Back in 2020, once we made the decision to move to Europe, we started dreaming up all the trips we wanted to take. Greece was one big one, taking the boys to Rome was also on the list, and skiing in Switzerland was another big one. During our trip to Luxembourg, we met friends of friends who suggested we go to the Riffelalp, which is up the hill from the village of Zermatt. We immediately took their advice and contacted our travel planner.
Leading up to our trip, world news started shifting away from the Coronavirus pandemic to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. While there was of course nothing our family could do to prevent this tragedy, it certainly felt weird and somehow wrong to get to travel as a family and do something we’d been planning for nearly a year. Every morning we woke up hoping for a “good” headline that things had improved, but as I write this, the situation is still terrible and dire. So while it didn’t consume our trip, I’d say there was a heaviness to what would normally be a celebratory time. We were not alone in this; I know other expats and Europeans were feeling the same.
This said, we decided to still go ahead with the trip. For months it had been building in our minds as a big bucket-list trip. Just before we left I was a little concerned I’d made it too big of a deal in my mind and it wouldn’t live up to it. For better or worse, Josh and I usually try to break up long travel days so we decided to take 2 days to get to Zermatt. We took a car from Maastricht to Brussels Airport and flew directly to Geneva. The next day we took a 4 hour train to Zermatt, where we were met by porters from the hotel who took our luggage for us.
Zermatt is a carless city so in order to get around town you walk, take these small electric taxis, or you take a different, smaller train up the mountain (out of the village) to other parts of the slopes. Thankfully the hotel porters met us at the main station and snowmobiled our luggage up to the hotel, while we walked around town, had a bite to eat, and picked up our lift tickets.
It had been over 2 years since our family had been skiing. Josh has the most experience and I’m fairly new to really skiing (I spent several years convincing myself I wanted to be a snowboarder after a traumatic childhood skiing experience). The boys had skied in Colorado and in North Carolina and in 2020 they fell in love with it. But…we were rusty. So in our planning, we hired guides for some of the days to help get our bearings. Thank goodness we did that.
The slopes in Zermatt are a bit harder than Colorado. The “easy” slopes feel more like American intermediate slopes. Maybe its just because I’m not super confident, but this trip definitely pushed my limits (in hindsight, I can say it was in a good way, but in certain moments, I was stressed AF and sweating the hills).
In general, our schedule was something like this:
7AM boys tended to wake up. On NO day did they sleep in. Usually on vacations we get some reprieve. I think the altitude played a role in everyone’s sleep this week. They’d wake us up, and we’d all dress in most of our ski wear.
7:45 ish AM We would head downstairs to where breakfast was served. These kids lived it up with hot chocolate and nutella pancakes every morning 😉
8:30 We would head to the ski lockers which were attached to our hotel. Y’all the lockers had little heaters inside that would dry out your hats/boots/gloves and the doors opened/locked with your ski lift ticket so everything was about as nice and easy as putting on ski gear on a family of 4 can be.
8:45 ish we would make our way to meet our guides either at the small train stop 5 minutes walk (or xc ski) from our hotel or down a red slope (later in the week) from our hotel.
9-12 SKI, take lifts, SKI, take lifts, on repeat until 12ish when we would break for lunch.
After lunch – sometimes ski, sometimes sled, sometimes rest, sometimes watch the boys build “snow forts” while Josh and I chilled out on a sunny restaurant terrace.
7:00 ish – dinner
9:00 ish – Kids in bed
Since it was our first time back on the slopes we did not push the kids to ski all day. Between altitude and not having any practice, everyone was pretty tired after lunch and most days we took a break in the afternoons.
One day we took entirely off from skiing and we visited the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. I highly recommend doing this and, if you’re skiing in Zermatt and want to also ski in Italy, you’ll end up going up to this part of the mountain on the Matterhorn Glacier Express lift that leaves out of the south side of Zermatt. So, technically you could visit the glacier museum (for lack of a better term) on a ski day and ski into Italy before or after, for example. HOWEVER, there’s a lot of walking around and steps up to an overlook, and I think my calves would have died doing all that in ski boots. I was grateful we visited on a non ski day. We visited the overlook, explored around the glacial caves, sat in a little theater inside the glacier to see some short films about the area, and then we headed down a stop on the mountain to grab lunch. You could also have lunch right there at the glacier, but I wanted something with an outside terrace because the sun made everything feel warm. And, when you’re living in the NL you become a freaking sun worshipper (not in the baby oiled sunbathing way, but in the finding any inch of sun and sitting in it way).
On our 4th day of skiing (which was our last day with a guide), we once again took the Matterhorn Glacier Express so that we could ski down on the Italian side of the alps. This took some time and required me skiing some reds, which was certainly nerve-wracking, but by that point I’d had a good bit of instruction/practice so felt a little more confident. Getting to ski the Italian side is an add-on option to the Swiss ski pass and something you should definitely do at least once if you make it to Zermatt. For us, the slopes were less crowded that day, and they are much wider routes.
During our travel we also got word from our vet-based “cat hotel” that our sweet Eva, our 14 year old black cat, was not doing well. She’d been sick back in 2020, rebounded and got healthy for this travel to Europe, and then started showing signs of not feeling herself just before we left town. The vet said her kidney disease had returned and she would not make it. We were devastated and it was on the Italian skiing day that we got a call at the top of the mountain that she would pass without drastic intervention. We took the boys to lunch that day, said goodbye to our guides, and told them over a tearful lunch about the decisions we’d need to make. We all concluded that she should go peacefully with the help of the vet and not prolong her pain any longer. It was a sad and emotional lunch and we were bummed to be away from her. We will miss her so much.
