Tuesday 10 April 2012

We fell in love with Zermatt, Switzerland....

The Matterhorn

Zermatt is in the German speaking Canton of Valais in Switzerland at the end of the Mattertal, 1620 metres (5310 ft) above sea level, at the foot of the Matterhorn, one of the highest Swiss peaks. The river Matter Vispa runs through the village, taking its sources from glaciers. To prevent air pollution, no cars are allowed in the town and tiny electric shuttles whizz around instead. You can access the Italian resort of Cervinia from Zermatt as well.

I have been skiing since I was 21 years old and have been to many fantastic resorts including Verbier, Courchevel 1850, Val d'Isere, Gstaad, Saas Fee, Alpbach, Innsbruck, Megeve, Morzine, Meribel, Whistler, Banff, Lake Louise, Sunshine Valley, St Anton, Lech, Zurs, St Christof to name a few...but there is something about Zermatt that seems to me, to be the icing on the cake. It is glamourous but unpretentious, a resort for real skiers. The town is pretty with 500 year old chalets in places and it feels like a true alpine village. It is no less expensive than any of the other top resorts but we all felt it was good value for money. It was not overcrowded (we did go out of school holidays), the snow conditions were superb and the food is of a far superior quality than any other resorts I have been too - by miles. Now in my mid forties, I want to appreciate the good things in life and that means really enjoying lunches as well as having great guides and accommodation...and good, warm ski gear (there is a JetSet shop in the town and I took my fabulous Longlanier sweater, pictured above). I have fallen in love with Zermatt. In fact, I can tell you that we all have.

The easiest way to get to Zermatt is to fly to Geneva or Zurich (unless you can afford to fly to Sion privately and helicopter in from there). It is pointless driving as you cannot keep the car in the resort and end up getting the train from Tasch anyway. The transfer time by train from Geneva is 4 hours and from Zurich 3 hours. I travelled with my friends Tim and Zana Clarke and Andrew Nicolls arrived the following evening from New York. We flew to Zurich and landed in Zurich at 1040, collected our luggage and walked across the concourse to an escalator which took us down to the train station, where we managed to get coffee and snacks for the journey before getting on our train at 1140. We had to change at Visp at 1300 to get the train at 1308 for Zermatt. Swiss railways offer greatly discounted return transfer rail tickets purchased in advance, outside the country from any airport in Switzerland to your final destination for a flat rate of CHF 127 (£78) per adult in second class and CHF 193 (£119) per adult in first class. Children up to the age of 16 accompanied by at least one adult travel for free. The train journey from Visp to Zermatt is beautiful and builds for the excitement of your arrival. We used Mason Rose Private to book our flights and we work with Mountain Exposure, based in Zermatt to book the apartment for us. They have a range of fabulous chalets and apartments (catered and non catered, we chose the latter) plus the owner, Donald Scott is a massive foodie and will present you with a list of restaurants second to none.  Their catered chalets have professional chefs (we were invited to dinner twice, once in their Heinz Julen penthouse and the next time in the Heinz Julen chalet - both beautiful and the food was superb). They booked everything for us during our stay which ranged from ski passes (in the appartment ready on arrival), train tickets, ski hire, restaurants, osteopath, beauty appointments, taxis, ski school, private guides - you name it, they book it! Make sure you book restaurants in advance for lunch as they are all popular and get very busy in the high season. Moutain Exposure offer a great service. 
Me, Donald, B
We rented an apartment which was at the end of the town nearest to the Matterhorn. Hannah Boase who was the fantastic rep for Mountain Exposure met us at the station and took us to the apartment Carmen, where we met my good friends Donald Scott and Belinda Hadden, known to all as B (left), who showed us around. B took us to get our skis sorted at Dorsaz Sport which is by the Matterhorn Glacier lift, who offer a great service and a 20% discount to Mountain Exposure. You can leave skis and boots there in there basement if required.

