St Moritz: the birthplace of winter tourism still has it all

Precursing the conception of the Winter Olympics, savvy European jet-setters vested into the mountain oasis of St Moritz. Revelling in the pristine Alpine air, the affluent and trendy still sport their bodies and tan their faces to a beaming, magazines-filling glow. No wonder, sun is the emblem of the resort town. The panoptic Alpine resort blends Swiss precision with Italian hospitality skilfully. Come summer, fall or winter, the sunny Engadin valley lures in quality lifestyle seekers. From Italian fashion scions (Donatella Versace has house here) through London or Zurich-based CEOs, to professional athletes, St Moritz is like the year-around Aspen of Europe. Beyond Tyrolean rusticity, here the old and new money meet athletic spirit in the altitude.

winter horse raceSkying St Moritz

“Top Of The World” attitude of St Moritz in its architecture

What makes the Grisons canton gem even more attractive culturally, beyond its contemporary art galleries, vip design shows (Nomad in February), is the local rumantsch dialect (derived from old latin) still spoken and taught in schools. As in Austria, the regional pride boasts its façades in the Engadin architecture, customs, cuisine, and the local produce. Dotting the valley’s towns, settlements and villages are the protected traditional whitewashed houses with beautiful decorated with sgraffito (scratched ornament) plasterwork facades. Chesa Veglia, built in 1658 houses now a good grill restaurant and a better pizzeria is owned by the fanciest hotel in St Moritz, the Baddrutt’s Palace. Money rules, as the life here is expensive. Gucci, Loro Piana, Louis Vuitton next to Hauser & Wirth art gallery and opulent rare jewelry boutiques line the main road along the Baddrut’s. While, the indulgent breakfast buffets at the Palace are accompanied by a harpist’s strings, healthier options await at the Suvretta House.

Engadin architecturemountain hut

An antithesis to the contemporary floor to ceiling windows, the traditional mountain style is tiny, seemingly haphazard, and like gingerbread the see-through holes are laced with ornamental decor. A short drive to Champfér, a splendidly restored farmhouse (built in 1658) was transformed into an excellent Michelin restaurant Talvo by Dalsass. Since 2011 in the caring hands of Tyrolean chef Martin Dalsass and his son Andrea, for consistent, ingredient-driven pleasure and olive oil lovers, this is a must. 

Swiss AlpsMountain hut

Bookworms may be interested in visiting the original Heidi mountain hut, a well-kept example of the more humble Engadin architecture. The Public Library in the middle of town stocks you with more print, but you can sit down in the back room and read in if you feel like. A bookstore across the street sells some books in English, Italian and German.

Engadine libraryEngadiner Museum

The Leaning Tower attracts visitors to Pisa, but there is one in St Moritz, and it beats Pisa’s tilt with a 5.5 degrees! Built in 1570, this former church steeple is unmissable for architecture buffs.

Digging deeper into the regional history as a spa destination, the Forum Paracelsus (free entry) ushers you into the natural taste of the local, acidic springs. The Mauritius well from the Bronze Age was discovered around 1411 BC.

Much of the newer architecture is seamlessly built in across the Engadine, but St Moritz lost its authentic local look decades ago.

The boxy Kulm Hotel, the eccentric flying saucer named Chesa Futura by the British architect Norman Foster, and worse, the high-rising apartment buildings in St Moritz Bad spoil the congruity.

architecture St MoritzGiovanni Segantini

Two, locally-focused museums are worth visiting, if at least for their architecture. The Engadiner Museum and the rotunda-shaped Segantini Museum showing exclusively the works by local artist Giovanni Segantini. His sketch inspired the architecture of today’s museum. In the dome at the top you find the last works of the painter – The Alpine triptych of “Becoming – Being – Passing”.

Naturally blessed, the Engadin valley in winter could be painted as an endless feast of whipped cream overflowing from the crisp rocky mountain cones flipped upside down. Practically set in a triangle north-west from Milan (international travellers can land at Malpensa and drive along the Lake Como, via Lugano to St Moritz), Zurich and the Austrian Tyrols, the open Valley basks in the sunshine most days. Wind from Maloja sways the clouds from the peaks, down the slopes, whisking up the egg white snowflakes covering the lakes like fluffy meringues. Just bite. 

Swiss mountain town

A century ago you would arrive by train (Glacier and Bernina Express routes today climb to the St Moritz Dorf) and taxi around by horse carriage. We drive our car from Monaco, while private jets land from London and other affluent European destinations. A small airport stretches in the valley right next to the seemingly endless Nordic ski track lacing the Inn river. Traveling to St Moritz can turn into an adventure before you even put your ski boots on. The winter weather is laced with surprises in the mountains. Once we got stuck in the serpentines dipping deep into the ravines of the Alps, had to be towed down to safe road, while other times we simply could not drive through the narrow stretches on the Italian border side.  