Despite a rocky start the first day with Mase, and emotions over Eva, both boys came away with much improved skiing, still liking it, and still liking us (I think). That was the goal. It lived up to everything we’d hoped for. Some friends asked recently if we would go back again and the short answer is “Yes, BUT”. If I’m living in Europe again, I’ll go back in a heartbeat. However, getting to Zermatt is no easy nor short feat even from NL. Whether flying and training as we did or driving/training it, it is long travel. I feel like we’d need 10-14 days if we were coming from the USA to deal with the travel, the jet lag, time change, etc. Getting that kind of time off from school is nearly impossible (if we still want to spend Christmas with our family, which we do). So, we’re not sure if we’ll get the chance any time soon, but we would totally do it if the opportunity arose.
One note, if you do have the flexibility and time to go, go during the Dutch holiday in late February/early March – the timing is perfect. You’ve missed the huge spike in skiers from the Swiss region, you’re past the other main tourist holidays, and the snow is still excellent.
Here are some other things we recommend about traveling to Zermatt:
– the Matterhorn Diamonds guides were incredible (Gareth, Lukas, and Katka). I’d hire each of them again in a heartbeat. It took some time to figure out how to split us all up since we’d not been skiing in 2 years and were a little rusty. I was worried about Mason, who seemed super frustrated on day 1 and thought he might throw the towel in on skiing. BUT the next morning he was in his skis before me and really took a liking to our most regular guide, Gareth. The guides probably saved our trip in knowing the slopes so well and especially helping me overcome some fears.
– the slopes are quite a bit more advanced than the slopes I’ve skied in Colorado. I sort of already knew this but really felt it once we got going. I could have stayed on the easy slopes the entire trip (and did for the most part). One day I had a guide to myself, though, and she helped me build the confidence to take on a handful of reds the next day so that we could ski into Italy, which was beautiful (even though a little icy).
On Eating – on the slopes and in Zermatt village
– I would recommend that people make reservations for lunch and dinner every day. We made several dinner reservations but were nervous to make lunch ones because we weren’t sure where we’d be every day. Even if you cancel/change them, it’s best to have them. For lunch, most places have a 12 and 2:00 seating. Our favorite places at or near the hotel were the Alphitta for lunch and Al Bosco for dinner (also had lunch there). On the Italian side, we ate in a great spot in Italy on the mountain pass, Refugio Theodulo. The day we left, we had lunch in Zermatt village at Ristorante Molino, which was also a really nice experience.
– If you do dinner in Zermatt village, most places don’t open until 6 or 6:30 which means you’ll need to take one of the very late trains back to the Riffelalp (there is a 7:30 one, which doesn’t give you time and then the next one is after 10pm). This is totally doable and fine if you are all adults or do not care about a kid schedule. We got recommendations from the hotel on a couple of pubs that are open all day and were able to do an early dinner there, which worked perfectly because the kids were exhausted and would not have made a late dinner. We ate at Brown Cow Pub that day, which is also connected to what seems like a nice hotel.
– Also, most stores close at 6pm in Zermatt and if you forgot anything like toiletries or need a pharmacy, you’ll need to go into town for that. The Riffelalp does not have any sort small store to buy things.
On the hotel:
-The hotel was fully booked but it did not feel fully booked! It was almost too quiet but I suppose that’s much better than the alternative. It could also be that we are on such earlier time schedules than most Europeans that we just didn’t see people around except during the ski times.
– The spa is beautiful and I wished I’d explored it earlier in the trip. They have a section that is adults only (and incredible), but they also have an outdoor heated pool that opens at 2:00 pm. We went a couple of times and watched a few skiers finishing up their ski days on the slopes that ran just beside the hotel.
– The hotel has 3-4 restaurants, including the Italian place mentioned above, a breakfast buffet, a Swiss inspired restaurant, a great bar, and a beautiful terrace where you can also grab lunch. We had several nice meals, even two dinners by ourselves while the boys watched a movie in their room.
– Room service for dinner doesn’t begin until 8 (so again, if you’re trying to feed kids earlier, just need to keep that in mind).
– The rooms were perfect, had humidifiers, little bears for the kids, gorgeous views, etc. We were very happy.
– We were able to rent all gear from the store at the hotel very quickly and easily and it was probably the best fitting ski equipment we’ve ever rented. No one complained.
Oh, one thing people who have never been to Geneva should know… the airport check-in is a full on shit show. We were able to check in online the day before (thanks Josh) and do a computer assisted bag weigh/drop that saved us tons of time but even just finding that area was hard because there were huge crowds and lines of people and you weren’t sure which flight they were even trying to get on. We heard/saw people who arrived at the airport 2+ hours before their flight and they nearly missed it. Honestly, it felt like being back in some of my small S. American country travel days. I would tell anyone traveling through Geneva airport during ski season to get there 3 hours ahead of time if they don’t check in online (and maybe even if they do), especially if they are leaving on a Saturday or Sunday. Once you are through security, though, it was super nice and not crazy.
We were sad to not get to explore any of Geneva. By the time we finally made it there on Saturday on our return, it was time for dinner and we didn’t have the energy to fight train lines to get into the city. Maybe one day!