December 24, 2006
Sybaritic St. Moritz
By SARAH WILDMAN
ST. MORITZ, the 150-year-old synonym for excess with a side of skiing, boasts that it gets 322 days of sun a year. The reason, locals are happy to explain, is a peculiar mix of altitude and mountain alignment in the Engadin Valley of Switzerland. But after a week in town it’s easy to wonder if those who frequent this rarefied strip of property haven’t simply ordered up the sun, like a piece of perfectly seared tuna served at one of the high-franc mid-mountain restaurants overlooking the valley below.
Perhaps it will occur to you when you stroll down Via Serlas — past Chanel, Gucci, Bulgari, Chopard and Pucci — watching would-be shoppers descend from picturesque horse-drawn carriages and peel bills from rolls the size of baseballs to tip groomsmen. Or when you hit the clubs at night, passing smoky entryways and descending into the gloom of neon-lit, Madonna-soundtracked dance halls. Surely by the time you make it to one of the annual events on the frozen lake — three feet of ice that supports the weight of trucks, tents, horses, cricket matches and the most celebrated chefs of Switzerland — you will realize: St. Moritz is an opportunity for pure cultural anthropology, a safari to a land of 300-Swiss-franc lunches and free-flowing Cristal.
Lesser-known nobles and minor Italian princesses crowd the society pages here — supermodels, business tycoons, former heads of state and film stars are close seconds. And yet, despite the scent of exclusivity, here, perhaps more than any other spot frequented by the rich, the very rich, the royals and those who want to marry a royal, you are free to mingle with those who are accustomed to this lifestyle. You can attend their events, eat in their restaurants, walk among them, wear their clothes, sleep on the same luscious sheets. For a small fee, of course, and not just money, that’s obvious, but discretion and a not-insignificant dash of insouciance.
“In St. Moritz we never talk about our customers,” says Ursula Kahn, the manager of Les Ambassadeurs, a luxury emporium that offers jewelry from Graff and watches by Cartier, as she blows a plume of smoke over her Bottega Veneta bag. “It’s like the secrets of our Swiss banks.”
The first step, as always, is to dress the part. Blend. St. Moritz winter style, even in a winter that begins as snowlessly as this one, can be summed up in one word: Fur. St. Moritz is the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ anti-campaign. “I’d rather go naked than not wear fur” could replace “Top of the World,” as the St. Moritz motto. Sable, lynx, chinchilla, mink, fox, raccoon. Chubbies. Full length. Vests. Cuffs. Boots. Hats. Muffs. The boldest wear a combination of all of the above. Men, women, children all bundled alike. You will be forgiven for thinking that you can rent the furs at the local airport where some 19,000, mostly private, jets land each year, or at the train station, where men in uniforms that harken to another era wait to whisk you to the Suvretta House or the Kulm Hotel in stretch Mercedeses that recall taxis in oil-rich desert countries.
Walk into Badrutt’s Palace — the five-star hotel named for the mid-19th-century founder of St. Moritz tourism — in that luscious ski resort time frame known as “après ski,” especially during the annual Gourmet Festival’s chocolate or caviar tastings, and you’ll see the furs strewn haphazardly, casually, across the backs of velvet divans or nestled like pets beside their owners, bags from La Perla at the owners’ feet. Furless, in your 10-year-old EMS jacket, you’re an obvious outsider. Your Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana or Gucci sunglasses — preferably this season’s please, with a large label or signifier on the sidepiece — are insufficient.
There are those who say the fabulousness quotient is much lower than it was a half-century ago. “The fur you see now,” says Gaby Stein, a Belgian boutique owner with the rows of diamonds ringing her neck reminiscent of those a best-actress contender might borrow for the Oscars. “That’s nothing. You used to bring three fur coats to change off. The furs would be tossed aside on the floor of the King’s Club.”
