Zermatt's magic mountain

From snowy thrills to sophistication off the slopes, there’s plenty to tempt skiiers to this part of Switzerland - where you're guaranteed to fall for the Matterhorn


If ever anything deserves the title “magic mountain”, it’s the Matterhorn. Its crooked peak — looking as if a drunken giant has given it a squeeze — caught the early evening light as we pulled into Zermatt’s train station, and I was instantly under its spell, just as I had been nine years ago when I first clapped eyes on it.

It was the Matterhorn that put Zermatt on the map, partly thanks to its infamous conquest by Edward Whymper in 1865. Since then, this formerly humble farming village has been transformed into one of the world’s most desirable ski destinations.

Just a stroll down the main Bahnhofstrasse tells you you’ve landed somewhere special: a pleasing combination of elegant 19th century hotels, cosy restaurants, chic boutiques and fairy lights twinkling everywhere.

Zermatt’s Alpine charm is more than matched by its huge and varied skiing area — all 200 kilometres of it. As I hadn’t visited since 2008, and my husband had never been to Zermatt, our first morning was spent skiing the wide, well-groomed blue runs of Gornergrat with our instructor from the Swiss Ski & Snowboard School, long enough to get our ski legs back.

And it didn’t take long for my husband to become as transfixed by the scenery as I was, and understand why I’d been raving about Zermatt all this time.

Part of the fun is choosing how you want to go up the mountain. Shall we take one of Europe’s highest cog railways up to Gornergrat and surround ourselves with skyscraping peaks? Or perhaps hop on the Sunnegga funicular and ski the sheltered blue runs where high-altitude restaurants come with sublime views of Zermatt’s emblematic mountain. The Findlerhof, at the end of a torturous path, is worth every ounce of effort.

Then there’s Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, one of the few glaciers that’s skiable year-round in Europe. This sector brings you closest to the Matterhorn, and also gives you the chance to ski over into the neighbouring resort of Cervinia in Italy. Although if you want to cross the Italian border, you don’t even have to go that far: the chairlift from Trockener Steg drops you off on Italian soil, which somehow adds another thrill to the experience of being on the glacier.

The thrills don’t end there. Take the cable car from Trockener Steg — the highest in Europe — to arrive at Klein Matterhorn at a breathtaking 3,883 metres. It really does take your breath away, as the high altitude thins the air to the point where you feel a little woozy.

To catch your breath again, take a short break in the cinema lounge, where you can watch short films on the Matterhorn from the cocooning comfort of a heated pod-like seat. Then step into the Glacier Palace, an enchanting and somewhat bizarre grotto with ice sculptures and even an ice slide.

Once you’ve acclimatised yourself, head up to the 360-degree viewing platform for heady views of the mountains and Zermatt far below.

When bad weather plays havoc with visibility, it’s also a good alternative to flinging yourself down a slope when you can’t quite see where you’re going. I found myself at Klein Matterhorn in howling winds and spitting snow; a slow amble through the Glacier Palace was an excellent way to pass the time until the weather calmed down a bit.

At which point, I could ski back down the gentle red runs of Trockener Steg, all the while gawping at the Matterhorn once more.

We were staying at Mountain Paradise, a traditional three-star hotel just a few minutes’ walk from the Matterhorn Express cable car that’s the most popular way up the mountain. Our room faced south, giving us full view of the Matterhorn itself. Not a bad sight to wake up to.

The British couple who run Matterhorn Chalets, Ed Mannix and his wife Suzanne, set up their business in Zermatt a few years ago after falling under the spell of the mountain too. And while the focus of their business is luxury chalets, they also organise Zermatt holidays with more affordable options such as Mountain Paradise.

Both were full of information about the town, while I was awed to find out that Ed had climbed the Matterhorn several times.

Down in the town, we explored Hinterdorf, the oldest part of Zermatt, where weathered, blackened barns and chalets date from the 15th century. The climbers’ cemetery, just beyond, was a poignant sight — a reminder that about 500 people have lost their lives trying to conquer the Matterhorn over the past 150 years.

Some of their stories — including the 1865 ascent — are told in compelling detail in the Matterhorn Museum. Beneath an incongruous blue glass dome is an unexpectedly fascinating subterranean world that re-creates Zermatt of old and shows how it became the cosmopolitan, buzzing place it is now.

We had another surprise in store: lunch at Restaurant Alm, a short walk from the Furri cable car, the first stop on the Matterhorn Express bubble. We weren’t at high altitude but I still wasn’t expecting a trout pond beside the restaurant, from which my lunch originated before appearing expertly grilled on my plate.

Outside, people were sledging and skiing down the narrow path that separated the restaurant from its outdoor bar, which was already gearing up for the après-ski crowd. Dogs (including Ed and Suzanne’s adorable spaniel) were catching snowballs and bounding about in the snow.

It was another, more relaxed side to Zermatt, away from the Swiss watch shops and Michelin-starred restaurants, and certainly just as magical.

Getting there

A week at Mountain Paradise with Matterhorn Chalets costs from around £595 (738CHF) per person, including breakfast and transfers. 

Flights with Swiss from London City airport to Zurich cost from £54 one way. Doubles at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Providence Wharf near the airport, cost from £159 a night. 

Rail transfers cost from £116  with the Swiss Travel System. A six-day adult ski pass costs from around £306 (380CHF).
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