Swiss glitz

Head to St Moritz for an Alpine holiday with a difference — and a large side helping of sheer luxury


Perhaps the most surprising fact about the many thousands of tourists who descend each year on the Swiss ski resort of St Moritz — the site of no fewer than five World Ski Championships, with 360km of pistes and 87 downhill runs — is that only one in two of them actually come for the skiing.

What’s more, four in ten visitors don’t take part in any sporting activity at all. Which, considering St Moritz is known as the birthplace of winter-sports tourism and has twice hosted the Winter Olympics, is unexpected, to say the least.

It certainly left me wanting to investigate. I have never taken to the slopes in my life and I don’t go on holiday to exercise, either.

But I do love snow and art and good food, and this exclusive but discreet resort has all three in abundance.

I also love luxury hotels (I know, who doesn’t?) but this is St Moritz, the Alpine playground of people who are so rich, you can’t always tell by looking at them. But however understated their clothes may be, and however polite to staff they are, the super-rich still expect — and have mostly only ever known — impeccable service and unimaginable luxury of the kind you get in a grande-dame hotel.

Happily, St Moritz is home to six of these, and I had the chance to luxuriate in one for three nights: the Tschuggen Collection Carlton Hotel.

Overlooking Lake St Moritz, which every one of its 60 rooms faces, and with long views across the spectacular Engadine Valley, this hotel is, in all senses, high-end. A bricks-and-mortar embodiment, if you will, of St Moritz’s patented logo “On top of the world”. Yes, patented. Why? This mountain town sits 1,800 metres above sea level.

If I’m honest, that number didn’t mean much to me either at first, even though the Albula stretch of our train journey from Zurich Airport had taken us through more spiral tunnels and dizzying viaducts than I could marvel at.

But later that evening, as I was getting glammed up for dinner at the hotel’s superb Restaurant Romanoff, it suddenly became clear. The second I unscrewed the lid of my tube of foundation, the beige liquid shot across the cream marble bathroom floor.

The following morning, the ball fell out of my roll-on deodorant — mid-use. This is what being 1,800 metres above sea level means in practice.

Small inconveniences. St Moritz’s sky-scratching altitude is also a key element of its winter-tourism success.

In September 1864, local hotelier Johannes Badrutt had a lightbulb moment while saying farewell to the last of his summer English guests and wondering how to make money during the winter. “Come back in December,” he said. “The sun shines 322 days a year in St Moritz. If you don’t have a good time, I’ll pay your travel costs. If you do, you can stay for as long as you like.”

It was a win-win for the English guests who returned in midwinter — and stayed until spring. Two years after those first intrepid souls enjoyed a winter holiday on these frozen slopes, an ice-skating club was established in town.

Before the century was up, St Moritz also had an ice-toboggan track, was home to the first bob run (a 1,612-metre-long ice channel that is handmade each year) and the town’s legendary Cresta Run, an ice track that turns people into human torpedoes. You fly down the channel head first with your nose just centimetres above the ice. All at around 85 miles an hour.

The English upper classes caught on to these glacial pleasures quickly and also introduced their own. Thanks to them, golf, polo, tennis and cricket are all played in the snow and on the ice here. They also brought an English gastronomic tradition to the Swiss mountains: afternoon tea.

Today, you can fill the gap between lunch and a late dinner with finger sandwiches and scones at any of St Moritz’s leading hotels, but the afternoon tea at Carlton Hotel is, I can report, wonderful and easily as good as at The Ritz, The Savoy et al. You don’t have to be an overnight guest to tuck into one either.

And where those first English tourists skied, skated and sledged, European notables quickly followed. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II, Nietzsche and the conductor Herbert von Karajan have all stayed here.

In the 1970s, the resort became a jetsetter’s paradise for the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Charlie Chaplin, the Shah of Iran and the well-heeled Imelda Marcos who would, apparently, often reserve entire hotels floors at the last minute. She would have had no problem feeding her shoe addiction here; St Moritz Dorf, the main part of the town, and a ski boot’s throw from the Carlton, is chocka with designer shops.

In the 1980s, the resort’s “snowciety” included Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli, Alfred Hitchcock, King Juan Carlos of Spain and various members of the Greek Niarchos dynasty. Today, St Moritz’s fans include Prince Albert of Monaco.

But while most guests at the Carlton are clearly very wealthy, I also met plenty who had worked and saved hard for their week of Alpine opulence. “This is the honeymoon we missed out on during lockdown,” said fellow guest Charlotte, as we surveyed the spectacular breakfast buffet on Sunday morning.

It was ten minutes before my Swiss Stone Pine Massage so I didn’t have chance to do the spread justice, with just time to grab a Moving Mountains chia seed pudding from the buffet table, before dashing down to the hotel’s spa floor.

Moving Mountains is both the name of a photography exhibition by snapper, geographer and mountain guide Robert Bösch at the Carlton, which will be on display at the hotel until mid February before moving to the Tschuggen’s Grand Hotel in Arosa, and also the philosophy behind its spa and nature-inspired restaurant menus.

“Our treatments combine traditional healing methods with the healing effects of the natural environment,” explained my therapist Stephen before running oil-infused Swiss pine massage rollers the length of my body. By the end of the treatment 50 minutes later, I was so blissed out I could hardly move.

Fortunately, all that was required of me until lunch on the terrace was some schvitzing in the hotel sauna and a dip in its indoor-outdoor pool. The only moment of (exhilarating) discomfort was when I climbed out of the pool’s warm water and lay on a bed of snow. Who am I to question ancient traditions though: the curative mineral waters of the Engadin were discovered by the Romans in the 5th century CE.

Lunch on the terrace overlooking a frozen St Moritz lake was a vigorously healthy Moving Mountains red power bowl (beetroot, radicchio, bulgur, apple, cranberries and almonds doused in a lemon sauce) followed by skating on a natural ice rink on one of the 90 lakes in and around St Moritz.

We arrived at ours in a horse-drawn carriage organised by the hotel, which also hires out skates and an outdoor butler to accompany guests on such icy pursuits. Not that my performance on that lake could be really described as ice-skating. Ice-shuffling, more like.

But I did make it into a ski gondola; a retired one in the hotel’s forecourt for a fondue dinner — I particularly recommend the truffle and champagne fondue — which was definitely more my scene.

By the time I reluctantly packed to come home, it wasn’t so hard to understand why half the visitors to St Moritz never venture onto the slopes after all.

Getting There

Deluxe rooms at the Carlton Hotel St Moritz cost from around £770 per night B&B, including a food and drink voucher worth around £85 per adult per day.

Various airlines fly to Zurich, including SWISS and BA from Heathrow and Manchester priced from £120 and easyJet from Luton and Gatwick, priced from £50

Trains to St Moritz via Chur take around three hours. Tickets are included in the Swiss Travel Pass, which provides unlimited travel on consecutive days across the Swiss Travel System network and includes the Swiss Museum Pass, with free entry to 500 museums and exhibitions across the country.

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