We ski journos are a lucky bunch. As I write this (Sunday 30 September) I’m sitting on a train, watching a stunning mountain landscape gently glide by on route to Zurich from Zermatt where I’ve just spent the last three days, courtesy of Switzerland Tourism. They invited a group of travel journalists to this world-class destination to give us highlights of what Switzerland’s ski resorts are planning for this winter season, plus showcase what makes Zermatt so enduringly appealing. One of those appeals is being able to ski here all year round, on the resort’s glacier and we were given the tantalising prospect of getting in some very early season turns. After all, it’s only September which is far earlier than I’d ever normally hit the slopes; that pleasure tends to be on hold until December when I host a holiday for readers of the magazine (this year from 9 to 16 December in Tignes, France).
In one of the presentations we attended during the weekend we discovered that the number of hotel nights booked by Brits in Switzerland was down by 30 per cent since 2009. No great surprises there seeing as the growing strength of the Swiss Franc and weakness of the pound over the last three years has made holidays to Switzerland significantly more expensive. But it was good to hear representatives from the tourist office being so frank with their figures. They highlighted some of the measures resorts are adopting to give enhanced value for money. For example the ski school in Arosa is offering free group skiing or snowboarding lessons to anyone born after 1995, Engadin/St Moritz has introduced its 100 hotel offer – stay at one of the participating establishments and you will be entitled to a reduced price lift pass. And tour operator Inghams has partnered up with various Swiss resorts to provide 2 for 1 lift pass deals.
While these measures help slightly to alleviate the financial pummelling our wallets are subjected to when visiting Swtizerland, cost-saving measures are not the thrust of the country’s marketing campaign for this season. Well, they know they’re never going to win on straight price comparisons with other European countries. Personally I think they should have adopted the “reassuringly expensive” tag line but their focus for this year’s advertising campaign is all about “relaxing”, whether that be by going skiing, tobogganing, snowshoeing or having treatments in a spa. It’s the idea of having a winter holiday rather than a totally ski focused one. It’s not a revolutionary approach but the more rounded winter holiday offer, with lots of different attractions, is one that sits particularly well with many Swiss resorts.With Zermatt being a prime example, as we found out.
On the first evening we took the train from Zermatt to the Kulmhotel Gornergrat restaurant at 3089m. Here we had a traditional Swiss fondue plus dried meats and were treated to a dazzling natural light display of pinks and purples lighting up the clouds to create a stunning backdrop to one of the Alps most distinctive mountains, the Matterhorn. It was breathtaking.
Part of the complex on the Gornergrat houses a powerful telescope used by astronomers to study the stars. And the best thing, its use is not just restricted to professional astronomers. Mere mortals can use the equipment to star gaze too. We didn’t get the chance to do it but anybody can, for a small fee, do some star gazing in between courses. Nice idea!
Equally impressive was the opportunity the following day to go inside a glacier on Klein Matterhorn, which has been renamed Matterhorn glacier paradise. It was an eery sensation walking through the ice tunnel leading to the carved out chamber within the glacier, complete with ice sculpture displays and even a mini slide. I guess it’s supposed to be just for kids but couldn’t resist having a slide down myself.
We also got the chance to go on a helicopter ride. Switzerland and Italy are the only countries in Western Europe where helisking is permitted and Air Zermatt, founded in 1968, is one of the most established operators. Not that we were going helisking, mind. Ours was a scenic flight and drop off near the summer skiing glacier. Once the organisers had lined up a series of competitive events for us such as running races in snow shoes, and pulling a person as fast as possible on a sled. All fun and even the driving wind and rain didn’t put a dampener on the occasion.
Prior to our flight up to the glacier, we discovered in an engrossing talk from one of Air Zermatt’s 62 employees Daniel Aufdenblatten that heliskiing is just a small part of what the company does. It also carries out 60,000 to 70,000 cargo flights per year and numerous life saving rescue missions for stricken climbers and skiers. He spoke particularly passionately about a period he spent in Nepal where Air Zermatt worked with a local pilots and was involved in some very hairy rescue operations. It’s one of the few occasions where I’ve seen a group of journalists totally engrossed and asking for more time to hear his stories. Daniel, a natural orator, said he could easily talk about his job for six hours. We could easily have listened.
The finale of our trip was supposed to be skiing on the glacier on Sunday morning. Unfortunately high winds and rain meant the lifts were shut. The alternative plan was to whizz down the mountain on scooter-like contraptions with giant wheels. It was raining in the morning and so I decided to give it a miss. Instead I went swimming in the expansive pool at the hotel where I was staying, the four-star hotel Alex, right in the centre of town. Its exuberant colour scheme might not be to everyone’s taste (it is to mine) but I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying the top quality food and homely feel. It is one of dozens of top hotels in the resort renowned for its numerous fab eateries.
After swimming it stopped raining, the clouds cleared and the Matterhorn revealed itself. I had two hours to go before the train left for Zurich and I could either work or go for a hike on one of Zermatt’s extensive network of trails. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know what option I chose. As I plodded along, basking in the sunshine and entranced by the spectacular jagged mountains, overlooked by the sky soaring Matterhorn, I felt I’d reached a state of relaxation nirvana. Not a bad result considering we hadn’t even managed to go skiing.