A ski village from a mountain with a cable cart
A ski village from a mountain with a cable cart

Crans-Montana sits on a south facing shelf and is one of the one of the sunniest ski resorts in Europe

Crans-Montana was one of the destinations for skiers in the 1980s looking for Swiss chic, extensive pistes, high quality dining and spectacular views. It was overtaken in the fashion stakes by the likes of Courchevel, but is now coming back with a bang into the consciousness of high-end winter sports visitors. Darius Sanai visits, and likes what he sees

7:30 am at the LeCrans hotel in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Wandering the considerable distance in our wood panelled room between the bed and the glass door to the balcony, past the living area, I draw back the curtains. A sea of white and blue floods in. We are on a south-facing shelf high above a broad valley far below. In front of me, far away on the other side of the valley, is a jagged range of peaks. The view extends for 40 km in either direction.

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I step onto the balcony. It snowed all night, before clearing at dawn. My bare feet crunch through the powder. I wonder about spending the day in the spa, pool and jacuzzi. I could admire the view, go for a walk, progress effortlessly from lunch through dinner in the classy, intimate dining spaces in this uber-chic boutique luxury hotel in a forest above Crans, the old-new (more on that shortly) swanky destination in Switzerland.

A terrace with a mountain view and sunglasses and a book on the table

Terrace with a view at the hotel, Le Crans

But that would be wrong. I order room service: some home made Bircher muesli, green juice, an oat latte, taken inside with a view onto the whole of Switzerland, so it seems. So many resorts in the Alps are buried deep in valleys: you need to take the lift up for the views. Or they have featureless views of anonymous mountainsides with endless motorway pistes. Here I am gazing from Mont Blanc to the St Bernard Pass, through the Zermatt valley and the sabre-tooth shaped Weisshorn, to the peaks above Andermatt, looking at the full range of the highest peaks in Switzerland, the focus of Alpinists through the generations, without moving from my room. Below (way below) are the vineyards of the Valais.

A winter chalet style hotel on the mountains covered in snow

Le Crans hotel sits in a forrest above a village

I have to move. I squeeze on my boots, walk out of the ski room and across a snow covered lane, and clip on my skis. There is a shuttle to the lift station in Crans, visible below through the woods. But where’s the fun in that. Skis on, I follow a track made by a couple of other skiers across the woods, gently downwards, close to the trees, and shoot down a little vertical section, turning smartly onto the piste. I am on the main run into the resort, before anyone has had the chance to explore it.

A bed with a picture of bear above it and a brown throw and cusions

Contemporary alpine chic at Le Crans 

It’s an old-fashioned piste, in the nicest way. It weaves and turns and flattens through real scenery, forests and glades and past lakes. Not a motorway with slip roads and parallel pistes leading to the same place. There’s a fun chicane near the new Six Senses Resort, and then the lift station appears.

An outdoor pool steaming

Le Crans spa has a heated outdoor pool

Crans-Montana is having a moment. Prominent in the 20th century as a ski/golf resort, a year round destination before that was fashionable, it lost social kudos to places like Verbier (across the broad Rhône valley) and Courchevel more recently. Now, it has rediscovered its own qualities. Its sunshine and views are exceptional, as it is on a high shelf above the deep Rhône valley, facing south. It has a good, if not exceptional, vertical drop for skiing and both high and tree-lined pistes. Being less than a kilometre (vertically) from some of the best vineyards in Switzerland guarantees excellent wine and, not coincidentally, some very gourmet focussed resort and mountain restaurants – it has four Michelin-starred restaurants.

An untouched snow covered mountain

The top slopes at Crans-Montana are at around 3000m altitude

It also has good snow: at 1550m, it is at a good altitude, with top station at just under 3000m. On the one hand, the south facing, sunny aspect means warm spring days create early melt, but being high above a deep valley in the west of the Alps means relatively high snowfall during the winter, when fronts come in either from the west or the southwest, as a counterpoint. When it snows in Switzerland, it really snows in Crans.

A restaurant with large windows at night

The Michelin starred restaurant Le Mont Blanc at Le Crans

The last couple of years have reflected this revival: where previously it was the domain of smart middle class families from northern Europe, Crans is now seeing more LUX-type people move in. The Six Senses opens this February, with Residences being snapped up by ultra high net worths. We hear of the Swiss elite snapping up apartments near the resort centre. It’s not as expensive to buy property in Crans as in Verbier or Gstaad, and it may lack the ski breadth of the former and the social kudos of the latter, but it is sunnier and less hectic than Verbier and higher than Gstaad. Locals say prices are heading up: but as a counterpoint, there is a lot of property in Crans and its neighbour, Montana, and parts of the resort are a bit 20th century modern for some tastes.

An outdoor pool with a sunset

Sunset with a view of Mont Blanc

I ponder all this while in the gondola up to the top station. I spend the day shooting down an array of high and low runs, all of them interesting in a classic kind of way. I don’t know enough about ski resort design to analyse why Crans, like Lech or Klosters, seems classic in the way you ski. There’s something about the shape of the pistes, shaped to the mountain rather than trying to conquer the mountain; compromised but interesting, unpredictable. It seems organic and classical, somehow, compared to skiing at Courchevel or Val d’Isere, which have bigger ski areas, but also many runs that look like each other. The runs below the tree line here are gorgeous, wide and curving through the forest.

a photo of mountains and trees covered in snow

Winter morning view from the hotel Le Crans

Getting back to the hotel from the main run down, you have to know which section of trees to turn off at, and then whiz along a flattish forest path which finishes at the hotel’s doorstep. It’s not officially a piste, but it’s a lot of fun. (You can always ski down to the end of the piste and the hotel will collect you).

Read more: The serene beauty of little-known Alpine resort Drei Zinnen

That evening, I dine at Le Crans. The hotel is snuggled in the forest above the resort. There are a few other chalets dotted around, otherwise only trees. The design, a reworking of a 1960s hotel in contemporary wood and stone, is both relaxing and striking. The restaurant, with its Michelin star, is quite minimalist and relaxed in feel, with plenty of space and broad views. The menu is poetry: dishes called They Flutter in the Light Wind (Jerusalem artichoke, fig, hay, lime and shimeji) or Like A Melancholic Garden (chestnuts, chanterelles, salsify, broccoli). The wine is also poetic: I try a Cornalin, made from a Swiss red grape, from a vineyard in the valley below. It is spicy, with autumn berries and a soft, velvet length. The best Swiss wines are worthy of shining on the international stage, but are prevented from doing so by the Swiss, who know that and have the means to buy them all themselves.

a small hut on a mountain covered in snow and trees around it

Views extend over the deep Rhône valley to the mountains above Zermatt

The next evening, after skiing the length of the resorts runs to above Montana, a considerable horizontal and vertical distance, I go for room service along with a bottle of Heida, made with another Swiss grape, from a terraced vineyard below Montana. The Heida is full of lemon-herb creaminess, and stands up to a very high quality grilled chicken salad. I sip the last glass on the balcony; the snow has melted a little during the day and now refrozen under the stars. A gentle wind blows the scent of pine cones from the woods and the silhouette of 100 kilometres of Alps stands out in the moonlight in front of me. Whether or not Crans’s new moment has truly come, I, like many others, will certainly be coming back.

