(This piece of mine first appeared in Huffington Post on April 29, 2015. Here’s the link.. http://www.huffingtonpost.in/priya-pathiyan-/together-at-the-top-of-th_1_b_7135632.html)
The Swiss resort town of St Moritz is celebrating 150 years of existence in 2015. Well, if you can call the combination of exquisite natural beauty and exciting events a mere existence, that is! On a recent trip there, we allowed it to work its charm on all our senses and found that this place quite literally has something for everyone.
1. Summer & Winter
Most travellers, and especially those planning a pre- or post-nuptials trip, are limited by the seasonality of destinations. But the USP of St Moritz is the simple fact that it is actually delightful both in summer AND winter! Don’t believe me? Then listen to this tale… In 1864, Johannes Badrutt was the owner of a small guesthouse called the Hotel Engadiner Kulm (now known as the Kulm Hotel St Moritz). At the time, St Moritz was a popular summer resort and Johannes’s guests were ruefully packing up for their return to England at the end of the season. In a moment of inspiration, Johannes suggested that they come back in winter. The surprised guests asked him what they would do there, in the cold, bleak wintry weather? Johannes laughed and told them to try it out and see, and if they were disappointed, he’d pay their travel expenses from his own pocket. And that, if they liked it, they could stay as long as they liked!
Needless to say, those guests were impressed by the innumerable days of pleasant sunshine, even setting up sun-bathing stations in the snow that still exist today, and kept coming back winter after winter. Through the ensuing decades, the Badrutts set up winter sports like skiing and bob runs, and so many guests started to frequent hotels during this season that they all started staying open for the winter too.
Today, 150 years later, the summers are filled with sailing on the sparkling water and trekking through the crisp air of the pine forests. The winters are all about posh parties on the frozen lake and skiing on perfect pistes. And through it all, there’s an aura of luxury and good living that will make you feel like you belong to that select group of the global elite that usually holidays here. It’s not about flashy labels and name dropping, but about understated elegance and a certain comfort with comfort, if you know what we mean.
2. Old & New
If there’s one place that embodies the spirit of St Moritz, it’s the beautiful Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, that’s been around since 1896, since Johannes Badrutt and his son renovated the old Beau Rivage hotel into this stunning building. Our first thought on seeing its plush interiors was how much it resembled the Grand Budapest Hotel (from the movie of the same name) in its heyday. Majestic, red-carpeted stairways, a profusion of polished brass fittings, a carefully selected motley mix of furniture, which is re-upholstered with new fabric that’s specially woven in Belgium from the old patterns. A stiff-backed concierge ready to bend over backwards to help you create the experience of your choice. A rotary telephone encased in an old-fashioned wooden telephone booth. A cosy lift with a small seat tucked away in the back. Rooms that retain the old-world charm of floral prints and large balconies commanding a magnificent view of the lake, even after they’ve been remodelled, enlarged and modernised with all the luxurious fittings imaginable.
The magic created in the wine cellar, where, among the ancient casks and balthazars shimmering in the light and shade of flickering candles, you’re served appetisers and champagne by an expert sommelier and the music soars to the wooden rafters above. The romance of the high-ceilinged dining room, where a beaming, silver-haired man sings and plays the piano in the corner. The dramatic dessert parties in the kitchen, where the chef-patissier unveils his elaborate creations in a riotous celebration of chocolate and cream and sugar and fruit, accompanied by flamboyant flares and upbeat music. The wonderful spa carved out of bedrock that’s always cool and mysterious.
And, most of all, the rich tapestry of stories that make up the warp and weft of this opulent hotel, wafting in whispers through the passages. Echoes of the past reverberating in the black-and-white pictures dug up from their huge archive to add character and gravitas to the walls of the brand new restaurant La Coupole, once Europe’s first ever Tennis hall, where Nobu’s premium restaurant Matsuhisa will now wow guests every winter, fusing the best of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine.
It’s no wonder that everyone who visits St Moritz, even if they’re staying at a less historic hotel, makes it a point to visit it at least once during their stay! If you’re planning to propose or want a memorable meal that marks the high point of your Swiss holiday, this is the place to do it.
3. Day & Night
If you’re a morning person, you’re sure to enjoy a pleasant four-km dawn jog around the lake. Or a spot of skiing too, especially if you’re staying at a place like the beautifully-appointed Nira Alpina (http://niraalpina.com/en), the only ski-in, ski-out hotel in the Engadin valley, where you have direct access to the cable car from inside the hotel, which can take you right up to the peak of Mt Corvatsch and the ski slopes in just 15 minutes.