St. Moritz may have changed, but the King’s Club, owned by Badrutt’s Palace, is still known as a celebrity haunt. Claudia Schiffer, Liz Hurley, Kate Moss, Robert De Niro, et al., are the regulars. Outside of Christmas week, and New Year’s Eve, when the club is hit by boldface names in droves keeping lesser-known visitors on the other side of the heavy oak doors, mortals can descend into the depths of the sunken dance floor illuminated by a massive ’70s style disco ball, to pay upward of 70 Swiss francs (about $60 at 1.23 Swiss francs to the U.S. dollar) for the privilege of imbibing two beverages. The King’s Club is your opportunity to rub shoulders with those who own Engadin Valley “holiday apartments” like Umberto and Paolo, 25-year-old Italians crashing at Umberto’s family holiday home in the nearby town of Samedan, who throw down close to $1,000 in rounds of drinks for women and themselves.
It is likely that by 3 a.m., London-based recent graduates of Fontainebleau (in Europe-speak this means Insead, the prestigious French business school) will advocate moving on to the more private club Dracula, owned by the German playboy Gunter Sachs. But after already having hopped from the Hotel Schweizerhof’s Piano Bar (older men with much younger women on their arms singing along to Gloria Gaynor in a tiny pine-paneled room) to Vivai (19-to-21-year-olds who come to St. Moritz to “work the season”) and on to the wallet-draining excess of the King’s Club, you may well opt instead for a taxi back to your hotel. The scene loses its luster, shall we say, in the wee hours of the morning.
Like St. Moritz itself, sighs Gaby Stein. “Now I just bring one fur and one casual coat,” she says, underscoring that the heyday of St. Moritz has passed. “And I might as well not bother. The wealthy are different now.”
The wealthy have been coming to St. Moritz for 150 years. In the mid 19th-century, the entrepreneurial hotelier Johannes Badrutt (of the family that founded both the Kulm and Badrutt’s Palace) bet a handful of English friends that spending a winter in this Swiss valley — so isolated it has its own language, Romansh — was not only possible, it was more enjoyable than the glorious summer. He said he’d pay their expenses if they balked. The Brits took him up on his offer and ended up staying until Easter.
The area soon became known for a host of winter sports, from ice skating and curling to tobogganing and bobsledding: the Cresta Run zips from St. Moritz to the nearby town of Celerina and is still in active use with membership in the private, male-only St. Moritz Tobogganing Club. In 1928 the town, by then well known for its exclusivity and its appeal to European royalty, was host of the Winter Olympics, an honor it received again 20 years later. In the 1950s and ’60s St. Moritz was the winter playground for those who vacationed in the most exclusive places in the world. Alfred Hitchcock honeymooned here.
Marcel and Gaby Stein, Antwerp natives (he’s in diamonds), began visiting St. Moritz at its apex, in the 1960s as 20-somethings. Later they brought their three boys, now grown, and would set up camp “for two weeks, three weeks,” she said. “For skiing.” For years they stayed at the Hotel Edelweiss, a kosher hotel that was the gathering place for observant Jews from all over Europe who each would come with what Gaby Stein said was a “massive suitcase” filled with clothing to wear at the King’s Club. Now the Steins stay about a mile from the center of town at the stately Suvretta House, site of Nijinsky’s last performance, a former playground of the Shah of Iran and Eva Perón, for an annual 10-day respite. Marcel swims daily in the Suvretta House pool, with its slate indoor landscaping and outdoor whirlpool, just downstairs from a complex of steam and sauna rooms. Gaby takes aggressive Nordic walks. They no longer ski.
The Steins are not alone in their no-ski policy. Skiing is incidental to St. Moritz. (Fabrizio D’Aloisio, a press representative for the village, estimates that nonskiers make up “55 to 60 percent” of winter visitors.) To be sure, at St. Moritz’s most rarefied hotels, the level of luxury practically begs patrons not to ski, despite ski schools exclusively for patrons — the Suvretta House’s instructors are visible on the mountain because they wear only Prada — and easy access to the slopes.
But the ski school competes with the spa, the private instruction at the private skating rink, the small but accessible gym, the bus that whisks guests into town for shopping, not to mention the leisurely long breakfast in the “informal” dining room, with fresh breads in every shade and platter after platter of fruits, cheeses, jams, meats, cereals and much more. By the time you’ve made it half way around the buffet — pausing to wonder, is that Gerhard Schröder in the corner? — you might as well give up and buy the half-day ski pass.
