An Ikon Passholder’s European Vacation
For the Aspen Times Weekly
“Oh!” I shriek in wonder, as the oatmeal-colored linen curtain slides back.
Against an early morning pink sky, the sunlight hits the top third of the jaw-dropping giant Toblerone that appears before me. This is the Matterhorn. And boy does it impose. It definitely has that eighth-wonder-of-the-world majesty and from its hulking size radiates a compelling and magnetic energy. You never forget your first impression. Nor will I forget sipping that first morning tea with this view. From the comforts of a room named appropriately “The Alpinist” at Zermatt’s Cervo Mountain Resort, one could not dream up a more serene start to the ski day.
The resorts of Zermatt in Switzerland, Kitzbuhel in Austria and the Dolomiti Superski in Italy are the newest members of the Ikon Pass group. And since I was planning to be in Europe with family over the holidays anyway, I was game to try use my Ikon benefits.
As an Aspen Skiing Co. Premier Passholder, I’m allowed five days skiing at each. I wanted to visit all three, but as I started planning, Austria’s COVID policy proved severely burdensome and off-putting, dampening the fun-factor. So that would be a “no’ for now.
Italy felt more flexible, and I went ahead confirming elaborate plans for late December.
But on arriving in Europe at Zurich on Dec. 13 the U.S. issued an Italy-specific “Do Not Travel” warning, making it feel uncertain (and a bit uncomfortable to write about). It was puzzling, too, because countries like England were open with worse COVID numbers. I was bummed, but followed the government directive postponed the Italy visit (I do hope for a Dolomites download later).
So a short Swiss adventure it would be! I was up for that, and grateful for it.
The Ikon reciprocity process starts with an admin process stateside. So, if you’re even thinking about Europe, activate this feature now .
Want to ski European resorts on your Ikon pass?
Hit up a ticket office at one of our mountains, register by signing electronically so the Ikon people can email you directly. Sign their waiver, upload a photo and select “receive in the mail” (it can take two weeks) or “pick up your pass,” (Copper Mountain is the closest place to do so). I’d been told the European resorts were not equipped with scanners, so I’d brought a printed copy of my confirmation email and ID as backup, but it was smooth and a paper ticket was created from my pass. Skiing Zermatt costs around 80 Swiss francs (CHF) a day (about $90) so once this chore is done, you can truly relax!
Usually, the worst part of skiing outside our Aspen bubble is the getting there, and I’d heard Zermatt was a trek, not unlike Aspen. Turns out it wasn’t bad at all. Swissair is a Star Alliance partner for United connections and Milan, Geneva and Zurich are the closest airports. Swissair also flies directly from JFK to Zurich and the train with connections to Zermatt is located inside the airport.
I’d flown to Zurich alone but had extra luggage including a new Dakine Fall Line ski bag, so I was dreading the train transits. If I’d arrived with a group, I’d probably have taken it, or shared a pricey – but easy – snow-limo. Luckily, an expat friend who I often travel with and call “The Viking” is currently based just a couple of hours away and picked me up curbside at the airport. As we raced along in his Subaru the three-and-a-half hour drive, I hit that jetlag fog and was grateful for the ride, plus it felt good to be mask-free. I remembered we were in Switzerland when we stopped for snacks at the gas station and the pristine cafe served gourmet hot quiches, barista quality coffee (and they charged us to pee!).
A 15-minute “car ferry” train from Kandersteg to Goppenstein through a pitch-black tunnel had us rollicking with laughter as if on a ride at Universal Studios. Maybe the giggles were sleep delirium or just relief. I was happy to be there. I’d certainly jumped through some COVID hoops including frantically finding the required PCR test before the international flight and applying for a Swiss COVID pass as proof of vaccination. At time of travel, this was required at Zermatt. The hotel checked it, as did all restaurants. The “Zertifikat” or QR code came via email in just under 48 hours, cost 35 CHF for 270 days and could be used in neighboring EU countries.
Luggage carts were conveniently on hand to load the train after parking at Tasch (pronounced “tesh”) the small village 5 km outside of Zermatt where everyone must board. The parking was 48 CHF for three days, plus 8 CHF on the train each way. The town runs solely on electric buggies and a trendy sheepskin-lined one from hotel Cervo Mountain Resort met us at the station. We rattled Downtowner-style through Zermatt’s charming old historic narrow streets climbing up and up as modern life carried on all around. Cervo is at the very top of the village and a young hospitality crew welcomed us in to the warm eco-style décor with its seductively lit rooms, all natural finishes and Moroccan accents.