If your idea of a heroine is more Cinderella than Lara Croft like ours is, you can have a wonderful horse carriage ride through the town and adjoining pine forest, all tucked up under a furry blanket with your beloved. Ours started at the majestic Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains and ended after about an hour at the Kulm Hotel, the oldest hotel in St Moritz, the one where Johannes Badrutt had his first guesthouse. You could also take the exciting funicular up to the plus-energy Romantik Hotel at Muottas Muragl (it produces more energy than it consumes!) (http://www.muottasmuragl.ch/en/), for a memorable meal with a memorable view at the Panorama Restaurant (we really enjoyed the meat and cheese platter, the spiced pear bread called Bierbrot and a selection of sorbets here). On a sunny day (and there are so many of those in St Moritz!), you can even trek the snowy Philosophers’ Trail that starts from here.
By night, the stars come out everywhere in St Moritz. If you prefer the ones wearing shades, you can head to one of the many après-ski bars (we highly recommend the Pichalain Hut at the Hotel Nira Alpina) where the world’s glitterati mingle minus any fuss. If the ones in the sky are the ones you like to court, you can safely walk around the city centre or sit down by the lake to take in the peace, the dozing coots and the glittering lights in the distance. Just as the legendary film-maker Alfred Hitchcock used to in his special room at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, as he enjoyed his drink on the verandah with a vivid vista.
4. Food & Drink
St Moritz, though quite a small place, has some excellent dining options and the best places are always just a short drive away. Every hotel has a slew of unique dining options. And then, there’s the famous Chesa Veglia, which literally means ‘old house’ in the Romansh language spoken by the locals, who are mostly Italians who migrated over the Alps into this South-Eastern part of Switzerland. This converted farmhouse dating back to 1658, is now one of the most exclusive dining experiences for the rich and famous and its three restaurants (the Italian Pizzeria Heuboden, the classic French Grill Chadafö and Swiss/international Patrizier Stuben) and two bars (Polo and Carigiet) are favourites in St Moritz.
There’s even more history at the Hotel Walthaus Am See (http://www.waldhaus-am-see.ch/en-us/), where the Devil’s Place arguably has the world’s largest collection of single malts and Scotch whiskys, many of which are specially bottled for them. Even Glenfidditch, which is notorious for not doing this for anyone, acquiesced to do them a limited edition set… the only one besides one they did for the Queen of England! Like us, you can spend an enlightening evening with Sandro, the son of Claudio Bernasconi, as he talks knowledgeably and passionately of his favourite single malts and takes you on a taste flight of as many as you like. The first sip of each, unadulterated, is like fire and brimstone on your tongue and a hot river of lava snaking down your throat. The next ones, with a dash of water added with a dropper, loosen the dense flavours and unfold your senses to another layer of bliss. The story that accompanies the tasting is also quite heady, about how his father Claudio was advised to use whisky to brush his teeth while visiting India in his youth and how he fell in love with the taste and started drinking it daily. Later, when he heard about a bar in Holland serving more than a hundred different whiskys, he was inspired to top that and started collecting whiskys from all over the world. He asked all his friends and guests to bring back bottles for him and, by 1996, he had earned his first mention in the Guinness Book of Records, with 1,000 different bottles of whisky. In 1999, he bettered his own record with over 2,500 bottles of whisky! Today, we were floored by the floor-to-ceiling cases of world-class whisky that’s open for viewing (and even tasting) to every enthusiast.
If, apart from the specially distilled Waldhaus Am See collectible bottles, you’re also looking for tasty treats that you can take home or gift friends, you can’t go wrong with the delicious Engadiner nusstorte (honey-walnut pie) or the Bierbrot (spiced pear bread) from Hauser. Or stock up on the best in artisanal Swiss chocolate from Laderach (we picked up chunky slabs of dark chocolate with hazelnuts). You can also try some lovely locally made Heutaller cheese as well as more well known ones from Sennerei in nearby Pontresina. And if you’ve had enough of the fondues and raclettes and rostis, you can even enjoy some excellent Indian dishes at Hotel Nira Alpina, which offers a wide selection of cuisines. We were surprised by just how good the Tandoori Jhinga and all the pure vegetarian options tasted in that novel location.
5. Him & Her
You fancy the sights and she the tastes or vice versa? You can take Rail Europe’s beautiful Bernina Express that crosses the Swiss Engadin Alps into Italy, running on the historic Rhaetian Railway (Rhätische Bahn), which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. You’ll get some breathtaking views on the train as it crosses the Bernina valley to Pontresina, then goes through the Bernina Pass at Morteratsch. You could get a glimpse of the glacier or the Bernina peak here or at least a lot of skiers in colourful clothes waiting for their cable car connections at Bernina Diavolezza. Once you’re over the Alps, there’s a lovely little place where you could stop for lunch and spend a few hours. The Albergo restaurant of the Alp Grüm (the first station south of the Alps) has a fabulous sun deck overlooking a glitteringly emerald heart-shaped lake that’s fed by the icy glacier above. Speaking of hearts, the hearty food here is bound to please the foodie in you too. We had some excellent Saffron Risotto with Saltimbocca (layered veal, proscuitto and basil, cooked in white wine and butter) and a light and flavourful Tiramisu, washed down with a robust red from the Swiss Italian-speaking town of Poschiavo lower down in the valley.