Take the kids by rail to Zermatt and they'll soon see why it's worth the trip, says Natalie Holmes

As jokes go, it was pretty lame, even for my son. "Are we nearly there yet?" he piped up as we pulled out of St Pancras. In a word, no. Ahead of us was a 12-hour journey, involving four trains (and an electric taxi) that would carry us from grimy, early-morning London to the clear evening air of the Swiss Alps.

Long-distance rail journeys are no longer just for scaredy cats and students. Ever-faster trains and the environmental cost of flying are combining to make it a positive choice. But European rail travel is daunting, what with all the different train companies, languages and currencies. And that's before you factor in keeping the children entertained.

My two, aged 11 and 14, are old enough to plug into something electronic and unplug on arrival. And we had cut down on the stress of the arrangements by booking a package with Inghams, which had supplied a step-by-step itinerary, complete with platform numbers.

So, first stop Paris. We just had to trundle our suitcases down the road from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de l'Est to catch another train and journey across eastern France to Basel. From there, we headed towards the new Lötschberg tunnel beneath the Alps. At 21.5 miles, it is the longest land tunnel in the world and has cut more than an hour off the journey from Basel to Visp, the base station for the spectacular mountain train that climbs the Mattertal valley, with Zermatt at the end of the line.

And yes, it was worth the trip. Zermatt is beautiful. Surrounded by towering peaks, many of which are more than 4,000 metres high, it is a traditional Swiss village that has grown into one of the world's premier ski resorts, without losing its charm. And there are no cars, the road doesn't get this far. Breathing deep, you get a glimpse of how air was 100 years ago, before the petrol engine conquered almost every corner of the planet.

We were whisked by electric taxi to the Monte Rosa Hotel, one of Zermatt's oldest, which epitomises the combination of traditional cosiness and modern luxury that this resort seems to have pulled off.

For those used to ski-in-ski-out hotels, the morning rush hour in Zermatt is a shock. You find yourself "running" for a bus, then jammed on to a funicular, a nose-to-chest experience that is all too similar to the London Underground. But, of course, the end point is not a day at the office. The pistes are high – at their highest you can ski through the summer – and dominating them all is the mighty Matterhorn, known locally as the Toblerone mountain, the conquering of which, back in 1865 (at a cost of four lives), was what put Zermatt on the tourist map.

It now caters for all levels and ages of skiers, from beginners to off-piste daredevils. I packed my children off to ski school, to practise their ever more elegant turns on the large number of long blue and red runs, ideal for young improvers, while I was whizzed around the pistes – all 183 kilometres of them – by my guide, Timmy. He breezily waved at the Matterhorn and said he had climbed it last summer as part of a works' outing, which made our office picnic seem a little tame.

The mountain still draws thrill-seekers from around the world, many of the unlucky ones are in the local churchyard, yet Timmy insisted that now it was no big deal. He was up and down in 12 hours, "nine is good". The first man to reach the top, Edward Whymper, set out from our hotel in 1865, and the Monte Rosa's walls are covered in memorabilia from the golden age of Alpinism, when it was the fashion for rich and reckless young Englishmen to go and bag an Alp. Four of Whymper's team fell to their deaths on the descent; the broken rope that led to the tragedy is on display at the town museum, as well as a transcript from the inquiry.

But you can climb very high in Zermatt without risking life and limb. The resort boasts the highest cable-car station in Europe, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – at 3,883 metres. Up there the thin air makes you feel weak and giddy – and that's after being carried up. Skiers who don't pay attention can easily take a wrong turn and end up in Italy, which is an expensive mistake. On the other hand, if you have an international lift pass, a nip across to the Italian resort of Cervinia doubles the amount of skiing at your feet, and the euro goes a lot further than the Swiss franc.

Zermatt is not a budget destination; even hot dogs sold on the street come with a glass of champagne, and you are never more than a few yards from a luxury watch shop, but the history, tradition, and above all, breathtaking scenery, make for a memorable stay. Oh yes, and those trains run like (Swiss) clockwork.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams .co.uk) offers seven nights at the Monte Rosa Hotel, Zermatt, from £1,152 per person half board, with a £39 rail supplement for travel from St Pancras International to Zermatt. Six-day adult ski and boot hire starts at £104. Three-day ski school starts at £154. The six-day Zermatt ski pass costs £231, and the International pass (including Cervinia) is £258. Skis were provided by Glacier Sport on the high street.