On the southern shore of Lake Zürich, travelling along the railway line that leads to St. Moritz, the landscape is flanked on either side by snowy peaks, foothills of the mighty Alps that cover much of southern Switzerland. Grassy banks fringed with rushes and leafless trees line the edge of the placid lake, and ducks and waterfowl swim in the shallow water near the shore. The water is so clear that I can see fish swimming from the carriage of the train as it crosses a bridge over a small estuary. Everything is very clean. Every tree and fence post looks like it was put there for a reason, as if the collective consciousness of the Swiss people is committed to keeping the land pristine. “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno,” says the Swiss motto: “One for all and all for one.”
For a city-dweller like me, it’s calming to see nature in its vast glory. Rural life unravels as the train travels through the countryside; battered farmhouses look like something out of The Wizard of Oz, with thin puffs of smoke rising from chimneys in the early morning light. The pine trees on the lower slopes are dappled with a layer of snow that grows thicker as they climb the hillside. Eventually, they give in to the cold, leaving a bare granite mountain covered in a blanket of white.
The journey to St. Moritz requires a change of trains in Chur, a mountain crossroads with connections to Zermatt, Davos, Arosa, Bad Ragaz and other mountain resorts. The panoramic route between Chur and St. Moritz is known as the Albula Line, a narrow gauge railway track that’s part of the bigger Rhaetian Railway. It snakes up mountains over a spectacular network of 39 tunnels and 55 bridges and viaducts; marvels of engineering that helped the Rhaetian Railway earn UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008. Needless to say, the Albula Line is one of the most spectacular train journeys on the planet, changing from either side of the valley four times over the course of some 60 kilometres, crossing gaping gorges and raging mountain rivers.
Snow soon covers everything as the track climbs, topping out at 1,823 metres, making it one of the highest stretches of railway in the Alps. Small ponds freeze over and a dazzling sun glints off the slopes, refracting off the clouds onto narrow valleys, creating a golden haze that illuminates the route all the way to St. Moritz. A fitting way to arrive in one of the world’s most exclusive ski resorts.
Nestled in the Upper Engadin Valley, St. Moritz is a luxurious winter sports enclave that boasts 325 days of sunshine per year. Sadly, I arrive on one of the 40 other days, but the weather does nothing to dampen the spirit of this charming Alpine town. Close to the edge of town, the Carlton Hotel has stood proudly on a hillside for more than 100 years (it celebrated its centenary last year) as a home away from home for the jet set.
The 60 suites of the Carlton all face forward in the direction of Lake St. Moritz, which is frozen over with half a metre of ice when I arrive in early February. It’s a virtual white-out and the summit of the mountain on the other side of the lake is hidden behind a layer of thick cloud. Tractors clear snow from the horseracing track to keep it clear ahead of the weekend’s White Turf horseraces; three days of events across three weekends, including the famous skijoring, in which daredevil skiers are dragged along behind horses.
From the hotel, it’s just a short walk down to the lake, past the famous Badrutt’s Palace hotel and down an escalator-cum-design museum (part of the St. Moritz Design Gallery), which makes the steep journey to the edge of the lake significantly easier than navigating the slippery roads. Alongside the electric staircase are vintage-style posters depicting St. Moritz in both winter and summer, when the lake becomes a picture of sailing boats and sun-worshippers surrounded by the green-covered hillside.
The road behind Badrutt’s, Via Serlas, is home to the city’s top designer brands, which are nestled into contemporary boutiques in traditional-style stone buildings. A few steps uphill is the pedestrianised part of town, which is packed with more designer stores and high-end ski wear shops where you can find the perfect accessory to set off your ski look. Corduroy trousers and cowboy hats seem to be en vogue for gentlemen this year, while the ladies sport the timeless combination of fur and oversized sunglasses.
Around a bend in the road you come to the other St. Moritz institution, the Kulm Hotel. The property was established by Johannes Badrutt in 1864 and, so legend has it, marks the place where winter tourism began. The story goes that Mr. Badrutt (who also lent his name to Badrutt’s Palace) bet a few of his wealthy British chums that if they came to St. Moritz in the winter, they would go home with a suntan. If he was wrong, they would enjoy their stay for free. Needless to say, he won the bet, and winter tourism was born.
Opposite the entrance to the hotel there’s a statue commemorating the Cresta Run, the 1,212-metre natural ice toboggan track carved out of the mountain that attracts daredevils from all over the world, who race down head-first. Anyone who loses control on the notorious Shuttlecock corner becomes an honorary member of the Shuttlecock Club and wins the dubious privilege of wearing a Shuttlecock tie, available from the clubhouse of the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club.
Keeping watch over the statue is St Moritz’ own leaning tower, the only part remaining of the 12th-century St. Mauritius church, which tilts at a precarious 5.5-degrees. From here, you have a wonderful view back over town and across the frozen lake. Further up still, the Norman Foster-designed Chesa Futura apartment block is a coffee bean-shaped construction of local larch timber that affords tenants in its six apartments some of the best views of St. Moritz.