Find out more: https://lecrans.com/

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woman walking in the snow
woman walking in the snow

Get set to hit the slopes in new-season sustainable style. Compiled by Candice Tucker

A black puffer ski suit

This sleek, high-performance Prada ski suit is made from a two-layer technical nylon with goose down and proprietary graphene padding, which comes with high thermoregulation capacity. It all makes for the perfect combination of fashion and function on the slopes.

prada.com

A pleated khaki neck cover wit a zip

Bogner‘s bust front is the essential item for your ski bag. With its hi-tech materials, this weightless, head-turning piece will keep you warm for those all-important hot- chocolate breaks. Sometimes you just need that extra layer.

bogner.com

A wooly grey and cream coat

This Lindley cotton-blend knitted coat by Isabel Marant is snug and cosy but effortlessly stylish – just the thing for walking around the village in Zermatt after a long day of skiing, or enjoying a pizza with friends at Chesa Veglia in St Moritz.

isabelmarant.com

A black and green turtle neck jumper

A strong contender for the turtleneck of the season comes from the iconic Moncler Grenoble collection. This wool and cashmere knit is ideal to wear for strolling around an alpine village, enjoying fondue in the chalet or to shrug on under your suit for some ski action.

moncler.com

 

wooden skis

Rossignol has launched Essentials, a recycled and recyclable ski range. While conventional skis have an average recyclability rate of just 10 per cent, over three-quarters of these ski materials can be recycled. So you can be both eco aware and performance conscious, too.

rossignol.com

black leather helmet with yellow visor

As Fusalp knows, safe doesn’t have to mean boring, and the brand has a reputation for chic, high-quality skiwear. Available in black and white, this helmet, with its leather band across the top, will match any ski suit and ensure you stay secure while looking the part.

fusalp.com

This article first appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2022/23 issue of LUX

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Two deck chairs on a terrace with a view of the Matterhorn in the sun
Two deck chairs on a terrace with a view of the Matterhorn in the sun

The terrace at Cervo Mountain Resort

The arrival

To get to the Cervo, you have first to arrive in Zermatt, an adventure in itself. The train (the resort is only accessible by train) winds through the highest part of a narrow Alpine valley, which opens out into a bowl, lined by steep forested sides, in which Zermatt, one of Switzerland’s most famous mountain villages, spreads itself.

Chalets covered in snow with red flowers

Cervo Mountain Resort during the winter

The Cervo sent an electric cart, of the type that have to be used in Zermatt, to pick us up: we sent our luggage on the cart and decided to walk, to take in the place. As we crossed the blue-green torrent of a river, the Matterhorn, a pyramid of rock and snow, appeared from behind the clouds at the end of the valley to the right.

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The Cervo is built on the steep mountainside on the east side of the valley, edged by forest. One of the most environmentally-acclaimed hotels in Switzerland, it draws all its interior and exterior furniture and accessorise from recycled or second hand materials. The last few metres were steep, but satisfying (we later learned there is a lift from the valley floor).

A terrace in winter with the sun and flowers and a mountain covered in snow

Madre Nostra restaurant terrace in Winter

Reception is tucked amid a smorgasbord of vintage items (some for sale, most not), reclaimed woods, and decorative features, many of them sourced from markets around the world, suggesting a 60s hippie trail adventure: Morocco, Iran, the Silk Road. It’s Alpine luxury remade for a new generation.

A bath with a view of the Matterhorn outside the window

A bathroom at Cervo Mountain Resort

The in-room experience

The Cervo is an agglomeration of wooden buildings spread along the mountainside. Our bedroom faced the Matterhorn, with Zermatt spread below us; a little terrace and private garden provided excellent sunbathing opportunities, and we could feel and smell the forest all around.

Read more: Switzerland, our top pick for summer

The sustainability ethos was carried through to the rooms: slippers were made of recycled materials, there were no plastic bottles either in the bathrooms or the in-room bar, which, in its aesthetics and choice, could have made a passable destination bar: in a purpose-built cabinet, it featured specialist local spirits and mixers, country-style cups and mugs, and vintage-style glasses.

A bed with a throw and yellow and brown cushions on a white bed

A bedroom at Cervo Mounatin Resort

The out-of-room experience

Comprising a cluster of buildings along the mountainside, the Cervo requires a bit of concentration for navigation. We had a light dinner in Bazaar, the north-African style restaurant by Reception, with its stunning decor made largely of found materials.

lounge chairs and deck chairs in a room with cushions and snow covered mountains outside the big windows

Bazaar Restaurant

Our most memorable meal was at Madre Nostra, an indoor-outdoor restaurant which stretches across the bar terrace, and in summer has a Mykonos-type feel. Cocktails and Italian wines were rushed about the terrace by young, keen, friendly staff (no old-school condescension here) and as for the food: focussed on ingredients within a short radius of the resort (quite a challenge high in the Alps), the home-made pasta and simple grilled chicken and beef with local herbs were such a hit, we cancelled our meal out the next night just to experience it again.

A table set with beige and green walls

Inside Madre Nostra restaurant

Beyond the hotel

The Cervo is literally a stepping off point for Zermatt, the most celebrated summer mountain resort in the Alps. If you’re an expert climber, you can scale the Matterhorn, or Switzerland’s highest mountain Monte Rosa, or its second highest, Dom, all of which tower over various parts of the valley. Or you can take long hikes above and below the tree line and admire the mountains from the terrace of a gastronomic mountain hut. The Cervo also has its own paragliding school, and outdoor activity options are almost infinite.

A hotel made of stone and wood in a forest

Cervo Mountain Resort hotel opens on June 24 for the summer season

Drawbacks

It’s a ten minute walk, or five minute electric taxi ride, to the centre of the resort and the busy high street: the price you pay for those views from the valley sides, and we loved the exhilaration of the walk back.

Rates: From £230 average per night (approx. €270/$290)

Book your stay: cervo.swiss/en

Darius Sanai

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mountains and an alpine lodge on the grass
mountains and an alpine lodge on the grass

Photograph of the Zermatt valley by Sheherazade Photography

The yacht’s being refurbished, you’ve done Ibiza too many times, the Hamptons are too cliquey and Bodrum is so 2021. So where to head this summer? Allow LUX to offer you some recommendations from one of our absolute favourite summer destinations (and no, this is not paid-for content): Switzerland

Switzerland in summer: panoramic views, (mostly) blue skylines, clean air, no crowds, teeming wildlife, one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, some of the best hotels in the world, and activities from kitesurfing and kayakking to glacier skiing and wine tasting. What more could you want? Perhaps, just a little guidance through the options, to get the very best out of your Helvetian experience.

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1.Zermatt
Zermatt is, in effect, the epicentre of the Alps, in a valley surrounded by more than 30 of the highest peaks in Europe, which glow white with permanent snow even on a hot summer’s day. And it’s usually warm and sunny here: the resort is on the border with Italy and if you take a telescope to the top of its highest peak, Monte Rosa, you can see the spire of Milan cathedral.

Every type of mountain activity is available, including summer skiing at the top of a Swarovski crystal-encrusted cable car. It is also a paradise for mountain dining, with more fine dining spots than St Tropez, better views, and fewer crowds. Try the Findlerhof for its beautiful local farmers’ meat and cheese platter, and epic Matterhorn views; and Restaurant Zum See for an idyllic gourmet experience in a meadow at the foot of the peaks. In the village, we had a highly memorable meal at the restaurant in the hotel Omnia, all pared-back boutique chic and astonishingly vibrant flavours.

A bathroom with a view of the Matterhorn

The view from a bathroom at The Cervo Hotel

Stay at: The Cervo is Zermatt’s eco-resort, and its owner, Daniel Lauber, is a passionate and thoughtful sustainability pioneer. One of the most thoughtful sustainable hospitality experiences, from the biodegradable slippers to the renewable energy heating system – tough, at 1600m altitude. The food, all sourced locally, is both hearty and magnificent and the staff have risen impeccably to the challenge of finding excellent wines and cocktail ingredients with a local remit.

2.Badrutt’s Palace, St Moritz

A brown grand hotel exterior with a garden in front of it

Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, St Moritz

Badrutt’s is St Moritz, or so you will probably think after staying there. The hotel dominates the valley and lake like a citadel. The service became legendary even before the former Shah of Iran flew its staff out to serve a banquet marking 2500 years of the Persian Empire at the palace of, near Shiraz, in 1972. It’s the kind of hotel where the staff know what you’re thinking, before you do.

Read more: A Tasting At One Of The World’s Great Champagne Houses

The facilities make it, effectively, a holiday in one property: huge indoor pool with picture window, lawns and gardens (in the middle of St Moritz!), fine dining in a formal banquet hall which makes you feel like Audrey Hepburn (whoever you are), and across the road, its own pizzeria at Chesa Veglia – in reality a top social spot in its own right. And the views across to the mountains are inspiring.