The suites alone are worth wasting a ski morning. The feel is a cross between Park Avenue in the 1930s — with burned-out velvet wallpaper and a starlet’s vanity — and “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Maids in starched gray uniforms piped with white, perched in whispery clutches of twos and threes, waiting for patrons to leave their rooms so they can straighten them (twice a day!), leaving newly pressed squares of linen on the floor so that pedicured feet touch only freshness before bed.
This is no ski lodge. You can’t even clomp back through the lobby in wet ski boots at the end of the day. Beginning at 7 p.m. the Suvretta House asks guests to dress formally when on the main floors and in the formal dining room where you find more white-garbed waiters in formal buttoned-up jackets than guests. In your bag you will pack, next to your fur, something long and black. And preferably something studded with precious stones.
BUT it isn’t just those staying in $700-a-night hotels who find myriad ways to join those who don’t ski. Even the hardcore skiers know that there are certain no-ski days mythologized by this valley. Take White Turf, as an example. On three Sundays each winter for the last 100 years (2007 is the centennial) the St. Moritz lake is turned into a winter-wonderland racecourse for horses: 10,000 to 12,000 racegoers swell St. Moritz by threefold on White Turf Sundays. It’s another Pimlico: betting, gates, viewing stands and all manner of food and drink, but it’s all temporary, constructed upon what, in six months or so, will hold water skiers.
There are some races unique to this odd winter track — skikjoring, for example, where skiers are hitched by what look like flags to their horses, pulled by what can only be called madness. There is even a reindeer race. But the true spectacle can be purchased with the least expensive “walking around” tickets. Meander around the fairgrounds and it’s immediately obvious: this is the place to be dressed, and not just against the chill. No one comes in ski clothes. (Supplementary packing list: knee-high boots to go with the full-length fur; preferably also a dog, any size.) The five-star hotels set up lush temporary restaurants with full lunches and Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne by the bottle. There are even restaurants that cater to the masses. Hotel Chesa Guardalej offers raclette (9 Swiss francs) and risotto (12 Swiss francs). Waldhaus am See, which says it has the biggest whiskey bar in the world, offers exactly that. Hotel Hauser sells its famous baked goods.
Even if you miss the White Turf weekends, you can still meet the no-ski crowd at the most exclusive restaurant on the mountain. Above the tree line and easily accessible via funicular trains is a two-part restaurant invention: the indoor La Marmite and its outdoor counterpart the Terrace, where you are invited to drop hundreds of francs on truffles and caviar. Those who take the funicular in ski clothing, breathing heavily from heaving a pair of skis, shuffling along in multi-buckled Nordica boots, battling to keep hair beneath a hat, may find themselves in the minority. There are invariably women on the train wearing delicate boots barely meant for winter, let alone the pistes, who are headed only for a meal and a great view. It’s nearly impossible to ski after eating at these restaurants; even skiers find themselves sipping prosecco and relaxing, leaning back on sheepskin-covered chairs outdoors and indulging in something chocolate, safe in the knowledge that the train can be taken down as well as up the mountain.
If you insist on skiing, do as the locals do. “I get on the slope by 9 a.m and ski until noon,” says Josy Rothenberger, a cosmetics executive who lived in St. Moritz in the ’80s — back when “no one asked about prices,” she says by way of indicating a shift in town mentality — and whose boyfriend is a St. Moritz native. After noon on weekends the pair hold court at Alpina Hütte, an unassuming mid-mountain restaurant serving raclette and surprisingly good pasta. On those 322 days St. Moritz promises sun, the tiny restaurant puts out a pounding dance beat that hits you as you ski or snowboard up to the yellow-and-white-striped awning chairs and join the hordes catching rays and sipping alcoholic beverages. Most are actually in ski clothes.