Silvaplana lake

The St Moritz calendar brings European jet-setters in

There are many attractive events scheduled each year. In winter, the Polo on the Lake, the horse races, cricket, the Gourmet Festival, Red Cross Gala, Nomad design festival and other smaller art and social affairs fill up the callendar. It is a magnetising experience to watch the horses galloping on the frozen from the comfort of your balcony, so book your stay at Badrutt’s Palace ahead. In summer music enters the scene with more prominence.

Swiss churches

Winter sports in St Moritz

The stage for two Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948 set St Moritz on the world winter sports map. The former Olympic stadium near to the Kulm Golf annually hosts high level bobsleigh (in the only natural ice channel run in the world) and ski racing competitions regularly take over the Cresta Run. The highest peak in the canton, Piz Bernina (4,049 m) is set on the border with Lombardy (Italy). Its range defines the two glacier valleys Vadret Morteratsch and Vadret Roseg, where at least under the current climatic conditions, you can heli-ski all year round. Right around St Moritz, the Corvatch (9km run), Corviglia and Diavolezza (glacier) runs are groomed for comfort. The only inconvenience for these staying in town may be taking the funicular up that runs about every 15 minutes. If you lodge at the Suvretta House (open  since 1919), their private lifts will bring you up.

St Moritz lake

The sport facilities in the region are extraordinary. Recently built Ovaverva swimming, fitness and spa (facials, massages) complex right across from the Kempinski Grand hotel has a 25m indoor swimming pool, separate children’s pool, large indoor and outdoor jacuzzis and a gym. In the building also the St Moritz cross-country ski centre is located. St Moritz prides in offering one of the best groomed scenic cross-country skiing trails in Europe if not the World and many professional athletes train here. I can easily skate on the mostly flat marathon trail snaking along the lakes and valley for hours. We prefer to drive over to Celerina or Pontresina, park our car by Chesa Rosatsch hotel, and get on the ski trails smoothly. Lunch at the hotel’s casual restaurant Uondas is our favorite apres-ski. Piste 21 further after the Engadine Airport is also good.

cross-country skying in EuropeNordic skiing

Walking trails are perfectly groomed, signposted so anyone can stroll across the Lake St Moritz to the forested valley and a small lake that is great for swimming in the summer. Passing giant ice-sickles sculpted into anything creatively attractive that a man’s handwork can conceive, it is an intriguing walk. Dog walkers love the vastness of possibilities. In the opposite direction heading across the Silvaplana Lej (Lake) will take you under the Diavolezza glacier. Uphill, taking the Via Alpina you can hike up to your lunch on the mountain. For dining options check my article Gourmet’s Paradise in St Moritz.

The luxe travellers keep easily fit during the rare rainy or stormy days since each of the grand hotels has a great gym, saunas, and a large spa area. Even those on the budget accommodation find sauna in their bed and breakfast quite often.

walking in the winter AlpsSt Moritz luxury

Summer activities in the Alpine setting

In the Gilded Challet, Padraig Rooney writes: “Switzerland is partly a creation of our own guilt and desires: freedom, fresh air, money, corruption, chocolate, a winter holiday, heaven on earth. It’s the playground for Europe, far from prying eyes, where royalty go skiing, former royalty hide out, and collapsed dictators count their filthy lucre.” Nowhere is this as evident as in St Moritz. Unlike most ski holiday destinations, St Moritz attracts visitors also during the warm months. As the frozen lakes melt and the sunrays halo the warmer days, St Moritz transforms into a golfers turf and draws youth to its music festivals. Most hotels reopen in June after a short, muddy late spring break, the summer logistics are set for you. The Nordic ski trails turn into safe biking routes and smooth, paved roads along the river draw in rollerbladers, while the gushing rivers invite for rafting. The ski slopes transform into steep hiking and mountain biking and the lakes lend this eden to sailers, windsurfers.

St Moritz lifestyleBadrutt's Palace Hotel in St Moritz

Luxury accommodation

The historic Suvretta House offers superb more natural views away from the action of St Moritz. It’s pool is large, the ice skating ring like at Badrutt’s and Kulm hotel open for the guests, but as a popular conference venue today, the food at the Grand Restaurant is mediocre and outdated. The only luxurious hotel on the lake is the Grand Hotel Kronenhof, but in terms of comfort and quality the Badrutt’s Palace wins over the competitive set.