3.Gstaad Palace

A large palace style hotel with a pool in front of it

The piscine at Gstaad Palace

The Palace is a hotel that will whisk you into the jazz era even by thinking about it. This is a place where generations of European aristocrats have visited to stay and dine at; or to play tennis on its impeccable clay courts, or dance at its Greengo nightclub (in summer, it incorporates the indoor pool as a bar and terrace). It’s a perfect base for walking tours, or for strolls around Gstaad’s chi-chi high street, or just to exist in and take the air and dream of eternal youth.

4.The Alpina Gstaad

A palace and a garden

The Alpina Gstaad

Two luxury hotels in one place? Mais oui; the Palace and the Alpina are like Meursault and Margaux, we couldn’t live without either of them. The Alpina has contemporary style and vibrancy within the envelope of Alpine glamour (unlike some new luxury hotels in the Alps, it’s not pretending to be in Brooklyn), an outdoor pool with heart-melting views over the mountains, an equally gorgeous indoor pool and spa, and one of our favourite Japanese restaurants outside Japan.

5.Dinner at the Nira Alpina

a wooden restaurant with a panoramic view of the mountains

Nira Alpina Stars Restaurant

The Nira Alpina is a hotel and restaurant resort on the edge of the high Engadine valley, between Lake Sils, inspiration for poets and artists, and buzzy St Moritz. Its rooftop restaurant, Stars, has a dramatic view across the valley and lakes where daytime kitesurfing gives way to reflections of the moon by night, and over to the jagged mountains on the other side. It’s at the foot of the Corvatsch mountain, which makes for energetic hiking in summer; at the end of a long walk down from the Fuorcola Surlej pass, we love indulging in a glass of Franciacorta here, followed by a bottle of vibrant Chardonnay from the nearby Bündner Herrschaft wine region, accompanied by its delicate, locally-sourced mountain food, big on herbs and vegetables from the nearby high valleys. We haven’t stayed at the hotel, but the restaurant is an experience in itself.

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luxury hotel bar
hotel bar with mountains in the distance

Lauber’s Hotel CERVO uses recycled materials and geothermal heat. Photograph by Darius Sanai

As COP26 brings together world leaders to discuss climate change, Daniel Lauber, owner of the CERVO Mountain Resort in Zermatt, gives us his six guiding principles on how to create a truly sustainable luxury hotel. No greenwash included

Walk into the CERVO Mountain Resort in Zermatt, Switzerland, and you know you are in game-changing sustainable luxury. All the fixtures, fittings, furniture and decorations inside and outside the main Bazaar restaurant are of found, recycled or second-hand/vintage materials, down to the cloth screens separating tables for Covid-19 security. In the rooms, there are no disposable plastic bottles, either in the bathrooms or minibar; no disposable plastic at all, in fact, as even the bedroom slippers are made of recycled felt (they are then recycled again).

And there’s no greenwashing; Lauber knows the difference between offsetting and zero carbon. His aim is for the hotel to have a zero-carbon footprint or better, an immense challenge.

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Deep boreholes mean all the hotel’s heating is geothermal; electricity is all renewable; produce in the restaurants and bars is discernibly local, sourced from within a 150km radius. All of this is even more challenging in a remote ski resort at 1650m altitude, ringed by some of the highest peaks in the Alps, than in most places.

It’s also one of the funkiest hotels in the Alps; its bar and terrace at the bottom of the Sunnegga mountain piste are the place to be seen at the end of the ski day in Zermatt.

1. Do your homework, set targets and become your own expert

The (geothermal) heating is installed. Now we are trying more and more to go zero footprint or at least a compensated footprint. That’s the next goal, and we are aiming to get to zero waste, maybe by 2024/25.

We work together with myclimate, a Swiss organisation. We are evaluating how big our footprint is. So, the first step is to evaluate and the second step, by the end of 2022, is to try and minimise it with actual plans for things we can change, and what we can’t change then definitely to compensate for it. The end goal is to be zero footprint and then even positive, so we don’t produce a negative footprint at all. As a hotel, that’s quite a challenge, especially as we take into account construction, which always has a negative impact.

2. Make your clients your ambassadors

Doing all this is sometimes (though not always!) more expensive. Then it’s up to us to tell the story to the customer. If they understand it and appreciate it, and most of them do, then we can try to compensate the higher cost of buying with a slightly higher price; and we are lucky that our customers are able to pay that.

3. Go local, but also support family business, and be realistic

The social aspect is very important, as is the economic aspect, because you can be very social and very environmental, but if the business doesn’t work you’re going to lose.

We can work with suppliers who are smaller family businesses to find new ways of being sustainable. I really like that. And I like to give those smaller companies a platform.

For example, most of our ice cream is home-made, but in the summers we have ice cream stands and we sell ice cream from Basel. We could find ice cream that’s closer, but the people producing the one from Basel have a social work space for people who have some health issues or other disabilities and I think that’s nice. It might be 100km further away than other producers, but the mindset they have is so great, it’s worth it.

Read more: Professor Peter Newell on climate responsibility

4. Make a virtue out of your ethical sourcing

Generally, we try to use furniture that also has a sustainable approach. For example, the beds are handmade with organic materials. With whatever furniture we created ourselves, we tried to use local carpenters. In the Bazaar restaurant it was a bit different, it’s more themed, so in that instance we tried to work with young designers and companies in Morocco to support emerging designers or the all-women enterprises there. The chairs, the cushions, the carpets were made for us by small enterprises and that’s nice. It’s different to just ordering a fake Moroccan-style cushion produced anywhere.

5. The hard work is on what clients can’t see

It was quite an easy change to be plastic free in the amenities and rooms. It’s good that the customers see that. The bigger challenge to being plastic free is when it comes to the supply chain. Some stuff we need to order comes shipped stupidly wrapped up. And now that’s the second goal. We can’t do it alone, but we try to talk with those companies and ask if they can ship it differently, to see if they can use multi-reusable packaging, for example.

6. Create a virtuous circle and inspire, but don’t proselytise

We have a lot of feedback when customers say, “Ah this is a good idea”, so we do what we can to inspire customers and staff. If you inspire 10 people, it’s already worth it, and if those 10 each also inspire another 10, then it quickly escalates.

To be inspiring is very important for a hotel but it should never pushy. It’s great to inspire guests but if they don’t care that’s fine, too. Inspiring people can also be a bit educational, but I don’t think it’s our job as a hotel to educate.

Find out more: cervo.swiss

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cable car
cable car
October is not usually known as a ski month. But at the Andermatt Swiss Alps development, you can cruise the slopes down the 3000m Gemsstock in the morning, and be back for some witches’ brew at the Chedi in the evening.

There are many time-honoured ways to get thrills and excitement on Halloween; skiing, traditionally, has not been one of them. Yet if the fancy catches you, that is exactly what you can do this October 31, on one in Switzerland’s most serious ski mountains.

The Andermatt Swiss Alps ski region, located bang in the centre of the country, is opening this October 31 with its top run, descending from a dizzying 2955 metres, the first to open, followed by two steeper and more challenging glacier runs later in November.

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Andermatt’s Gemsstock mountain, where the action is taking place, is one of the most exciting in Switzerland. From the top you can see over to Monte Rosa, near Zermatt, on the Italian border to the southwest, and to Piz Buin, on the Austrian border, to the northeast. There is a vertical drop of more than 1500 metres from top to bottom. Many of the pistes are north facing and benefit from big snowfall caused by the “barrage effect“ of winds sweeping across north-western Europe and hitting the Alps. In simple terms: lots of snow.

ski mountain

Andermatt’s 3000m Gemsstock mountain

This year, after a hot autumn and early September, temperatures plummeted and the mountain has already seen several significant snowfalls, augmented by their own “snow farm” which preserves snow from the previous winter throughout the summer and feeds it into the slopes for the next season.

