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St Moritz is the glitziest Alpine playground to ski and luxuriate in spiffy hotels

Beyond sybaritic pursuits, St Moritz also offers an intriguing mix of nature, culture, sports and culinary experiences.

Updated: Apr 10, 2016, 04.30 AM IST
Beyond sybaritic pursuits, St Moritz also offers an intriguing mix of nature, culture, sports and culinary experiences.
Beyond sybaritic pursuits, St Moritz also offers an intriguing mix of nature, culture, sports and culinary experiences.
By Neeta Lal

St Moritz. The pretty Alpine town hooks me the moment I disembark at its train station, clutching my first-class Swiss rail pass, the ticket to a scenic, three-hour, two-stop ride from Zurich. The crisp mountain air hits me sharply, even though I am togged out in multiple layers of clothing, dressed like a self-regulating ecosystem as it were.

Thankfully, succour is at hand. A liveried chauffeur is waiting to transport me in a Mercedes SUV to the Badrutt’s Palace, a palatial, 1896 lakeshore hotel with an iconic tower facing the crystalline Lake St Moritz. The 120-year-old property oozes elegance that Robin Leach would have approved of for his Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous programme. Yet, inside the Badrutt’s revolving door — an ostentatious world of Italian marble, chandeliers and exquisite carpets — there’s a sunny atmosphere. And good cheer. Not to mention priceless intangibles, like the Alps playing peekaboo from every other corner.

Given the hotel’s pillared, cavernous depths, baroque ceilings and winding, carpeted stairs, there’s a wonderful amicability about the property and its impeccable staff. From my room, the high-alpine Engadin valley looks as if it has been crafted by an artist’s hands: snow-swathed mountains soaring to vertiginous heights of over 13,000 feet. I leap out of bed each morning to witness an awe-inspiring chiaroscuro playing outside my window, the snow, the sun and the mountains working in unison to create a scintillating elemental symphony.
St Moritz is the glitziest Alpine playground to ski and luxuriate in spiffy hotels
Carriage rides through Val Fex are a popular tourist attraction
Perhaps it is for these accoutrements that the cash-lush nip up to St Moritz from all corners of the globe, flying in their private jets straight into the Engadin airport in Samedan. They are hard to miss around town, kitted out as they are in fine boots, silken Hermes scarves and Chanel dresses. St Moritz seems like a pilgrimage spot for them, a must-do in pursuit of la dolce vita: to gawk at the Alps, ski, luxuriate in spiffy hotels, shop for the world’s finest fashion labels and gorge on posh nosh served by Michelin-anointed chefs.

Beyond sybaritic pursuits, St Moritz also offers an intriguing mix of nature, culture, sports and culinary experiences. With its four stellar peaks — and 350 km of pistes — Engadin St Moritz is touted as one of the most extensive and stunning winter sport regions, showcasing the highest summit in the Eastern Alps, the Piz Bernina.

The region remains a dream destination for fans of snow and ice sports, a vital venue for the Ski World Cup, Winter Olympics and international competitions. In 2017, once again, St Moritz will host the Alpine World Ski Championships whose posters grace the town’s walls.

It hosted the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948. This year, it wears a festive look as it pops the bubbly to celebrate 150 years of winter tourism. “Throughout the year, we’ll be hosting numerous events to highlight our long-standing tradition of winter tourism with participation from across the world,” Yvonne Geiling of the Badrutt’s Palace informs me. “Top-class events are planned on the frozen lake. We have the St Moritz Snow Polo World Cup, the St Moritz Gourmet Festival and the White Turf Horse Race.”

Once Upon a Winter’s Day Yet it wasn’t always so. In the early 19th century, St Moritz was but a somnolent town, almost comatose in winters when temperatures plummeted to minus 20 degree Celsius. However, in 1864, Swiss hotelier Johannes Badrutt, owner of the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, created an ecosystem for what would become Europe’s first winter holiday resort and an Alpine playground for the rich and the famous.

Badrutt bought and developed two properties in the region, the Badrutt’s Palace and the Kulm Hotel. However, business still remained the winter season. So the inventive entrepreneur enticed four Englishmen to leave London and come to his hotels in December 1864, promising them sunshine, a free stay and a full ticket refund if they weren’t happy. The guests didn’t leave until Easter!

Word soon spread. The chichi set came flocking, nobles like Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, the Shah of Iran apart from Friedrich Nietzsche and conductor Herbert von Karajan. The glitterati followed suit: Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Brigitte Bardot and her husband Gunther Sachs along with the world’s new privileged class, the bankers, business tycoons and wealthy heirs. Cinematic glory wasn’t long in coming. St Moritz featured in Hitchcock’s 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much apart from at least two James Bond films and the play Private Lives by Noël Coward.

