|Zermatt and Zer Matterhorn
Alpine vistas, fondue dinners, and the slowest express train in the world
By Ross Thorne
Zermatt is far tinier than its fame would let on. The view from one of the 60 lifts and cable-cars, which skim up the surrounding slopes to bring summer hikers and winter skiers to their trailheads, reveals the resort to be little more than a gaggle of chalets snuggled into a valley. Yes, some of those chalets are modern, and many host hotels (116 of them), but it's all utterly Alpine.
The resort's atmosphere hovers somewhere pleasantly between the slick chic of Davos and a traditional Swiss village. No cars are allowed on the boutique-lined streets, just electric minibus and horse-drawn carriages, and though it's surrounded by three dozen mountains that each top 13,000 feet, Zermatt's view is dominated by the most photogenic Alp of them all: the thin, snaggle-toothed peak of the Matterhorn.
Called "Mont Cervin" by French-speaking Swiss, "Monte Cervina" by the Italians who own its other flank, and "Horu" by the locals, the Matterhorn spindles and curves its way to a narrow, 14,774-foot pyramid of a point, looking like nothing so much as Dr. Seuss's Mount Crumpit (you know: where the Grinch who stole Christmas lives). Don't believe me? Check out the live Webcam view (http://bergbahnen.zermatt.ch/e/web-cam).
The Matterhorn was first conquered by a young English mountaineer named Edward Whymper in 1865 (after five failed attempts). The event generated a lot of press abroad during a time when the popular perception of the Alps—and Switzerland—was changing from "Major Travel Obstacle" for Italy-bound Grand Tourists, to "Intriguing Travel Destination" in its own right.
It also put tiny Zermatt on the map, which is why the bulk of the town's modest Alpine Museum (CHF8/$6.40) is devoted to Whymper's feat and other moutaineering expeditions. The rest of the little museum covers local geology (cool mountain relief maps), the thousand species of plant life that thrive on area slopes (once the snow melts), and traditions of the Alpine lifestyle.
In between perusing those collections, shopping the boutiques, sipping cocoa in the cafes, partying in the many pubs, and planning your own assault on the nearest Alp, you can take an hour and a half to get to know the town and its history on a walking tour. Contact the tourist office (www.zermatt.ch); the cost is about CHF12 ($9.60) per person, with a four-person minimum.
If you don't have the mountain climbing experience—or the CHF700 ($560) or so it costs—to join the 3,000 souls a year you now mount expeditions up to the Matterhorn's peak, you can settle for getting a lot closer via cable cars and cog railways.
The air up there
...is pretty thin, so plan to walk about slowly in the rarified atmosphere, and to slather on the sunscreen (skin crisps more quickly at high altitudes, especially with snow and glaciers to reflect the sunlight). That holds doubly and triply so when you quit the streets of Zermatt to explore the surrounding mountainscape.
Though there are still nearly 20 miles of trails open even at this snowbound time of year, the wintertime in Zermatt is devoted to one thing only: strapping thin wooden boards to your feet and gliding down the area's 244 miles of pistes and trails. Savvy skiers know that the joys of schussing aren't limited to the December-to-April season of much of Switzerland. The climate around Zermatt ensures one of the longest spring skiing seasons in the Alps, and there's even summertime schussing on nearby glaciers.
If all that's too much exercise, there's also some serious sightseeing to do whilst up scraping the roof of the world. Klein Matterhorn—at 12,606 feet the highest sightseeing point in Europe—also boasts the world's highest Ice Palace, a warren of tunnels, rooms, and sculptures carved into the living glacier. It's 40 minutes away from Zermatt via gondola and cable car; the ride costs CHF78 roundtrip ($62)
For a better view of the Matterhorn, though—and one of the continent's most scenic short train rides—take the 40-minute jaunt up to the Gornergrat (www.ggb.ch/englisch), Europe's highest open-air train station (10,194 feet). It costs CHF67 ($54) round-trip, though in summer it's quite fine to pay CHF34 ($27) just to ride up, then take the next several hours to walk back down to town—or, if you're a masochist, vice versa.
