St Moritz: If this is faking it, then I'm all for it

A lack of snow isn't going to stop Paddy Ashdown enjoying himself. And anyway, there's more to life in St Moritz than mere skiing
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The Independent Travel

If you like train journeys (and I do) the one from Zurich to the Engadine is one of the best. Skirting the Zurichsee, still and grey as slate under a blanket of fog, the train suddenly bursts into startling sunlight below an almost violet sky and crisp peaks which descend from sparkling snow-covered cols, through pine forest and close-cropped scrub to the sere, frost-flattened grass of the valley floor. Here, each little village sits, neat and Swiss, amid old barns full of hay against a bitter winter that still has many weeks to run and little groves of fruit trees, contracted into bare skeletons waiting for the spring.

If you like train journeys (and I do) the one from Zurich to the Engadine is one of the best. Skirting the Zurichsee, still and grey as slate under a blanket of fog, the train suddenly bursts into startling sunlight below an almost violet sky and crisp peaks which descend from sparkling snow-covered cols, through pine forest and close-cropped scrub to the sere, frost-flattened grass of the valley floor. Here, each little village sits, neat and Swiss, amid old barns full of hay against a bitter winter that still has many weeks to run and little groves of fruit trees, contracted into bare skeletons waiting for the spring.

Beyond Chur, the train winds upwards into forest and over more cols, and town commuters give way to young faces and clatter of toboggans and langlauf skis. Among them, sitting patiently, are the old and the weatherbeaten who make their living all year from the high slopes and pastures we are eagerly waiting to possess for a day. Two old men behind me chat quietly in the singsong, swallowed vowels and epiglottal stops of Schweitzer Deutsch, seemingly oblivious to the polyglot excitement that surrounds them.

At the top of the Preda pass, the train empties of tobogganers, who gather in the snow briefly, before launching themselves off on the 7km run, back down the valley up which we have just so laboriously climbed. We can see little plumes of snow following the first of them, as we drop down the valley in the opposite direction towards St Moritz, gathered round its lakes. Travellers and traders had passed through this deep valley for thousands of years before the English came, a century ago, with their skis and their polo horses on the snow and the wild follies of the Cresta run.

St Moritz boasts a microclimate, which, statistics show, gives it more winter sunshine than any other Alpine resort. But this year is exceptional even by its standards. St Moritz has had solid sunshine by day, and intense cold by night, for three months. Older inhabitants will tell you that in times like this they can sometimes, but briefly, get "black ice" on the lakes. It's rare and it goes quickly. But this year they have had it for month upon month. You can now skate, magnificently, on clear ice from Chamfer to Silsi to Maloja across the lakes of Sils and Silvaplana. And you can look down into the ice and see the fantastic fissures and tortured shapes created by the moments of its frozen birth. And you can see the little blow holes, normally invisible under the snow, through which the lake breathes with an eerie moaning whistle, like a great living thing blowing on its fingernails in the cold.

Of course, more sun means less snow. A few years ago, this would have meant disaster. But during the past few years, St Moritz has invested hugely in artificial snow-makers. Many thought this a waste of money after last year's record snowfalls in the valley. This year they are eating crow. Thirty-eight out of the resort's 57 lifts are fully open and the runs have been carefully manicured for the men's downhill World Cup this weekend (for which, incidentally, they have created the world's steepest start, by pisting a vertiginous 43 per cent slope).

I have never skied on artificially made snow before, so I started sceptical – but found it indistinguishable from skiing new snow, with the advantage that it comes fresh every morning. So catching the first lift is well rewarded with excellent snow and empty pistes (early morning starts are not much the habit in St Moritz). Later in the day, if there is wind, a few patches can be icy. But otherwise, conditions are excellent under a blazing sun.

Of course, with some closed, the runs themselves are less challenging than enthusiasts might hope for. No blacks are currently open and some reds would probably be difficult blues in other resorts. But there is more than enough to keep the average to good skier well occupied and sufficiently stretched.

The mountain restaurants are good, too. They range from the Alpina where I found my tolerance for heavy-beat music improved with every glass of schnapps (around £2), in the late afternoon before the final run, to the more sophisticated Salastrains Restaurant, where a plate of their spaghetti pepperoni (about £8) has sufficient chilli to keep away the coldest wind and enough garlic to guarantee the chair-lift to yourself for the rest of the day. And you must try the Engadiner Nussetorte – a delicious confection of honey and nuts which is found in all restaurants, mountain or otherwise. The best, however, is from a little patisserie – the Bad Bakerei – close to the main Co-Op in the town

What strikes about this resort is the number of people who don't ski. They come instead for the walking – winter and summer. And for the langlauf (180km of pistes). And for the curling and the bridge. And for the horse racing in the snow on the lake on the first three Sundays in February (think Ascot with fur and jewels and more poules de luxes than you could shake an unnumbered Swiss bank account at). And for the snow polo from 24 to 27 February (ditto, but more British). And, of course for the preposterous dangers of the Cresta run.

In 30 years of winter holidays, I can't remember a resort with so much to offer groups which contain those who love skiing and those who just love the mountains in winter and all they have to offer.

A final word on hotels and prices. St Moritz has five five-star hotels. They say new visitors go to the Kulm, new money to the Palace and old money to the Suvretta, which is where I stayed. Here to my delight I fell among old friends, who unknown to me, come every year. Almost everyone else in the Suvretta does, too, or so it seemed to me. Like salmon returning to the river of their birth, there are families – and the now grown-up children of families – who have been coming from all over the world for 30 years and more to meet up again in the second week of January. I numbered Brazilians, Argentinians, New Yorkers, Germans, Austrians, British, French and Greeks, all enjoying the Suvretta's amiable formality, diligent service and almost club-like atmosphere. I can think of no better recommendation. Frankly, I don't like hotels much, but if the guests and atmosphere are all like this, I would.

And prices? A few years ago, St Moritz was beyond the reach of most of us. But with the high pound, even five-star St Moritz can surprise on value. Prices, including a five-course evening meal and preferential rates for ski passes etc, are a lot less than most London hotels, and the service is of a far, far higher standard.

Though I ski every year and have spent more than two years of a past life in Switzerland, I have never been to the Engadine and considered St Moritz outside both my lifestyle and my pocket. I was wrong. If that's the way you think, perhaps you could be, too.

The Facts

Getting there

Lord Ashdown travelled to St Moritz with Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk), which offers a range of accommodation from the five-star Hotel Kulm, where a seven-night holiday starts from £1,105 per person, to the four-star Hotel Monopol, where seven nights start from £613 per person. Prices include return flights with Swissair from London Heathrow, train transfers and half-board accommodation. Lift passes and tuition cost extra. Connecting flights from regional airports are available at a supplement. Book accommodation at Suvretta House via Inghams A La Carte department (020-8780 8811).

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