On a pre-Christmas afternoon, we are among a few privileged vacationers to be headed to Zermatt.
The one-hour train ride from Visp follows the Matter Vispa river upstream; we are negotiating nearly 1000 meters of altitude. Outside the panoramic windows is a veritable Winter Wonderland!
Few remember that Zermatt originally had a different name: Praborno, meaning "meadow among natural springs." The reason for this name were the dozens of natural springs at the foot of the Matterhorn. Our home during this ski vacation in Zermatt will be in the hamlet of Winkelmatten where many of those springs are still alive. Located on a sunny hillside a bit outside of Zermatt, Winkelmatten is about as close to the Matterhorn as you can get.
Front-row views of the Matterhorn at Chalet Altesse
Chalet Altesse offers three generous rental apartments as well as a top-floor penthouse. At the taxi drop-off, we are welcomed by the chalet manager, Nikki. She kindly helps us with all the luggage and ski gear, then gives us a tour of the property. During our stay, we would opt for the free shuttle bus service to get around. (The Wichje bus stop of the red line is a five-minute walk away.)
Our first-floor apartment has the type of modern amenities you would only expect from an upscale rental: a jacuzzi bathtub, fireplace, designer furniture, and even a steam oven.
All apartments share a top-notch spa in the basement featuring a Finnish sauna and even a steam room. Due to the pandemic, we are asked to sign up for a two-hour slot ahead of time. In reality, this private time in the spa only adds to the luxurious experience.
Knowing that we would cook our own dinners, we shop for groceries in Zermatt before heading to Chalet Altesse. There is a small store in Winkelmatten, but we want to enjoy each day on the slopes without having to worry about supplies. On top, Nikki has set us up for breakfast by stocking the fridge with milk, butter, and homemade apricot jelly…
As a couple, we have ample space here at Chalet Altesse. The floorplan with its open kitchen, living and dining rooms seems ideal for groups of friends, or for families with three generations. Each apartment houses up to six adults as there are three bedrooms with private baths.
Skiing in Zermatt in December
Without realizing it, we have timed our ski vacation in Zermatt extremely well. During this mid-December week, the sun is out, and there are no crowds. We learn that the town by the Matterhorn gets busy a week before Christmas. This is when vacationers from near and far would arrive for the holidays, when trains increase frequencies, and when many of the slope-side restaurants open up.
Zermatt is already covered under a powdery blanket, but the big snow has not arrived yet. Yet at these high altitudes, no less than 200 kilometers of ski slopes are being groomed every night - even with moderate amounts of snow. The numerous runs are an open invitation to ski as much as possible.
But the question remains: where to begin?
Zermatt has three main ski areas:
Matterhorn glacier paradise - Schwarzsee
Sunnegga - Rothorn
Each ski area has its own character, level of difficulty, and sun exposure. Some slopes offer generous space for carving. Others have steep inclines for schussing, and yet others are ideal for beginners making their first attempts. But all the ski areas in Zermatt have one thing in common: unrivaled views of the mighty Matterhorn.
We have tested each of the main ski areas in Zermatt during this week, hoping to help you decide on which one suits you best. Starting with the slopes closest to the Matterhorn, we gradually moved further away as the days went by. Here is what we have found out about each ski area in Zermatt:
Matterhorn glacier paradise - Schwarzsee
- In a nutshell: Matterhorn glacier paradise offers year-round glacier skiing from Europe’s highest mountain station next to the Matterhorn.
- How to get to Matterhorn glacier paradise from Zermatt: take the gondola to Furi and transfer onto the cable car to Trockener Steg. Finally, the Matterhorn glacier ride cableway will take you from Trockener Steg to Klein Matterhorn at 3883 meters above sea. The trip takes roughly 45 minutes from valley to peak.
- What’s unique: the slopes are at the base of the towering Matterhorn. With a single pass, skiing is possible in Switzerland and across the border in Italy. Many tell us that the Italian side is sunnier - and that restaurants are less expensive.