The Giardino Mountain Hotel in Champfer has the most contemporary interiors and the spa is superb, but the quality is not at the level of the Palace, which also offers the best views over the St Moritz lake and best dining in town. 

”Switzerland has always provided something of a refuge for writers – from war, oppression, tuberculosis and even marriage – as well as an inspiration to them too”, wrote the The Bookseller. The culturally broad yet politically neutral cantons offer plenty to the savvy travellers today, but St Moritz has it all, authentically evolving with the needs of the people occupying its hotel rooms.

Matsuhisa grows from Aspen, LA, Athens through St Moritz

Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is worldly known as Nobu, the legend of contemporary Japanese cooking blending Peruvian and other elements into his special sharing plates. Swiping the globe with his nikkei cuisine from New York, London, Dubai to Hong Kong, chef Matsuhisa most effectively blended his Japanese skills with the alluring ingredients that he found during his stint in Peru over 20 years ago.
chef Nobu Matsuhisa
Nobu’s partnership with the actor Robert De Niro and restaurateur Drew Nieporent gave birth to the international network of the chic Nobu restaurants. Nevertheless, his namesake Matsuhisa restaurants remain his most cherished babies, so he shows up often. I have repeatedly dined at Matsuhisa in Aspen, Los Angeles, Paris and St Moritz, and while the first two are the most Nobu style, the newest Paris location is by far the best. The main reason being that the executive chef Hideki Endo was given a free reign from Nobu Matsuhisa and creates sublime, Michelin stars deserving plates in the chicest atmosphere of the Royal Monceau hotel. Chef Hideki, originally from Hokkaido, has helmed the scenic Hong Kong Nobu for over a decade, and moved to Paris to open the by celebrities touted Matsuhisa Paris.
nikkei cuisine Paris
Traditional Japanese manners grace Nobu and his wife as either of them often greet the customers in the first ever Matsuhisa restaurant in Los Angeles. The local glam-set still frequents the causal restaurant after almost two decades in business. Whether you are a Hollywood star or just a devote fan of his cuisine, Nobu shares his humble smile and a gentle handshake as he strolls around.
Nobu sashimi
His second branch in Aspen, as excellent and casual as his La La Land firstborn, was the last that strayed away from the overt commercialisation that swoop the intimate charm away from the Nobus, and his growing suite of Matsuhisa restaurants (Athens riviera, Mykonos, St. Moritz, Paris). Much larger than its LA base, Matsu in Aspen further accommodates two bars. One for casual eats upstairs and the other just by the entrance downstairs. In embracing the essential American flare, large Tv screens in the bar area lure in the football and cricket fans to virtually coach their teams. A spectacle in itself as you walk in. Like in an orchestra, these conductors with chopsticks instead of a baton indulge in a decadent meal. Some locals just pop in for a bottle of Asahi beer and a snack (like the crunchy crab tempura salad, the beef or fish tacos), yet the food’s quality would satisfy an Arab sheikh. Being the most fashionable and for almost two decades the most popular restaurant in Aspen, while keeping its informal allure, make Matsuhisa tirelessly attractive. In Aspen, young folks with sometimes ridiculously weird ski hats mingle with the mature, fur-adorned bejewelled ladies, older couples and families enjoy their meal, all naturally sinking into the buzzing atmosphere. Booking ahead is highly advised.
Nobu new style sashimi

Food at Matsuhisa

Nobu is about his inventive dishes and not the classic simple sushi and maki cuts. His bold, creative and high taste-profile flatters to the salt and rich flavours accustomed American diners. In St Moritz, the food is more subdued and does not show the full spectrum of his special plates as the Aspen and LA Matsuhisa do. Also there his is creative cooking mastery and the accent on top quality fresh ingredients show off at his namesake US based restaurants most vibrantly. Like a rainbow, Nobu’s dishes cover the flavours and textures from delicate and light to deep, rich and intensely accented plates. It is wise to start light and move to the heavier or more seasoned dishes, so your taste buds detect the suppleness of the delicate fish and seafood creations such as the refreshing Peruvian style tiraditos (which Nobu learned when cooking in Lima), crab tacos or the new style yellowtail sashimi with jalapeños. The spaghetti-like shaved Hearts of palm salad with lobster and Nobu’s special savoury dry miso crumble is excellent to share at the beginning. You can buy this superb condiment at both restaurants, and use it at home over anything craving its umami flavour. The superb King crab tempura salad with red onions marinated in spicy vinaigrette is refreshingly touched up with coriander.
bao in Paris lobster bao

The superbly trained staff usually brings them in an appropriate sequence, which is essential for the enjoyment. Since the fish is marinated in an oil-based sauce with sesame most of the New style sashimis are moving towards the richer side, therefore it is better to get them after the simpler lime and lemon-based plates like Tomato ceviche or the seafood tiraditos. My favourite is the New style salmon sashimi. The fatty and smooth salmon goes hand in hand with the oily sauce drizzled with chopped green chives. The abalone, a rare type of sea shell, is always very expensive whether you order it in Japan, China or in Colorado. If you can afford to treat yourself to something very special, inquire whether the lucky day shipped some of these porcini textured sea wonders. Served broiled, they impress. Usually only in the US Matsuhisa.

