food, views amazing off-piste
most pistes not challenging; expensive
This review is from an Eastern Canadian perspective. If your idea of a ski week is steep, deep and treed, then go to Jackson Hole or Utah or Whistler, or Louise, or Fernie.
But if you want the world's best mountain scenery; fantastic on-mountain lunches and heli-skiing runs without the helicopter, then do Zermatt, which is in a class of its own. Oh, and if you still have energy to party at the end of a long day on the slopes, Zermatt can't be beat!
Zermatt is far to get to, but the Swill transport system runs like clockwork and after a night flight and a seamless train connection, you will be in Zermatt for mid afternoon. No cars in Zermatt, which means the air quality is great! Some complain that the electric taxis are a silent menace, but in a week's stay I never witnessed a close call. The bus system to get to the lifts is as good as I've experienced in Whistler: would I like to see more buses? Yes, but when all is said and done it was a non issue.
It is a good idea, however, to select a hotel based on distance to the bus route: note that the buses don't run on most of the Banhofstrasse, where many of the fancy hotels are located!
This being Europe, many hotels offer packages which include breakfast and dinner. Don't take the dinner. Instead, have a big meal at lunch, in one of the many fantastic mountain restaurants and have a very light meal in the evening. This has a couple of advantages: you enjoy what is probably the best on-mountain dining in the world; you get a good break at mid-day (how many of us can ski hard from morning to night, for an entire week?) and you get out of your hotel in the evenings: Zermatt has a lot to offer! And given that Zermatt ain't cheap, and your nice lunch will cost a bomb, going light in the evening is kind to your wallet. One evening's dinner consisted of a bratwurst grilled by a street vendor, and washed down with a beer!
Many people, after a long lunch in a mountain restaurant, then ski untill after 4pm, work their way down the mountain to one of the many restaurants and bars on the lower slopes, for a bit of apres ski of beer, snacks and maybe dancing to a live band, and not ski the last kilometre back to town until well after 5:30pm! Back in town, it's not unusual to find skiers in the Papperla Pub, or Grampi's, still wearing their ski boots at 7pm! Suffice to say you can really stress your liver in this town.
The week we were there we had nothing but blue bird days. After day 1 we all needed to buy ball caps and sun screen, without which we would have burned to a crisp and died. Which brings up the issue of snow. Zermatt is not known for snowfalls like Whistler, Fernie or Snowbird and this year was particularly dry. But sun and temps just around freezing make for delightful skiing and the altitude ensures good coverage. And the adventurous can find powder stashes many days after a dump.
Zermatt is really three different ski areas, four if you count Breuil-Cervinia across the border in Italy. The lift system does a great job of taking you from one area to the next, using an astonishing variety of up hill conveyances. How many underground railways are there in North America, and how many resorts routinely use tunnels, elevators and escalators to get you around? We had no difficulty skiing from one area to the next in the same day and in fact enjoyed the variety that this brought us.
The pistes are ultra long but for the most part not hard skiing: they simply convey you from one spectacular view to another, or one restaurant to another, or from one country to another. This makes Zermatt is a strong intermediate's paradise. If you want bumps, often they are just to the side, off the groomed piste. But to go really off piste is amazing, if potentially a bit scary. The place is so huge, and some runs start from such high altitude, that to follow someone's tracks off piste can turn into one heck of an adventure. Best to go with a guide: at altitude crevasses are a real danger, and who knows if the tracks you are following are those of a professional freeskier, and lead into a region of extreme terrain? Next time I go I will definitely do a day or two of guided skiing, in order to explore some of those areas visible from the Klein Matterhorn cable car. To ski Zermatt in a good snow year, in a week with fresh snow, with or without a guide, must be out of this world. A bit like heli skiing without the chopper!
In a good snow year, I could easily spend 3-4 days on Stockhorn, which has huge consistent steeps with lots of chutes and gnarly areas. And parts of Swartzee are a hidden gem with lots of unskied pow. As it was, the Stockhorn and Hohtalli areas we skiied had pefect snow on north facing runs, with nice soft bumps and epic verticals but no powder. But we had to pay attention for the occasional rock, and some lines simply did not have enough snow to be truly safe (at least for our skill levels).
Be prepared to spend money: we never did lunch for three for less than C$100 and occasionally much more. But the food and ambience were superb: Grunsee, Trockener Steg, Kulmhotel Gornergratt, Fluhalp, Stafelalp and Chalet Etoile on the Italian side were all sampled, found to be excellent and all very different from each other. The band at Fluhalp was great: we could have stayed all afternoon, dancing to great tunes and working on our tans. We never ate indoors at noon, even when we were at altitudes of over 3,000 metres. And often, we wore only t-shirts. It was that warm, the sun was that strong.
The skiing can be as hard or easy as you want, with the added advantage for a mixed group that some can stay on the piste while others do the steep and deep, and meet at the lifts to go back up together. We did this often!
You will eat sinfully well.
Zermatt works just as well for singles who want to party, for families who want quality time together and for empty nesters who want good skiing in a romantic setting.
The bottom line? It isn't cheap, but nor is Whistler. If you have the cash, you will find it expensive but money well spent, for a skiing experience unlike any in North America.