- Where to eat and drink: the Matterhorn glacier paradise restaurant is Europe’s highest mountain restaurant with stunning views, Restaurant Schwarzsee
- Insider tipp: on your final descent from Furi to Zermatt, swing by Restaurant zum See for a slice of cremeschnitte custard.
- In a nutshell: Gornergrat is all about powdery slopes with sweeping views that hit the sweet spot for all levels of skiers.
- How to get to Gornergrat from Zermatt: just outside the Zermatt train station is the Gornergrat Railway station. In just 33 minutes, reach the top of Gornergrat at 3089 meters above sea.
- What’s unique: at these high altitudes, the snow quality remains perfect almost by definition. Reaching the Gornergrat by train is a must, at least once, but we find the chair lifts from Riffelberg more ideal for repeat ski runs. (Slope 36 all the way!)
- Where to eat and drink: Panorama Self Restaurant on Gornergrat, Chämi Hitta and Riffelhaus 1853 for Swiss fare, Restaurant Riffelberg for self-service food with perfect Matterhorn views
- Insider tipp: arrive by gondola from Zermatt via Furi if the train is too crowded. Those vacationing with non-skiers will enjoy the Gornergrat side for its many sun decks and winter hiking trails.
Sunnegga - Rothorn
- In a nutshell: Sunnegga - Rothorn offers the easiest to reach ski slopes with lots of sun exposure and panoramic Matterhorn views.
- How to get to Sunnegga - Rothorn from Zermatt: from the green line bus stop, enter the Sunnegga Express station and take the funicular to Sunnegga. Transfer onto the gondola to Blauherd, and finally take the cable car to Rothorn at 3103 meters above sea.
- What’s unique: the Blauherd and Sunegga ski runs are ideal for beginners who are content with a few good slopes. For advanced skiers, Rothorn offers some amazing long downhill runs.
- Where to eat and drink: Restaurant Fluhalp is a charming mountain inn with a sun deck, Chez Vrony on piste 6 is a Zermatt meme, Rothorn Ristorante Pizzeria, Sunnegga Buffet Bar
- Insider tipps: the photo spot at Rothorn offers the best panoramic views of the entire mountain range of Zermatt. Avoid the ski run from Sunnegga to Zermatt as the slopes are steep and often narrow. Lock your ski gear for 2 francs at the base station of the Sunnegga Express.
Après-ski experience in Zermatt
No skiing day is complete without a so-called après ski experience. You will undoubtedly come across this term when skiing in Switzerland. It literally means “after skiing”, but it stands for the culture of unwinding after a day on the slopes.
One of the favorite spots for après ski in Zermatt is Hennu Stall, a former barn that has been converted into a ski-in/ski-out bar. Located at the bottom of the Furi to Zermatt slope, this is where you can expect to find quite a genuine setting where many locals hang out.
We decide to end our last day on the slopes across the valley at Sunnegga. As the name indicates, this “sunny” ski area is ideal for catching a Matterhorn sunset. After the last sunray has disappeared, we catch the funicular back to Zermatt.
Within less than five minutes, we descend to street level through a long tunnel. The red line shuttle bus takes us back to Winkelmatten where we store our gear in the ski room of Chalet Altesse one last time.
Our verdict about pre-season skiing in Zermatt
The experience of skiing in Zermatt right before the season starts has us planning for next year already. Knowing about some of the small drawbacks helps: the Gornergrat Railway operates on a limited schedule, many of the Zermatt mountain restaurants remain shut, and there might not be quite enough snow for skiing to the chalet’s front door.
But the benefit of fewer crowds by far outweighs any of these minor factors. We came up with a few simple solutions to make it all work: instead of just showing up, we made it a point to study train and bus schedules. And with few restaurants open on the slopes, we gained flexibility by packing our own healthy snacks and hot beverages.