Matsuhisa does wonders with mushrooms. At Nobu as well as at ‘Matsu’ I usually order the sizzling hot Mushroom tobanyaki, but in Aspen, I also like the unique warm Mushroom salad with lobster. These forest gems top up even the flavour and texture of the Maine lobster, but still this plate is a wonderful marriage between Western and Eastern ingredients. I highlighted my personal bests at ‘Matsu’, although I have eaten almost the entire menu a number of times and enjoyed most, so go for it.
Nobu parisRoyal Monceau restaurant
From the Japanese sweets try the Shaved ice or the Mochi ice cream. These gooey, thin, dumpling-like rice flour buns filled with ice cream are homemade. You can select from multiple flavours. The green tea and vanilla never disappoint, but chocolate or li-chi may seduce too.
Drinks: The wine list at Aspen Matsuhisa has the widest selection of wines that go well with this style of food. To stay local at least with the wine, we usually go for a bold California Chardonnay. A refreshing dry white wine with a higher acidity like Riesling would be my top choice, but a lush white Bordeaux, Rhône’s Rousanne and Marsanne blend or a mineral slightly oaky California Chardonnay like from Aubert de Villaine’s Aubert (DRC winemaker) or Littorai suit to most of the fish and seafood Nobu dishes. Pinot Noir works well too. Williams Selyem are a great bet if you are willing to spend a couple hundred dollars. Their Chardonnay from the Heintz Vineyard (not to be mistaken for the Heitz Cellars in Napa Valley) ages gracefully so if you see an older vintage, try. In St Moritz, the impressive wine cellar is shared with the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel luxurious restaurants, and there are many great European wines on the list. Here, try the local impressive Pinot Noir Monolith by Obrecht, very savoury and not too fruity like most Swiss Pinots. In Paris French bottles impress, usually we go for white Alsace (Riesling Clos Ste Hune) and red Côte Rotie or Burgundy.
California ChardonnayTop California Pinot Noir wineTop quality Swiss Pinot Noir
At the Los Angeles Matsuhisa the wine options are more limited so we often get a bottle of Kistler Chardonnay that is creamy, rich, yet balanced with a good acidity and a long, tremendous aftertaste. Beer or sake are popular choices and there is a very good selection from Japanese, American as well as European brews. Not in the mood for alcohol? The Nobu’s own Japanese green tea, which you can also buy, is very good and its youth-prolonging antioxidants refresh and relax at the same time. Magic, isn’t it?
I have dined at the Matsuhisa in LA regularly for over a decade and in winter Aspen each February. I am grateful for so many years of consistent pleasure there. Arigato! Sadly the same cannot be claimed about the Athens and St Moritz locations.

