Zermatt: Me and my girl chill out with off-peak Alpine adventure

A Swiss resort’s summer slopes provide fair-weather skiing for mum — and plenty of fun for junior

McCarthy and Romi in Zermatt
McCarthy and Romi in Zermatt

I’m hoping it ticks the boxes for my four-year-old daughter Romi, too: I want her to feel like Heidi from the children’s novels by Johanna Spyri, running around the mountains, enjoying the spoils of her mother’s Alpine dream.

zermatt.ch) and get the shuttle train (€15 return; matterhorngotthardbahn.ch).

McCarthy and Romi in Zermatt with summer camp pals
McCarthy and Romi in Zermatt with summer camp pals BARBARA MCCARTHY

Romi and I take the train from Zurich — a three hour trip past stunning lakes and mountains — and arrive at Zermatt late in the afternoon. The resort lies at 1,600m above sea level in Switzerland’s Valais region at the foot of some of the country’s tallest peaks. The highest and largest summer skiing area in Europe, it boasts 25km of slopes and eight lifts that stay open throughout the season.

The owner of Hotel Bellerive, where we are staying, picks us up at the station in a mini electric car, one of hundreds that zip about the town. The journey takes us past beautiful shops and restaurants featuring wooden balconies, flower boxes and Swiss flags. Our own temporary home, with its quaint wood-panelled exterior, offers spectacular views of the Matterhorn, and while it is misty when we arrived, come morning, we awake to one of the world’s greatest vistas.

At 4,478m high, the Matterhorn is the jewel of the Alps. First ascended in 1865 by Englishman Edward Whymper, who lost four members of his team on their descent, it remains hugely popular among mountaineers, with up to 150 ascents a day during the climbing season — about 3,000 a year. I meet a guide with 100 ascents under his belt who insists the climb is “easy enough”, but I’m not so sure. Sadly, more than 500 climbers have perished on the Matterhorn since 1865 — including seven so far this season.

Romi saddles up
Romi saddles up

We don’t have long to linger at the view, however, since Romi’s own Heidi-esque Alpine adventure awaits. Awesome Summer Camp Zermatt (from €165 per day for over-fives, €74 per half-day for under-fives; awesomesummercampzermatt.com) offers a variety of sports, activities and excursions to impress kids aged 3-17. Even though we speak German, we opt for an English-speaking camp. Hannah Byron and Robbie Hussey, both accredited ski school and camp organisers, tailormake each course. With a strict staff-to-camper ratio of 1 to 5, they guarantee a safe and friendly environment for children, so, confident Romi is in great hands, I head off to catch the funicular to the Sunnegga Paradise ski area. At 2,288m above sea level, the views are so spectacular, they actually take my breath away.

As a busy single parent, the freedom to hike and ski while Romi is in camp is such a gift that I don’t dare dawdle — instead, I make my way to the next mountain station up — Blauherd at 2,571m — feeling relaxed and happy. Deciding I deserve a beer, I nip into the Sunnegga Buffet Bar, (mains from €13; restaurant-zermatt.ch), where I am serenaded by a band featuring a man playing an alphorn — the 2-4m-long wooden horn that has become a Swiss national symbol. In the meantime, Romi had gone ziplining, eaten lunch above Zermatt, and made new friends, whose parents I too befriend.

Next morning, I drop Romi back at the camp, already in my ski gear. The cable car that heads up the Theodul glacier takes about 50 minutes to reach the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ski area at 3,800m. But even here the snow melts by lunchtime, so I head straight for the slopes.

The beauty of summer skiing here is that nearly all the world’s national ski teams train for speed disciplines up on the glacier, and all the athletes have to pass through the summit station to access the summer pistes, so you are likely to be skiing alongside a star. It’s the equivalent of kicking around a ball with Messi and Ronaldo. I am honoured to meet Menna Fitzpatrick and Jennifer Kehoe, Britain’s most decorated winter paralympians, in Zermatt for a few days “to get some practice in”. They are both all smiles — as am I.

McCarthy skis in the sun
McCarthy skis in the sun

The next day, Romi and the other kids from the Awesome camp accompany me on the journey up to the glacier. They visit an ice cave, while I go . . . skiing, of course.

Later, to mix things up a bit, I move us to the stunning Hotel Schweizerhof, opposite Zermatt’s train station, which offers the opportunity to sit on the terrace, gazing at the Matterhorn while eating Swiss chocolate, and go for a dip in the pool or soak in a hot tub after a morning’s endeavours.

The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ski area draws top athletes in the summer, and McCarthy met paralympic gold medallists Menna Fitzpatrick, right, and guide Jennifer Kehoe
The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ski area draws top athletes in the summer, and McCarthy met paralympic gold medallists Menna Fitzpatrick, right, and guide Jennifer Kehoe

During our stay, a street festival kicks off outside the hotel to celebrate Swiss National Day (August 1). There is live music and delicious food — lobster, bratwurst and cheese — and Romi and I dance the night away with our new friends. The following evening, we are treated to a splendid fireworks display.

