Renowned for its skiing in winter, Switzerland’s Alpine region offers a different but equally appealing experience in the warmer months
The Alps in summer are magical. Looking up to the mountains as dawn breaks, the higher peaks are like a painted backdrop against a pale, cloudless sky, and as the temperature rises and the valleys get the sun, the villages and towns begin to bustle and their sounds carry through the clear Alpine air.
You’d expect them to be overrun in the warmer months, but in a strange reversal of fortune, Alpine resorts that once relied on summer visitors for income to keep them going through the long and inhospitable winters now find themselves far busier during the winter months.
That turnaround began in 1864, when, as the story would have it, Johannes Badrutt sat by the fire in the Kulm hotel in St Moritz with four English holiday guests and enthused about the resort in winter. He called it “a paradise on earth”. The Englishmen, used to dark, cold winters, did not believe him, and so the conversation led to the legendary bet – Badrutt suggested that the four should return in December and, if they did not enjoy their stay, he would reimburse the travel expenses. The men returned – and stayed until Easter. Badrutt won his bet, and winter tourism was launched.
Roll forward 150 years, and the situation has led to a pricing anomaly. To attract visitors in the summer, rates are up to 50 per cent lower than in the peak winter season. It means mere mortals can experience and enjoy some of the best hotels in Europe at a price that matches what they’d be paying at far lesser resorts on the European coast at the same time of the year. And without the crowds. And with the mountains. And with that fresh air. And, and, and…
It’s not all staring at the sky, however. There are myriad activities on offer, some at an additional charge, others for free. Walking or hiking, depending on your appetite for exercise, is largely free, not least since in the summer many hotels offer complimentary lift passes and local transport.
It means you can take the cable car to the top of the mountain, walk around, have a fabulous long lunch on the mountain (that’s the bit that definitely isn’t free) and then, if feeling energetic, walk down part or all of the way, or just let the cable car take the strain. However you do it, in the evening you can talk of your tour of the lakelands of the Upper Engadine without mentioning the 2,000-metre “help” you took to get there and back.
As far as the five-star hotels are concerned, whether by accident or design, each offers a very different experience. Perhaps the most striking architecturally, with its soaring turrets and green tiled, steeply pitched roofs, is Badrutt’s Palace. It isn’t the oldest – that’s the nearby Kulm, of which the original Badrutt was the owner – but it does have a venerable air to it, with a lobby of stone statuary, intricately carved wooden panels, stained glass doors and vast crystal chandeliers. The centre of attention is the giant picture window overlooking the lake. You could spend all week sipping tea or something stronger gazing at the view.
The hotel also owns a must-visit restaurant across the road – Chesa Veglia, an old farmhouse dating from 1736, the wooden walls and floors of which are imbued with the smell of a million fondues. It comprises three restaurants and two bars: the Pizzeria Heuboden, the elegant Grill Chadafo for classic French cuisine, and the Patrizier Stuben for Swiss and international specialities. On Thursdays there’s a “Swiss” evening, featuring a set menu of local dishes and a traditional band playing accordion and double bass. The immaculately dressed waiters are professional yet warm and friendly.
It’s not all history, though. The Palace Wellness centre is ultra-modern, blasted out of rock in the basement, creating a cave-like entrance, and extending out to the lawns with a large glass-fronted swimming pool. The indoor pool connects to a heated outdoor pool with a bar at one end. Inside, there’s a spa bath nestled in a cave, plus steam, mist and ice rooms, an experience shower and sauna.
The hotel focuses on keeping itself relevant. Last year it created a summer package in partnership with Rapha, guiding guests on scenic road rides that include bicycle hire, a welcome pack of Rapha goodies, Rapha Travel Guide cycle routes and dinner for two, and this year it added King’s Social House, a restaurant-cum-nightclub spearheaded by British restauranteur Jason Atherton, and a Hauser & Wirth gallery which opened its doors at the hotel in January.
So what about the nearby Kulm? Well, it’s very different – set near the top of the town and offering views across the roofs, including those of Badrutt’s and the Carlton (closed in summer, excellent in winter), to the lakes and mountains opposite.
