Live the high life

St Moritz is synonymous with winter sports. But what is it like when the snow melts? Stephen Bayley finds out

St Moritz defines the idea of a destination. I mean: you cannot get there by accident and, when you actually do, after no mean discharge of expense and effort, you realise what a very self-aware and self-conscious place it is. This very famous winter sports resort is in a very high-altitude valley. All valleys, whether in the Rhondda or the Engadine, impose a particular psychology on their residents, but in St Moritz's case history is made more complex by a unique coming together of geological, cultural and commercial factors. There really is nowhere else quite like it.

St Moritz defines the idea of a destination. I mean: you cannot get there by accident and, when you actually do, after no mean discharge of expense and effort, you realise what a very self-aware and self-conscious place it is. This very famous winter sports resort is in a very high-altitude valley. All valleys, whether in the Rhondda or the Engadine, impose a particular psychology on their residents, but in St Moritz's case history is made more complex by a unique coming together of geological, cultural and commercial factors. There really is nowhere else quite like it.

You can get there by car. It is 125 miles from Zurich and 109 from Milan, although emotionally speaking it feels more distant from Italy. But a car journey means negotiating the fearsome Maloja or Julier passes, much admired by the slightly dotty pipe-chewing Hugh Merrick, whose classic book Great Motorway Highways of the Alps (1958) cheerfully describes the terrifying hairpins, gasp-inducing vistas, giddying precipices and daunting second-gear gradients that pitiless engineers hacked out of the mountains better to serve the skiers, hedonists and Heidi enthusiasts who populate St Moritz in season. Even looking at the Maloja Pass in photographs I have to peek from behind sweaty palms.

It is better to go by rail. You fly to Zurich and in the airport you find a train station that looks as though Stanley Kubrick or Ken Adams might have designed it for the prequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Thunderball. Next stop, the Hauptbahnhof. Change on to an InterCity train for Chur, then you follow the lake and enter a gazetteer of Swissness: Thalwil, Waedenswill, Pfaeffikon, Ziegelbruecke, Sargans, Bad Ragaz, Landquart. In two hours you arrive at Chur, where, with the horological precision that is a justifiable source of national pride, you change in mere minutes to the mountain railway.

This is the Rhaetische Bahn and is really quite something. The name refers to the Rhaetians, the proud, sturdy and bellicose aborigines of these lofty territories who were eventually sedated by the Pax Romana. Something of their adventurous spirit remains in their railway: the Rhaetische Bahn is staggering, perhaps a little too staggering for the faint-hearted. The train they call, a mite too cutely (but remember this is Heidi territory) the "little red one", rumbles along tracks cut into rock with no parapet between you and the torrent in the gorge 500m below. It crosses improbable viaducts so high that clouds drift by the windows and vultures flap past. Occasionally it comes to rest at unnerving angles to the horizontal. You wonder just why it is that trains do not have seat belts and air bags. At least at the stations you feel anchored to something secure.

Two hours of sublime, heart-stopping travel brings you to your destination and the impossibly neat St Moritz station, populated by railwaymen with walrus moustaches. In the kiosk they serve espresso in three grades, according to rules administered by The Swiss National Institute for Unbearable Precision: light, medium or strong. St Moritz has a strong sense of place, a sense that has mutated into today's occasionally overbearing self-consciousness.

The sun motif the town still uses on its logo was registered in 1937: it has been familiar on tourist literature ever since. And St Moritz is the only place name anywhere to have trademark protection. This did not prevent a brief early Seventies adventure in the tobacco industry when a "luxury" mentholated cigarette called St Moritz briefly gulled delusional smokers with its simultaneous appeal to spurious health and its catchpenny opulence of gold and turquoise packaging. It was like a metaphor of the town itself, a destination that lays claim to being a premier winter sports resort as well as a rich source of luxury goods and chattels. When I arrived at the destination within my destination, Badrutt's Palace Hotel, I sought directions from the doorman. He said, without blinking, "Turn right at Loro Piana and straight on at Louis Vuitton". It's that sort of place. Meanwhile, a bad-tempered, sunglasses-wearing bottle blonde was reversing a red Ferrari in the courtyard. And while we are considering self-consciousness, since 1987 St Moritz has been using a strapline - Top of the World - that was written by IMG, the international sports marketing consultancy.

But its history is much longer and more various than the flip-charts of the consultants or the here-today fashionability of faddish labels. St Moritz has its place at the very beginnings of organised travel. Rousseau, Voltaire, Goethe, Byron and later Ruskin romanticised the Alps. While the earliest travellers had been wretched pilgrims, penniless, sick or dying, by the late 18th century they had become discriminating consumers, in search of Alpine thrills or transcendental experiences. The evolution can be seen in the etymology of the word "hotel": it shares a root with hospice and hospital. Hospices and hospitals were originally for dispossessed itinerants, poor vagrants in need of shelter. Hotels were for educated travellers, people who carried their new guide books by Ebel, Murray or Baedeker. People who wanted comfort and service and good food. People, in fact, who wanted Badrutt's Palace Hotel.