The slow train to St. Moritz
One of the most popular things to do in Zermatt is to leave town. But boy, do they you leave town in style: aboard the Glacier Express (www.glacierexpress.ch), plying the Alpine hinterlands between Zermatt and St. Moritz since 1930. Though it's called an "express," the train's average speed is a mere 22 m.p.h., taking a leisurely 7 1/2 hours to wend along the 196 miles of its route.
But this is one time when you want the train to crawl along. It soars over drop-dead vistas across 291 bridges, plunges through mountain tunnels 91 times, climbs over passes as high as 6,700-feet, and generally insures that everyone gets a very sore neck from continuously whipping their heads around to take in the endless procession of postcard-perfect panoramas through picture windows so big that, in first class, they continue onto the ceilings. (Though it's really a matter of personal preference, the conventional wisdom is that you should snag a seat on the right, or south, side of the train to guarantee the best views.)
The service is impeccable. If you don't want to elbow your way along swaying carriages to the antique ambiance of the wood-and-brass dining car, just wait for the roving minibar to trundle down the aisle with drinks and snacks. Both dining car and minibar are pricey, so if you're a Budget Traveler whose wallet is still smarting over the CHF131 ($105) price tag (CHF218/$174 for those first class windows), play it smart by stocking up on snacks before you board. You can replenish your supplies in towns en route; the train stops longest in Brig and Chur.
From Zermatt, there are four departures daily between 8:10 and 10:10am in summer (May 20-Oct 17), just one a day at 10:10am in winter. To get back, book the Glacier "Express" the other way for the next morning, or ride the same rails on a series of regular trains. You have to change trains three, four, or five times, and the whole trip takes extra hour, but in second class you pay precisely half the price of the Glacier Express.
The national airline Swiss (www.swiss.com) has reinvented itself since its Swissair incarnation went bankrupt a few years back, and the new service is superb. On most transatlantic flights you get a personal seatback video screen, so you can pick your own movies, TV programs, and video games. Of course, all that means nothing if the price isn't right. Luckily, it is.
Current roundtrip fares to Zurich, through March 31, are $325 from Boston or New York, $374 from Miami, or $434 from Chicago or Los Angeles. On any flight, add about $85 to $140 for taxes and fees. From Zurich, Zermatt is a 4- to 5-hour, CHF103.50 ($83) train ride away, via the town of Brig. (For more Swiss train info, head to http://fahrplan.sbb.ch/bin/query.exe/en.)
Zermatt's tourist office Web site (www.zermatt.ch) lists the more than 100 hotels in town, so you can pick one to suit your taste and budget, from a basic hostel to five-star bastions of luxury.
If you prefer the ease of booking a packaged tour—airfare, hotels, and transportation all included—there are two companies selling decently priced vacations that include Zermatt.
The only one to focus on it is being offered by Sophisticated Traveler (www.s-traveler.com/zermatt.html). The basics (roundtrip midweek flight into Zurich and six nights' lodging at the four-star Walliserhor Hotel) costs, per person based on double occupancy, from $1,245 through March, $1,455 April 1-20, and $1,199 Apr 21 to June 13, and $1,599 June 14 to Aug 31. Those are the prices for flying from Boston; from JFK or Newark you pay up to $20 more, from Miami or $20 to $116 more, and from L.A. $110 to $174 more. Weekend flights tack on $25 each way, taxes $85 to $140. Keep in mind you'll also have to plump $80 per person for a Railpass to make the connection from Zurich (it has the added benefit of saving you some on those scenic railways and cable cars in Zermatt).
If just a few nights in Zermatt is enough for you, EuroVacations.com (www.eurovacations.com) offers six-night packages that mix two nights in Zermatt with two each in Lucerne and Bern (from $899, including airfare from New York), or with St. Moritz and Lucerne (from $1,019).