Read more: OceanX founders Ray & Mark Dalio on ocean awareness

Sadly, Halloween skiers won’t be able to take advantage of the full vertical drop down to the village at the bottom, which will only open in December. But the village of Andermatt itself is a new gem of the Alps, a tiny traditional village of cosy shops and restaurants augmented by a new luxury development.

ice rink hotel

restaurant dining room

The Chedi with its private ice-rink (above), and Japanese restaurant

Aficionados will know that its highlight is the Chedi hotel, with its Japanese at the Chedi restaurant at its heart. There is also a burgeoning new residential development village created around the Piazza San Gottardo up a little further along the road, with apartments – uniquely, open for purchase by foreigners – restaurants, shops, bars, two hotels (one already open) and even a concert hall.

luxury apartment

A rendering of Andermatt’s latest apartment building Enzian

Later in the season proper you can also sample Michelin-level fine dining on the other mountain, Gutsch. For the moment though, it’s time to put on a Halloween costume, book your place in the cable car up the mountain (a new service for coronavirus times) and whizz down from the top on your broomstick, or even the latest pair of Stöcklis.

Find out more: andermatt-swissalps.ch

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Mountainscape of peaks and glacier
Mountainscape of peaks and glacier

Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in the Alps at 4,634m (left), towers over Zermatt’s Gorner Glacier. Lyskamm (right) is another of the 33 peaks higher than 4,000m surrounding Zermatt. Photograph taken from the Gornergrat observatory station by Isabella Sheherazade Sanai

Zermatt, in Switzerland, has mountain views and activities that are the stuff of legend. It also has the highest altitude luxury hotel in Europe. Darius Sanai checks in and is mesmerised

We arrived for our stay in Riffelalp Resort 2222m by taking four trains from Zurich, each one more quaint and tiny than the previous. The first was a double-deck express that arrowed smoothly through luscious lowlands and past lakes; alighting at the bottom of a deep valley at Visp, we changed to a more pared-back, basic train that made its way up a narrow, steeply inclined V-shaped valley, more gorge than valley in places. Shards of rock sat on the valley floor among trees and cows, a fast-flowing river accompanied us upwards. There were glimpses, as we ascended, of glaciers and snowy peaks, even in mid-summer.

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Arriving at the top of the valley in Zermatt, we crossed a tiny station square, gazing up at the citadel of the Matterhorn looming over the village like a rock god. The next train was a cog railway, which headed in a meandering zigzag through the larch forest up the valley sides; we crossed over a high iron bridge above a waterfall, in and out of deep larch groves, the ground disappearing below us.

Alpine hotel nestled into mountainside

The Riffelalp Resort 2222m sits high above Zermatt in the valley below, with views of the surrounding peaks, including the Matterhorn

After 15 minutes, and feeling a lightness in the air, we emerged at Riffelalp station, right on the tree line. On the other side of the open-air ticket barrier was a tiny, open, narrow-gauge train, and a smiling drive/porter in full uniform, with a peaked cap. This little train, more toy than real, with no windows and waist-height doors, had room for around 20 people and a little luggage. It ground along a mountain path through the forest, at little more than jogging pace, for five minutes, as we were enmeshed in the aromas of pine cones and herbs, until it reached a clearing. Here, 600m above the valley floor, at a height of 2,222m (thus the name) we were greeted with a cluster of pretty Alpine chalets and a view, across and above the confluence of three glacial valleys, over to the Matterhorn, and several other peaks, lit only by moonlight and starlight, glaciers staring at us from across the dark night-time green haze.

Luxury drawing room of a suite room

Bedrooms at Riffelalp benefit from sweeping views over the mountain peaks

If the view was mind-bending, stepping inside the hotel was even more so. For this was no high-altitude mountain hut; we were inside a luxury palace hotel, beautifully created with Alpine woods and finishes, with a long and wide corridor leading down from the lobby area, past a jazz bar with a live band, and towards a restaurant, whose large windows perfectly framed the night-time Matterhorn. All the details were done beautifully, from the lighting, to the granite, wood and artisanal tables in the gently curving lobby/corridor area, whose large windows perfectly framed the mountains: at night, you could spot the helmet lights of the climbers on the Matterhorn.

Luxurious hotel bedroom

Alpine terrace

One of the resort’s bedrooms (above), and (here) views of the Matterhorn from the terrace

We stayed in the Matterhorn suite, an L-shaped series of rooms, decorated in blonde woods with contemporary furnishings, each of which had a balcony looking out over the high-altitude drama of a dozen peaks of more than 4,000m. This is the highest luxury hotel in Europe, and from the bedroom balcony, it certainly felt it. The granite and marble master bathroom was a masterpiece of design and sheer size – in contrast to many Alpine mountain hotels’ compact dimensions.

Read more: Back to school with Van Cleef & Arpels

What was particularly compelling about the resort is that it is just that: a place you don’t need to leave. On the roof of one of the buildings is an indoor and outdoor pool and sun terrace – it gets surprisingly warm on a summer afternoon, notwithstanding the altitude. Inside is a spa. There is a bowling alley, table tennis, billiards, trampolines in a play area outside, and perhaps our favourite part was the garden terrace downstairs.

Indoor swimming pool

The indoor swimming pool at the hotel’s spa

The buildings are located just where the trees start to peter out, giving way to high-altitude grass and tundra, meaning you can sit at a table outside the hotel, watching hikers and climbers go past during the day while sipping a glass of wine – and you have the mountain to yourself at night. Kicking back with a drink after a long hike, as the sunset turns ever more blue, watching the other tourists disappear down the valley to Zermatt, or the serious climbers striding on and upwards towards their bivouacs, is an infinitely relaxing feeling.

Grand restaurant dining room

The Alexandre restaurant serves fresh, light Alpine cuisine

There are three restaurants and a bar (the two main restaurants are open in summer). The Alexandre is the one in the main hotel building and any fears that it will be an old-fashioned Swiss grand restaurant serving heavy cream and food are quickly dispelled. The Swiss Alpine salmon fillet with wild spinach and venere rice was light and umami; meanwhile the Simmental beef with mountain vegetables and potato purée really tasted of Alpine meadows.

We had slightly feared that staying at Riffelalp would mean feeling cut off from the village below, a 20-minute train ride down in the valley. In fact, it was quite the opposite: we felt like we were the privileged ones, in a kind of contemporary, tasteful luxury Nirvana high up in the view, and we never felt like going down. Indeed, we never felt like leaving at all.

Book your stay: riffelalp.com

Pine forest trekking

Larch and pine forests coat the steep slopes immediately above Zermatt. Image by Isabella Sheherazade Sanai

Four unmissable summer activities in Zermatt

Hike the Mark Twain Trail. Named after the American writer, it loops upwards and around the mountain from Riffelalp, revealing more and more vast, glaciated peaks at every turn, past high-altitude lakes and meadows, until you reach Gornergrat, the station and observatory at 3,100m with probably the most spectacular 360-degree view in the Alps. The trail is not particularly steep and can be done in three hours, but it’s not for those who have a fear of heights. There are hundreds of other mountain paths, over mountain top and through forest, valley and meadow.

Take advantage of the mountain gastronomy. Zermatt’s mountain huts may look quaint and weathered, but many of them house restaurants of Michelin-star standard, or rustic cuisine of the highest quality, with fine wines from around the world to match. And you need to walk or trail bike to get to them, making them justified. Some of our current favourites are: the Findlerhof, on a forest trail with a mesmerising view of the Matterhorn, where we had fantastic forest cuisine: a local mushroom salad and herbed chocolate fondant, cooked and served by the delightful owner; Restaurant Zum See, in a tiny
hamlet in a lush glade just above Zermatt, where the platter of local air-dried beef and cheese was sublime and the owners charming; Edelweiss, a characterful hut on a cliff directly above the village, accessed only by a short but very steep walk, which felt cosy and atmospheric; and the Whymper Stübe, in the oldest hotel in the village, where Edward Whymper, the English tragic hero who first climbed the Matterhorn in 1865, stayed, and where the fondues are superb and the atmosphere even better.

Mountain path

A panoramic path down from Zermatt’s Stellisee lake with the peaks of Dent Blanche, Obergabelhorn and Zinalrothorn in the background. Photograph by Isabella Sheherazade Sanai

Visit the Forest Fun Park. A high-wire park in a forest on the edge of the village, run by mountaineers, its trails, of varying difficulties, are ingeniously devised and variously involve zip-wiring over the river, down above rapids, and across a football pitch, and clambering from treetop to treetop, all in safety and with a stunning view of the Matterhorn.

