Nov. 29 (Bloomberg) -- It’s that time of year when you start planning ski trips or waxing nostalgic about past excursions. Let me recommend the Matterhorn for both exercises.
Located on the border shared by Italy and Switzerland, the mountain attracts about 3,000 climbers annually, with a few dying in the attempt. What’s far less dangerous or well known is the skiing about 2,000 feet below the summit.
During my first two days last March, the famous mountain was hidden by clouds and the intermediate trails were so easy that I wondered if it was worth the trip from California.
Then the clouds began lifting, and as I skied around a bend, the gorgeous mountain came into view like an unexpected sunrise. I came to accept that skiing the Matterhorn is similar to surfing Waikiki at the base of Diamond Head. The sport isn’t the world’s most challenging, but the views and the lifestyle are spectacular.
The resorts feature a hair-raising gondola ride over a glacier to the Klein Matterhorn, a 12,739-foot (3,883 meters) neighboring peak and the highest ski point in Europe.
From the Klein, I skied continuously down 7,800 vertical feet on a 13.7-mile (22-kilometer) trail to Zermatt, the main town at the base of the Matterhorn.
Zermatt became ecologically friendly long before it was trendy. In 1947, it banned gas-engine vehicles. Nowadays small electric taxis and buses traverse the narrow streets of the town, which has 5,600 residents and 13,200 beds for tourists.
Above Tree Line
The four main ski areas, which include the nearby Cervinia resort in Italy, total 350 kilometers (217 miles) of runs and are connected to one another by 68 lifts. The off-piste skiing looked limited by the presence of too many rocks or by the steepness of trails. As is typical in the Alps, most of the skiing was above tree line, which eliminated the fun of maneuvering in the woods.
After four days in Zermatt, my 86-year-old father, who didn’t ski, and I boarded the famous Glacier Express, a train that traverses the Alps to St. Moritz. The train has recuperated from July 2010 when it derailed because of excessive speed, killing a Japanese tourist and injuring 42 passengers. The train ride offers typical Alps beauty; a section has even been named a Unesco World Heritage site.
The name “Express” is a hint of Swiss humor because it takes about 8 hours to travel 181 miles. The locals are so self- deprecating that Switzerland Tourism’s own website declares, “The Swiss love for partying isn’t yet widely known.”
Seal, Pricey Plates
The partying actually was fine at both resorts and sometimes features top international talent such as singer Seal, who performed last April at Zermatt’s annual music festival.
St. Moritz has the reputation of being the world’s ritziest resort with five 5-star and eight 4-star hotels in a town of 5,400 residents. A curious hobby is bidding thousands of dollars for the province’s lowest vehicle license plate, a sign of both wealth and long-time habitation.
How expensive was St. Moritz? At Secondo’s, which bills itself as the town’s best fast-food restaurant, a cheeseburger cost almost $36, French fries included. “Delicious,” my father said after eating it.
While the food and drinks were costly, hotel prices were comparable to high-end rooms in New York City and a lift ticket of about $80 was actually lower than many big U.S. resorts such as Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe.
St. Moritz features four ski resorts, the most famous of which is Corviglia. Like Zermatt, it offers long intermediate runs although with more off-piste skiing for powder junkies. Nearby resort Corvatsch provides similar but less-challenging runs.
Ski areas at both Matterhorn and St. Moritz have short, efficient lift lines. Like most European resorts, there are plenty of restaurants along the trails, where you can get raclette and sing beer songs with locals. The trail-side restaurants are an endearing tradition, something U.S. resorts would do well to emulate.
If you’re looking for more advanced and steeper runs, I’d recommend Austria’s Arlberg, which includes St. Anton. If you’re a lover of long intermediate runs, great views and a fun ambiance, Switzerland is well worth more than a visit to open a secret bank account.
Tips: Corviglia slopes are gloriously empty until about 10 a.m. To get acclimated after a long trip, I recommend staying the first night in Zurich or Lucerne, and check the postcard- perfect lake view from the latter’s Des Balances hotel. Zurich’s Restaurant Zeughausekeller is a former armory that dates from 1487 and has cool antique weapons hanging on the wall, plus an astounding variety of sausages.
(Peter J. Brennan is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
--Editors: Jeffrey Burke, Lili Rosboch.
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