Sometimes you need a pair of fresh eyes to make you appreciate what you have on your doorstep. Much as we admire the beauty of the Alps, it's easy to take them for granted when they can be reached in a couple of hours. But bring an impressionable teenager over from Canada, and you discover how jaded we Europeans can be.
Mention Canada and you think Rockies. You don't think of tiny ski resorts in Ontario that grandly call themselves Blue Mountain when they're really a hill. My nephew Alex is snowboarding master of this "mountain", where it takes him less than a minute to go down the blackest run. It was time he tried something that would really test his snowboarding abilities and give him a taste of Europe too: a week in the Swiss resort of Zermatt, in the shadow of the Matterhorn. "Awesome." That became the word of the week, followed by "Wow" and "Is this for real?"
This enthusiastic response started on the train ride from Zurich and continued from Visp aboard the glass-ceilinged Glacier Express, which took us into Zermatt, looking magical with festive lights twinkling in the dusk. It carried on during our carriage ride to our luxurious hotel, Le Petit Cervin, afterwards at dinner, and then in one of Zermatt's lively bars, where 18-year-old Alex could have his first legal drink. (Ontario's drinking age is 19.) And it went into overdrive the next morning when we awoke to find the Matterhorn looming at us from our balcony.
We weren't getting our ski equipment for another day, so we spent the Sunday acclimatising to the high altitude. I noticed the difference in the air as the train took us to 2,222m at Riffelalp, in one of Zermatt's four main ski areas, to grab some lunch on the crowded terrace at Freddie's restaurant. An afternoon at the huge outdoor skating rink opposite our hotel was just the thing to clear the slight headache that came with the change in altitude. Alex gave me a quick lesson in skating backwards before he joined a group of Swiss boys playing ice hockey, easily keeping up with the standard on show. Well, he is Canadian.
Alex was itching to get on to the slopes, though. He was bouncing around like Tigger, waiting for Monday morning to arrive. I was excited too, although slightly more apprehensive: it was going to be my first time on downhill skis for 23 years. But at least Heidi, our rep, had everything ready for us: the equipment was at the Intersport shop on the ground floor of the hotel, and Stoked Ski School was just opposite.
The following morning Alex was handed over to Michaela, a 23-year-old snowboarding instructor from nearby Brig. As Alex was self-taught, it would do him good to have some proper instruction as well as an introduction to the ski areas and some backcountry runs. I was put in the capable hands of John, a cheerful British instructor who had full confidence in my ability to pick up where I left off 23 years ago. We took the gondola up to Trockener Steg, which sits under the Matterhorn and is graced with beautifully wide runs. A recent snowfall covered everything in thick powder, just the thing if you plan to fall down a lot.
I needn't have worried. I was astonished as ancient technique came back to me almost instantly. It must have been down to the crisp mountain air, the blinding blue sky and the incredible sense of space on the runs. By the end of the morning I was on a red run (albeit a gentle one) buzzing from an exhilaration I hadn't felt in more than two decades.
I met Alex for lunch at the Cervinia Pizzeria at Trockener Steg. He was elated too. On black runs that lasted half an hour, rather than the half a minute he was used to in Ontario, he'd had a glorious morning. Michaela even pointed out a few bad habits in his technique and gave him some useful tips. And it was blissful outside on the vast terrace, where the pasta tasted better in the sunshine.
Things didn't go quite as smoothly for me after lunch, which was rather frustrating. Still, there were more important things to focus on, namely introducing Alex to après-ski, Alpine style. Back in town, we tried the very trendy Snowboat bar, where Alex's first glass of glühwein went down with great pleasure. It wasn't the sort of bar for dancing on tables in ski boots (that would come later), and anyway, we had discovered the hotel's spa facilities the day before and rushed back to enjoy them.
Le Petit Cervin is the smaller sister hotel of the Mont Cervin Palace, one of Zermatt's grandest hotels. As they're connected by an underground passage, guests can use the Mont Cervin's impressive spa facilities, which include a huge indoor pool and indoor/outdoor Jacuzzis. Here, Alex's supposedly worldly, well-travelled aunt was as gobsmacked as her green nephew: the experience of standing outside in hot pulsating water in freezing temperatures and under gently falling snow was extraordinary.
Later that evening I took Alex to a fondue restaurant, another first for him. He enjoyed it, but not as much as the pizza and pasta dishes with which he'd been stuffing himself until then. Thank God for Italian food, when you've got a teenager who's a bit of a picky eater but needs a lot of fuel for his rangy 6ft frame. As Zermatt is right near the Italian border and shares its ski area with Cervinia, there were plenty of affordable Italian restaurants to choose from – not to mention restaurants such as GramPi's which also serves nachos, wings and the like.
The skiing got better for me as the week went on, even if I never did reach my previous peak. Alex, meanwhile, was pitting himself against some really tough backcountry runs and making the most of the snow park. There was also the unforgettable experience of taking the highest mountain lift in the world to 3,883m, from where we could see Italy clearly. We'd made friends with more of the staff, who were still in quiet low-season mode and were up for showing us the town. That included the raucous annual Australian Night at Nelly's Bar and a particularly boozy evening at the wonderfully riotous Papperla Pub, where singing loudly to naff pop songs is required behaviour.
It wasn't just the alcohol that made me notice how friendly Zermatt was: for such a swanky place its atmosphere is warm and fun, with people eager to chat on chairlifts, at restaurants, in bars. The town itself is beautiful, full of exquisite wooden buildings in the classic Alpine style, made more atmospheric by their heavy coating of snow. And everywhere you look, there's the Matterhorn, whose crooked peak had me utterly entranced.
By the end of the week, Alex had mentally moved himself to Zermatt, where he could snowboard all day, have a few beers in the Papperla Pub in the evenings. And perhaps one day he could afford to invite his favourite aunt back to the outdoor Jacuzzi at the Mont Cervin Palace.
Mary Novakovich travelled to Zermatt with Powder Byrne (020-8246 5300; powder byrne.com), which offers seven nights in a one-bedroom suite at the four-star Le Petit Cervin for £2,110 per adult, including return flights from Heathrow or London City, transfers and insurance. A week's ski pass costs £208 for adults and £185 for youths. Intersport (00 41 27 967 43 40; julensport.ch) offers five days' ski equipment hire from SFr172 (£92). Stoked Ski School (00 41 27 967 70 20; stoked.ch) offers half-day private lessons from SFr199 (£107) per person, and SFr20 (£10) for each additional person.
Switzerland Tourism (020-7845 7680; myswitzerland.com). Zermatt Tourism (00 41 27 966 81 00; zermatt.ch).Reuse content