Climb the Matterhorn. If you’re fit and fearless, plan ahead and book your guide and accommodation, Europe’s most famous mountain can be climbed by capable non-experts. But take heed of advice and guidance: after a gradual decline in accidents in recent years, in 2018 there were at least 10 deaths on the mountain. If you’re not quite up to climbing, a spectacular second best is a hike up to the Hornli Hut, known as Base Camp Matterhorn, on the leg of the mountain, which anyone can do if they are fit and don’t suffer from fear of heights. It’s two hours up from the Schwarzsee lift station, and pretty dramatic in itself.

Matterhorn mountain with fields of wildflowers

Wildflowers grow in the unique microclimate of Riffelsee, at 2,800m one of the Alps’ highest lakes, protected by ridges from northerly winds. Photograph by Isabella Sheherazade Sanai

Other places to stay

Up in the mountains above the village, there is nowhere that comes close to Riffelalp Resort 2222m. When staying in Zermatt itself, we like to stay in Winkelmatten, a hamlet on its southern edge, at Chalet Banja. Available for private hire, Banja is beautifully built and detailed by a local doctor and his artistic wife, with four floors of exquisite local stone, wood, artefacts and detailing. It sits above a riverbank amid conifer trees, with uninterrupted views up to the Matterhorn; on the lowest floor is Zermatt’s biggest private (indoor) pool, with the same views, and a gym and sauna and steam rooms. The Alpine library in the atmospheric kitchen/living/dining area is engrossing.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 Issue.

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High altitude restaurants on ski slopes
High altitude restaurants on ski slopes

The new building housing the restaurant, and its modern Swiss interior

Two of Europe’s highest restaurants have opened amid contemporary chic architecture, high above Andermatt, Switzerland

Hold onto your chopsticks. A pair of new high altitude dining outposts is open 2,300m above sea level, on top of a ski slope in the heart of Switzerland. Far from being a place for humble beer and fondue, Andermatt Swiss Alps (ASA) has brought high-level dining of another kind to the slopes by opening a pair of destination gourmet restaurants with the aim of being among the most celebrated in the Alps.

Overlooking the peaceful village of Andermatt and facing the famous Gemsstock ski mountain, they are located in a newly constructed timber building. Designed by London’s Studio Seilern Architects, the structure was pre-fabricated off-site and then lifted into place by crane, ready for its stone façade to be put in place.

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Following the success of The Chedi Andermatt’s Michelin-starred The Japanese Restaurant, a second branch has opened on the Gütsch within Studio Seilern’s building in December 2019. Complete with feature fireplaces and views of the Gotthard mountains, The Japanese by The Chedi Andermatt has 44 seats inside and 45 outside on the terrace, where diners can feast al fresco on sea scallop sashimi and Kombu-Jime mountain trout on a south-facing, high altitude sun-trap. Headed up by executive chef Dietmar Sawyere, there are high hopes that this restaurant, too, can win a Michelin star. “We don’t carry it over,” says Sawyere. “But we will certainly be the highest Japanese restaurant in Europe.”

Kitchen team and chef standing outside window

Chef Markus Neff with the team running Gütsch (at centre wearing black) and at work (below)

Chef in the kitchen

The Japanese is alongside a second restaurant called Gütsch by Markus Neff, on the ground floor of the new landmark in contemporary architecture. Welcoming skiers for lunch in the day and guests for private parties in the evening, the venue seats 66 people indoors and another 145 outdoors across two terraces. Neff is running it with a team of three other people who also worked with him at the Fletschhorn in Saas-Fee near Zermatt, which was awarded 18 Gault&Millau points until 2018. So, it’s in good hands.

“We want to make a restaurant that is unlike any of the others around here – something special, something new,” Neff says. “You won’t see sausage and rosti here, for example. It is not a mountain hut where people eat in 15 or 20 minutes. We’re a high-class, fine-dining Swiss-French restaurant where we make it all from scratch, from handmade pasta to bread. People will come for three or four courses chosen from our à-la-carte menu.” Gütsch is building on the concept of mountain-top restaurant Spielboden in Saas-Fee, where Neff and his team also worked.

Luxurious restaurant interiors alpine

Gütsch offers a Swiss-French fine dining experience

Pastry on a wooden board

Gütsch offers a Swiss-French fine dining experience

Unlike traditional Swiss lodges and cabins, Studio Seilern’s new project is something far more cutting edge and ambitious. Christina Seilern, principle of the firm, says: “Due to the extreme weather conditions in winter, there was only a short time frame that allowed for construction. For this reason, it had to be built in two summers.” Seilern says that it was also a challenge to create a design that catered for two different restaurants. Inspiration came from the idea of a Swiss hamlet, known as a hameau, “where a collection of smaller buildings creates a harmonious whole”, says Seilern. Inside, there are exposed timber beams and wood panelling, while The Japanese also has an open kitchen and sushi bar.

Read more: Francis Alÿs receives Whitechapel Gallery’s Art Icon Prize 2020

What can visitors eat when they visit The Japanese? It isn’t all raw fish. Chef Sawyere explains that people forget that Japan is a mountainous country that has a lot of snow, especially in the north, so their cuisine, which is distinctly seasonal, reflects this. “They have very hearty, warm, winter dishes, too”, he says. As a multi-course kaiseki restaurant, its diners can sample four to 12 courses, but for those who don’t want to take so long eating, there are also bento boxes that hold six to eight small dishes. Sawyere says: “There might be a couple of pieces of sushi, a piece of tempura, a braised dish, a sashimi dish and a grill. I think it will be popular.”

Chef in the kitchen of a sushi restaurant

Chef Dietmar Sawyere preparing a dish at The Japanese restaurant

Plate of sushi and soy sauce

The restaurant imports its seafood from suppliers in France, Spain and even Australia, while specialist ingredients such as Kobe beef (at £270 a kilo) need to be flown in from Japan, but they have also managed to locate a supplier in Basel that has started farming prawns. “Previously it was impossible to buy fresh prawns in Switzerland,” says Sawyere. He is also excited to be working with a local farmer who is rearing cattle for Japanese-style wagyu beef. “It’s been three years in the making and in February we will have our first taste,” he says.

Sake also plays a big part at The Japanese, benefitting from the fact that The Chedi Andermatt has the largest collection of Japanese rice wine in Switzerland. The mountain restaurant has 60 to 70 different labels on the menu – and there is even a sake glühwein (mulled wine), which makes a warming welcome for people when coming in out of the cold.

Read more: Luxury in the wilderness at SUJÁN Sher Bagh, Rajasthan, India

Thanks to developer ASA’s unprecedented transformation of the village, Andermatt has become a desirable place to visit the whole year round. Not only does it have incredible hotels such as the five-star The Chedi Andermatt but also an 18-hole, Scottish-style golf course, and the SkiArena, which is the largest and most up-to-date ski area in Central Switzerland, with 180km of pistes stretching as far as Sedrun and Disentis in the next canton. Just 90 minutes’ drive from Zurich and just over two hours from Milan, each of the buildings in ASA’s development has been designed by a top architect, thus creating a consistently beautiful resort that looks particularly magical under snow. And now, visitors can have a dining experience in the sky to match the very best in any Alpine valley or European resort.

Architectural render of alpine house

Renders of new apartment blocks Enzian (here) and Arve (below, left) to be built in Andermatt

Rare new properties for sale

Architectural renderIn 2020, the building of two new residential properties will commence for those who are looking to own in Andermatt Reuss, located between Andermatt’s Alpine golf course and the village. Apartment House Enzian has 12 high-spec apartments (from 62 to 136sq m), some featuring fireplaces and saunas, as well as private roof terraces and gardens. Apartment House Arve has 17 apartments for sale, in a building clad with horizontal wooden boards reminiscent of traditional chalets. Inside there will be common areas for skis and bikes, as well as stylish open-plan homes looking out over the mountains. All are eligible for foreign ownership.

