As St. Moritz celebrates the 150th anniversary of winter sports in the opulent style the world expects, the ghost of hotelier Johannes Badrutt hovers benevolently in the chill mountain air. Switzerland’s leading Alpine resort owes its unassailable position at the top of the pecking order to his marketing genius so he’s well entitled to his smile of satisfaction. His mission began in the autumn of 1864 when four aristocratic British climbers were leaving his rented Pension for their journey home. “Come back at New Year,” he offered impulsively. “If you don’t have as much fun in winter, I’ll put you up and pay your fares.”
They took the bet and the rest is history lightly spiced with legend. No one has ever been able to name the bearded quartet, but Badrutt’s legacy is there for all to see. Within four years, he was able to buy Pension Heller and turn it into the Engadiner Kulm Hotel. Nowadays, the original 14 rooms and an entrance hall wide enough to admit a horse-drawn sleigh form a creaky corner of the 173-room Kulm Hotel.
Set high above the lake, the imposing yellow building of the Kulm Hotel looks down literally and figuratively on Badrutt’s Palace – a fantasy of turrets and towers created by Johannes’s son, Casper, in 1896 and still part of the family empire. Outside it sits Queen Elizabeth II’s black Rolls Royce Phantom, sold to the Palace in 1985 after 17 years of royal service and used thereafter to collect guests from the airport at Samedan, the nearest landing strip for private jets.
Thanks to its early beginnings, St. Moritz has developed an usually diverse portfolio of activities. On a blue sky day, the snow-capped peaks of the Engadine are undeniably magical but in the pre-ski era, the winter pioneers were quick to seek alternatives to snow shoeing and ice skating. First up, makeshift toboggans that hurtled round the bumpy streets with reckless abandon. The prudent Swiss shuddered and suggested regimentation in the form of the iconic Cresta Run – an ice chicane tackled head first on a skeleton bob.
Twenty years after it opened in 1884, it was joined by the bob track, a 1,722-metre descent down to neighbouring Celerina. Used in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, it is now the world’s only remaining natural ice track, rebuilt annually as soon as temperatures drop below freezing. When it isn’t required for international competitions, it’s open for public joyriding, its four-man bobs piloted by professionals with a licence to thrill their passengers at speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour.
In the century since skiing was established, the resort has developed slopes to suit all levels on four separate mountains. Corveglia, the main area accessed by funicular from St. Moritz Dorf or by cable car from St. Moritz Bad, is famous for ego cruising on wide open pistes, perfect for moving up through the gears in designer ski wear without fear of embarrassing miscalculation. The Corvatsch glacier is more rugged, with optional off piste challenges between the marked runs, while Lagalb and Diavolezza, facing each other across the road up to the Bernina Pass, offer moguls and powder adventure.
At 1,850 metres, high quality conditions are a given and the lifts are state of the art, yet only 40 per cent of winter visitors ever use them. While those who do enjoy liberatingly empty slopes, those who don’t are faced with a range of tantalising glamour activities. After White Turf horse racing, introduced by the British in 1907, established the lake as an upmarket winter playground, polo, show jumping, cricket and golf on ice and snow stepped up to grab their annual slots in a high season that lasts from New Year to the end of February.
Following Badrutt’s lead, St. Moritz has built up the greatest concentration of five-star hotels in Switzerland. Real money, in the form of Hollywood royalty and Milanese industrialists, love the Palace for its chutzpah, its vast oval swimming pool and the King’s Club, the glitziest in town. The Kulm is a perennial home away from home for Cresta riders who meet at noon to review the day’s triumphs in the Sunny Bar, while the Carlton recently reinvented by Italian master designer, Carlo Rampazzi, as a style seeker’s, suites-only property, completes the elite line up on the ridge overlooking the lake.
The Suvretta House set apart with its own ski lift linking into the main system, revels in old-fashioned formality, a contrast to the Kempinski Grand in St Moritz Bad which welcomes oligarchs accompanied by ladies with cleavages and diamonds the size of gull’s eggs. In late 2015, the family-owned La Margna, built in 1906, will emerge from the rubble as the Grace St Moritz – a luxury boutique hotel with 36 rooms and suites in a convenient central location.
Over the past 30 years, Reto Mathis, owner of the Michelin-starred La Marmite complex at the Corveglia mid station, has raised local cuisine from mediocre to world-class. Asked by Pommery Champagne to import a top French chef for a week in 1985, the congenial restaurateur multiplied his commission by ten. The successful promotion evolved into the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, held annually at the end of January.
Tempted by a week of St. Moritz high life, international stars are persuaded to share their secrets with chefs employed by leading hotels and restaurants. It’s great for guests who book in for the feasts, greater still for the cooking legacy that persists when the stars head home. As is customary in St. Moritz, win-win is the order of the day.