There was a sumptuous breakfast in the morning: a feast of homemade loaves, rich local yoghurt, jellies, cured meats, cheeses, cereals, custom hot egg orders, Moroccan pancakes, cappuccinos, ginger shots, teas and smoothies. And before we knew it, were on the Funincular or Sunnegga train serving the Sunnegga-Rothhorn and Rife-Gornergrat-Hohtali ski areas shuttling up to the snow. The elevator access to this was directly opposite Cervo’s heated boot room, so convenient.
There’s 360 km of piste at Zermatt, divided into 74 km of easy (blues), 227 km of intermediate (red) and 20 km of expert (black). Freeriding up here is mostly on terrain that is not secured, so you are exposed to avalanche danger as that presents. It’s recommended to book a guide or “Zermatter” for that. They’re 210 CHF for a group or 680 CHF. There’ also 36 km of safe or secured freeride areas (yellow) most of which are located in the Rothhord or Stockhorn areas.
“Wow, it’s stunning,” I said as we emerged on the snow for the first time.
Rolling gentle hills juxtaposed with extreme craggy drop offs and we captured each new vista and snowscape as it unfolded from the unexpected warmth of heated chairlift seats. Some lifts you can ride both directions and you soon realize that the Matterhorn is visible from almost everywhere. With bluebird skies but poor early conditions it became clear this visit would be more about visuals than turns and tracks. In truth we were both completely transfixed by the scenery and settled into a rhythm of stops to drink it all in. We allowed bunches of skiers to pass for less populated photos and, by default, privacy for our turns.
Told we needed a lunch reservation, we skied into Chez Vrony, a stunning rustic stone chalet in the hamlet of Findelin with a 100 year-old history, gourmet locavore food and an expansive wooden back deck. We took front row outdoor benches angled to the Matterhorn, draped in blankets until the low December sun crested the mountain to warm up. We sipped crisp rosé, ate slowly, and savored delicious creamy truffle-oil gnocchi with flakes of parmesan, staring at the behemoth Matterhorn between bites. Mesmerized, it was like watching a lighting director test out his filters on a new stage set. Photos from here have a film-set quality, they don’t look real.
Zermatt’s Cloud 9 Alpine Bistro doppelganger, we figured out, was a venue named Adler Hitta and we’d get to try this pit stop another day. We could tell from the music, vibe and layout it would feel buzzy when busy, but it was quiet, as early season often is. The ever-present Matterhorn stood in for the Maroon Bells, the food was delicious and the people as pretty. We ate a late lunch of barley soup and micro-greens. (Beware, you can’t ski down from here without making a quick ski to the last connecting chair, we just made it!)
The Viking, who is a snowboarder and offers a different snow perspective, was excited to take the Hohtalli cableway in search of different and better steeps in the Gornergrat, Riffelberg area. I’m not crazy about the large cableway trams, especially the ones you stand in that swing like in the Bond movies.
“You afraid?” he said, laughing as we rocked.
I answered in silence with widening adrenaline-pumped eyes, which served only to push my mask lower on my nose.
On these trams you think you’ll die, except you remind yourself of all things Swiss-engineered and exhale into thinner air, safely.
Our mid-morning routine of rum or brandy-laced hot chocolate was a stabilizer, and the view from Hohtalli at 10,745 feet was an amazing 360-degree view. The route down was a touch steeper with some rolling bumps sections. During early season or less snow coverage, you’ll need to take the free skier bus or a taxi as we did, back to the other side of town from Furi where you emerge as it doesn’t connect. Incidentally, the Gornergrat mountain station a little lower at 10,134 feet is also accessible by foot traffic via an open cog train from Zermatt that crisscrosses the slopes, creating skier tunnels.
Since most of Europe’s ski resorts are not as high as Colorado, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise area is unique.