Its entrance lobby has impressive marquetry scenes of St Moritz decorating the walls, carved wooden pillars and a stone staircase with an iron balustrade leading to wooden-framed glass doors into the main lounge. There you are greeted by a riot of contrasting patterns on floors, walls, furnishings and the many pillars in various tones of terracotta, yellow and red, all illuminated (partly) by a stained glass skylight in the ceiling.
It’s a bold combination that gives an air of warmth and intimacy and sets the tone for the hotel, which, for all the grandeur of its public areas, feels more homely than Badrutt’s, perhaps because there are also many private apartments in an annexe to the property. Like all the five-star hotels it has an outstanding spa and pool, and also a range of dining options, including the new Kulm Country Club that occupies the old ice pavilion overlooking a large expanse of green, which is used as an ice rink in winter.
This building was restored and extended by long-time St Moritz resident Norman Foster, and reopened for the 2017 World Ski Championships. The décor acknowledges the Kulm’s world-class winter sports pedigree – both the legendary Cresta Run and famous Olympia Bob Run are on the hotel grounds. Ancient skis are stacked in corners, while early bobsleigh and luge sleds with upholstered seats hang from the ceilings. On the walls are black-and-white prints displaying the ways people found to have fun in the snow a century ago, from horse-drawn skiing to dinghy sailing on ice, as well as shots of skaters on the ice rink wearing plus fours and elegant hats.
The Kulm has a sister hotel – the Grand Hotel Kronenhof, a Belle Epoque masterpiece – in Pontresina, a wind-sheltered side valley about ten minutes’ drive from St Moritz. Even if staying in St Moritz you should visit Pontresina, which is very different from its glitzy neighbour, being a picture-postcard Engadine village of narrow streets lined with beautifully restored buildings sitting side by side with more modern ones built in stone. It’s a centre for outdoor activities, strong in the summer for walking and mountain biking.
The hotel itself, with its beautiful Neo-Baroque exterior, would make a great place to stay for a few days or at the very least to enjoy an evening’s dining, either in the Kronenstubli, a wood-panelled, intimate room in the oldest part of the hotel (1848), or the fabulously ornate Grand restaurant, with intricate chandeliers, original frescoes depicting the four seasons, and staff with gold epaulettes.
Back in St Moritz, another option is the Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski down by the lake, but if you take a five-minute drive out of St Moritz you’ll arrive at Suvretta House. Built by hotelier Anton Sebastian Bon in 1912, the name translates as “house above the woods” and the experience of staying here is like being in a private house just outside St Moritz, with all of the advantages, save being able to stroll around the town.
The hotel has lake and mountain views to the south, while east, west and north overlook Mount Suvretta, parkland and the Corviglia ski area. The property was recently renovated under British designer Sue Freeman, who has added a modern feel to the country-house theme with muted greys and greens, dark wood floors softened by patterned rugs, and panelled walls painted in muted neutrals, perhaps better to showcase the stunning vistas from every window.
It’s not too casual. There is still a Grand restaurant, where you need a jacket and tie for dinner – but in surroundings like this, it would seem strange to do otherwise. This is a property with a high number of returning guests and, judging from our stay, is a place where extended families take groups of rooms for special get-togethers, perhaps encouraged by the family-owned nature of the hotel and its history of being managed for long periods by families who get to know the guests well.
The hotel organises a free guided walk and picnic every Wednesday, accompanied by the general manager (and his son, back for summer holidays when we were there). They were able to give us tips for the best walks, accessed by the cable cars up to the Corviglia and Corvatsch areas, adding to this insider feel.
All of the five-star hotels have their own boats on Lake Moritz where you can go sailing, and offer personal tuition in golf, tennis, swimming, hiking, pilates and yoga, to name a few of the activities. For those who like to keep busy, there’s obviously lots to do, and for those who just want to flop and relax, the lovely temperatures (it famously boasts of enjoying 300 days of sunshine each year) and extensive spas at each of the hotels means there’s actually no need to do anything.
And if the evenings are less frenetic than the après-ski and late nights of the high season, there’s also the sense that you are part of a long tradition of travellers who have relaxed here. One evening we noticed several games of bridge being played in, well, the bridge room, and found an antique photo of the same room 70 years previously. What better way to relax after a day’s walking in the Alps, and a lovely meal in the evening, than with several hands of bridge?