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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.