It’s one of Pippa Middleton’s favourite ski resorts if her Vanity Fair column is to be believed and has been pulling in the great, good and plain old famous for more than 150 years. Welcome to St Moritz, the alpine town that attracts more high net worth individuals than Moscow and sees more visiting royals arrive each year than London. Cheap it is not, with streets lined with branches of Chanel and Moncler and bars that serve cocktails that cost what feels like half a month’s rent. Yet, for all that, it is surely one of the prettiest towns in the Alps, nestled in a curving valley that wraps around a lake striking for its intense blue waters. St Moritz might have glitz and glamour aplenty but there’s far more to the town than that.
There is, however, an exception to the rule and that is in the hotels. Search though you might, finding a cheap B&B is next to impossible with the majority, the Hotel Schweizerhof among them, aimed squarely at the luxury end of the market. Decked out in aristocratic style, with draped curtains, acres of gold gilding and luxuriously thick red carpets, it might not have had palace in its name but it probably should have. Upstairs, corridors painted a plain cream and enlivened with antique paintings spread out in every direction, including the one that led to my room – a spacious twin with a little ensuite bathroom encased in what looked like a colossal walnut cupboard. From the window, I could see the towering peaks that rear up behind the town, including the magnificent Corviglia: home to some of St Moritz’ best ski slopes.
I headed up there the next day and found myself enchanted by the stunning views, if less so by the vast Audi-branded cafe plonked next to the lifts. With us was Australian ski instructor John, a man of endless bons mots and inexhaustible patience, even when faced with demands for regular hot chocolate breaks. During one of these, he revealed his top tips for skiing success, among them leaning forward (‘it stops you falling over’), and the intricacies of the snowplough slowing technique. He also had some wisdom on the subject of choosing ski instructors to share – the older, the better being his mantra. ‘It’s because they understand why beginners are scared,’ he added. Peering over the edge of a steep (for me) blue run slope, I couldn’t help but agree. One blistered shin and a tumble later, I was ready to head down the mountain and get to grips with the real purpose of the exercise – the apres ski, of course!
First though, I had an appointment with local chocolatier Hauser to discover the secrets of another Swiss tradition – chocolate. One of the best patisseries in St Moritz, it is here that Engadin’s traditional (and utterly delicious) caramel nut cake is made, as are a series of delicious truffles, including a gorgeous white chocolate and vodka creation and a gin version that was a little like slurping a chocolate-encased shot.
That the most unlikely of chocolate and alcohol combinations proved tasty is no surprise in St. Moritz, a town where fondue is this dish du jour and glühwein is practically served on tap. But you don’t always have to have the cheese variety. At the Schweizerhof’s Restaurant Acla, we tried the Fondue Chinoise which swaps bread for meat and cheese for broth. It was delicious – as was the red Valais wine served to wash it down and the Chateaubriand ordered by my (very hungry) sister.
Yet for all that, nothing tastes like Switzerland quite so much as a real cheese fondue and luckily for us, the very next day, we found the perfect place to eat it. Having decided not to go skiing, we opted instead for a gentle ride through the Fex Valley in a horse-drawn carriage. Bundled up in layers of rugs, we huddled up on the cushioned seats and watched as the steep-sided valley and its diminutive stone houses slid past.
Close to the village of Sils Maria, the Valley stretches towards the Italian border and is flanked by craggy peaks. In the summer, it is a riot of alpine flowers and gently munching cows but winter brings thick snow and a total ban on cars. Based on what we saw, they’d only get stuck anyway. There is, nonetheless, a tiny village in the middle – Fex – which even boasts its own little hotel, the not so originally named Hotel Fex. What was not unimaginative was the menu, which along with Swiss classics such as schnitzel and rösti, also included one of the tastiest cheese fondues I’ve ever had and a crisp local white wine to go with it.
Back in St. Moritz, we took a leisurely walk to the Segantini Museum which is perched on a hill overlooking the lake. Built in 1908, it is dedicated to Italian painter Giovanni Segantini who lived locally during the later years of his life and took inspiration from the craggy Engadin region as well at St Moritz itself. Home to more than 20 paintings, the most famous is his vast Life, Nature, Death triptych which is hung in the Museum’s upper room. Featuring striking Alpine scenes, plenty of Segantini’s trademark cows and farmers and a spectacular view of St Moritz, it remains one of his most popular works.
The irony of St Moritz’ most famous painter being a peasant obsessive isn’t lost on the locals, who nevertheless enjoy the glamorous reputation the town has acquired. That it does is no small thanks to Johannes Badrutt, the man behind both the Kulm and the Badrutt’s Palace hotels and the train-loads of well-heeled tourists that he encouraged to visit. While today’s St Moritz is more democratic than in days gone by, it remains the destination of choice for the blue-blooded and phenomenally wealthy. Indeed, recent visitors include no less a person than Prince Albert II of Monaco himself. But while the Alberts and Pippas still turn up each year, modern St Moritz is great fun for everyone else too – and you don’t need an intimate knowledge of Giovanni Segantini to see it.
NEED TO KNOW…
A stay at the Hotel Schweizerhof St Moritz starts at CHF529 (£344) per person, per night during January. Schweizerhofstmoritz.ch. Flights to Zurich with Swiss start at £130 return travelling in economy class. Skis and snowboards travel free. Swiss.com. Swiss Transfer Tickets, which allows you unlimited use of all public transport including trains, start at £94. Swisstravelsystem.com. For more information on St. Moritz and Switzerland itself, see engadin.stmoritz.ch or myswitzerland.com