Nestled at the end of the Matter Valley, with the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa looming overhead, Zermatt is as famous for its beauty as it is for its history. Since visitors first arrived in the mountain village of Zermatt after the triumphant but tragic ascent of the Matterhorn by Brit Edward Whymper in 1865, locals have maintained a strong grip on the town’s traditions. Hotels, shops and restaurants have remained in family hands through several generations, making the resort refreshingly devoid of commercial chains. Similarly, cars that run on petrol have never been allowed into the town and any new buildings have to comply with traditional design.
That said, this is not a humble place, clinging to tradition despite a tide of modernity. Quite the opposite. Zermatt is without doubt, one of Europe’s most chi chi mountain resorts. The surviving traditions and an inclination to shun more brash forms of wealth, only consolidate the old-school, old-money charm that Zermatt oozes. A charm perfectly encapsulated by our first stop, a night and dinner at the five-star Grand Hotel Zermatterhof.
Like the rest of the resort, the Zermatterhof prides itself on understated style and repeat visitors. Guests return every year, and have done so for decades, bringing with them new generations and friends. The warmth of such repeat visits is apparent throughout the hotel and there is little of the showy or stuffiness that I expected from the grand entrance. Alongside hosting high-flying guests such as Saudi royalty and Robbie Williams, children can be found tearing through corridors in high spirits, while their grandparents look on lovingly.
After a long but stunning train journey up the valley, being greeted at the train station by a traditionally dressed chauffeur with an electric taxi to whisk us off to a five-star hotel, was just what the doctor ordered. Class and comfort aren’t done in half measures here. Excitement peaked on walking into our traditional luxury suite (there are rooms and suites with a more modern design too). The sheer size of it was mind-blowing.
With two marble bathrooms, a huge four-poster bed, a lounge and dining area (complete with champagne on ice and fresh fruit) and two balconies looking out over the church tower and a dusk-tinged Matterhorn, it was hard to sit still for the first hour. Dominated by pine, soft lighting and cosy fabrics you cannot forget you’re in the mountains here. With the open-fire lit, champagne poured and mountain air drifting in from the balcony, I wanted to move in permanently.
Dinner in the Zermatterhof’s old-fashioned Prato Borni restaurant (there an informal Italian option too) continued in the same vein. Old-school is the operative word in this wood-panelled room, filled with light from crystal chandeliers and elegantly dressed customers being served classic dishes by waiters in tails. The food lived up to the atmosphere as we indulged in a feast of Gillardeau oysters, Chateaubriand topped with foie gras, flambéed fruits and a little too much from the cheese trolley.
The Prato Borni is also where breakfast is served in such a vast continental spread; it’s hard to drag yourself away and onto the slopes before it’s time for lunch. Besides the main restaurant the hotel also has two bars – one in the lobby with a large open fire and piano music in the early evening (perfect for pre-dinner drinks) and another called ‘Stars’, which is a small cocktail lounge with live jazz nights and an uncharacteristically blingy ceiling made to look like the night’s sky. For daytime relaxation, the hotel’s Alpine Spa has an indoor pool, sauna, steam bath, ice grotto and various facial and massage treatments on offer.
Unsurprisingly (this is Switzerland after-all), Zermatt is eye-wateringly expensive. But despite the pretty town, luxury hotels and fine dining experiences, you only really find out why when you head to the slopes. With over 350km of ski runs and a ski area that spreads over two countries (a highlight is skiing over into Italy for a day), Zermatt’s slopes are refreshingly quiet. Queues for lifts are almost non-existent and if you pick the right weeks to visit, you will often have runs entirely to yourself. Without doubt some of the best skiing I’ve ever experienced.
But unlike so many purpose-built resorts, the mountains here aren’t just about skiing, which makes them feel that much more real. There are toboggan runs, cross-country skiing, ski touring, glacier climbing, star gazing and moonlight tours on offer. But what I loved the most were the 70km of winter walking routes and snow-shoeing trails, which offer a whole new perspective on The Alps. Gone are the people, the lifts, the gadgets and equipment and in comes the true solitude, fresh air and epic magnitude of the mountains. And thankfully, the walking routes also lead hikers to some of Zermatt’s finest mountainside restaurants.
Zermatt is renowned for its mountainside gourmet scene, in which quaint wooden chalets become home to the resorts’ most renowned chefs. Once you’ve spent a lunchtime basking in the sun with such fine food and wine, a holiday here quickly becomes as much about the food as it does the sports. And since one justifies the other, it’s a match made in heaven. I could wax lyrical about calf’s liver, roesti, steak tartar, home-made quiche, lamb salad, puff-pastry topped soups for another 900 words but you’ll just have to go experience it for yourself. The experts consider the top five lunching spots to be Blatten, Fluhalp, Frank & Heidi’s, Zum See and Chez Vrony. And to go the whole hog and really indulge you can even book your very own Gourmet Ski Guide through the luxury chalet company Mountain Exposure. When it comes to winter sports in Europe, I doubt anywhere else could offer such a luxurious experience.
Zermatt is four hours from Geneva by train, which costs from £70 with a Swiss Transfer ticket. Rooms at The Grand Zermatterhof start from £343 in a standard double room. The Zermatterhof is part of the Preferred Hotels group. For more on Zermatt, see zermatt.ch or myswitzerland.com