Ski @ Zermatt – Switzerland

Welcome to Zermatt – the classic, charming, car free and picture-perfect alpine skiing village. Hailed as one of the most renowned world class resort and best places to ski in Europe, Zermatt offers Winter skiing from November to May (although the best time to ski is December to March) and Spring / Summer skiing from May to November. Yes, this is the only place in the world where you can ski 365 days a year!

How to get to Zermatt
Ski Zermatt Railway Train Gornergrat Furi Klein Matterhorn
Zermatt is easily accessible by train or car. From Zurich, it takes 3hr 35mins by train and 4hr 25mins by car. Alternatively, a connection from Geneva or Milan (Malpensa) will take 3hr 45mins by train and 2hr 45mins by car. As mentioned, Zermatt only allows battery operated vehicles, therefore those driving will need to park in Täsch (there is a multi-storey car park at the station), and then hop onto the Zermatt shuttle which is a 10mins scenic ride that runs between the two village every 20mins. In your decision making, do take into consideration that the Swiss rails are extremely efficient, spacious and immaculately clean, and that Täsch is quite a dead town.

The Playground
There are three main ski areas at Zermatt – the Sunnegga, the Gornergrat, and the Klein Matterhorn. All three ski areas soar to at least 3,100m and there is a a total of 250km of varied terrain runs to explore! Plus, the highest and longest run is 2,200m and a good 13km from Klein Matterhorn to the village. Blast it is! Make sure to pace yourself.
Zermatt Switzerland Ski Mountain Area Piste Map
Top Elevation: 3,820m / 12,500 ft
Base (Village) Elevation:1,620m / 5,250 ft
Vertical drop: 2,200m / 7,250ft
Marked Pistes: 245km
Beginner 23% / Intermediate 44% / Expert 33%
Longest Piste: 13km
Snowboard facilities: 2 parks and 2 halfpipes

The ski mountains are well built up and offers an extensive range of 73 Mountain Railways and Ski-lifts including 34 surface ski lifts, 17 aerial cable cars/trams,14 chair lifts, 6 gondola ski lifts, 1 rack railway with 18 railcars and 1 high speed underground cable railway. Guess that probably explains for the pricier ski pass here. As a gauge, the winter ski pass for 5 days in 7 for All Zermatt is CHF344 and CHF387 for All Zermatt and Cervinia Italy.
Ski Zermatt Matterhorn Hook Chair Lifts Gondola Glacier Paradise Cervinia Express

Top of the World
One of the best gifts is the abundant of snowfall at Zermatt which guarantees impeccable ski conditions, particularly during the winter season. The 360 panorama on a clear and sunny day is spectacular and akin to the 10 times better than the Jungfraujoch experience.
Ski Zermatt Breuil Cervinia Valtournenche Italy Switzerland

Do check out the weather conditions before you set off. You will not miss the board at the gondola station at Klein Matterhorn and the Sunnegga Railway that highlights all the open lifts to help plan your route of advancement.
Ski Zermatt Breuil Cervinia Valtournenche Italy Switzerland Winter Holiday Vacation

For the advanced skiers, there are virtually endless off piste options, high cliffs, deep powder, the expert terrain in the Sunnegga and Gornergrat areas and the moguls on Stockhorn and Rote Nasse. Plus, there is also heli skiing!

Up Close and Personal
Meeting Klein Matterhorn is very much subjected to weather conditions. A friendly local told us that he had been skiing in Zermatt for 6 years, and this was the first time he finally saw the iconic Matterhorn!
Ski Zermatt Matterhorn Swiss Alps Peak Paramount Pictures

Spoilt for Choice
Zermatt boasts an amazing collection of more than 50 bars and restaurants on the mountains. You can enjoy anything and everything here. However, as the saying goes, cheap is not good, and good doesn’t come cheap. Do prepare resources as you and your partner stop over for some hot coffee and donuts (~CHF20), enjoy uberlicious pasta on the open terrace (~CHF 50 incl. drinks), or perhaps indulge in a romantic fine dinning bon appétit as you overlook the Matterhorn (ka ching ching ching). Remember to also keep cash handy as some of the smaller rustic bars may not accept cards.
Ski Zermatt Cafes Restaurants Bars Mountains Pasta Cervo

Know your Limits
We witnessed 2 helicopter rescues within one afternoon. Some of the intermediate runs from the top can be narrower, bendy and of course, a gradient that will not disappoint its coded standards. While there are safety ropes along more dangerous pistes, I do not recommend you test the E = MC2 theory, and instead be very careful to select the appropriate level of route(s).
Ski Zermatt Rescue Helicopter Air Zermatt Professional
As a guide,
Green run – beginner
Blue run – intermediate
Red run – advanced
Black run – expert (equivalent of a double black diamond run)

