In search for the ultimate ski destination, we wanted great snow, fantastic scenery and plenty of style - we found Zermatt!
Zermatt is nestled in a deep valley between steeply-scarped mountains and is one of the world's great ski and climbing centres. Its backdrop is Switzerland's most famous landmark, the Matterhorn, which rises almost 4.5km and stands alone, towering over the head of the valley. The gracefully-curved mountain was first climbed in 1865 by a party of seven, led by Englishman Edward Whymper. It took them 32 hours to reach the Hörni ridge.
The moment you leave the train in this village and see cobbled streets and horses with sleighs waiting for their rides, you realize it is a very special place. It is a no-auto through-route and this is where the train stops. All onward journeys are on foot or ski. Backpackers rub shoulders with high society glitterati, but in this place, everyone has come to see the mountain. Zermatt, with 5500 residents and 13,500 guest beds, doesn't really have an off-season. There are no cars in the village and the silence and alpine air are immediately welcoming. A promenade down the main street in the evening is a delightful way to explore the tiny cobbled and twisting alleyways just off the main street. There you will find old sun-browned barns and traditional chalets.
There are lots of cosy restaurants, usually with menus and prices posted outside in English. Prices can vary enormously, so it's a good idea to see what you might be up for before entering and ordering.
Europe's winter playgrounds are very competitive France's Mont Blanc is higher than the Matterhorn, Switzerland's St Moritz is more ritzy, but those who know say Zermatt is overtaking all of them. It has retained its old world charm and character.
The Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, a 110-year-old building in the centre of the village, is a beautiful place to stay. It is small and cosy with interiors and décor oozing elegance. It has three restaurants and two bars, but is easy walking distance to other venues.
There is skiing year round and runs to satisfy all levels. There are three main areas which soar to at least 3000 metres, meaning excellent conditions. Runs into the village are eight to 13km long and are open all day. They operate from late November until the beginning of May, making it the longest skiing season in Europe.
Apres skiing is very popular and there around three dozen mountain restaurants above Zermatt, most with sublime views of the many angles of the Matterhorn. At the end of a hard ski it is a delight to enjoy a spiced warm wine and apple strudel.
Anyone attempting to climb the Matterhorn should be in top physical condition, have had rock climbing experience and some practice with crampons. Ten days acclimatising and training in the Zermatt area is highly recommended. The time to climb is mid-July to mid-September, depending on the amount of snow.
Zermatt continues to be active in summer months, with tennis, swimming, walking and, of course, mountain climbing in the fresh, clean air. It offers 400km of footpaths through classic high-alpine scenery. Pine-scented mountain forests, calm alpine lakes, ice-blue glaciers and lookouts are all wonderful.
A ride on a mountain lift to one of the high summits above Zermatt is highly recommended. The three year-round peaks, Gornergrat, Klein Matterhorn and Rothorn, are all different from each other, with different appeal.
Snowboarders have plenty of superb, open terrain to enjoy. There are two snowboard parks and two man-made half pipes. Boarders are welcome on all lifts and 99 percent of the pistes. Boards can be hired and there is a dedicated snowboarding school.