Denmark may have overtaken Switzerland in the ‘Happiest Country’ sweepstakes, but a right side window seat on a train from Zurich to Chur goes a long way in second-guessing that topple. An hour or so passes by wistfully staring out at the bucolic shores of the serene Zürichsee and Walensee passing by, before arriving at Chur, which forms a triangle with high profile Davos and glitzy St Moritz in the Graubünden canton to the east of the country. A quick train change later, we’re cruising through one of the most scenic Alpine rail routes, in Rhätische Bahn territory. My handy first class Swiss Pass affords access to world-famous trains on this, like the Glacier Express and Bernina Express which ply this stretch, but that’s going to take a few days. Meanwhile, a regular train works just fine to admire the peerless beauty of Engadine (Valley of the Inn People). The rustic sights along the way are soon to transition into the tranquil charm of one of the world’s toniest ski resorts.
Not that it doesn’t welcome lesser mortals, but St Moritz has always courted global movers and shakers, from Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin to John Travolta, Robert de Niro, Liz George Clooney and Charlene de Carvalho (the very private Heineken heiress who owns a ski lodge and had met her husband here). As I check into Badrutt’s Palace–a legendary hotel celebrated enough to be called quite simply, the ‘Palace’–someone helpfully points to steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal’s villa on the snow-capped slopes, quietly asserting the increasing clout of the Russians, Indians and Chinese, in this European pleasure playground.
The entrepreneurial story of the palace runs parallel to St Moritz’s winter resort legacy. In September 1864, Johannes Badrutt, while bidding goodbye to the last of his British guests in the summer, laid down a bet in a bid to get them to return in the winter which, at the time, was a no show for the hotel. He promised them that a snow-laden vacation in St Moritz would be sunnier and more eventful than in London, and if they weren’t happy, he’d reimburse their travel costs. The Brits arrived at Christmas and stayed until Easter! Looking out at the frozen Lake St Moritz from the Grand Dining Room of the Palace, it’s easy to see how they, followed by the rest of Europe, were hooked. Over a magical Indian dinner at Le Pavillion the palace’s winter pop-up restaurant–themes have ranged from Japanese to Peruvian and the Indian touch which coincide with the Palace’s 120th anniversary this year– I catch up with the lovely Martha Wiedemann, the palace’s gracious Wellness Consultant, who has a Keralite lineage (which might have nothing to do with why the silky Shrimp Moily smashes it through the ice rink next door). Mrs Wiedemann has introduced Ayurveda to the wellness centre’s rich bouquet of spa treats. But R&R will have to wait, because for the next two days, the slopes are a-yodelling.
There’s plenty to keep me amused at the palace, like the marvellous classical art collection which includes Raphael’s L’Assomptione, and a chance to snoop around the Hitchcock Suite where the filmmaker stayed annually, while famously keeping away from the slopes. They’ll even take you sailing on the lake in the summer, or orchestrate a languorous day of fishing. However, the centre of action this season is on the slopes and the palace’s ski service sizes me up for equipment before we head out and up to Corviglia. I practise at the twomile long Paradiso Piste, before heading out to the welcoming white carpet that’s the Corviglia Snow Park. Dotted with 30 obstacles, it’s one of Europe’s most famous snow-laden playgrounds. Even when the skis are off, the Upper Engadin’s celebrated ‘champagne climate’ (dry and sparkling) with a benign sun shining for 322 days a year, is reason enough to feel like I’m on top of the world.
A Swiss spread at the restaurant Chesa Cantarella with a local band playing on the terrace overlooking the slopes, hits the right spot. I could easily spend the next few days here–actually, I need to if I ever hope to swoop gracefully down a respectable piste–but there’s much more in the offing.
After an evening spent over further personal hilarity on the palace’s dreamy ice rink and a morning window shopping the biggest designer labels, it’s time for a less strenuous winter ritual–hopping into a horse-drawn carriage, getting tucked inside a blanket and winding up the beautiful Val Fex, for a spot of afternoon tea. This bountiful valley, which once provided inspiration to German philosopher Nietzsche, is now a car-free paradise, with a few restaurants and huts, surrounded by dense thick stone pine and larch forests. After warming up with a hot chocolate, I decide to walk down (the climb up takes over 2.5 hours) feeling every bit like a human intruder in gray woollens amongst an angelic setting fit for the gods. It’s the perfect atmosphere to shout out, ‘Eviva’, to the silently benevolent universe. That means ‘Cheers’ in Romansch, a Latin dialect, and one of the four Swiss national languages. I’ve learnt just two, rather delightful, phrases; Bainvgniev (welcome) and ‘Piglia Pacific! (take it easy!)
The Hogwarts theme continues on my last day in St Moritz. I’m swooped up in a furnicular railway 700 mts up to the deliciously-named destination Muottas Muragl for the most stunning 360-degree vista of the impossibly dreamy white Upper Engadin to look down at the faraway shimmering lakes, mountain ranges and glaciers. After lunch, I take the famous Bernina Express and then a cable car ride up to Diavolezza mountain, a haven for sledging fans and hiking enthusiasts. If you’re looking at something more relaxing, this makes for a distractingly romantic wedding destination. At 3000 mts above sea level the Berghaus Diavolezza is a snowy refuge with a variety of talents. It offers a splendid sun terrace where couples can lounge in the comfort of blankets, looking hand-in-hand at the ice-capped peaks of the Bernina massif, or shuffle in for a hearty Graubünden meal. Besides the four restaurants, a variety of accommodations and the viewing gallery, the hotel also offers the highest-altitude Jacuzzi in Europe.
As it gears up to host the FIS Alpine World Ski Championship, from 6th to 12th February, 2017, for the fifth time, it’s important to know that posh St Moritz likes to have some fun too. The town hosts the annual Olympia Bob Run–the oldest as well as the only natural-ice track bobsleighing competition in the world. As a guest, you can yell through a minute of pure adrenaline on a bob taxi ride between December to March, an experience enhanced by a certificate, pin badge, and glass of sparkling wine. If you’re part of that dying breed of real gentlemen, you can choose to participate in the Cresta Run, which would involve hurtling at 60mph while lying headfirst on a heavy steel toboggan with your face three inches off the ice! Me? I’m made for sports that involve more viewing skills. Should you be similarly inclined, book seats for the glitzy White Surf extravaganza in February, where– between a number of art exhibits and gourmet events–world-class horses and their jockeys spin magic on a frozen lake. The winter can’t possibly get more charming, privileged or magical. Eviva!