On first encounter, St Moritz’s splashy elitism can leave some visitors feeling irked, but once you submit to the gilded embrace of some of its signature experiences, such as full-moon skiing down the fairy-tale Diavolezza mountain, you’ll likely be hooked for life.
The last time we visited St Moritz, it was to witness the grande dame of Alpine luxury resorts make a rare misstep. Seeking to adorn yet further the glittering events calendar that magnetises the minted and fabulous from all over the world to a range of wildly flamboyant sporting and cultural spectacles, the village in Switzerland’s south-east corner had launched what it hoped would be the planet’s greatest winter dance- music festival, Music Summit. Many of the swishest venues in town and across the ski slopes had signed up to host DJ sets and parties. And to ensure the event’s success, the organisers had booked an impressive line-up of international artists, including as headliners the three most enduring legends of New York house – David Morales, Louie Vega and Tony Humphries. It tanked.
We’ll admit to a degree of schadenfreude at the disco fiasco that unfolded. Invited to cover the event, we were given palatial digs at the Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski, lavished with dinners at excellent restaurants, chaperoned around the spectacular ski area and half-liquefied by world-class spa treatments. Yet, we struggled not to inch at St Moritz’s febrile fetishisation of extreme privilege and exclusivity (‘Ha! It’s not for us aboriginals,’ said one local bartender we asked if he’d be attending any of the parties). Nor did routinely paying 30 Swiss francs for a cocktail help. So, we had to stifle guffaws when, at Music Summit’s headline party at the opulent Carlton Hotel, the New York trinity played to an empty room, most of it reserved for VIPs who no-showed, its state-of-the-art light show illuminating only a clutch of Chanel-clad grannies gamely throwing shapes, while a lone young couple who’d clearly found the strong stuff slumped drooling at the edge of the dance floor, comatose but for the girl’s leg, which spasmed in perfect sync with every new tune that dropped.
St Moritz has, to be fair, some pretty solid reasons for its hubristic bearing. The global winter-sports tourism industry was born here in 1864 as a result of a wager made in the historic Kulm Hotel. In 1928 the village launched the first-ever Winter Olympics and, with the games’ return 20 years later, became one of only three places in history to host twice. Meanwhile, a dynasty of savvy local hospitality entrepreneurs polished and packaged St Moritz’s extraordinary assets for the world’s most affluent and aspirational and ushered in a new era of monied decadence that made the village the winter hideaway of choice for Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, Liz Taylor and Brigitte Bardot.
That our return visit would be different was clear from the moment we arrived. Spirited in swirling snow from the train station in a liveried Mercedes-Benz Luxury Viano, we were swiftly folded into the chinchilla bosom of the Kulm. The huge, richly decorated lobby lounge thronged with so many immaculately uniformed staff – herding Vuitton trunks, serving cocktails, polishing, vacuuming – an elaborately choreographed song-and-dance number seemed constantly imminent.
Charming receptionists wafted us through check-in, handsome Hans escorted us to our deluxe lake-view room and in minutes we were savouring a perfect dirty martini in the smart Altitude Bar, a tuxed-up piano man crooning lounge classics in the background. Next stop the K, one of the Kulm’s seven restaurants. Aesthetically, an intimate, rustic cellar, it hosts a winter residency faux- modestly billed as a ‘pop-up’ by the two-Michelin-starred Tim Raue. One of Berlin’s hottest chefs, Raue is a master of intricately constructed, Asian-influenced fusion cuisine, as our four- course dinner with bespoke wine pairings amply proved.
You could overdose on glamour just getting to St Moritz. Sitting in one of the Upper Engadine region’s wide, lake-rich glaciated valleys, it occupies one of Switzerland’s high-altitude Narnia zones, areas – like the Vala is around Zermatt, and Gstaad’s Bernese Oberland setting – that as you ascend into them shrug off merely jaw-dropping Alpine splendour for a transcendent higher gear of raw beauty that defies description. Whether you approach by road over one of six dramatic mountain passes or, as a not-inconsiderable quota of regulars do, by private jet or, as we did, on the UNESCO-listed Glacier Express, a cute red train that leaps chasms on monumental stone viaducts built more than a century ago, the unending profusion of soaring peaks, snow-choked ancient pine forests and plunging cliffs ravishes the soul.
Further blessed with an alleged 322 annual days of sunshine, the village has a unique history that’s inextricably meshed with that of the Kulm, one of St Moritz’s ‘big six’ grand ve-star hotels. Tourists have been making their way here for more than 3,000 years, drawn at first by the mineral springs which still bubble up in the Forum Paracelsus museum. But it was in the Kulm that St Moritz’s incarnation as a top-tier leisure destination began, when the hotel’s founder, Johannes Badrutt, issued a challenge to some of his aristocratic English guests as they prepared to head home after a long summer stay. If they came back for the winter and found his account of the resort’s sunny, spellbinding, sports-rich ‘off-season’ untrue, he would cover their expenses. The Brits took the bait and a passionate, generations- long love affair was born.
Not only did Badrutt’s guests lap up the winter landscapes and genteel pursuits, such as skating on the lakes and fur-swaddled horse-drawn carriage rides, they imported curling and cricket and, discovering the exhilarating potential of careening down icy roads on sleds (leading to no small number of bloody accidents), invented bobsleigh racing. Next, they pioneered skeleton on the now world-famous Cresta Run, which still reunites a crew of gutsy global bluebloods each season to risk life, limb and the esoteric initiation rites of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club. (Female riders, incidentally, are not allowed. Yep, this place is that old school.)