THE FINER THINGS
Many people come to St. Moritz for the skiing, but for those who prefer to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground, there are other more indulgent opportunities. The Carlton Spa is a huge wellness complex within the 100-year-old hotel, with a thorough list of treatments and a staff
of dextrous therapists.
As well as the treatment rooms, there’s a warm hydrotherapy pool and a large swimming pool for laps. A small opening in the wall of the hydro-pool leads outside, where bathers can breathe in the cold mountain air and soak up the winter sunshine while enjoying the warm water.
When I visit, at dawn, steam rises from the bubbling water to the branches of the overhanging pine trees. To add to the magic, a light snow is falling, melting in the steam before it hits the surface of the water.
One level down from the pool is Sauna World, where guests can take a journey from the steam room, via the caldarium, to the sauna, where a panoramic window looks out to the snowy world outside. After sweating out the day’s aches and pains in the sauna, leaping into the freshly fallen snow in nothing but a small sarong is possibly the most refreshing experience on earth.
When it comes to dining, ski resorts are often guilty of favouring style over substance, but St. Moritz has flipped that trend on its head with a collection of fine-dining establishments that serve good food without an excess of pomp.
Enrico and Roberto Cerea are best-known for their three-Michelin-starred restaurant near Bergamo in Italy, but their new venture, Da Vittorio in the Carlton, won its first star this year after being open for just three months. The Cerea brothers have re-created their successful family-run business in St. Moritz, with a menu of traditional Italian cuisine prepared using the freshest ingredients available, which presents certain challenges for a restaurant in the middle of the mountains.
I’m treated to a tasting menu created by Roberto Cerea himself, who visits the Carlton every couple of weeks. The degustation menu he serves comprises a few house specialities including calamaretto spillo with parsley cream and black olives, and risotto with creamy fish soup, shells
and crustaceans. The protein-filled fish dishes are rounded off with a special portion of chef Cerea’s paccheri pasta, creamed with Grana Padano cheese, followed by the main course: white cod with rapini and roast durum wheat gnocchetti. After a hike around Lake St. Moritz earlier that evening, the hearty fare is superb, and we finish with a glass of fortifying Swiss grappa.
The next day I ride the cable car that takes scores of appropriately attired skiers to the ski station at Corviglia, two thirds of the way up Piz Nair mountain, which stands at 3,097 metres. At the top, a land of gourmet surprises awaits at Mathis Food Affairs, a yellow, box-like building cantilevered out over the slope with dizzying views back down the mountain.
Created by culinary mastermind Reto Mathis, the establishment comprises six dining venues under one snow-covered roof, including La Marmite, a gastronomic restaurant serving regional specialities.
Here, waiters grate giant black truffles over delicate Swiss cheese pizza, while red-cheeked groups in designer ski gear sit around sipping Veuve Clicquot champagne and nibbling on marinated salmon with dill sauce and other gourmet treats like lobster bisque and foie gras.
Restaurants in St. Moritz make the most of seasonal cuisine and during the winter months, venison and truffles feature heavily on any menu. And I’m glad they do when my main course arrives: an unforgettable shoulder of venison in light jus with truffle-scented polenta, accompanied by pan-fried duck liver with truffle sauce. It’s one of the best-tasting dishes I have had anywhere, let alone halfway up a mountain.
The other culinary offerings at the mountain-top gourmet station include De Fät Moonk, a cosy lounge and restaurant with an open fire, and the most recent addition for the 2013/14 season, Quattro BAR, a trendy watering hole of granite and wood created in partnership with Audi, which seems destined to become the new place to be in Corviglia.
Back in town, chocolatiers create indulgent treats with Swiss chocolate and ship in gourmet cocoa from all over the world to make traditional sweets with an exotic twist. Inviting smells waft from the doorway of an inconspicuous street-facing café at the Hauser Hotel on Via Traunter, which is home to the traditional Engadine nut cake — a rich, sweet delight made with Swiss chocolate, walnuts and caramel. For an even more indulgent treat, sample the Schoko-Nusstorte, which uses 70 percent cocoa chocolate from Bolivia as well as local ingredients for a dark, rich finish that should prelude any ski run.
After a long day of exploring and skiing, there is no better place to reflect and recharge than by one of the roaring fires of the Carlton Bar, a stately lounge area located on the hotel’s bel-étage floor, which has open log fires situated at either end of the room. From here, as the lights go on across town and the sun vanishes behind the mountains, it’s easy to see why St. Moritz still holds the crown as Switzerland’s leading ski resort. In between the first-class dining and indulgent pampering, it’s a wonder anyone ever has any time to ski at all.
THE GOLDEN BOOK
Tel: +41 81 836 70 00
KULM HOTEL ST. MORITZ
Tel: +41 81 836 80 00
Tel: + 41 81 837 1000
MATHIS FOOD AFFAIRS
Tel: +41 81 833 63 55