Donald is known as the Gourmet Ski Guide, so as well as being a ski guide, he will take you to the best restaurants. Our first day was very snowy and we stopped at Franz & Heidi's, formally known as the Findlerhof for lunch. It is low down in the hamlet of Findeln, just below Sunnega. Don't miss it as it is hard to see the sign post! Leave your skis by a small, white chapel and if it is snowy, it is a good tip to take your poles with you to help you walk down a little pathway in between the old wooden chalets to the restaurant.  If it is is warm enough to eat al fresco, they have a small number of tables outside with great views (they have a covered terrace in winter too) The restaurant is divine inside, very traditional with tables close together, a great atmosphere. Franz and Heidi are sweet and serve tables as well as running a tight knit operation.  The tuna carpaccio to start is a must, the Quiche as light as a souffle, we shared platters of delicious dried beef and slices of gruyere. Between us we had a lamb shank, cooked to perfection, a fresh asparagus salad with tuna and King prawns. The ravioli with truffles was delicious and the oysters were really good. They have an excellent wine list..we were rather partial to the local rose, Fin Bec. We all think this is the best restaurant on the mountain and from asking around, it would seem that many are in agreement.

Zermatt has a music festival each April attracting some good names and it is very much a resort where live music is featured everywhereyou go. Turn up at most bars or restaurants and there will be some really great bands playing and guitarists strumming and singing...fantastic. We stopped at the Blue Bar at Blauherd for a quick mug of gluhwein one morning and to listen to Gary singing. It is fun and modern, the terrace has an amazing view of the mesmerising Matterhorn (you get a bit obsessed with that mountain) and it is a good pit stop on the way to Fluhalp. To get there, take the big gondala up to the top of Rothorn. When you reach the top, ski off to the right, down Furi-Riffelberg, don't miss the turning to Laghi Cime Bianche - Testa Grigia towards Gant. As you hare round the corner you will see the path leading up to the restaurant, schuss it to get up the slope to the restaurant!

Lunch at the Fluhalp was another firm favourite. It is one of the highest restaurants in the resort at 2620m above sea level. We were given a great table and met up with Donald and B who were skiing with Brian Viner and his wife. Brian is an author and freelance journalist, (on this occasion, writing for the FT's How to Spend It), lovely Michael Caines the Michelin starred Chef from Gidleigh Park Hotel and the CEO of Abode Hotels, Nick Halliday.....so it turned into a bit of a party, especially when our guide Digby turned up with George from Siberia, our new Russian friend. We ended up dancing away happily as you can imagine. The food at Fluhalp is also outstanding, the mixed platter off fresh melon, prawns, tomatoe bruschetta, dried meat, sliced moutain cheese followed by the fantastic lamb salad with lettuce, beetroot and fresh cranberries are all utterly delicious. We also enjoyed fresh asparagus with a hollandaise sauce. There are also more traditional dishes on the menu such as boudin blanc sausages with rosti etc. for those looking for a more substantial lunch. Reinhard who runs the restaurant and Martina who served us both times, were fantastic.The best tables are to the left of the main entrance, against the wall of the chalet facing the sun. It is well protected by glass dividers for warmth.

The band at Fluhalp were really good (they are there February and March) playing lots of well known covers, everything from Prince to The Beatles. Guaranteed after a few glasses of wine, you will all be up dancing in your ski boots with new friends.
B at Fluhalp
Donald, Brian and Michael at Fluhalp

Lamb Salad at Fluhalp

Delicious platter at Fluhalp
The Murphy Brothers at Fluhalp
Venturing off piste
We had a fantastic guide Digby, (apart from guiding, he lectures in English Literature at the University of Lausanne and does a spot of DJ-ing so if you have a party out there, Digby is your man). It is good skiing with a qualified guide. We learned a lot about the mountain and the area as well as working on improving our technique and going to places off piste we would not go to on our own. A guide costs about £300 per day - if you can split it with a small group, it is absolutely worth the while and can really make a holiday. Digby took us off piste one morning from the very top of the Matterhorn Glacier and we ended up at another fantastic restaurant, for a pit stop and a cup of coffee called the Staffelalp.

Staffelalp is on Red Run 52 from Schwarzsee to Furi. There was a band setting up for lunch and it has a beautiful terrace with a magnificent different angle of the Matterhorn.

Staffelalp is worth a trip if the weather is good and is the closest you will get to the Matterhorn unless you are climbing it. It is a modern building that fits well with the surroundings.

Digby and me
Outside the Staffelalp
View from Staffelalp

After a fantastic morning's skiing with Digby we stopped and met up with Tim and Zana. Our friend Adam came over for couple of days from Milan. He had driven to Cervinia and skied over.

