a common crime. Later in the evening things liven up and you will find yourself singing along with other patrons to a variety of popular tunes that you somehow know all the words to.
After five nights in this incredible village, it was finally time to say goodbye and head to Zurich for some big city sightseeing. What a fantastic and memorable experience! It was our first time together in the Alps, but we knew it would not be our last. In fact, we've already made Zermatt part of our Quattro 90 plan and have reserved an apartment in this lovely town for an entire month of skiing, February birthday 2023 is already on the books!
We spent most of the train ride talking about where and when we would have our next Alpen adventure. And laughing together about one of the small lessons we learned in Zermatt. When a hotel loses your luggage and offers you a drink while you wait for them to find it, don't assume the drinks are complimentary. There's a good possibility it will be a line item on your bill at checkout - for £38.50 Swiss Francs!
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