Zermatt, in the shadow of the Matterhorn, is an aristocrat among Alpine resorts. Alex James hits its bars, restaurants and breathtaking pistes

Night was falling when we arrived in Zermatt, and the whole place looked like an advent calendar with all 24 doors open. The altitude was exhilarating and the air tasted sweet and cool at the back of my throat. Such robust beauty and the presence of the mountains was very calming - just what we needed at this time of year.

Night was falling when we arrived in Zermatt, and the whole place looked like an advent calendar with all 24 doors open. The altitude was exhilarating and the air tasted sweet and cool at the back of my throat. Such robust beauty and the presence of the mountains was very calming - just what we needed at this time of year.

There are many ways to get to Zermatt, the playground of the stars, and after a short flight to Zurich we reached the resort by train. Three trains, actually. My wife Claire, our 10-month-old son Geronimo and I were embarking on our first skiing holiday. The transport connections we had to make were quite tight, but there was never any doubt that we would make them: Switzerland is the home of clockwork precision.

The third train, a Wonkavator-style glass machine, had a helpful tourist commentary. The Matterhorn came into view as we approached our destination, dominating the skyline, and I started to feel good. I didn't stop feeling wonderful the entire time we were in Switzerland.

Zermatt is a car-free zone, and is full of golf buggies careering around the streets. The town is surrounded on all sides by huge, beautiful peaks. In terms of Swiss iconography, it's halfway between the Alpen packet and the Ricola wrapper: pretty picturesque even for here.

Tourists first started to arrive, from Italy, back in 1780. Our hotel, the Tschugge, with its proudly displayed four stars, had the feel of a good little family business, with granny lending a hand and one of those lifts with no door. We were whacked after the journey so sloped off to the nearest fondue joint. Swiss ladies can be quite no nonsense, but I find the matronly approach quite sexy. They are also wonderful with children, even fractious, travel-weary ones.

Our collective skiing experience was zero, so the plan was to ease ourselves into the atmosphere and take it easy on the first day. We planned to walk up the hill - such an underrated pastime - to the restaurant at the foot of the slopes. The scale of the skiing infrastructure was as breathtaking as the scenery - trains, trams, cable cars and ski lifts were whirring and whizzing away like huge wind-up toys. It was good to feel the snow crunching underfoot while the sun blazed overhead.

The walk up to the restaurant was quite a hike, and Geronimo spent most of it screaming from his perch on my back. Even though we'd thoroughly mummified him, his boots weren't keeping his feet warm. Horror stories of frostbite on the slopes followed over lunch, which was fantastic. Food tastes better when you've walked up a mountain to get it. It's all about carbohydrates in ski country - you need the energy. I had super fast-release fried shredded potato and sausage, which was like a really good school dinner.

Over coffee, the whole Dr Seuss-ness of the set-up became more apparent. The place has a better public transport system than Manchester. I was just wondering how on earth they raised the money to build this billion-dollar playground when the bill for lunch came, and I figured it out. We should build one of these babies in Snowdonia. Switzerland is just Wales with a big budget. And big beards.

The cable car brought us back down into the village in about two minutes. I love museums, and Zermatt has a small one, the best kind. It smells a bit of goats - there's a stuffed one in there, and an owl or two. The history of the town is in the perfect care of a very kind and patient gentleman.

The history of Zermatt is really the history of attempts to climb the Matterhorn, one of the trickiest summits to scale in the Alps. You realise that if you live in the shadow of a huge mountain, sooner or later you'll probably want to climb it. Once you've started thinking about it, it might be hard to stop with it just sitting there silently taunting you. It could easily drive a man nuts, I reckon. The museum has pictures of its conquerors; its victims; their pitons; their old leather boots. Queen Victoria apparently banned her subjects from climbing the Matterhorn after four out of seven members of the first successful expedition to the summit died on the descent. Teddy Roosevelt fairly strolled up. As did Sherpa Tensing, the Everest veteran. These days there is more or less a guide rail all the way to the top, but it's still pretty dangerous.

The museum is a perfect little place. Cheese-making paraphernalia and baking techniques from the days when they used to make bread twice a year, and one of those 3D relief maps that probably took three generations of long winter evenings mushing papier mâché to make.

After a dose of culture we were ready for the shops. There are all the usual high-price holiday grot shops here, but we went to the chemists - the perfect Swiss shop with its little drawers full of little secrets. We also had to get some warmer boots for Geronimo, and the ones we eventually bought him cost more than mine. Claire hadn't even been skiing yet and she was after some more outfits. The piste is a roller disco.

"Dan Daniell," explained the lovely Karin from the tourist office, "is kind of our local celebrity." He's in a band with Frida from Abba, who lives here too. It struck me that Frida would make a better candidate for local celeb, but around here a celebrity is merely someone who acts in a flamboyant way, courting attention and showing off, whereas Frida is just plain old Frida next door. Dan Daniell The Restaurant is not advertised by a sign outside, but nonetheless it looks cosy and inviting from the little street. It's dedicated to serving the locally bred lamb - I had the liver followed by the rack, which was carved at the table and served with a punchy cauliflower cheese and a bundle of asparagus. When you've finished they repeat the process. It was excellent.

Claire went for a lamb's milk ice cream, which tasted better than it sounds. I had a Grand Marnier ice cream flambé, which produced a very boozy dessert that got me feeling sentimental. At 10.30pm, Dan Daniell took to the stage. He kicked off with a French lament, in rather good taste I thought, and then something magical happened. A really bad arrangement of Abba's "I Have a Dream" struck up and he began to sing along. From nowhere came, quite simply, the most mesmerising voice I've ever heard. It was Frida! On tape. He'd obviously recorded her singing a pass of the tune at one of their band practices.