Ski into Cervinia Italy
It is truly surreal to ski across the international borders into Italy. Crazy insane!! Here’s how you can ski across from Zermatt into Italy.
Step 1: Make your way to Testa Grigia.
Option a: Take the Klein Matterhorn Gondola, walk through a tunnel, and then ski to Testa Grigia
Option b: Ride two two long t-bars from Trockener Steg to Testa Grigia
Step 2: Connect from Testa Grigia into Cervinia
Option a: Take the Gondola to Cervinia
Option b: From Testa Grigia, either ski left to Cervinia via the Ventina Route 7, or right via the Plan Maison Route 6 (which is the easier route)
Route 6 will also lead you to Chalet Etoile (the #1 restaurant in Breuil-Cervinia on tripadvisor). Do note that most cafes in Italy only accept EUR.
Ski Zermatt Switzerland Italy border Mountains

The Italian mountains are not as sophisticated as the Swiss Alps, however snow conditions remain fabulous. Cervinia is less crowded and offers magnificently groomed long beginners and intermediate runs which makes it a relaxing switch from the Swiss Alps.
Ski Zermatt Breuil Cervinia Valtournenche Italy Switzerland Beginner Intermediate Skiers

Take in the stunning landscape as you cruise along the wide and perfect practice grounds of Highway Run 7 which stretches on for 11km. White on white has never looked so good.
Ski Zermatt Breuil Cervinia Valtournenche Matterhorn Paradise Swiss Alps

Conclusion
Zermatt is probably not ideal for the faint hearted novice, but is definitely a wonderland paradise for intermediate and advanced skiers. Zermatt is also a lifestyle, and not the most suitable for those on a budget. For those on the right permutation, I recommend a stay of 5-7 days to fully cover and enjoy the spectacular mountains. Alternatively, take a luxurious 2 week vacation to truly explore the extensive terrains, at your own pace and choice of weather. The beauty of Zermatt, is that even though it is one of the more expensive ski destinations, as much as the price tag stings, I reckon that once you have tasted its sweetness, you will plan to re-visit at one point or another.

Useful links
Zermatt Tourism Board http://www.zermatt.ch/en
Ski Zermatt http://www.ski-zermatt.com
Swiss Rail http://fahrplan.sbb.ch/bin/query.exe/en

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Iceland Winter Self Drive – Survived!

Iceland, often described as the land of fire and ice, is truly magical, unforgettable and unpredictable. Talk about extremes, this country will leave you more mind boggled than you can ever imagine. I would consider the winter self drive experience one of the most extreme (and crazy) adventures I have ever embarked on. If you are planning for a winter drive in the northern hemisphere, read on to see what you are in for.

Always check the road conditions
The weather in Iceland changes faster than a chameleon changes its colour. Sudden impassable roads, countersteering 40m/s winds to 5m/s, poor visibility to bright blue skies, amazing. It is imperative to check the road conditions and plan well before you set off at any point, for your own safety and to avoid any disruptions in your travel plans. See a list of very handy websites below.

Route of advancement
It can’t get any simpler. There is only one main road, aka Route 1 or the Ring Road, which connects the whole of Iceland. Most of the major attractions are along the main road, if not a slight detour away.
a. map2

I: Reykjavík to D: Vik (approx 300km / 4hrs)
Enjoy the stress free drive while you can. Roads are relatively wide, well path and sufficiently lit as this stretch, also known as the Golden Circle, is highly commercialized and concentrated with most of the island’s popular tourist attractions such as the Þingvellir National Park (B), Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir geyser (C). Roads become more remote as you head away from the city, but that’s also when all the fun begins!
Iceland self drive Reykjavik to Vik golden circle road conditions

Iceland self drive Reykjavik to Vik narrow roads

D: Vik to E: Höfn (approx 270km / 3hrs)
If you enjoy driving, you will absolutely love the scenic stretch along the south coast. We were lucky to have good weather, and it felt almost as though we were on top gear, testing a supercar, roof down, burning desire to floor the engine as we zipped along the bends of absolutely remote and endless roads whilst taking in the mystical landscape of mountains, waterfalls, icelandic sheeps and horses, nature in all shapes, colours and form. It was truely a moment.
Iceland self drive Vik to Hofn mystical landscape

Look out for the all famous unpronounceable and extremely majestic volcano that led to international airspace chaos. Nested so innocently on the luscious green meadows against the clear blue skies with Mýrdalsjökull ice caps in the backdrop, you will be compelled to stop even if you didn’t realize it was Eyjafjallajökull.
Iceland self drive Vik to Hofn eyjafjallajokull volcano myrdalsjokull ice caps attraction

E: Höfn to F: Egilsstaðir (approx 185km / 3hrs)
The East Fjords is the turning point of intensity – transit from the green lowlands into the darkside of a largely infertile terrain of highland moors and coastal gravel deserts. There are lots of intricate roads and converging lanes, especially the river crossings, so do make it a point to decipher all the new road signs that come your way.
Iceland self drive Hofn to Egilsstaoir empty roads terrain tunnels mountains meadows

Who would have thought that landscape could change so drastically. Apart from the icelandic sheeps and horses, the greens became gravel, blue skies became grey, roads became more icy, very narrow and extremely bendy as we entered deeper into the Eastern zone. It was certainly intimidating to drive through the towering mountains and scary to drive for miles without passing any cars…
Iceland self drive Hofn to Egilsstaoir East Fjords coastal gravel roads