Zum See is an old hamlet of Zermatt, below Furi. The Zum See restaurant run by Max and Greti is on a similar par with Findlerhof. It is situated low down on the main run from Furi (look out for the blue banner as you can easily miss it). If you are having a late lunch in early March and the weather is good you want to ask for a table away from the main chalet as once the sun disappears over the roof tops, it gets pretty chilly...later in the season, the nicest tables are against the wall of the chalet. We had calves liver with rosti which was delicious, kidneys and noodles, tuna and beef carpaccio and the wine list is excellent. We had a Gavi di Gavi, Villa Sparina which was crisp and utterly heaven. The Irish coffee was good, the strudels and cream cakes which we shared were just perfect.

Zana at Zum See
View of the Matterhorn from Zum See

Adam, Digby and Andrew and Zum See

Andrew at Zum See
At the end of day, on the way back, you can stop at some really fun bars depending on where you come from. Just down from Furi, The Hennu-Stall open air bar is always loud and happening - they have live music from February and if you dare and are in a group, try the metre of shots.
Andrew & Zana
Michael, Nick and Andrew at the Hennu Stahl

Michael & me

Tim and Adam

Bar at the Hotel Cervo
George at the Cervo

If you are coming down from Sunnega, then you can stop along the pathway which leads back to the other end of the town at the Olympia Stubli, a fun and cosy bar. If you ski a bit further, the  you can tumble into the very glamourous Hotel Cervo. The Champagne Bar downstairs has live music and there is a quieter bar with lots of seating upstairs which has great views of the mountains. This is a great place to meet non-skiers for lunch or apres ski and a safe place if you are going to have drinks at the end of the day as you do not have to ski further, can cross over from the bar into a lift which takes you down to a taxi rank.

Favourite Mountain Restaurants
Findlerhof (Franz & Heidi)  027 967 2588
Fluhalp (Reinhard) 027 967 2597
Zum See (Max & Greti) 027 967 2045
Staffelalp 027 967 3062
Blatten 027 967 2096
Schwarzee (part of Hotel Schwarzsee, live music & easy non-skier access) 0041 764619422 
Chez Vrony 027 967 2552
Al Bosco (part of the Riffelalp Hotel, and non skiers get the Gornergrat train and walk)
Make sure you book restaurants in advance, they are all extremely popular

Favourite bars & clubs in town
Vernissage - great for groups of friends. Warm and cosy - frequent clubbing nights.
Hotel Post - a range of different hang outs. The Pink has really good live music
and The Broken downstairs is a younger crowd dancing on barrells!!
Schneewittchen - Loud and young with top DJ's and live bands on occasion
Snowboat - small and chic
Papperle Pub - Busy and spills out into the street
Favourite restaurants in town
Le Gitan 027 967 8944 (fab and glamourous, eat in the bar)
Da Giuseppe 027 967 1389 (Italian, book well in advance)
Spaghetti & Pizza Factory at Hotel Post (casual and good pizzas, over heated!!)
Best hotel in town

Mont Cervin Palace
Mont Cervin Palace
This very traditional, five star hotel is right in the centre of Zermatt with fantastic access to all the shops, bars and restaurants in the town (you would need to taxi to the lifts each morning). It has a wonderful spa and a great Dine Around package if you book half board as this allows you to dine out in other restaurants (including Molino, Monte Rose and Myoko Teppan-Yaki Sushi Restaurant and the lovely Italian Al Bosco at the Riffelalp Resort up the mountain).

Best hotel on the mountain

Riffelalp Resort with Ristorante Al Bosco

Riffelalp Resort Hotel
If you do not care about going out at night then stay at this fantastic hotel. It is not in the town but a 20 minute ride away on the Gornergrat train, up the mountain at 2222 metres above sea level, directly facing The Matterhorn.  Like its sister hotel, the Mont Cervin Hotel, they also offer the half board Dine Around option but it is a bit off a pain to have to head off down the mountain for dinner after a few drinks and hour in the spa!! With only 65 rooms it has a friendly, cosy atmosphere. Beautifully decorated in a traditional Swiss style, rooms and suites are spacious and warm. With its inhouse pharmacy, sports rental centre Bayard Sports and fantastic Wellness Centre this ski-in, ski-out hotel is heavenly.

Zermatt Massage Centre, Haus Saxifraga, Oberdorfstrasse 98  +41(0)79 607 69 61
The calm, serene Thierry Guerin is qualified osteopath. His English is superb on account of his training in the UK and he is extremely helpful. I fell during my stay and had a very stiff neck and Thierry really helped me to get better. They offer a range of services including deep tissue sports massage, swedish massage, reflexology, fusion massage, facials, sports therapy treatment and acupuncture as well as osteopathy, healing and treating stress related disorders. Great for a deep tissue massage after a hard day's skiing.