Higher than Ajax, Klein Matterhorn is at 12,700 feet (3,883 meters) and it’s a three-gondola ride to Europe’s highest viewing platform and highest cable car station. It’s a marvel of engineering, with elevators down into the glacier to see artists ice sculptures and up to the top for the highest view. This is all accessible via foot and there’s a cinema lounge, shop and, naturally, a restaurant. There’s also a “Snow Park” at Glacier Paradise, a terrain park with a Fun Slope filled with obstacles, jumps, tunnels, kickers, and a pro-line or beginners’-way through, if that floats your boat.
From the top of Matterhorn Glacier Paradise you can ski down into the Italian side for lunch in Cervinia. Sadly, we ran out of time, and had not paid the additional 46 CHF to ride the lifts to get back, since this terrain is not yet Ikon-ized!
On our last afternoon we sought out a gondy we’d not ridden.
The Kumme lift rises to Rothorn at 9,885 feet for a stunning top-of-the-world view. It takes an interesting 90-degree turn halfway. It was delightfully quiet. A wait for the next gondola was maybe 30 seconds. But belligerently, a German couple pushed their way into ours, pooh-poohed our request for privacy, swearing at us and destroying the ride and views, since the skis and snowboards travel inside floor-slots on this one. For a moment I thought (and kind of wished) The Viking would punch the guy’s lights out, but his meditation practice kicked in.
It was a reminder that a small faction of Euro snow-rage exists. At best pushy, at worst aggressive, it is alarming if you’re not aware. We didn’t let them spoil the last run of the trip as we skied down directly into Cervo and practically hockey-stopped onto the hotel’s happening après patio.
APRÉS & BEYOND
Switzerland is spendy, but we learned to navigate the dining.
Eat a full hotel breakfast and pocket-snack until aprés. Or just eat the hotel breakfast and on-mountain lunch as this part is integral to the ski culture and is utterly fabulous.
Even with two meals and snacks, you’ll still be overfed with all the cheese, fondue, raclette and rosti (fried hash browns.) Zermatt has dozens of restaurants but we didn’t need much dinner. Cervo’s dining options were good and we were happy to skip the electric taxi or walk to town. The breakfast area near the entry lobby is called “Bazaar” and is their casual restaurant and has cozy fireplaces, kilim covered chairs and light appetizer options and veggie specials like mushroom dim sun. Silk Road Asian favorites and Moroccan snacks are offered along with fries and burgers too. Wherever you eat, there are shocking charges for filtered water, like getting Aspen Tap for 9 CHF per carafe and no getting around it! You have been warned. We bought good munchies from the convenience stores to snack on when we didn’t eat a full dinner.
As a scribe who’s critiqued spas, I don’t mention them unless I’ve been sent specially to review one, but Cervo’s Mountain Ashram Spa is a must-do, even without an add-on service. With COVID rules in place, we booked a window of time to use the outdoor onsen; various herb-infused saunas, Japanese steams, a chill-out yurt, infinity ledge hot tub overlooking town (not cranked warm enough for my taste, but the view was hot). And, after one toe dipped in the outdoor ice-plunge right out of a Wim-Hoff video, we beat a speedy retreat inside to the warmth of the fireplace in the meditation room.
Zermatt is a luxury hit, but there’s options to save and splurge.
A little research showed plenty of more basic hotels with good Trip Advisor-type reviews as well as more over-the-top on-mountain luxury accommodations. If you count the perfect ski-in walk-out location, heated boot room, insane breakfast, Matterhorn view, three dining options plus the spa, its hard to argue with the high start price for rooms at Cervo of 400 CHF. My room was complimentary, but I genuinely felt it would be worth the money.
The average visitor stay is about three days, but I’d say five is a better bet. There’s a lot to see and you need to take a breath if arriving directly from our time zone.
This Swiss ski fantasy became firmly imprinted on me and, of course, I’ll never look at a bar of Toblerone the same again. I’m super curious to explore the Italian side of the Matterhorn now and claim the bragging rights of skiing two countries in one day on my next Ikon-inspired trip. There’s also no way I’d not repeat a meal at Chez Vrony. Warm up the fondue, I’m coming back!
Susan Redstone is a British-born Aspen-based writer, author and broadcaster. Her fashion, lifestyle and travel contributions appear in The London Times, The New York Post, ELLE, The New York Times, In Style, and many more. She has appeared on dozens of local and national TV affiliates such as CNN’s HLN, PIX 11 New York, and WGN in Chicago talking fashion and style. She can be reached at email@example.com
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.