Which is why, having spent a bracing morning snowboarding silky pistes on Corvatsch, one of St Moritz’s four ski mountains, we found ourselves back on the Kulm’s manicured grounds at the Olympia Bob Run St Moritz-Celerina for a 269-Swiss-franc, 75-second ‘taxi ride’. I was more than a little nervous climbing between pilot and brakewoman into the giant bullet that was about to shoot me at speeds of up to 135 kmh down the 1,722m run, dialling the G-force up to 4.5, and I wondered fleetingly ‘am I dead?’ as we catapulted out of a sharp turn and my helmet smashed against the track’s ice wall, but the adrenaline rush afterwards beat any cocktail hands-down (just to be sure, I necked the complimentary glass of prosecco in the clubhouse at Olympic speed).
As St Moritz’s profile has continued to soar, the best addresses in town have diligently kept pace. Recent enhancements at the Kulm include an extension of its sumptuous spa to 2,000 sq m (not unusual in this town – the Kempinski’s stretches to nearly 3,000, while Badrutt’s Palace’s vast pamperdrome features a 25m oval infinity pool encased in floor-to-ceiling glass), with a spectacular outdoor jacuzzi that’s plenty big enough to swim in, framed by panoramic valley views. British ‘starchitect’ and part-time St Moritz resident Lord Norman Foster has sleekly reinvented the Kulm Country Club. Decorated with fascinating black-and- white photographs from the resort’s history, the elegant, light- filled space is now home to one of the chicest smart-casual restaurants in town. (Foster’s hand can be seen in several landmark buildings around St Moritz’s striking if strangely inharmonious townscape, notably in Chesa Futura, an apartment building with a curvaceous sci- silhouette, clad in 250,000 larch shingles.) And interiors architect Pierre-Yves Rochon has added 66 ‘Alpine-contemporary’ rooms and suites, a welcome complement to the slightly chintzy, if supremely comfortable decor that is the hotel’s signature look (its traditional appeal clearly still works – other hallowed old-world fixtures include a strict dress code in the Grand Restaurant, high tea in the lobby and daily bridge drives).
The pride the Kulm’s staff take in plugging their guests into the experiences that make St Moritz unique is palpable and the next challenge they offered us was skijoring, which involves being towed on skis by a horse and was once the preferred conveyance of lady visitors to St Moritzon shopping sprees. Viano-delivered to the frozen Lake Silvaplana on a dazzlingly sunny February morning, we found the scene alive with locals and guests devouring their leisure pursuits of choice. Snowkiters swooped across the lake, snowshoed hikers marched on forest trails, skiers and snowboarders whooped down pistes on both sides of the valley, while in the foreground a hundred or so racing cross-country skiers hared into view. (We don’t doubt that Via Serlas, with its Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Valentino outlets, dubbed ‘St Moritz’s Rodeo Drive’, was equally busy. The combination of ritzy retail, fine dining, wellness and other indoor indulgences keep 60 per cent of visitors off the ski slopes, making a beautifully uncrowded 350km of world-class pistes another of St Moritz’s USPs).
The following day, Lake St Moritz was the scene for White Turf, a three-weekend horse-racing series that sees a sparkling-white tent city spring up on the ice, with banks of stadium seating overlooking a track where international jockeys on thoroughbreds thunder past every 30 minutes, out in pursuit of prize purses totalling around half a million Swiss francs. Gleaming marquees also host champagne bars, caviar stands, live-music stages and pop-up bookies and attract some 35,000 visitors (disappointingly few rocking Ugg-skimming minks and giant Dior shades).
But our stay’s biggest high was to come. That evening, the Kulm invited its guests to Glüna Plaina, an exclusive event on Diavolezza mountain (whose ski operations it happens to own). Just twice a season on the night before full moon, guests ride the gondolaup to 3,000m for a gourmet dinner at the mountaintop restaurant and skiing or snowshoeing by moonlight. As our group of around 40 rose into the night, stubborn cloud looked certain to spoil our fun and we peered disappointed into the gloom, straining to glimpse the mighty Diavolezza glacier below. But, as our boozy fondue dinner drew to a close, Kulm director Heinz E Hunkeler called for silence with triumph in his eyes. “Nature has smiled on us,” he announced. “The cloud has cleared. The moon is out.” Surrounded by jagged peaks silhouetted against brilliant stars, just 13 of us buckled into skis and snowboards at the top of the wide, freshly groomed Minor run beneath a huge, ice-white moon that set the slopes glowing an almost ultra-violet blue. Tentatively at first, we made turns that quickly gathered pace as the swooping 2 km piste opened out at our feet and the strangeness of the experience gave way to a thrilling descent so perfectly joyous there was more than one teary eye as we climbed, elated, into the waiting Kulm limos. Utterly, unforgettably priceless.
‘St Moritz is the new Venice’ wrote one Swiss newspaper of the local art scene and, while that’s rather overstating matters, the village’s charming Segantini Museum has been joined in recent years by the Vito Schnabel Gallery and Galerie Gmurzynska, which show challenging contemporary works. And interesting architecture abounds here.
In January and February, the frozen lake hosts two of St Moritz’s flamboyant signature events – the Snow Polo World Cup and White Turf horse-racing series, respectively. January also welcomes superstar chefs from all over the world to the Gourmet Festival. Summer highlights include the Festival da Jazz and any number of classic-car rallies, which culminate here in showers of champagne corks.
Via Veglia 18, 7500St Moritz, Switzerland
For more about St Moritz, visit www.stmoritz.ch
Rupert’s journey was sponsored by www.myswitzerland.com