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October 15, 2011

Gstaad, Zermatt, or St. Moritz?

by Anne Paddock
canstockphoto12700994

Switzerland is a mountainous country that has numerous mountain resorts but the big three are:  Gstaad, Zermatt, and St. Moritz. The dilemma of whether to go to Gstaad, Zermatt, or St. Moritz comes down to personal preference. Each town is different and has special characteristics, so best to look at the following five (5) areas and decide for yourself.

  • Location
  • Sports
  • Environment
  • Town
  • Ambiance

A wide variety of hotels and restaurants are available at each resort and since most people don’t travel to these resorts for the hotel and food, these categories are not included.

LOCATION

Gstaad is located approximately 90 miles (150 kilometers) from Geneva or 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Zurich in the Canton of Berne in the southwest German-speaking region of Switzerland. There is an airport in Gstaad but best to fly into Geneva and drive or take the train.

Zermatt is located 40 miles (70 kilometers) from Sion in the German-speaking region of southern Switzerland although Italy is a mere 6 miles away. There is an airport in Sion that has direct flights to and from London but most international flights arrive and depart from Geneva or Zurich (145 miles or 240 kilometers away). Best to connect to a train or drive to Zermatt from these major airports.

St. Moritz is located 120 miles (200 kilometers) from Zurich in the German-speaking region of southeastern Switzerland in the Canton of Graubunden.  St. Moritz has an airport (Engandin) but weather conditions can make access unreliable so best to travel by train or car from Zurich.

Bottom Line:  All three resorts are approximately two hours from a major airport. The drive from the airport to the resorts is easy as the roads are always clear but a train ride is the most relaxing and scenic. The Swiss railway system is extensive and the trains leave and arrive on time, are spotless, and are very comfortable. Most of the major lines have a “children’s car” which contains a full jungle gym within the car allowing kids to play.canstockphoto10444373

SPORTS

There are numerous sports to participate in at all three resorts but resources for the big 4 sports (skiing, cross country/skate ski, winter hiking, and snow shoeing) are summarized below:

Gstaad has 220 kilometers of ski slopes, 92 kilometers (18 trails) for cross country or skate skiing, 180 kilometers (34 trails) for winter hiking, and 97 kilometers (14 trails) for snow shoeing.

Zermatt (pictured below) has 350 kilometers of ski slopes, 24 kilometers (2 trails) for cross country or skate skiing, 70 kilometers (17 trails) for winter hiking, and 11 kilometers (4 trails) for snow shoeing.

St. Moritz has 350 kilometers of ski slopes, 80 kilometers for cross country skiing, 150 kilometers for winter hiking, and 50 kilometers for snow shoeing.

Bottom Line:  Zermatt and St. Moritz have the most kilometers of ski slopes while Gstaad and St. Moritz can boast of having the most kilometers of trails for cross country or skate skiing, winter hiking, and snow shoeing.canstockphoto7773707

ENVIRONMENT

Gstaad is located at 1,050 meters or 3,450 feet with most of the accessible mountain peak ski areas less than 2,000 meters or 6,500 feet (except for Glacier 3000 which reaches 3,016 meters or nearly 10,000 feet).  Hence, snow can be problematic but the Swiss are diligent and make snow often with 60% of the main slopes covered with artificial snow according to the Tourist Information office (www.gstaad.ch).

Zermatt is located at an elevation of 1,620 meters (5,310 feet) and is known for having 38 peaks over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) but there are only five accessible ski peaks that range from a low of 2,288 meters (7,500 feet) at Sunnegga to a high of 3,883 meters (12,700 feet) at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. Because of the high altitude, snow is always present which guarantees skiing 365 days a year although skiing is limited to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise in the summer months.

St. Moritz has an elevation of 1,830 meters (6,000 feet) and is known for having more than 300 days of sunshine annually.  In addition, St. Moritz is the official training location for Swiss Olympians and many other athletes who come to train at high altitudes.  Piz Bernia is the only peak higher than 4,000 meters at 4,049 meters (13,284 feet) but most of the ski peaks are 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) to 3,300 meters (10,830 feet) so snow is guaranteed.