Iceland self drive Hofn to Egilsstaoir winter driving conditions

Driving soon became absolutely nerve wreaking as we had zero experience with such extreme road conditions. Sweaty palms, thumping hearts, you name it, we had it. Stay very focus to remain on track to avoid an overturn (apparently quite common, and we personally witnessed one along the way). It almost felt as though we were on a James Bond adventure.
Iceland self drive Hofn to Egilsstaoir winter road conditions snow rent a 4WD

Here’s a short clip of the evil roads conditions

F: Egilsstaðir to G: Mývatn (approx 170km / 2hrs)
Driving conditions remained harsh. We made sure to set out earlier than planned.
Iceland self drive Egilsstaoir to Myvatn lake driving conditions

Skirting around the clift edges of the extremely bendy and icy North East coast.
Iceland self drive Egilsstaoir to Myvatn icy North East Coast drive along the narrow and bendy roads

The visibility was so bad at certain points that we had to take a leap of faith to rely purely on the GPS to prepare us for any bends ahead. It was crazy. Absolutely crazy. And very dangerous.
Iceland self drive Egilsstaoir to Myvatn poor visibility winter road conditions blizzard

Here’s another clip of the road conditions while crossing the mountains and how erratic the weather can be, plus, what it feels like to cross paths with another vehicle!

G: Mývatn to H: Varmahlíð (approx 200km / 2.5hrs)
I am not sure how fear and desire can co-exist. We feared the weather and the road conditions, yet we desired to explore more. The beauty of the west region is just nature in its rawest form. There is just something magical about Iceland that keeps you so passionate.
Iceland self drive Myvatn to Varmahlio mountainous driving conditions

Driving remained stressful. In addition to the mountainous drive and wind shear factor, snow was excessive and more roads became completely impassable as the day progressed. Nevertheless, the landscape remained ever so breathtaking. Despite the frostbites, I had to get down to take a picture!
Iceland self drive Myvatn to Varmahlio winter road conditions impassible roads excessive snow

It was truely spectacular to see meanders, lakes and waterfalls exist under extreme sub zero conditions, makes you seriously wonder what kind of geothermal activity exists below grounds.
Iceland self drive Myvatn to Varmahlio lakes rivers geothermal activity snow

And as we continued on, we came pass a magnificent towering suspension bridge, right in the midst of vast and barren land. Completely surreal.
Iceland self drive Myvatn to Varmahlio suspension bridge vast barren land converging lane

H: Varmahlíð to I: Reykjavík (approx 300km / 3.5hrs)
The blizzard was catching up with us from the East. Driving conditions remain tough and we made sure to set out even earlier for our last leg and skipped all the attractions along the way. Our objective was simple. We wanted to get back to Reykjavík in one piece, and before the sun sets.
Iceland self drive Akureyri to Reykjavik harsh winter road conditions

Finally, normal roads – road conditions that the layman are more familiar with. It kinda felt like we were back from outter space. Travel in style through the impressive state of art tunnel that runs below sea level to cross back to Reykjavík.
Iceland self drive Akureyri to Reykjavik underground tunnel GPS

Near death experience
Like what most travellers experience, we got stuck. Our tires got trapped in the thick and fresh snow while climbing midway up an extremely narrow and bendy 45 degree mountainous track on the way to Egilsstaðir. It was a very frightening near death experience – there was no soul in sight within miles, no street lamps in place, and darkness was falling. Our minds went seriously wild – survival instincts kicked in – blankets? Water?? Wild boars???

Remember the emergency hotline 112
Our only saving grace was reception. We dialled the Icelandic emergency line 112 to seek rescue, and until this day, we remain grateful to the local volunteers of 112 who gallantly made their way to us so quickly. These good samaritans are extremely skilled people who help purely out of a kind heart in their free time and do not get paid or expect anything in return. They back tracked our drive and dropped us at a safety point where they then re-programmed our GPS for a safer alternate route to Egilsstaðir. Please avoid driving at night if you can. This is the detour that we took, and it was absolutely horrifying – we had no idea what was beyond the side skirts. Yes, ignorance is bliss.

Conclusion
The best way to enjoy Iceland is definitely by self driving around the island. It gives you the flexibility to indulge in the picturesque and evolving landscape and to uncover the hidden gems in the vast and remote lands beyond Reykjavík. Be marvelled at how the landscape changes within every few hours of drive. But beware, and be prepared, that driving by itself can be an extreme adventure, particularly during winter, and more so for those who are unfamiliar with rough winter road conditions. It is extremely vital, and for your own safety, that you rent a 4X4 should you intend to drive during Winter. I recommend at least 7 days for a comfortable drive around the island. Once completed, buy yourself a memorabilia that states “I survived Iceland”. Most importantly, please donate generously if you come across any 112 fund raisers.

Very handy websites
Icelandic Road conditions and weather: http://www.vegagerdin.is/
Icelandic Met Office: http://en.vedur.is/
112 Emergency Team: http://www.112.is/

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