Badrutt's Palace is one of the most palatial of Switzerland's many palace hotels. The pioneer Swiss hoteliers were characteristically wily peasants, often from the Bernese-Oberland, who translated themselves into efficient entrepreneurs. Their own experience of hardship made them well-suited, psychologically, to the provision of great comfort to their customers. The original Joseph Badrutt was typical: a small-time farmer from the Schanfegg, he built a modest hotel in nearby Samedan (now the highest airport in Europe, the place where you land your private jet). His son, another Joseph, bought a small pension in St Moritz which became the Engadiner Kulm. This hotel (which still exists) was praised by Katharine Furse, daughter of the Renaissance historian John Addington Symonds (who was busy experimenting with tobogganing at Davos) as a place with: "A friendly, hospitable and homey feeling... which makes it feel like paying a visit to old friends in an English country house".

A certain sort of English comfort has been a characteristic ever since. Badrutt's Engadiner Kulm was the first Swiss hotel to install electric lighting, arising from an inspirational visit to the Paris Exposition of 1878. And then in 1894, an architect from Zurich arrived with drawings for his great "Projekt" : a huge hotel, vaguely Jugendstil in feel, overlooking the lake. This is the Badrutt's Palace that remains today, an enormous relic of 19th-century tourism. Vast public rooms have baize tables laid with cards. There are smoking-rooms and a consequential cigar and cedar smell, motes of dust in the sunlight,. There are ghosts too. It is impossible not to think of the travelling Edwardian philosopher George Santayana enjoying a causerie here with his konditorei. I think I was reminded of the gloomy sanatorium in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, or possibly even of the terrifying hotel in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie The Shining. Of atmosphere there is plenty.

In winter this enormous public space is packed with people in ski gear, the "scene to be seen", as the management told me. The Edwardian traveller Colonel Newnham-Davis said in his Gourmet's Guide to Europe that "there are more of the young Princes of Europe to be found there than, at any other time, in any other village". Right now it is cavernously empty because St Moritz is trying to re-position itself as a summer resort. This, curiously, was how this winter sports capital began. It was only in 1866, the year after 25-year-old* Edward Whymper claimed the Matterhorn for the new sport of mountaineering, that the original Joseph Badrutt laid a bet with some English summer visitors that they should return in winter: he promised to pay their expenses if they were disappointed by the weather. The odds were good: St Moritz averages 322 days of sunshine every year. Soon, winter sports were invented.

Tobogganing, originally for invalids, was developed into a primitive extreme sport. The toboggan path Badrutt laid out between St Moritz and Celerina is now known as the Cresta Run. In the 1880s the Norwegians and the English introduced the ski, and on the 24 March 1894, one Arthur Conan Doyle skied across the Mainfelder Furka from Davos to Arosa. In 1898 Arnold Lunn began skiing at Chamonix and in 1903 became one of the founders of the Ski Club of Great Britain. He left behind the entire institution of the ski package holiday. Since 1935, the Anglo Swiss Universities Ski Race has been accommodated at Badrutt's.

This is the 141st summer season in St Moritz, which runs from June to September. The distractions are varied: there have been performances of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia and a series of chamber concerts. There are chocolate tastings. America's Cup contenders have done a turn on the lake. There is a Heidi flower trail. The British classic car meeting comes here, full of puffing old Bentleys with very hot drum brakes after scrabbling across the Maloja. You can catch the Bergbahn to Corviglia: this is a mountain railway, technologically a hybrid between a funicular and a ground-based cable car, which takes you on a journey that adds new semantic richness to the notion of "precipitousness". From Corviglia you can ascend even further to Piz Nair, at 3,057m the highest peak in the region and the start point for the very steepest of downhill runs.

There is a deeply ethnic cheesemaker you can visit overlooking the glacier at Morteratsch: Gletscher Mutschli and Ziger are made over open fires. And, of course, there are an infinity of mountainous activities available: canyoning, white-water rafting, trekking, biking. But St Moritz has been skewed to winter so emphatically that it seems very odd in summer. Like other ski resorts, without the snow it seems bleak and unfinished. The empty luxury shops mock the missing customers. And the bars are so designed for the ritual of après-ski, with their cramped wooden interiors and open fireplaces, that they are incongruous in July on one of St Moritz's 322 sunny days.