Find out more: andermatt-swissalps.ch

Jenny Southan

This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 Issue

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Panoramic image of alpine scene
Panoramic image of alpine scene

Crans-Montana sits on a high shelf above the Rhône valley with panoramic views of the Alpine peaks. Image by Denis Emery

Looking for the perfect early-season ski break? Crans-Montana has it all, from sunny slopes to spectacular views across the Swiss Alps – and an epicure’s delight of a Christmas market as LUX Editor-in-Chief Darius Sanai discovers

Matterhorn; Mont Blanc; Weisshorn; Dent Blanche: for Alpinists these are among the superstar peaks of Europe, rising 4500m or higher above sea level. When you go skiing, you are usually tied to a vista of one or two of these celebrity peaks: think Zermatt and the Matterhorn, or Chamonix and Mont Blanc.

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In this Swiss resort of Crans-Montana, though, you are treated to a panorama of all of them, at once. The resort sits on a high, sunny, tree-lined shelf above the deep Rhône valley which runs from Lake Geneva towards central Switzerland. From the top lift station, Plaine Morte, you have in front of you a vista that encompasses the peaks of every ski resort from Saas-Fee, in the east, via Zermatt and Verbier, to Chamonix, in the west. Even the view from the village itself is exceptional, sweeping across the vineyards of the Rhône valley far below and over towards Italy.

Picturesque snowy alpine village

The ski resort is split into two main villages, Crans and Montana.

The view in itself would be a reason to visit this most established of Swiss resorts, but right now there are numerous others. The resort is split into two main villages, Crans and Montana, a kilometre or so apart on the high shelf. We visited last week when Crans had just opened its annual Etoile Bella Lui festival on its high street. Stemming from a local myth, the festival features more than a dozen restaurateurs (some of them Michelin-starred) setting up shop in wooden huts along the high street, selling one food dish each – ranging from venison burgers to foie gras, via the most delicious fillet steak/balsamic glaze/garlic chip and truffle brochettes we have ever had.

Christmas food stalls in Alpine village

Alpine festival with food stalls

The Etoile Bella Lui festival in Crans sees restaurateurs set up shop with wooden huts along the high-street

The stalls each also sell a pair of local wines by the glass. And you can dismiss your memories of gauche Alpine vino right now: the vineyards in the valley below Sion make some of Europe’s most celebrated “small producer” wines, from white grapes such as Petite Arvine and Heida, and rounded Pinot Noir based reds. Our favourite is Cornalin, a Swiss red grape variety; we were served an example suffused with spicy, plummy zinginess at one of the stalls and couldn’t bear to leave. These are wines to match the Michelin-starred food huts.

Read more: Galerie Maria Behnam-Bakhtiar opens in Monte-Carlo

Glowing ferris wheel in Alpine setting

Rides on the Ferris wheel boast 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape

Below the high street is the Lantern walk, an enchanting night-lit path illuminating the story of they local legend, and a Christmas market with a Ferris wheel with a difference: ride to the top, and you have an enhanced 360 degree view of the valley below, mountains beyond, the lakes around Crans, and the ski pistes above.

Skiier on a slope down into the valley

One of the resort’s spectacular red runs: the 4500m high Weisshorn is the razor-edge peak directly under the sun

Ah, and the skiing. The snow fell big last week, with more (hopefully) scheduled for next week. Crans-Montana is one of Switzerland’s most established ski areas, although it is better known among the Swiss and French than the international crowd that visits nearby resorts like Verbier or Gstaad. The runs are mainly a mixture of reds and blacks, and they are a delight: long, winding, interesting, starting at nearly 3000m and dropping down to resort level at 1500m, through a variety of landscapes from glacial rockscapes where mountain goats balance precariously on rock towers above you, to wide, sunny runs through the woods. The whole mountain is south facing, making ideal for now, when any sun is a welcome respite from winter temperatures. And everywhere, you have the views: from the top station you can see the three highest mountains wholly inside Switzerland (Dom, Taschhorn and Weisshorn, since you asked), the highest mountain in Europe (Mont Blanc) and the most famous (Matterhorn), all towering across distant valleys. From the village the view is hardly any worse, and there is a feeling of light and space and panorama everywhere you go.

The perfect resort for an early-season ski trip? We think so, and we are going back.

The Etoile Bella Lui festival runs until January 5. For more information visit: crans-montana.ch

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City of zermatt with the matterhorn mountain in the distance
City of zermatt with the matterhorn mountain in the distance

Zermatt in summer with the Matterhorn in the distance. Image by Lorenzo Riva. Courtesy of Switzerland Tourism

Summertime in the Alps is exhilarating and inspiring. The sun (usually) shines, the air is clear, temperatures aren’t too sweltering and you are surrounded by lush pastures and high peaks. The cuisine is varied and uses an array of local ingredients: Alpine herbs, vegetables and fruit, local meats and cheeses. Here, we select six of the best places to enjoy mountain cuisine and sweeping vistas

1. Restaurant Findlerhof, Zermatt

Findeln is an ancient hamlet of dark wooden huts, on a mountainside high above the resort of Zermatt, just above the treeline. On the extensive terrace of the Findlerhof, you have a view across the forests to the magnificent Matterhorn, and you are surrounded by the sounds (grasshoppers, bees), sights (butterflies, wild flowers) and smells of the Alpine high pasture in summer.

Must try: All the food is high-class, simple Alpine quality, but the chocolate fondant is worth the journey in itself.

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2. Hotel Walther, Pontresina

This grand hotel at the end of the pretty high street in Pontresina, across the valley from St Moritz, has a grand dining room that is both grandiose and fun. A modern take on a traditional Alpine palace, it has an engaging holiday dinner ambience and superb wine list.

Must try: the traditional Swiss speciality of veal cooked sous-vide with roesti potatoes and local vegetables.

Interiors of a grand restaurant

Hotel Walther, Pontresina

Plate of food with lettuce garnish

Swiss speciality of roesti, potatoes cooked with bacon and herbs

3. Berghaus Wispile, Gstaad

Wispile is the big, forested green hill that rises above Gstaad, and in summer the restaurant at the top is transformed from a ski lodge to a family-friendly casual diner and farm with petting zoo, with beautiful views over the surrounding region. Kids can be taken on personalised goat petting tours by the local farmer in the neighbouring pasture; some regular human kid visitors have grown up with the kid goat residents over the years.

Must try: the special of the day, often local sausages with a rich gravy and vegetables

Chalet style restaurant pictured in the alps at summertime

Berghaus Wispile in Gstaad

Read more: Geoffrey Kent on the influence of top-earning millennials

4. Avenue Montaigne, Hotel Park Gstaad

Contemporary Swiss chic abounds at the Montaigne, which brings a touch of Paris to Gstaad. This is a place for a long, relaxed dinner, followed by a cigar in the cigar lounge, over cocktails, blending city sophistication with Alpine feel.

Must try: The Swiss quinoa tabbouleh, combining parsley, goji berries, tomato and avocado.

luxury rustic interiors of an alpine restaurant with an open fire

Avenue Montaigne at Hotel Park Gstaad

5. Fuorcla Surlej, St Moritz

The wildest type of mountain hut, Fuorcla Surlej sits atop a mountain pass accessible only by foot, above St Moritz. To one side is a lake and a view over the glaciers, to the other is the deep valley of the Engadine. Hardy mountain food is served here, amid stunning views, on a basic terrace.

Must try: Whatever’s on offer that day – the kitchen makes it up according to the ingredients they can get.

Couple eating by the mountainside

Fuorcla Surlej in St Moritz. Image by Christof Sonderegger. Courtesy of Switzerland Tourism

6. Hornli Hut, Zermatt

Matterhorn mountain

Matterhorn viewed from the Hörnli hut. Image by Isabella Sanai

The Hörnli hut is the base camp for the Matterhorn; climbers arrive the afternoon before their climb, are subject to a strict curfew, and awaken well before dawn to start an ascent that some never return from. Ordinary people can also visit for lunch: it involves a rather vertiginous two-hour climb from the top lift station at Schwarzsee, but no actual climbing. After lunch, walk five minutes up from the hut to the point at which the wall of the Matterhorn starts: a vertical piece of rock with fixed ropes. The views are literally breathtaking. Not a place for the fainthearted.