Hearing it recorded without effects, effortlessly trotting out the well-known melody with such ease, so balanced and perfectly phrased, made me realise what an important part of the Abba magic her voice was. It definitely had something to do with the Grand Marnier, but by the end I had tears streaming down my cheeks. It's like a musical version of the Crown Jewels, that voice, preserved in a glass case up a mountain in Zermatt. You couldn't follow it and Dan didn't try. He left the stage to join his friends and it was perfect. His was a great restaurant all round, with attention to detail on every level - disco-style black tablecloths scattered with spangly silver stars and cinnamon sticks, candles and firelight added to the atmosphere of cosy intimacy. Photos of grinning Robbie Williams and Phil Collins adorned one wall. I felt like James Bond walking home and Claire's skin was glowing.

In the morning we rode the electric railway up to the Gornergrat, a viewpoint with a far-reaching vista of a couple of dozen serious peaks. It made me think about climbing the Matterhorn again. Sadly, sledging was verboten as the toboggan run wasn't yet open. We sloped off for more super fast-release carbohydrates in the Moonraker-meets-cross-Channel-ferry canteen. They do self-service brilliantly in Europe, so well that I went back for more prune flan, which was perfect for the weather. A nice French family were sharing our table, and Geronimo and their little daughter had some kind of magic going on. The conviviality reminded me of camping holidays.

Skiing is camping for rich people. In fact, skiing is a lot like going to work. You stand in a queue with a load of other people and you spend the whole day going round in circles. It's different to a holiday, where you don't know what's going to happen next. I'd definitely come again, though.

We had to get back down the mountain to meet a man with an alpenhorn. Like many of the locals he was sporting the high-trousered look, a style very popular on the slopes. Perhaps it's something to do with manoeuvrability. We couldn't find any yodellers but later discovered that people are too busy in the evenings, on the internet and whatnot, to learn the techniques. By contrast, the alpenhorn is thriving. The fully assembled horn is a beautiful thing that looks like an uncoiled brass instrument thanks to the lovely mellow tone of the wood it is made from. The sound it makes is also quite plaintive. I'm keeping my eye out for one on ebay.

We needed skis for the final day, and the ski-hire shop was similar to a yachtie's grotto or scuba-diving shop in its vibe. It sold nice little gadgets like tiny ratchet screwdrivers and keyring breathalysers. Swiss engineering always reminds me of train sets, and Swiss tools are proper toys for big boys. The ski man also made a comment about me not needing skis with feet my size.

There has recently been a quantum leap in ski design. They are now much shorter than before and have a fishtail shape behind the heel. The boots, too, which attach to neon pop-planks, are from the future, with hydraulic laces and crumple zones. We were all set for our big day on the slopes and we slept soundly on top of a fondue bourgignon.

The ski instructor was an hour late and that got me fairly piqued. The running cost of the babysitter, the skis, boots, travel passes and the day rate for the tuition was all adding up to something stupendous. I was probably fed up because I was aware a certain amount of falling over on my arse was about to happen, and sure enough, by lunchtime, as three-year-olds and grannies whistled about the place, I'd already hit the ground countless times. Claire fared rather better. I just couldn't get the hang of the snowplough and entered a horrible slapstick realm of humiliation. Getting up is just so tiresome and the altitude really takes it out of you. It definitely involves a couple of days of looking stupid, skiing, but I think it will be well worth it. When I did briefly manage to wrestle control of my aching legs, it felt pretty flash. It's the same feeling you get listening to Motorhead: a bit cool and a bit dangerous.

Back downstairs we had a very expensive coffee in a very cool cinema and decided we'd definitely like to come back to this high-class holiday camp. There were civilised people living here and staying here, and it's the sort of place where it's easy to make friends. Ski resorts are a bit like members' clubs in that respect. Most importantly, even after stuffing our faces with rich food I think we probably went home fitter than we were when we left; now that's some deal.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The best gateways for Zermatt are Geneva and Zurich.

To reach Geneva, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham; easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Newcastle, Nottingham and Liverpool; Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com) from Cardiff and Nottingham; FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) from Southampton, Guernsey and Jersey; Jet2 (0870 737 8282; www.jet2.com) from Leeds/Bradford; EUJet (0870 414 1414; www.eujet.com) from Manston; and Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com) from London City. To Zurich, Swiss flies from London City, Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester; EUJet flies Manston; BA from Heathrow and Gatwick; and Helvetic (020-7026 3464; www.helvetic.com) from Gatwick.

Alex James and his family travelled to Zermatt with Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk), which can put together similar packages for £615 per person. This includes a week's half-board accommodation at the Hotel Tschugge in Zermatt, return flights from Heathrow to Zurich with Swiss and all transfers. Inghams can also organise lift passes from £175 for six days, ski and boot hire from £93 and three days' ski school starting at £112.

Alex and Claire wear clothes, accessories and footwear supplied by Millets the Outdoor Store (0800 389 5861; www.millets.co.uk). Alex wears: Men's Icicle Boots (£19.99), Alpine Men's Polar pants (£39.99), Peter Storm Pikefall Down Jacket (£69.99), Peter Storm waterproof gloves (£14.99) and Peter Storm 2 tone Beanie (£9.99). Claire wears: Alpine Women's Hotpins Pants (£39.99), Vulcan Canadian Boots (£24.99), Cebe Single Lens A&X Way goggles (£17.99), Alpine Women's Snowsport Ecru Gloves (£19.99) and Alpine Women's Alaska Jacket (£49.99). The Vango Baby Carrier costs £69.99

FURTHER INFORMATION

Zermatt Tourism (00 41 27 966 8100; www.zermatt.ch).

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