Chesa Veglia: live Grill show at Chadafö in St Moritz

Badrutt’s Palace Hotel converted this historic farmhouse in the centre of St. Moritz into a soirée for gourmets and nightlife lovers. Since 1936 Chesa Veglia catered to the most demanding clientelle visiting St Moritz but also to diners preferring a casual, quick and family friendly environment.
Chesa Veglia covered by snow
Atmosphere: Piano plays each night creating an elegant and cosy setting, the room is dark and classy while it still feels mountain authentic. The Grill Chadafö is located in the building’s highest floor, above a casual pizzeria, traditional Swiss “stube”and perhaps the most exclusive private night club in town downstairs. The Grill is the most romantic and quiet of all. Couples, families, business partners or friends who want to enjoy a pleasant conversation over a meal are all in the right room. Do not wear your ski boots and jeans, but you do not need to wear anything formal. Smart casual will strike the dress code target right in the core.
The Grill at Chesa Veglia
Food: Everything on the grill is a specialty, but also fashionable creations such as Seared tuna sashimi style or foie gras do not disappoint. You can start with a salad if you plan on getting one of the restaurants generous steaks, lamb chops or veal later. If you are in the mood for an Asian creation then I can recommend the Seared tuna with sesame crust and shaved vegetables. The fish is superb. Fresh and meaty texture together with eastern spices are lovely with a glass of elegant red wine such as most of Bordeaux.
Seared tuna
The grilled fish (changing according to availability and season) is also very good so you do not need to go for the cholesterol-boosting flank of red meat. Nevertheless, most diners come here for the meat. It is usually served with creamed spinach and potatoes, both generous and tasty. Some of the dishes will be finished in front of you on a small cooking station that the waiters stage there just before serving. Flames and flipping pancakes and meats just in front of you or behind your back if you face the windows adds a theatrical accent to the restaurant’s ambiance.
The pancakes are the sweet highlight of the menu as they are prepared in front of you. After all that meat we usually refer a cheese plate that is in tune with the savoury nature of our previous courses.
Drinks: The wine list is spectacular. Old vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy are for the real connoisseurs and those fashioning big pockets. There are also wines from other regions, but with the grilled meat I prefer the old-fashioned Bordeaux. The champagne selection is extensive and invites you for a fizzy cocktail before or even after your dinner, particularly if you head out afterwards (the nightclub downstairs is convenient).
Cuisine: Swiss with Italian accents. Specialises in grilled meats and seafood.
Visit: January 2013
Price: High (St Moritz isn’t cheep in the first place, plus the restaurant belongs to the luxurious Badrutt’s Palace hotel although it is located separately from the main hotel’s building).
Opening hours: Grill Chadafö only in winter from 7.30pm – 11.00pm
Contact: Tel: +(41) 81 837 28 00
Address: Via Veglia 2, 7500 St Moritz, Switzerland.

Salastrains: gourmet pizza and honest Italian fare in St Moritz

Food, art and view from the slopes above St Moritz
Atmosphere: The outside terrace is very popular on sunny and warm days. Lovely views of the valley and ski slopes attract many diners. It is lively and refreshing. Inside there are two parts of the same restaurant. One is a bit more elegant and the other has a rustic mountain feel. When cruising the slopes we prefer to sit in the more casual one. Decorated with animal head trophies, horns and mountain photographs, the place assures you that you are in the European mountain area. Everyone wears their ski suits boots and even hats if they do not feel like taking them off. The room is pleasantly warm though so it is up to you how much you decide to undress.
Mountain interior at Salastrains
Food: Honest, rustic and generous. The portions are not huge ( especially if you compare them to the portions typical in the US), yet most of the dishes are very filling. When skiing I like to warm up with a bowl of rich soup. The creamy Molligatawny Soup is my favourite. This curry-based creamy soup with pieces of chicken is hearty and tasty. It surely gives you a good base of energy for at least a couple of runs down the slopes.
Local meat platter is also a nice starter. Engadin specialities such as Deer carpaccio. Fish carpaccio or Tuna tartar are lighter and refreshing options.
Hearty creamy soup
The pizza is the reason why we return to Salastrains each time we ski in St Moritz. But  this is not just any pizza. Crisp, thin crust with a hefty dose of cheese, crowned by a light brown cap of white truffles. What to say – it is the most gourmet pizza (and probably the priciest one) one can imagine. You can get also deer carpaccio, house-made noodles or risotto sprinkled with the precious white truffles from Alba.
White truffle pizza
Pasta are the restaurant’s signature as well as the fresh lobster. The homemade pastas are delicious, especially the linguine. The lobster is very nice for Europe, yet not superb like the Main lobster. You can have it steamed or grilled, served with a green salad  or plain. Veal Milanese would surely please any lover of this Italian “schnitzel” style speciality.
There is a tempting dessert buffet in the restaurant, so if you still have a space for an “Apfelstrudel” , “Topfenstrudel” both served with vanilla sauce or a Chocolate mouse go for it. Not fussy, just home-style and generous.
Drinks: Warming up with a cup of mulled wine or tea with some schnapps (strong liquor) is a must in the mountains to get you soaked properly in the winter atmosphere. The wine list offers Italian, French and Swiss wines by the bottle and some by the glass (2 whites and 2 reds). If you feel like having some bubbles then a tiny bottle of Champagne (185ml Moet et Chandon) will not send your head into flying mode while replenishes your imaginary energy levels through the combination of sparkle and alcohol. Half bottles for those conscious about safe skiing are great option if you do not want to feel the drinks in your head. Magnums are perfect for big groups.
Cuisine: Italian and Engadin (area around St Moritz) traditional.
Visit: January 2012
Price: Medium to high (if you get truffles on everything you order then you will get a three-digit bill).
Opening season: All seasons. The restaurant is located at the Salastrains hotel.
Address: Via Salastrains 12, 7500 St Moritz, Switzerland
Contact: Tel: +(41) 81 830 07 07

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