You have to have a heart of stone to look at the Matterhorn and not be bewitched by its jagged beauty. It’s not Switzerland’s highest mountain, but it’s certainly the most compelling. It was the notorious 1865 ascent of the Matterhorn that changed the fortunes of Zermatt, which had been a simple farming village at the time. The combination of extraordinary natural beauty, excellent skiing, a cosmopolitan atmosphere and superb restaurants puts Zermatt leagues ahead of its Alpine rivals.
Its ski area spreads across 200 kilometres of varied terrain – and add another 160km if you want to ski into neighbouring Cervinia, across the Italian border. With 38 of its summits soaring above 4,000 metres, you can expect snow from late November to April. And then there’s the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise at 3,883 metres, which you can ski all year round. Zermatt is just as popular in the summer, when walkers, hikers, cyclists and nature-lovers make use of the cable cars to explore the mountains.
A comfortable bed
The British-owned Matterhorn Chalets (www.matterhornchalets.com) offers a choice of luxury chalets mostly in the Winkelmatten area close to the Matterhorn Express lifts. Chalet Banja sleeps six to eight people, and is decked out in stylish Alpine decor, with beamed pine ceilings, fireplaces and wonderful views of the Matterhorn. There’s also an indoor pool, sauna and gym. A week costs from £12,950 (Dh59,370), including most meals and a professional mountain guide/ski instructor.
For old-world glamour, try the five-star Mont Cervin Palace (www.montcervinpalace.ch), which has been cosseting its guests in style for more than 150 years. Its unstuffy rooms have elegant Alpine furnishings, and there’s a choice of restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Capri. The spa shouldn’t be missed, and its large indoor and outdoor hot pools are also open to non-guests. Double rooms cost from 628 Swiss francs (Dh2,301), including breakfast.
To make up for the fact that it doesn’t have a restaurant, the four-star Firefly Hotel (www.firefly-zermatt.com) has state-of-the-art kitchens in all of its immensely chic, light-filled rooms. Its large gym makes it a favourite among pro skiers, and the spa includes an indoor pool. Doubles cost from 490 francs (Dh1,813), including breakfast.
Find your feet
Zermatt sprawls for about 4km, but the main Bahnhofstrasse is the focus of the town. It’s also where you will find the tourist office (www.zermatt.ch; www.myswitzerland.com).
The Gornergrat cog railway chugs through forests up to wide-open pistes at 3,089 metres. The nearby funicular takes you to the Sunnegga and Rothorn ski areas; the most popular lift station, the Matterhorn Express, is at the other end of town, but is on the free bus route.
Meet the locals
You need to be a good skier to join the party at Hennu Stall (www.hennustall.ch), the après-ski hangout that’s one of Zermatt’s most boisterous bars. It’s a tough run back down – unless you fancy a long walk.
In town, the huge choice covers everything from après-ski, when the lifts shut, to aperitif bars, late-night lounges and clubs. The noisy Papperla Pub (www.julen.ch) kicks off from 4pm onwards, while Gees (www.zermattgees.com) is a classy spot for live music. Edward’s Bar at the Hotel Monte Rosa (www.monterosazermatt.ch) is a plush place in the room where Edward Whymper and co planned their Matterhorn ascent in 1865.
Book a table
Ski down the blue run from the Sunnegga funicular and you reach Findlerhof (www.findlerhof.ch), which has sublime views of the Matterhorn from its sunny terrace. It’s a bit of a schlep along a winding path, but it’s worth the trek (and also accessible via a long footpath). Savour big plates of lamb shank (38 francs [Dh139]) or truffle ravioli (42 francs [Dh154]).
You can’t leave Zermatt without having a fondue, and Zermatterstübli (www.legitan.ch) is a cosy choice for gooey cheese dishes. Go for the classic cheese version for 24.50 francs (Dh90) per person.
Bahnhofstrasse is one long shopping street, with more upmarket sports-clothing shops than you can shake a ski pole at. Bayard (www.bayardzermatt.ch) has four floors of smart (and pricey) clothes for men and women. Chocolate-lovers can get pleasantly distracted at the Lindt shop (www.lindt.ch), and if you’re into watches, the choice boggles the mind.
What to avoid
Zermatt prides itself on being car-free, but it certainly isn’t traffic free. Electric taxis and hotel shuttles are everywhere, and can be a bit of a nuisance.
Beside the splendour of the Zermatterhof Hotel is the rather peculiar blue glass dome housing the Matterhorn Museum (www.zermatt.ch/en/museum). Ignore the dated exterior and plunge into the large underground museum showing the Matterhorn’s conquest in fascinating detail, as well as re-created interiors and exteriors of old Zermatt.
At the other end of the scale, geographically, is the Glacier Palace, deep within the glacier in the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. This ice grotto has fantastically elaborate ice sculptures and even an ice slide. Fully accessible to non-skiers, it’s a fun activity when the weather turns nasty.
Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) from Abu Dhabi to Zurich cost from Dh2,620, including taxes, and take about seven hours. A Swiss Transfer Ticket, which gives rail travel from Zurich Airport to Zermatt, costs from Dh540 and takes about three-and-a-half hours.