Favourite Shops
Forget buying ski gear in England...get it when you arrive. They have much nicer things and our favourite shops are Peak Performance, Jet Set, Lorenz Bach (and his outlet shop around the corner which sells JP Tods etc.), Peak Performance and the best chocolate shop of all time Merkur in the Bahnhofstrasse with slabs of chocolate in the window.

The Vernissage is rather an unusual cinema with a bar and log fire. Films are shown in English but look for E d/f on the programm which means English with French or German subtitles. Make sure you book.

Tim and Zana

The Team
Zana, me and Andrew

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Nick and Michael


Andrew and Adam


Chamois just down from Zum See

Me, Tim and Zana

Sunday 9 October 2011

Endsleigh House Hotel

We could not have asked for a more beautiful weekend..early October, an Indian Summer and we chose Endsleigh House Hotel in Devon to spend some time together.

The website does not do this lovely hotel justice, as it is truly stunning and feels as if you are staying in charming, private home. The staff were sweet and efficient, the service good and basically, they simply get it.

It is a four and a half hour drive from London (Chelsea)...not three and a half which is what the website tells you. We made a couple of stops on the way and were lucky with the traffic, it was fairly easy.

Not far off the A30, just outside of the village of Milton Abbot, the hotel was built in a beautiful valley in the heart of Devon. Created over a period of three years, for the 6th Duke and Duchess of Bedford, as an escape from the grandeur of Woburn Abbey, Endsleigh stands on a hillside in 108 acres of woodland and Grade I listed gardens, overlooking the fast flowing, River Tamar.

Quiet and peaceful, it is a wonderful place to rest for a weekend. The hotel claims to be child friendly and even though there was a young Italian couple with two tiny babies there during our stay, it is not really the right place for little children (you would be better off at somewhere like Babington House). However, it is perfect for couples and small celebrations (you can take over the hotel exclusively for a birthday or a wedding and infact marry there). They allow dogs too and the one there for the weekend during our stay, gave the hotel a nice country house feel. There are plenty of nooks and crannies to hide away in, both inside the house and out in the gardens. On arrival we had tea outside in a small corner at the side of the house, which was completely private.

Our room overlooked the courtyard which was a bit noisy and we would definitely request a room on the other side of the house with views of the Tamar next time. The room was spacious, the bed sooo comfortable with nice pillows and good quality sheets. We had a large bathroom with delicious Ren products, a bath and shower with a huge showerhead, I felt as if I was standing in a rain storm. They changed the towels each day and waited for us to leave the room for dinner before coming in to turn down the bed at night..so important.

The food is delicious and the wine list good. Breakfast can be full English with local bacon, sausages and eggs or American style waffles with maple syrup. The three course dinner menu costs £40 and is good value. In the summer you can dine outside on the terrace, or in a small alcove with heaters. Inside, the wood panelled dining room did rather have the experience of that 'hushed' feeling some dining rooms in country house hotels have - I dread that, so on the second night we ate outside which was more fun.

We ventured into Tavistock on the Saturday morning to the famous Pannier market, the only stall worth visiting is the second hand book stall in the corner but it is a sweet place with some nice little shops. Back at the hotel we walked around the gardens which are lovely with some interesting trees, plants, waterfalls and walkways. The top part of the garden by the house has a beautiful, long rose arbour which leads down to a shell house, popular at the time it was built. We watched a couple of guests going out to fish along eight miles of the best salmon and sea trout river in England with a fishing club ghillie at hand to help. For lunch on Saturday we were able to have a picnic (which the hotel staff prepared) on the banks of the River Tamar. Sitting in the warm Autumn sunshine, drinking chilled white wine was our idea of absolute heaven.

The house is really cosy inside with many small rooms. In winter you can imagine sitting in a big comfy chair by one of the roaring fires with a glass of wine, reading a book from their extensive library in the late afternoon.

This is not a glitzy hotel for those seeking a gym, spa and dress up experience. Quite the opposite - it was more about the Dad with his son who had come fishing, the couple with their beloved dog, a family of eight celebrating their mother's sixtieth birthday and even a couple of people staying alone (who were not remotely out of place) and who seemed to simply read their books and walk around the gardens.

It is a bit of a drive from London, but it is so worth it. Take Friday off, leave by 11am and you will miss the traffic and if you can leave on the Monday to have a long weekend, you will really have a fabulous weekend.