Bottom Line:  Snow can be problematic in Gstaad although the Swiss create their own. Most of the mountains in St. Moritz and Zermatt are at higher elevations which bring more snow and a longer winter sport ski season.

TOWN
Gstaad is a small village best navigated by foot because vehicles are not allowed in the center of the village. However, the Gstaad region is spread out and requires a car, train or bus to take advantage of the ski areas, trails, restaurants, and shops.  The main road going through the village is known as the “Promenade” (illustrated below) and is only 4-5 blocks long and 2-3 blocks wide with access limited to pedestrians.

Switzerland PolanskiStreet parking can be a challenge but there are parking garages and lots (pre-pay) that provide ample parking.

The train station is in the center of the village and an easy resource to get to other areas, especially Schonried-Saananmoser, the largest ski area. The Gstaad Information office (www.gstaad.ch) is also located in the center of the village on the Promenade and is a great resource for information.

Zermatt is a geographically small area with three main streets in a valley, as illustrated below. Motorized vehicles are prohibited to minimize pollution but there are electric and battery-powered vehicles along with horse-drawn carriages.  Walking is the best way to navigate the town with railway and gondola transportation to reach the area peaks available from the central part of town or train station.  The Zermatt Tourist office in the village is a great resource for information on the area or go on-line at www.zermatt.ch.
canstockphoto10692228

St. Moritz is located next to Lake St. Moritz and has a lovely walking path around the perimeter of the lake, as shown below right. The lake path will forever be etched in my mind as the place where I realized my daughter knew her math.  She was 9 years old and had just broken her left arm – not from skiing but from falling off a table she was dancing on – so we spent afternoons together walking around the lake which she didn’t always enjoy.  One day she complained about how long the walk was so in trying to snow her and keep her walking, I told her that we would only walk halfway around the lake and turn around.  She thought about that for about one second and said “no, Mom..that’s the same as walking around the whole lake.” Nothing much gets by her.

iStock_000011912503SmallSimilar to Gstaad, St. Moritz’s ski areas are outside of town and can be accessed from a train station in town but buses seem to be the most popular route to the ski areas.  St. Moritz allows all types of transportation in the streets in the center of the town but walking on the sidewalks in the village is the best way to get to know the area. For complete information on the area, go to www.stmoritz.ch.

Bottom Line:  All three resorts have excellent train and bus service to the various mountains and the train stations are in the center of the villages. Zermatt and Gstaad don’t allow cars in the village but Zermatt is more contained and easier to maneuver by foot.

Ambiance

Gstaad’s logo is “Come Up Slow Down and this aptly fits the area as this resort attracts both sports enthusiasts and others who just want to relax and enjoy the scene.  On a sunny day when skiers are out traversing trails, the promenade will be filled with people shopping and enjoying lunch inside and out on patio terraces.

Zermatt is a more condensed area and the town seems to always be busy and full of people who want to take advantage of all the sporting opportunities in the area. Their logo – Zermatt – Matterhorn – For Real Holidays - also seems appropriate as the Matterhorn is a big draw with many tourists taking railways and gondolas up the mountain for the views and picture taking opportunities, not to mention the thousands of climbers that ascend the Matterhorn each year.

St. Moritz is more similar to Gstaad in ambiance than Zermatt yet still attracts those that love sports. Their logo – St. Moritz – Top of the World – with a big sun shining down describes this area accurately:  a bit of a scene for those who love the sun but also full of high mountains to climb and ski down.  Everyone is always outside and there is a very sophisticated feel to this village but there is also the essence of fitness.

Bottom Line:  Gstaad and St. Moritz have more of a high profile social scene whereas Zermatt is more laid back with a more casual ambiance.

If asked which is my favorite, I would honestly have to say that I enjoy all three resorts but I am drawn to Zermatt. Of the three destinations, Zermatt is the area I have spent the least amount of time at and consequently think there is still so much more for me to see and do.

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