When you’re living away from home, Christmas can make the distance feel all the more great. As the locals down tools and return to their family homes, I’m reminded that mine is on the other side of the world.
But being a ‘Christmas orphan’ isn’t all bad. The upside is spending time with an adopted family, whether that be fellow expatriates in the same situation or locals kind enough to welcome me into their home. It’s been fantastic to experience other people’s traditions over the years, and also to be able to share some of my own.
As a result, I’ve had some wonderful Christmas’ away, which have taken me to the UK’s Lake District, Lake Annecy in France, and Ireland. However, despite my best efforts, the one thing I had not been able to manage was a white Christmas – the Christmas Holy Grail to an Australian.
A very white Christmas
Until this Christmas that is. This year I was extremely lucky to be invited by an Australian friend to spend Christmas with her family in Zermatt, Switzerland.
Zermatt is a rather swanky ski resort, overlooked by the iconic peak of the Matterhorn Mountain. The town is picture perfect, with its cosy wooden chalets running along the banks of the gentle Matten Vispa River, and omnipresent mountains on all sides dwarfing everything in sight.
While I’m confident that Zermatt is beautiful year round, I suspect that Christmas is when she puts on her ball gown. The chalets throughout the town were covered in lights, creating an electric canopy illuminating the valley as darkness fell. Everything was covered in a heavy blanket of powdery snow, soft to touch and crisp underneath your feet, a far cry from the icy sludge I’m familiar with in London. And of course, every fir resembled a Christmas tree with branches heaving with actual snow, not at all like the spray-on variety back in Australia.
For the first time, the songs I had listened to as a child about longing for a white Christmas actually made sense. It could not have been more perfect. (And so my sincere thanks to the McGrath’s/McDonald’s for taking in this Christmas orphan and giving me a Christmas I’ll never forget!)
But I can’t ski!
While it was everything I could hope for in a Christmas, having never been to a ski resort in my life I wasn’t too sure how I’d go in Zermatt. Would there be anything for me to do if I don’t ski? What does one wear? Would I constantly be slipping on ice and falling on my a$$? (As I’m known to do.)
I needn’t have worried. Zermatt is well equipped to cater for all kinds of visitors. And it’s so picturesque that I suspect that even if you were to do nothing but gaze out the window for your entire visit, you would still be happily entertained.
As tempting as that was, particularly after a large Christmas dinner, I did manage to get out and explore. Here are some highlights from my week in Zermatt:
Getting light-headed on some of Europe’s highest peaks
What I didn’t fully appreciate before I went, is that you don’t need to be a skier to take the ski lifts up the mountains. With amazing vistas and an abundance of mountain restaurants, it’s perfectly fine for non-skiers to take to the slopes (figuratively speaking of course; please stay off the slopes).
On our visit we ventured up two mountains:
Klein Matterhorn / Matterhorn Glacier Paradise
The journey to the top of the Klein Matterhorn is half the fun (note – this is not the actual Matterhorn). The cable car ascends the mountain in stages, giving you fantastic 360° views that take in the Matterhorn and surrounding mountains, as well as Zermatt below. Just don’t try and work out how the hell you’re being suspended, particularly on the very last leg of the journey. It will seriously do your head in.
At the summit is the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, which has the highest cable car station in Europe at 3,883 metres. From here you can even ski down to Italy for lunch! But for the non-skiers, the drawcard is the viewing platform – the highest in Europe – which delivers sweeping views of some 38 peaks that are over 4,000 metres high. It’s absolutely awe-inspiring, and if the view doesn’t overpower you, the thin air will.
You reach the summit of The Gornergrat by taking the Gornergrat rack railway, the highest open air railway in Europe (and if heights make you nervous, a more palatable way to make your way up a mountain than the cable cars). You’re treated to more spectacular views as the train slowly snakes its way up the mountain, and then again once you’ve reached the summit.
If you’re going to ski once, you may as well say you did it in Zermatt
Before Zermatt, my idea of a perfect ski holiday had been to drift between a hot tub and a fireplace, drinking copious amounts of red wine in the process.
However it seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity to go to Zermatt of all places and not (attempt to) ski at least once. The mountains around Zermatt are not only picturesque, they also have an impressive 360km of well-groomed ski pistes carved into the slopes.
So I decided to throw caution to the wind and try a ski lesson. It was exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting all in one. My instructor told me I did very well for my first time, particularly considering I was decades older than the grandstanding infants circling me. Yes, I had some monumental falls (including one instance where one of my skis flew off and almost took out a child 10 metres away), but I live to see another day (as does the child). So overall I consider my first ski session a raging success.
If you’ve never skied, I highly recommend giving it a go. There are lots of ski schools in Zermatt, offering both group and private lessons. They’re not cheap, but definitely worth the investment for beginners. I found the Prato Borni ski school was (comparatively) reasonable.
Have a spa; you deserve it
Because I skied once, I figured I deserved a spa day. A soak in the hot tub and a massage proved to be a great way to get me walking normally again.
Zermatt is full of spas, with both indoor and outdoor pools, saunas and massage treatments. Most hotels have a spa, which are open to non-guests at certain hours of the day. Some are ridiculously expensive, but if you go before 12:00pm they may offer a discounted price. And if you get a massage, you can often use the spa facilities without having to pay extra.
Eat your weight in cheese; you deserve it
Because it was Christmas and because I skied once, I figured I had license to eat whatever I wanted while in Zermatt. It’s all about hearty comfort food here; lots of cheesy goodness (think raclette, fondue, and potato rosti covered in melted cheese), grilled meats and of course chocolate (the hot chocolates I had were sublime). Given Italy is just on the other side of the Matterhorn, there are also plenty of good Italian restaurants too.
The standout has to be the mountain restaurants. We went to Restaurant Schwarzsee (located at Schwarzsee on the way to the Matterhorn Glacer Paradise) beside the Matterhorn peak, providing one of the most picturesque spots for lunch I think I’ve ever had.
We also tried Alphitta (located at Riedhalm, on the way to Gornegrat) with more amazing views and lots of cosy nooks and crannies to hide away in. At either, if the weather is playing nice, you can’t beat sitting out on the terrace. The sun reflecting off the snow will keep you plenty warm – just remember your sunscreen!
Quick tips when visiting Zermatt
If skiing is your thing, for more ideas on where to go in Europe (including resorts that aren’t quite as pricey!), check out Ridestore magazine’s top 100 ski resorts in Europe 2018/2019.