By Roland Leiser
Stories of rude skiers in Europe, line-crashers, mediocre snow and the snobbery of people “who’ve been there, done that” had put the Alps way down on my must-ski list. But something happened. Despite the misgivings, I took the plunge and booked a European trip.
Among the Alpine countries, Switzerland offers up 40 major resorts from Andermatt to Zermatt, which partner with the national tourism office (Switzerland Tourism). Then, why Switzerland? That was easy: I was familiar with the country from previous visits in the summer and fall.
As the selection process narrowed, I pored over resort guides, Internet sources, tour operator brochures, ski club programs and asked a ski bum friend for advice. The basic requirements included a challenging area for an advanced intermediate skier, lots of terrain, reliable snow, a location near an authentic village, an affordable package for mid-January and a resort where English was widely understood.
One tour operator suggested Davos, but Davos seemed too much like a big city. Ski club-sponsored trips to Zermatt offered great deals, but the departure dates weren’t right.
As one of the largest ski areas in Europe, Zermatt won me over. A town of 5,500 permanent residents, Zermatt sits in a valley at 5,315 feet high, below the craggy Matterhorn with 217 miles of trails on three mountains. Zermatt’s long runs were well-marked and suitable for intermediates once you figured out how to get from point A to B. High altitudes assured deep snow cover and many skiers began their runs at more than 7,500 feet in a popular area known as Sunegga.
Sunegga, which can be crowded at times, is connected to even higher elevations at the Blauherd and Rothorn stations. On another side of the mountain, at Klein Matterhorn, a trail begins at more than 12,400 feet, which was closed due to high winds at the time of my visit.
The resort designates 44 percent of its terrain as intermediate, 23 percent as expert and 33 percent as easy. Few snowboarders were evident but there was a fun park and a half-pipe area for them.
Some trails at high elevation skirted vast wilderness areas of glaciers and rocky mountain faces and no chairlifts were in sight. For a resort the size of Zermatt, the number of trails -75– seemed surprisingly small, but they were widely spread out.
On-mountain transport included 62 lifts and gondolas. A plastic card embedded with a chip served as a lift pass. Place the card in the left low pocket of your ski jacket and a sensor at the turn-style entrance of each lift reads it and, click, you go through. Waiting time in lift lines was minimal but generally the gondolas had to be fully loaded before they’d depart. A train operates between Zermatt’s center and the 9,300 foot-high Gornergrat station, which takes 30 minutes.
The absence of real estate development on-mountain was a plus although I saw a few Swiss-style summer houses. Zermatt, a four hour train ride from Geneva, is a real Swiss village, not an ersatz version seen at some North American resorts. There’s a trace of the modest mountain town that Zermatt once was and an Alpine Museum chronicles its history.
For transportation around town, visitors use battery-powered taxis or ride the free E-bus as gasoline-run vehicles are banned. Or walk. The town is quite compact. Throughout Zermatt are shops for watches, Swiss Army knives, ski clothing, equipment and ski and snowboard rentals. Bars, night clubs and restaurants round out the apres-ski scene. For all of Zermatt’s reputation as upscale, many visitors wore jeans and I saw only a few women in fur coats.
However awesome, Zermatt initially can be bewildering to a first-time, non-German speaker traveling alone. Street signage was unclear for the entrance of the long tunnel to board the underground funicular to Sunegga. Asked for directions to the nearest lift, my hotel staff responded, “yes, only 100 meters down the road.” Carrying heavy ski equipment, I trudged right past it although closer attention to a town map might have avoided this mishap. Luckily, my hotel was only a five minutes away from the lift’s entrance. Once inside the tunnel, you pass through turn-styles and begin the walk through the 100 meter-long passageway to board the cable cars. Think the length of a football field.
Some trail identification meanwhile was odd at best. I gave up trying to figure it out and just followed intermediate-looking skiers down the trails. The trail numbering system didn’t seem consistent or logical between the different mountain sections. It got tiresome to ask, “excuse me, do you speak English and is this the X trail, to Y?” I brought my signage concerns to Daniel Luggen, Zermatt’s marketing director, who acknowledged the point. After all, up to 20 percent of Zermatt’s visitors are North Americans or British.
Unlike U.S. and Canadian resorts, Zermatt didn’t offer volunteer guides for visitors unfamiliar with the terrain. And no central base area existed for guest services such as an information desk, rental shops, restaurants, lockers and resort administration as you’d find in the U.S. and Canada. These were small drawbacks to an otherwise worthwhile ski experience. Gradually you get to know your way around.
Zermatt’s three mountain areas are connected in one direction, but not in the other. If this seems trivial, keep in mind a key point. To return to Sunegga from the high-up Trockener Steg or Schwarzee stations, you must first ski back to town, then board a bus or taxi to reach the cable car to Sunegga. As a result of the gap in mountain transport, I took an end-of-the-day. leg-burning run from the top of Schwarzsee to Zermatt and boarded a bus back to the hotel. To correct the problem, which dates from the time of separate ownership of the mountain lifts, Zermatt is studying plans for a gondola between Furi and Riffleberg stations, says marketing director Luggen.
Competitive ski and snowboard schools are an unusual feature, which include the Swiss Ski and Snowboard School and Stoked AG. Each requires at least three days of lessons, although Stoked will offer half-day sessions. The schools provide an opportunity to visit different parts of the mountains during instruction.
I was concerned about lugging equipment on the trip, so I rented. That was mistake. Given the seamless travel connections, I think that carrying an over-the-shoulder ski bag would not be any trouble. At least bring your skis and rent the boots. Due to security rules, Swiss International Airlines’ fly-rail plan–transportation of bags from a U.S. gateway to the resort’s rail station– is offered only on outbound flights to Europe.
My ski package from Jan.10 to Jan. 17, 2004 cost $1,563 per person for double occupancy. The deal included travel on Air France from Washington Dulles International Airport to Geneva, rail to Zermatt with one connection, a room at the three-star Hotel Biner with daily breakfast buffet and dinner. Fortunately, the Biner offered a few comfortable but cell-size rooms for one person, which avoided the dreaded single supplement.
Add a six-day lift pass ($282), equipment rental ($175) and mid-day meals, you’ll easily spend more than $2,000 for a Saturday to Saturday stay. Still, it’s not a bad price for a full week. Adventures on Skis, Mercator Tours, Moguls Mountain Travel, Ski Europe, among others, offer Zermatt programs.
After five ski days at Zermatt, none of the off-putting stories about Europe proved true. Would I return to Zermatt? Yes, under one condition: that the resort builds a moving sidewalk in the tunnel to the Sunegga cable car!
Leiser is a Silver Spring, Md.-based writer.
*Adventures on Skis
*Moguls Mountain Travel
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