Must try: The surprisingly excellent (for a place accessible only on foot) pasta al ragu, with rich local ingredients.

Discover more: myswitzerland.com

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Chez vrony zermatt

The breathtaking views of the Matterhorn are worthy of any postcard and a million selfies

Above Zermatt, Switzerland’s most spectacular mountain village and home to the Matterhorn, high-altitude restaurants like Chez Vrony combine tradition with chic, and put the haute into cuisine, as Darius Sanai discovers
The Matterhorn and Chez Vrony

All-round views are breathtaking

Mountain hut cuisine will be familiar to anyone who has skied the Alps; raclettes, fondues and other dairy confections. Fresh in the best sense of the word – sourced locally, recently – but rarely sophisticated.

We were looking forward to a little mountain cuisine as we approached Chez Vrony, in Findeln, high above the resort of Zermatt. It was a clear, warm summer’s day, and we had been hiking down from Fluhalp, a hut positioned high above a former glacier I enjoyed gazing at in my childhood in the 1980s (now melted, due to global warming, Mr Trump). The hike had taken us through a fantastical rock wonderland – where part of the mountainside above had simply collapsed into several football fields of Mini-sized boulders. We strode along the side of Stellisee, a lake whose reflections of the famous Matterhorn, facing us from across the broad Zermatt valley, have featured in a million postcards. We edged along a narrow path, a sheer drop to our left, as the glacial valley disappeared into a stream far beneath us; we could just make out the sound of a stream, a distant, constant swirl, like a giantess shushing its infant.

Read next:Kazakh artists make world art breakthrough at Venice Biennale

Descending, we walked past the highest trees, stumpy starter Christmas trees that had the temerity to grow above the otherwise uniform treeline; and skirted around another lake, this one more green, where children splashed and a thousand tiny frogs appeared and vanished into the grass on its edge.

Dinner in the Swiss Alps

The restaurant’s idyllic terrace, above the Findelnbach stream

Past a rock ridge, we gazed down and saw the hamlet of Findeln, home to Chez Vrony; only another ten minutes of descent down the well-made, sand-covered path and we were there. Chez Vrony is a wooden village hut from the outside, a sophisticated terrace restaurant from the other side. Ushered in by a lady who knew everyone (was this Vrony? Her daughter?), we were whisked past groups of well-dressed hikers (a curiosity in itself) and sat on sheepskins atop benches by a broad wooden table. The Matterhorn stared down, a world of ice, rock and snow, across a forest and a valley. We could have been served supermarket sandwiches and would have declared it the most wondrous refuge in the world.

But Vrony has other ideas. The menu was haute cuisine in both meanings: ingredients plainly sourced from the mountains, like the ‘pink-roasted entrecôte of Swiss lamb served with a port-steeped fig and hazelnut potato purée’, but with real panache and delicacy. (For a simpler option, the beef in the Vrony burger was sourced from the pasture above the hut.) We could have stayed all afternoon; indeed I think we did.

Vrony serves mountain cuisine with a sophisticated touch

Afterwards, it was 45 minutes’ rapid downhill hike through a scented forest as dusk approached, to the outskirts of Zermatt. The Matterhorn, changing angle and mood, always there with us, always a reminder that, however civilised the food, and however much we melt the glaciers, above Zermatt, this greatest of all Alpine villages, is a wild world, not our own.

chezvrony.ch

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The Alps are at their most sublime when the sun is warm, the snow has given way to meadows, and the crowds are far away, says Darius Sanai. Here we focus on two legendary resorts which really come alive in the summer

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 22.35.04

Postcard Perfect: The Matterhorn towers over Zermatt’s green summer slopes

Zermatt: The high peak paradise

Mention a luxury chalet in Zermatt to anyone with an ounce of snow in their blood, and they will immediately start to fantasize about the glorious off-piste of the Hohtälli, the vertiginous black runs down from Schwarzsee, the myriad routes down the back of the Rothorn. For chalets and Zermatt mean the ultimate in he-man (and she-woman) ski holidays on the highest runs in the Alps, for groups who can then relax in a super- luxe communal chalet and share stories.

There is, however, another and very different experience to be had in a chalet in Zermatt. Mine started with sitting outside on a broad balcony in a polo shirt, gazing up at the green foothills and rocky high peaks, birds and butterflies drifting past. The summer sun is strong here, but in the mountains the air is dry and there is always a hint of the glaciers in the breeze, so you never feel like you are sweltering.

Zermatt is a glorious place in the summer, as its soaring peaks – it is surrounded by 30 mountains of over 4,000m in height, more than any other village in the Alps – are less frozen, less forbidding, more open to being explored than in the ski season. And while the village is the number one Alpine destination for summer holidays, it is still less crowded than in winter, when the entire populations of Moscow and Mayfair flock to the village under the Matterhorn.

Peak Season: The village of Zermatt wears a cloak of green throughout the summer months, but the jagged Matterhorn retains its mantle of snow and ice

Peak Season:
The village of Zermatt wears a cloak of green throughout the summer months, but the jagged Matterhorn retains its mantle of snow and ice

Chalet Helion, run by uber-swish chalet company Mountain Exposure, is one of the ultimate incarnations of its breed. Technically, although it’s a wood-panelled, chalet-style building, it’s not actually a chalet; rather it is an extensive lateral apartment running across the breadth and length of the construction. You get there via a three-minute taxi ride or five-minute walk from the main train station. Cross the rushing green Zermatt river, walk past the art nouveau-style Parkhotel Beau Site on a little knoll, and there it is.

On walking into the apartment, turn left into a vast, open-plan living room/dining room/kitchen area, with space to seat a party of 20. It sleeps eight people and is well organized for entertaining, as the living quarters can be closed off from the dining and chilling space, where there is also a cosy study.

Draw back the curtains and, beyond the broad balcony terrace, is the most magnificent view in Europe: an uninterrupted vista of the Matterhorn. It rises above the end of the valley like some supernatural thing, a giant, quasi- pyramidical, almost vertical rock formation, covered in thick snow and ice, surrounded by glaciers, standing above other mountains that are green with friendly summer pasture. It looks down with disdain, mocking us mere humans with our pathetic summer activities.

It is also mesmerizing. From the balcony at dawn, it glows rose like a Laurent-Perrier champagne; in the middle of the day, its least forbidding time, it is all silvers and whites; at dusk, it takes on its most frightening aspect, its darkness making you think of all the climbers who have fallen thousands of metres to their deaths on it. My father climbed the Matterhorn when he was young and made me promise I would not do it; he can rest assured from his own place in the skies that there is no danger of that.

The Matterhorn is Zermatt’s brand, adorning every poster, postcard, sticker and banner. But development means it has become harder and harder to find a room with a view of the mountain itself rather than a view of the newest building. And this is what makes Chalet Helion so special, as its vista, from a gentle slope above the village centre, is uninterrupted.

But the mountain isn’t the sole reason to go to Zermatt. There’s only a certain amount of time you can stare at the almighty, after all. Just down from Chalet Helion is the lift system that takes you up to the Sunnegga-Rothorn mountain. A train tunnel bores through the bare granite and, three minutes later, you emerge into a wonderland.

Sunnegga, the first stop, is above the treeline and at the top of the steep foothills that border one side of the village. From here, unlike down in the valley, you see that the Matterhorn is just one of dozens of massive, icy, knife-edged peaks above the resort. Directly in front of you rise four 4,000m-peaks, culminating in the Weisshorn, shaped like a gigantic shark’s fin and, at 4,512 metres, even higher than the Matterhorn. To the left, snowy pinnacles hint at even higher summits. To see those, we climbed into the
cable car to the very top of this lift system, the 3,100-metre high Unter Rothorn (recently rebranded as just Rothorn, but as there are three variations on Rothorn around here, I prefer to stick to its original name). We stepped out into eye-watering sunshine and crunched onto a patch of snow left over from winter: 3,100 metres is high indeed. The peeking peaks from the previous stop now revealed themselves as six huge mountains layered in unimaginably thick snow and ice, rising above the Gornergrat ridge in between us.

