The town of Zermatt is a picturesque mix of elegant hotels, modern condominiums and shopping centers, rustic chalets and charming huts that are built on stilts to keep out unwanted rodents. The icy, narrow streets are lined with the usual tourist traps, expensive clothing and ski stores, homey pubs, bakeries and cafe's, and candy stores with wonderful chocolates heaped high on silver plates.
GETTING THERE: No cars are allowed in Zermatt, so the best way to get there is by train from Geneva. The cheapest round-trip air fare from Washington to Geneva is about $523, available on TWA and Pan Am. Tickets must be purchased at least 21 days in advance, and you must stay at least seven days. Swissair charges $458 from New York's Kennedy International Airport.
There is a train depot at the airport in Geneva that provides direct service to Brig, where passengers change trains for a 45-minute ride to Zermatt. Total time from Geneva to Zermatt by train is about 3 1/2 hours, with a round-trip, second-class fare of $58.
The cost to fly into Zurich, which also has a train depot with direct service to Brig, is about the same as the fare to Geneva, but the total travel time to Zermatt by train is as much as 1 1/2 hours longer and costs about $10 more.
Getting AROUND: The preferred mode of travel is foot. Horse-drawn sleighs are romantic but expensive ($17 for a half-hour trip, $27 for an hour-long tour of the village), and golf-cart-style taxis are cheap (about $1.50 per person for a cross-town trip) but no thrill. It takes only 20 minutes to walk from one end of Zermatt to the other.
SKIING: ft,ngoth rr Lift tickets this year cost $24 a day for adults and are good for unlimited runs on all lifts serving Zermatt's three ski areas. A six-day adult pass is $112. Six-day passes require a passport-size photo, so take one with you.
There are numerous ski stores that offer rental equipment, many located near the train station. Shop around for the best prices, but expect to pay about $14 a day for skis, $74 for six days; $7 a day for boots, $23 for six days; and $3 a day for poles, $7 for six days.
Zermatt has about 175 ski instructors and regularly scheduled courses are taught in English for beginners through experts. A full-day group lesson costs $26 per person; group lessons for six days cost $74. A private, all-day lesson is $95.
WHERE TO STAY: Many people are return visitors to Zermatt who reserve the same rooms in the same hotels for the same dates year after year. The moral is: Make reservations well in advance, because many beds are already spoken for. In the winter months, hotel rates include bed, breakfast, dinner, service and tip.
At the finest hotels, such as the Mont Cervin and the Zermatterhof, expect to pay between $225 and $300 per night double, including breakfast, dinner, service and tips.
Moderately price hotels, such as the Bristol and Julen, charge between $145 and $190 a night for double occupancy.
There are about 50 bed-and-breakfast establishments in Zermatt, with prices ranging from $60 to $80 a night double.
WHERE TO EAT:One of the most entertaining stops in town is the North Wall Bar in the Hotel Rhodania on the east side of the canal that bisects Zermatt, where a younger, mostly American crowd congregates to throw darts, listen to contemporary music and down what is reputed to be the cheapest beer and pizza in town. (Pizzas with toppings from ham, salami and mushrooms to hot peppers, pineapple and egg are about $4.75.)
The high points of a visit to the bar are films -- ranging from the hysterical to the unbelievable -- of skiers crashing into trees and plunging into streams. Employes of the bar also film homemade videos of themselves in phenomenal bump, deep-powder and synchronized ski scenes. It is a lesson in humility when the man who just plowed through 50 moguls at breakneck speed delivers a pepperoni pizza to your table.
Another favorite is the Papperia Pub, a large raucous bar with billiards and squash courts in the basement, on Kirschestrasse, one of Zermatt's main streets. The more upscale should try the London Bar just off Bahnhofstrasse, a small glass-and-chrome intimate pub with the front of a London Taxi protruding from the bar and boasting more than 30 types of beer.
Reservations for dinner are a must, since restaurants, especially moderately priced ones, are crammed. With skiers from as far away as Japan, Zermatt caters to a wide variety of palates, but aim for the local Swiss specialties, and expect to pay $20 to $30 per person for a medium-priced dinner including wine, desert and tip.
At least one dinner of cheese or beef fondue is mandatory, and you should not leave without trying the raclette, a plate of melted cheese surrounded by chunks of potatoes. Almost any restaurant in town will offer these dishes, but the Cafe Du Pont and the Whymperstube, at the southern end of Bahnhofstrasse, both have a cozy, old-world ambiance and friendly waiters and waitresses.
The Chez Gaby, near the canal, is another favorite among locals. Though Swiss charm is sometimes replaced by Swiss efficiency, don't be bullied about; you want a table on the first floor. Try the grilled lamb chops, the fried potatoes and cap the meal with an Irish coffee and a Coupe Denmark (a rich chocolate sundae).
For a real splurge, the French restaurant at the Hotel Seilerhaus is top-notch, with cream of mussel soup and salmon with green pepper sauce to start; exquisite lamb wrapped in puff pastry with basil sauce; a variety of homemade sorbets and a three-chocolate mousse that is obscenely rich. Ask to sit near the fireplace in the front room overlooking Bahnhofstrasse and expect to pay about $140 for two (and worth every penny).
Afterward, walk across the street to the Post Hotel, which dominates the night life in Zermatt with three restaurants (Italian, French and a pizzeria) and a jazz bar with top billings. For those whose legs didn't turn to rubber on the slopes, under the same roof is a wild disco that looks like something out of "Saturday Night Fever" and a rock 'n' roll bar carved out of an old wine cellar in the basement that comes alive after midnight.
INFORMATION:For more information, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, Swiss Center, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, 1-212-757-5944.