One night last summer over dessert at the cottage dining room table, our kids proposed a ski holiday in Switzerland this winter. Seemed like a good idea; for Mr. H. a European ski trip is high on his bucket list.
When you think of a classic winter ski holiday, you naturally think of Switzerland. The Swiss Alps comprise almost all the highest mountains of the Alps, such as Dufourspitze (4,634 m), the Dom (4,545 m), the Liskamm (4,527 m), the Weisshorn (4,506 m) and the Matterhorn (4,478 m). So, it’s the high mountains and the image of tradition, quality and Swiss efficiency that appeal. Switzerland combines four different people and languages in one country, making Switzerland the most diverse among the alpine winter sports destinations.
Now comes the tough part, with literally hundreds of Swiss ski resorts to choose from, which will make our family holiday memorable and where will the snow conditions be most reliable in this era of global climate confusion.
After much research and chatting to friends who have been there, skied that, we chose Zermatt and Verbier for our one and only Swiss Alps adventure.
We took the Air Canada non-stop from Toronto to Zurich. This once a day flight is easy peasy and landed us in Zurich by 7 a.m. local time. I decided that our mode of transportation would be the Swiss trains, which you hear so much about their efficiency. This proved to be the trickiest part of the holiday planning. Here is some hard won advice on train travel in Switzerland.
First of all, do not travel–as we did– during the Swiss school/family vacation period in February. The trains are extremely crowded, it is difficult to find seats and as you are schlepping luggage, skiis or boards and changing trains, there is little room for luggage as you board many trains.
Secondly, do book your Swiss Travel pass in advance from home online at https://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html and download the SBB app on your phone at the same time. Your tickets and pass will load on your phone app (or you can print them out old school) and you can also search the train schedules online real time. It’s not that easy but doable. Also, don’t panic that you cannot book your trains months in advance, as they only list the schedules a few weeks out. There will be many trains, often hourly. Swiss trains may be efficient (but not always on time as we learned first hand) but they are very expensive. Hence, buy your Swiss Pass before leaving home and you will save money.
Zermatt: in the shadow of the Matterhorn
The majestic Matterhorn – certainly the most famous mountain in Europe and yes, it’s just like on the Toblerone bar – looms over the breathtaking Alpine panorama with an altitude of 4,478 metres. This Switzerland landmark is at the border of the western Swiss canton of Valais between Zermatt and the Italian resort of Breuil-Cervinia.
Arriving by train in Zermatt, you will be instantly picked up at the train station by your hotel. If you are lucky enough to stay at the 5 Star Mont Cervin Palace, you’ll be picked up in a horse drawn carriage. We stayed at the Romantik Hotel Julen a family-style inn decorated in a manner of a traditional alpine lodge which feels both homey and comfortable. The wellness center has a large Egyptian-themed pool, a Finnish sauna, a laconium among others to help you relax after a long day of skiing. There are two restaurants, both great and the Schäferstube is one of the best in town where you can enjoy traditional Swiss food in a rustic and cozy atmosphere. Their specialty is lamb dishes and their raclette cheese comes from the local cheesemonger who make it with the family’s cows’ milk. Breakfast is served in the main floor restaurant and features lamb’s salami and dried slices from their sheep farm, as well as everything you could want to get you started for a full ski day. The shuttle to the gondola is right outside the hotel is a quick trip to the Matterhorn base.
And of course, the best thing about the hotel (in addition to the free mini bar and nespresso machine in your room) is the view of the Matterhorn that you see when you open your curtains in the morning. Breathtaking!
But wait, there is more about Zermatt than the incredible and varied skiing to recommend it. It is a car-less village…which basically means you cannot drive your car but you better watch out the for proliferation of electric taxis, buses and utility vehicles that crowd the roads. Still, you can wander through the entire village in under an hour and many of the great hotels and restaurants and shops are along the River Vispa and the main drag, the Bahnhofstrasse. There are also public rinks for ice skating and curling. We were scouting future NHL stars from the street.
Restaurants range from traditional Swiss (see above at the Romantik Julen) to numerous Italian because it is so close to Italy. In fact, my family got stuck on the Italian side of the mountain because they didn’t get on the last gondola back to Switzerland after lunch! Great adventure that included two taxis and a train ride and five hours later. Of note back in Zermatt, is Capri in Le Petit Cervin. This Italian restaurant is owned by a 2 star Michelin Chef who owns two restaurants in Capri in the summer and his entire staff pack up and come to Zermatt in the winter. Head chef Salvatore Elefante brings the cuisine of his summer months at the award-winning restaurant Il Riccio on Capri to the mountains for the winter. A taste of the Mediterranean, a view of the Alps: from the 4th floor of Le Petit Cervin a magnificent panorama of snow-covered Zermatt stretches before you. The food and service are definitely 2-star Michelin Guide quality…we loved the staff there, even if dinner for six does cost the same amount as a small car.
A word about skiing in Zermatt, because after all that’s what we came for. There are numerous lifts that take you to the top of the “Klein Matterhorn” and you can ski into Italy for lunch. Just remember to get back to the gondola back to Switzerland before the last gondola (around 3:30 p.m.) because if you get stuck in Italy, well see above.
The ski region encompasses 54 mountain railways and lifts as well as 360 kilometers of runs. The region called “Matterhorn glacier paradise” is also Europe’s largest and highest lying summer skiing region. Numerous national ski teams train here in the summer.
Verbier: where Apres Ski is the focus
Once you get to Martigny enroute to Verbier, the language becomes primarily French. It is clear we are now near the French border. We stayed at the W Verbier, which is right across from the main Medan gondola. The ski room at the W does not even open until after 8 a.m. and the lift tickets can be bought at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. Which indicates that there is a big focus on partying in this town. Filled with Brits, Prince Harry’s Bachelor Party will be taking place in Verbier at his uncle Prince Andrew’s ski chalet and the town is abuzz.
However, there is serious skiing to be done in Verbier. Again, the skiing here is varied and there are numerous hills to choose from. Verbier has more than 400km of runs, with some of the best on- and off-piste skiing in Europe. Unlike Zermatt, you don’t have to take a funicular railway or a shuttle bus to the slopes. You can take the Médran lift, which is a short walk from most hotels. There are numerous lifts, many recently upgraded, connecting the slopes of the 4 Vallées, including le Jumbo, the Verbier to the Mont-Fortcable-car, which is up to 3,300 metres.
So back to the Apres Ski: start at the Relais de Neige, where the live music is fantastic. Ditto the darts. Then onto the Electro Crock. Next stop the Farinet (this is where Prince William was videotaped dancing last winter.) It also has live music until about 9:30 p.m. for apres ski and then everyone moves over to the other side for the disco/nightclub with bottle service and live DJ. Finish your apres ski at the Pub Montfort. One afternoon, we ended up skiing right into Le Rouge, which is another great spot for Apres Ski at the base of the mountains, with a fantastic deck to sun yourself and excellent for dinner as well.
So here’s the final word on our Swiss Family Ski Vacation (which was sometimes like National Lampoon’s Vacation), you can spend hours getting the perfect instagramable Toblerone photo of the Materhorn…or do what I did. Then eat it!