Travel Weekly Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski explored the
alpine Swiss resort of Zermatt, snuggled at the base of the
Matterhorn. His report follows:
s I leaned back over the
100-foot-high cliff -- dumbstruck at being held in mid-air over a
steep alpine gorge by a thin, though apparently sturdy, rope -- my
fear of height kicked in.
I can't do it, my eyes pleaded with the guide at the other end
of the line.
But the arch of his eyebrow and his glance back up the steep,
muddy slope we'd just slid down said it all: There was no going
Besides, all the others had already rappelled down the canyon
Although I've enjoyed watching the odd episode of "Fear Factor"
from the safety of my sofa, I'm a daredevil only in the most
How, I asked myself, had I ended up swinging between these pine
branches like some hapless, animatronic Christmas tree
My tour group had been scheduled to take a hike here in the Swiss
Alps -- from Sunnegga to Riffelalp and Furi -- but a forecast of
rain promised to spoil the views and we were forced to abandon our
As it was going to pour anyway, we thought, why not take a
wet-and-wild "gorge adventure" through the Gornerschlucht, a canyon
carved by glacial waters rushing down to the Mattervispa, which
flows into Zermatt?
The folks at Alpin Center Zermatt -- the local mountain guides'
association -- were only too happy to oblige, and before we knew it
we were suited up in safety harnesses and hard hats, dangling off
the nearest rocky protuberance.
Long story short, with a few encouraging words my able guide,
Miggi Biner, president of the mountain guides' association, coaxed
me down that awesome cliff and through the rest of the course,
comprised of shaky log bridges and narrow plank walkways, slick
boulders and rocky bends, and canyon gaps crossed only by
And nearly four hours later, my traveling companions and I --
exhilarated -- were downhill, safely ensconced in a cozy inn at
Herbrigg, sipping beers and hot chocolates and recounting every
Moral of the story? Other than the discovery that even an
acrophobic can indeed "climb every mountain," it's that there's
always something rewarding to do in Zermatt, come rain or shine,
summer and winter alike.
Alps for all seasons
In fact -- although I myself can't imagine braving the same
cliffs covered with ice and snow -- the Alpin Center's Gorge
Adventure excursion is available year-round, priced at about $74
Other season-specific activities from the center include glacier
and mountain hiking and rock climbing in the summer, and snowshoe
and ski tours, ice climbing, and off-trail and helicopter skiing
Various other operators in Zermatt offer dog-sled rides,
paragliding, snowboarding, ice skating and curling.
Those options might appeal to only the most athletic of
visitors, but -- visions of schussing snowbunnies and millionaire
playboys aside -- Swiss resorts like Zermatt cater to all physical
types, income levels and lifestyles.
For example, in summer months (May through October), a new
Zermatt Peak Pass allows unlimited use of all local mountain
transport, including the Gornergrat cog railway and all 69 ski
lifts, gondolas and cable cars.
Priced from about $103 for three days to $285 for 21 days, the
pass lends easy access to breathtaking vistas of 38 peaks --
including the incomparable, jagged Matterhorn itself -- from the
mountaintop Gornergrat, Sunnegga and Klein Matterhorn viewing
The latter peak also is home to the ever-popular
Gletschergrotte, or Ice Pavilion, a man-made, indoor glacial grotto
featuring ice sculptures and historical displays.
On the one partly sunny day of our stay, my group opted to ride
the cog railway all the way up Gornergrat, to its terminus at
10,270 feet, and take a leisurely hike back down to the Riffelalp
station, at 8,471 feet.
Along the nearly half-mile way, we admired enormous glaciers and
aqua-blue glacial lakes, communed with wandering mountain sheep and
stopped to study the tiny alpine flowers dotting the landscape.
In winter, visitors can ski down the same route, and roundtrip
transport passes up to the peak platforms range from $8.75 to $52;
kids under age 16 travel at half-price.
A nice hike for those averse to ski lifts is a 30-minute, uphill
walk to the hamlet of Blatten, where from spring to fall the Ricola
Herb Garden cultivates the 13 basic ingredients of the famed Swiss
Charm's the word
For those foggy, stormy or snowy days when hikes, walks or
climbs in the hills are impossible or impractical, the village of
Zermatt itself offers plenty of attractive distractions.
The operative word here is "charm." From the gaily gabled
chalets festooned with flowerboxes to the tinkling bells of horned
mountain goats herded through town several times a day, Zermatt is
the prototypical Swiss hamlet every tourist dreams of visiting.
In addition to a coterie of shops and galleries, the town boasts
excellent and unique restaurants and watering holes to while away
These include the chalet-style Chez Heini, where owner Dan
Daniell -- an actor, designer and restaurateur -- serenaded us with
kitschy Swiss folk songs as we enjoyed local specialties served
with stylish flair, and Schorno's Bar Club Cinema @ Vernissage.
That trendy establishment is a complex that incorporates, as its
name implies, dancing and drinking facilities with a glass-walled
theater; we watched the giant film projector at work from the bar,
caipirinhas comfortably in hand.
Come December, Zermatt's first casino opens its doors.
Accommodations options run the gamut from guest houses and bed
and breakfasts to five-star hotels such as the Mont Cervin und
And in Zermatt, even four-star properties such as the Monte Rosa
and the Alpen Resort (see Room Key, below) -- with rates from $214
per night, double -- are within reach of travelers on a budget.
Car-free Zermatt is accessible only via a 90-minute ride on the
narrow-gauge railroad from Brig and Visp; motorists also can drive
as far as Tasch and catch the train there.
Point-to-point tickets and the national SwissPass railpass from
Swiss Federal Railways -- which offers unlimited access to the
entire national rail system, including the Zermatt line -- are
available from Rail Europe at (888) 382-7245 or http://agent.raileurope.com on line, and DER, at (800)
782-2424 or www.der.com.
Agent commission on SwissPass is 10% for GDS and Internet
bookings from Rail Europe, and 8% for phone and fax; DER pays 8% on
For more on Zermatt, call Zermatt Tourism at (011) 41-27
966-8100 or send an e-mail to [email protected]; or, call Switzerland Tourism
at (877) 794-8037 or visit www.myswitzerland.com.
For more on services from the Alpin Center, call (011) 41-27
966-2460 or visit www.zermatt.ch/alpincenter on line.
Room Key: Best Western Alpen Resort Hotel
Address: Spiss-Strasse 52, Zermatt,
Phone: (011) 41-27-966-3000
Fax: (011) 41-27-966-3055
Reservations: (800)937-8376 (800-WESTERN)
General manager: Jorg Aufdenblatten
Rates: From about $214 to $301 per night,
including half-board; packages also available
Location: In Spiss neighborhood northeast of main
Rooms: 55 rooms (3 singles; 43 twin-doubles,
family rooms with Matterhorn view; 9 twins with garden view)
Facilities: "Matterhorn" restaurant;
indoor/outdoor tennis courts; pool, spa, gym
Raves: Stunning views of the Matterhorn; helpful
staff; spotless, modern spa and gym; hotel can provide the in-room
irons and ironing boards so rare in European hotels
Rants: A bit removed from the charming main street
of Zermatt, the Alpen Resort has a slightly worn and dated decor
that comes as a surprise in a four-star hotel
Kings of the hill: Top operators to Zermatt
Adventures on Skis
Phone: (800) 628-9655
Phone: (800) 832-4656
Phone: (800) 294-1650
Phone: (800) 333-5533
Phone: (800) 222-1170
Source: Switzerland Tourism