The best way to enjoy St Moritz in summer is to engage completely with the hotel experience. An institution like Badrutt's Palace has a culture and atmosphere all its own. The immaculate service is a pleasure in itself. But sit on the deck and look at the mountains, or mingle with the ghosts. You can eat in Michelin's version of French style in Le Restaurant, but this carries with it a great many unwelcome sumptuary demands in the form of ties. I much preferred the Chesa Viglia. This is a fine 17th-century Engadiner farmhouse a few yards from Badrutt's front door, acquired as a folksy restaurant in 1935 by Hans Badrutt (1876-1953) who consolidated all the family businesses and was the first person to organise a plane to land on the frozen lake. It was in 1938 in the Chesa Viglia that Romansch, the vulgar dialect, was recognised as the fourth Swiss language.

And it was in the Chesa Viglia, which is dark, wooden and terracotta, that I ate a fine meal of viande des grisons (air-dried meat at Sfr32/£14), and a charmigna engadinaisa et roesti croustillant (veal with ethnic potatoes at Sfr42/£18). The Mayenfelder Blauburgunder 2001 from Schloss Salenegg (Sfr70/£30) was served very cold. Some might say that this is a way of disguising the deficiencies in Swiss red wine, but I found it delicious.

St Moritz makes few concessions to cultural interest of the conventional sort. Norman Foster has built a peanut-shaped apartment building which makes the locals roll their eyes. The mawkish Italian Symbolist painter, Giovanni Segantini, has a museum here. He worked in a style which is a tangle of late 19th-century fashions, mixing the anguish of Munch with the colouration of Seurat. In the Cupola room there is his sombre trilogy, La Natura, La Vita, La Morte. They were unfinished when Segantini died of peritonitis on the Schaffberg above Pontresina, but were none the less star attractions at the Italian pavilion of the 1900 Paris Exposition. Was it a reaction to formalised luxury that made me seek out a darker side to this mountain paradise? As I said, this is Heidi territory, but before she wrote 1880's successful Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre, Johanna Spyri had published the maudlin Ein Blatt auf Vronys Grab in 1870 ( A Leaf from Vrony's Grave). Despite Heidi being a success to rival Barbie, Spyri's own life ended in loneliness and tragedy. Speaking of tragedy, Goethe lived at nearby Sils, overlooking the dark lake. Today you find vast hostels here, accommodating holidaying middle management from Belgian insurance companies.

St Moritz in summer is strange. The sunshine seems to emphasise its isolation. Russian is fast rivalling English as a fifth language. Of course, no one skis in summer, but it is estimated that no more than half the Russians actually ski in winter. They sit in their furs and eat smoked salmon. The view they come to enjoy is the one you get from the front of Badrutt's Palace which takes in Chanel, Tod's Van Cleef and Arpels, Church's and Bottega Veneta. If you crane your neck, you can see a handful of Swiss banks, with Moscow-registered Lexus 4x4s double parked outside.

The English have a special relationship with Switzerland, but it is not always a good one. Byron wrote the last lines of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage on his verandah at the Hotel de l'Ancre in Lausanne, but he also said, "Switzerland is a curst, selfish, swinish country of brutes, placed in the most romantic region of the world".

Like most polemic, Byron's is a half-truth, but on the train back, with only friction and gravity holding oblivion at bay, St Moritz seems ever-more curious and remote. When I saw my first blue motorway sign, I thought, "Thank God! At least now I can walk". Approaching Zurich, there was some graffiti. "What a relief," I said to myself. St Moritz is a very special sort of place, not so much on top of the world as out of it.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Stephen Bayley flew to Zurich with Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com/uk), which flies there daily from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester. Fares start from £86 return. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester; Singapore Airlines (0870 608 8886; www.singaporeair.co.uk) from Manchester; and easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) from Luton.

Trains from Zurich to St Moritz depart hourly and tickets can be pre-purchased through the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30; www.MySwitzerland.com). The journey takes around three and a half hours and a return ticket costs £53.

STAYING THERE

The writer stayed at Badrutt's Palace Hotel (00 41 818 371000; www.badruttspalace.com), St Moritz. Double rooms start at SF345 (£150) per night, including breakfast.

The Hotel Soldanella (00 41 81 830 8500; www.hotel-soldanella.ch) has spectacular views over Lake St Moritz and Engadine mountains. Double rooms start at SF210 (£95) per night.

For those on a budget, the St Moritz Youth Hostel (00 41 81 833 3969; www.youthhostel.ch) has double rooms, some ensuite, from SF45.50 (£20) per night, half board.

EATING THERE

There are numerous upmarket Italian, French and even pan-Asian restaurants in St Moritz. However, Veltlinerkeller (00 41 81 833 4009), Via del Bagn 11, is a popular family-run restaurant serving traditional local dishes such as raclette and meats roasted on an open fire.

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