Snow Biz Badrutt’s vision gave birth to winter tourism in Switzerland, which has now blossomed into an all-season obsession with all manner of sport, including bobsledding and the Cresta run, where participants race head-first through ice. The race begins under the town’s 12th century leaning church, said to lean more than its cousin at Pisa.

“Engadin St Moritz also features three different ski areas: Corvatsch, Corviglia and Diavolezza,” our ski instructor Marcus informs me as our gondola negotiates precipitous gradients to get to the Engadin slopes where we are booked for skiing. However, my attention is splintered between Marcus and what Navya Naveli Nanda (Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter is a guest at the Badrutt’s Palace and standing right next to me in the ski lift) is chatting with her girlie gang.

I tear my gaze away to finally focus on Marcus. “Corvatsch is where highly experienced skiers and snowboarders head to as it is the highest-altitude summit station in the Eastern Alps, at 10,837 ft. It also has the longest floodlit night run in Switzerland. Diavolezza or the ‘ballroom of the Alps’ offers a special 10 km (6 mile) glacier run down to Morteratsch,” he adds.
St Moritz is the glitziest Alpine playground to ski and luxuriate in spiffy hotels
Atmospheric eateries offer great food with music at vertiginous heights in the Alps
The views get more and more gobsmacking as we climb higher. I train my DSLR lens at the 360-degree panorama outside the gondola’s glass. Of the mighty glaciers, some rise up to Himalayan heights, sculpted by elements into delicately moulded crests and hollows.

The writer, Charles Bukowski, once said: “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” These are the words that come to mind as I spot intrepid skiers whooshing down ski slopes so steep it makes my stomach churn.

No matter. Next day, I’m excited to make a dizzying ascent to the Bernina Glacier. The gondola stops halfway up, at the last cable car support. The wind whiplashes me from all sides, piercing through my ears and nose; fear preventing me from looking down. This is a different world, with less oxygen and icy temperatures. To me, it feels like the Arctic.

Yet it is remarkable to see how the Swiss have embraced the craggy mountains, leveraging their proximity to nature to derive maximum pleasure from them. Also, pain. Our ski instructor Susi Wiprachtiger, who is pushing 60, tells me of the countless times she has tumbled off ski slopes and broken her bones. Yet her face radiates child-like enthusiasm every time she talks about the sport.

No less exciting is the way the ancient and the modern rub shoulders in St Moritz, balancing the competing imperatives of life. Wooden chalets and traditional Alpine homes intermingle with pine-scented modern condominiums costing CHF100,000 a week. At one point, Susi points to steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal’s capacious mountain home with a towering chimney. “This entire region,” she gestures, “hosts homes owned by the wealthy.”

We take the funicular all the way up to Muottas Muragl at 8,000 feet to gawk at the snowy panorama and say hello to a St Moritz icon, the gorgeous, quietly capable mountain goat. There’s lunch planned too, at the sun terrace of Berghaus Diavolezza: a selection of local cheeses served with pear bread, a grison (air-dried meat) plate with cold cuts, chard leaf stuffed with spaetzli dough and airdried beef floating in a sea of cheese.

Not Just Ice Lollies You will always eat well in St Moritz. At a sitdown dinner one evening at the Badrutt Palace’s Le Restaurant, Michelin-star chef Edgar Bovier serves up a sensuous five-course Mediterranean Sun Menu. Lobster salad with hazelnuts from Piedmont jostles for space with pan-seared scallop, Colonnata bacon, baby fava beans and buckwheat shavings. Another course has a roasted John Dory with artichokes, marinated fennel and bottarga (cured fish roe) and sun-dried tomatoes. The piece de resistance is a braised Simmental beef fillet with black truffles followed by dessert, a sorbet-filled Menton lemon with basil-glazing and creamy tart.

To explore St Moritz’s snow-crusted, Chronicles of Narnia-like landscape from up close, one morning we take a horse-drawn carriage (thoughtfully blanketed with thick Merino wool rugs) to Val Fex. As the carriage negotiates the winter wonderland, I try to comprehend a new geography. The landscape is harsh but ethereal, defined by striking stretches of frozen lakes and rivers, seemingly endless flat stretches broken intermittently by pine trees and frozen rivers.

The clip-clop of horses’ hooves over tiny, bituminised roads resonates like Dolby sound in this milky amphitheatre. At the end of the 60-minute ride, we huddle excitedly in a mountain-top taverna cupping our hands around steaming mugs of gluhwien (mulled wine) and spooning into apfelstrudel redolent of vanilla sauce. Just as the iridescent orb is dipping into a syrupy orange horizon, we head back to town.

It is snowing by the time we get back. Tiny flecks of snow fall like wispy confetti in slomo to the ground, giving St Moritz an even more dreamy spin if that were possible.

(The writer is a senior journalist & photographer based in Delhi)
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