Luckily we had moved to the Youth Hostel, Zermatt, which offered us a perfect view of the fireworks display from its stunning location up a small hill, just meters from the centre of Zermatt.

Next morning, after watching Romi do pottery with her camp colleagues, I head up to the Gornergrat, a rocky ridge that stands at 3,135m. It’s quite a hike, but is worth it to catch some of the best scenery in the Alps. To get back down, I board Gornergrat’s mountain rack railway, a masterpiece of 19th century engineering, having been electrified since its opening in 1898. At about €56, a one-way ticket is not cheap — though I got mine for €28 with my Swiss pass, which I bought online (see panel). It is a worthwhile investment, but ensure you have it on you at all times, and keep the receipt: Swiss transport inspectors are not to be trifled with.

Mother and daughter enjoyed the Glacier Express through the Alps
Mother and daughter enjoyed the Glacier Express through the Alps

The mountain highlight of the week was supposed to be a Friday hike to the Hörnli Hut, which sits halfway up the Matterhorn at 3,260m. Opened in 1880 as a 17-bed structure and rebuilt and extended several times since, it acts as basecamp for climbers who intend to ascend to the summit. I had arranged a guided walk with alpinist Claudine Zibung, but rain and snow made it impossible.

Instead, Claudine and I go for a modest hike around Zermatt in the mist and rain. We eat raclette — a traditional Swiss dish of potatoes, vegetables and charcuterie covered in melted cheese — at the Whymper Stube restaurant in the Monte Rosa Hotel, where Edward Whymper himself once stayed (from €9; whymper-stube.ch).

Romi enjoys her journey on the Glacier Express
Romi enjoys her journey on the Glacier Express

The last day is spent with Romi and friends in Wolli Park, a sheltered spot for beginners at Sunnegga, named after Zermatt’s mascot, Wolli the black-nosed sheep. We then take the Five Lakes Hike — a 6km trail via the Stellisee, Grindjisee, Grunsee, Moosjisee, and Leisee lakes — to the Fluhalp cabin and restaurant (mains from €9; fluhalp-zermatt.ch). Alas, we fail to heed the great Mr Whymper’s advice to “do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end” and as a result of not leaving ourselves enough time, miss the last chairlift back down. Instead, we have to walk to Sunnegga to board the last lift there — which we catch with just a minute to spare. It is quite the stressful three-hour trek, but Romi manages it well.

On our final day, we don’t want to leave, but there is one remaining highlight to soften the blow: the Glacier Express. This most scenic of train journeys offers a panoramic window to the Alps as it glides over spectacular bridges and viaducts, into epic tunnels, through narrow valleys and past sheer drops over a total journey time of eight hours (glacierexpress.ch). For our five-hour stint on board, Romi and I are fed well and treated to apple juices and Bloody Marys respectively, as we head through the Gotthard Pass to Andermatt and on to Chur, where we hop off and get a one-hour train to Zurich. There, we spend a day swimming in the lake, take a boat trip, meet some friends, and generally have a blast.

Mum took Gornergrat’s rack rail
Mum took Gornergrat’s rack rail

Switzerland is a destination for every season, not just winter. However, despite Zermatt’s low CO2 rules, the glaciers are melting at a rapid rate. Local ski instructors I speak to agree the Matterhorn glacier could disappear in the next 20 years. So go now. And plant more trees.

The brief

Getting there
Fly to Zurich with Aer Lingus or Ryanair and take the train. Do invest in a Swiss Pass first, which is valid on all trains, including the Bernina Express and Glacier Express, and offers free public transport in cities, discounts on certain other journeys, and free admission to museums. From €213; sbb.ch

Where to stay

In Zurich: the Swissôtel in Oerlikon is just one stop from the airport, with a rooftop swimming pool and fantastic breakfast. Doubles from €100; swissotel.com

In Zermatt: Hotel Bellerive, close to the church square and ski lifts, offers Matterhorn views, hot tubs and a good breakfast. Doubles from €230; bellerive-zermatt.ch

The beautiful, modern Hotel Schweizerhof, opposite Zermatt train station, has a spa, pool, top views, and great food. Doubles from €270; schweizerhofzermatt.ch

Youth Hostel Zermatt, breakfast included. Great views from €40 in eight sleeper dorm. www.youthhostel.ch.

When to go
Accommodation is cheapest during May and November. Skiing is available year-round, but the main season begins in early December. Ski equipment hire is about€50 a day and a day ski pass is €85. To ski, even in summer, you need clothes for all seasons, so pack light layers, rain gear — and lots of factor 50. For details, visit zermatt.ch