The highest of these, Monte Rosa, looked like a giant’s meringue, massive but without the character or shape of the others. At 4,634 metres, it makes up in heft what it lacks in shapeliness: you can make out the other face of Monte Rosa quite clearly when standing on the roof of Milan’s cathedral, more than 100 miles away. (As a comparison, Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, is 1,343 metres, and Germany’s highest, the Zugspitze, is 2,963 metres.)

Zermatt is famed for its mountain restaurants, but that morning I had gone shopping at the local Coop (which in Switzerland means amazing fresh, local ingredients, from radishes to mountain cheese), and we picnicked instead, sat on a rock by the side of a pewter-coloured lake, in which the Matterhorn was perfectly reflected. Here, at Stelisee, you are at peace with the mountains above and the valleys below. The sun bakes you, apart from an occasional wisp of wind which wafts down from the glacier like nature’s own cooling mist spray. Butterflies, bees and millions of grasshoppers play among the fields of wildflowers all around. Even the Matterhorn from here looks less dark, more pretty. Never has an air-dried beef sandwich with freshly grated horseradish tasted more perfect.

Chalet Chic: Chalet Helion occupies the entire top floor of this traditional, pretty chalet building

Chalet Chic:
Chalet Helion occupies the entire top floor of this traditional, pretty chalet building

Walking down, we came across another lake, Leisee, deep green in colour. Fittingly, amid the sea of wildflowers surrounding this one, was a confederacy of tiny green frogs. Not much bigger than an adult fingernail, you had to be careful not to tread on them as you walked along the path.

Dinner in Zermatt comes with reservations in both sense of the word: you need to book, as the place is heaving in season; and you always feel slightly annoyed that the restaurants, however well deserved their culinary reputation, have no Matterhorn view, as they are clustered in the village centre.

This was a further joy of Chalet Helion. On most nights we cooked, and ate and drank local Valais wine (vibrant Fendant whites, deep Cornalin reds) on our balcony or at the dining table with our private, picture window view of the mountain fading to grey. After which, a Havana on the balcony: one clear night we could make out the helmet lights of the night climbers on the sheer rockface of the mountain.

On one evening, Mountain Exposure’s charismatic owner, Donald Scott, a British snow- phile who came to Zermatt and never left, brought one of the company’s chefs to create us a fabulous, complex Swiss mountain meal. Our dining area was transformed into a restaurant, an option open to any guest who pays.

We will certainly be back, for the view from Chalet Helion, and its entire experience, is as eternal as it is wondrous.

Chalet Helion is available summer and winter from Mountain Exposure, mountainexposure.com. For general information, see zermatt.ch

SPA AT MONT CERVIN PALACE

For decades Mont Cervin Palace has been the byword for glamour for all visitors to Zermatt. A well-kept secret is that this five-star hotel in the heart of the village has a beautiful, 25-metre indoor pool, and an outdoor spa pool and garden as part of its hidden annexe. The garden and outdoor pool (which is open year-round) have a dramatic view of the mountains from the village centre, and the indoor pool and hydrotherapy area are the best places in the valley to retreat to when the weather closes in – or if you want some cross-training exercise after a day’s skiing and hiking. The best news? They are open to non-residents, for a fee. montcervinpalace.ch

Gstaad: Alpine chic with a twist

Gstaad has a reputation as a gentle place, perhaps more suited to high net worth retirees wanting a peaceful and safe place close to their money (in Swiss bank accounts) in which to holiday. But that reputation vanished before my eyes as soon as I set foot into the garden of The Alpina hotel.

The Hills are Alive: Wildflowers fill the alpine meadows around Gstaad during the summer months

The Hills are Alive:
Wildflowers fill the alpine meadows around Gstaad during the summer months

Before me, a long outdoor pool, lined by teak decking and a few (not too many – this is Gstaad) sunloungers. Around it was a garden in full bloom; beyond that the rooves of this traditional village (The Alpina is on a small plateau above the centre), all framed by an amphitheatre of forest, meadow and mountain. Far away were high rocky peaks and glaciers. It was hot in the sun, and a first morning spent in and by the pool, accompanied by the occasional cocktail, was bliss due to true exclusivity. At that moment, in any number of luxury Mediterranean hotels, super- wealthy guests would be jostling for space by the poolside in neat rows, trying to attract the attention of overstressed serving staff, waiting far too long for their drinks to arrive.

We, on the other hand, had the attention of numerous waiters (there were a few other guests, but more than enough staff to deal with them) and sufficient space to have a conversation about my tax affairs on my phone with no danger of anyone overhearing (not that I would be so vulgar).

Mountain Highs: Gstaad rewards summertime visitors with verdant valleys framed by snow-capped peaks

Mountain Highs: Gstaad rewards summertime
visitors with verdant valleys framed by snow-capped peaks

Suite Dreams: Swiss artisans have created the interiors at The Alpina, using local stone and period woodwork

Suite Dreams:
Swiss artisans have created the interiors at The Alpina, using local stone and period woodwork

Wandering inside a neat little chalet, we found stairs to take us down to a cavernous and exquisitely finished spa area. One corridor led to a salt room, where even the walls were seemingly made of salt, another to the treatment rooms, and another to a quiet cafe area lined with photographic books and jugs containing various herb-flavoured waters.

Beyond that, another pool, inside the cavern, some 25 metres long, bookended by spa pools and crowned by a glass cupola looking into the garden above. If the weather ever failed, this would be the place to spend the day, as we discovered the next day when a thunderstorm swept in. The Alps form the border of the hot Mediterranean climate zone and rainy northern Europe, and you can feel the battle between one and the other, day by day.

When the sun reappeared we headed up the round, green mountain facing us – more a fairytale hill than a dramatic Alp – in a gondola and found a large chalet restaurant, Wispile, serving fondues made with cheese from the chalet’s own cows, clearly visible in the pasture above. The view was over the village and the wooded foothills and forests beyond, out towards Lake Geneva. Wispile also has a menagerie of animals, from llamas to pigs and goats, which families can help to feed.

If Wispile is all that you expect from a Swiss Alpine hut, the evening offering at The Alpina is something else entirely. The owners of this new uber-luxe hotel, which was clearly built to compete with, if not actually outdo, the celebrated Palace hotel down the road, wanted the best of world cuisine in a village not renowned for its cosmopolitan food offerings.

For MEGU, a Japanese restaurant in the heart of the hotel that is an outpost of the celebrated New York establishment of the same name, they enticed and employed master chefs from Japan. It shows: the sushi was magnificent. A taste that I will try and remember for the rest of my life is the signature crispy asparagus with crumbed Japanese rice crackers, chilli and lemon. The Oriental salad (various Chinese vegetables, nuts, seeds, sashimi of Dover sole and sesame oil) was also unique and memorable. Stone-grilled wagyu chateaubriand with a fresh (not powdered) wasabi soy reduction was also fabulously vibrant. I’d take MEGU over Nobu and Zuma, if only it were in London.

There was also Sommet, the hotel’s other signature restaurant, which holds two Michelin stars. It is hard to tell which is more important. Sommet has the better location, a big contemporary dining room with a view of pool and mountains, and seating on the broad terrace; MEGU is the cosy space behind the bar at the heart of the hotel. Sommet has 18/20 from the Gault et Millau guide and is refreshingly fuss- free. The seabass with artichokes, hazelnuts and spinach had simple, highly defined flavours, and the organic salmon steak with tomato and olive risotto was cooked with great attention to detail. Sommet’s chef has the confidence to let his quality ingredients, combinations and technique speak for themselves, and this is contemporary fine dining of the most appealing kind.

These were two of my most notable meals of the year, anywhere in the world, to the extent that I would make a journey to the hotel just to eat there, even if I couldn’t stay there. But for overall experience, they can’t quite match that of sitting by the outdoor pool, looking at the glowing green of the Alps, under the deep blue of the mountain sky, in utter peace, while sipping a perfectly made margarita, served by an unhassled staff member who knows exactly when to ask whether I’d like another one. That may not have been the first line of the owners’ business plan when they opened The Alpina, but they have succeeded in making Gstaad a true summer holiday destination beyond, I suspect, even their wildest dreams.

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