Dangling over a gorge the ultimate Swiss tease

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 back.

Besides, all the others had already rappelled down the canyon wall.

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 vicarious sense.

How, I asked myself, had I ended up swinging between these pine branches like some hapless, animatronic Christmas tree ornament?

Zermatt, nestled under the Matterhorn, is an ideal destination no matter the season. 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 plans.

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 pulley-and-rope contraptions.

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 thrilling moment.

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 per person.

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 during winter.

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 platforms.

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 cough drop.

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 the hours.

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 Residence.

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 all bookings.

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, Switzerland
Phone: (011) 41-27-966-3000
Fax: (011) 41-27-966-3055
Reservations: (800)937-8376 (800-WESTERN)
E-mail:[email protected]
General manager: Jorg Aufdenblatten
Rates: From about $214 to $301 per night, including half-board; packages also available
Commission: 10%
Location: In Spiss neighborhood northeast of main drag Bahnhof-Strasse.
Built: 1972-1976
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
(800) 628-9655

Collette Tours
(800) 832-4656

Mercator Tours
(800) 294-1650

Ski Europe
(800) 333-5533

Snow Tours
(800) 222-1170

Source: Switzerland Tourism

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