After all the time spent ogling the wealthy and their finery in town, when you hit the slopes you are reminded these mountains are as well worth navigating on fiberglass skis as by private jet. Cheeks reddened from whipping down the nearly empty runs, skiers and snowboarders will quickly realize that there is a benefit to hitting the slopes in a town that encourages non-skiing. No lift lines.
The St. Moritz tourist site — www.stmoritz.ch, which can (mostly) be navigated in English — is a genuinely useful trove of information on events, dining and lodging. Upon arrival in St. Moritz, be sure to pick up the pocket-size guide St. Moritz Going Out, published monthly and usually available in hotel lobbies. Also look for the annual Essential Guide St. Moritz. Swiss currency remains the Swiss franc; the country code is 41, and within Switzerland all phone numbers listed take a “0” before the number.
St. Moritz has its own airport (St. Moritz/Samedan), which handles private jets and charter flights for Europe’s high rollers. The rest of us make our way to the Engadin Valley by first flying to Zurich. Round trips from New York to Zurich begin at about $600.
The drive to St. Moritz from Zurich takes around two and a half hours. The highly scenic train trip takes about three and a half, leaving from the main Zurich station. Train tickets can be booked in advance online at www.sbb.ch, and are 134 Swiss francs round-trip (about $115 at 1.23 francs to the U.S. dollar).
WHERE TO STAY
Since 1911, the Suvretta House (Via Chasellas 1; 41-81-836-3636; www.suvrettahouse.ch) has quietly feted the fabulous, and it has a new indoor pool and an adjacent spa, a small but inviting outdoor skating rink and Prada-clad ski instructors on site and waiting for your private lesson. Doubles start at 860 francs and go way, way up. Prices include breakfast; half board is an additional 35 francs per person.
Perched above St. Moritz’s lake, Waldhaus am See (Via Dim Lej 6; 41-81-836-6000; www.waldhaus-am-see.ch) is the one of very few low-key alternatives in St. Moritz. Knotty pine accents in rooms with spotless white bedding make for a mountain holiday feel. The bar is famous for its whiskey collection — reputedly the largest in the world — but the restaurant is also excellent. Ask for a room with a view of the lake. During the high season, doubles start at 420 francs, which includes half board.
Far from a simple, comfy spot for après ski (there’s nary a matted hat-head in sight), the lobby of Badrutt’s Palace (Via Serlas 27; 41-81-837-1000 or 41-81-837-1100; www.badruttspalace.com) is filled with those who shop at some of the adjacent and stratospherically expensive shops (Chopard, Van Cleef & Arpels). Inside, the hotel strives to deliver on luxury, from spa packages to dedicated ski instructors to private yoga classes. A standard double room starts at 785 francs (with breakfast), half board begins at 1,045 francs.
WHERE TO EAT
The fur-clad and fabulous whisk up the mountain on the funicular (easily taken without skis) for the 115-franc tasting menu at La Marmite and the Terrace (mid-mountain Corviglia, 41-81-833-6355; www.MathisFood.ch ) or to try the astronomically expensive truffle menus. À la carte choices keep the price a bit lower with a creamy lobster bisque (19 francs) or seared ahi tuna, lovingly displayed (29 francs).
The cozy mid-mountain restaurant Alpina Hütte (mid-mountain Corviglia; 41-81-833-4080), is one of the few spots that feel like a regular ski resort; the big outdoor bar is popular with locals. On nice days the outdoor bar blasts music to people tanning on comfy yellow loungers.
A round restaurant perched exactly where a gondola drops off, Piz Nair Bergrestaurant (Corviglia; 41-81-833-0875), is worth a visit not as much for the standard ski-mountain fare as the photo opportunity: pictures taken here look like you’re standing at the edge of the world.
Back in town, the Bistro Hatecke (Via Maistra 16; 41-81-864-1175, www.hatecke.ch) might be called a deli, if the definition of deli is a deconstructed space carved from concrete, selling high end balsamic vinegars and fancy proscuitto. Beers go for 5.50 francs, with panini and soups starting at 12 francs.
You needn’t be staying at Hotel Salastrains to try the Restaurant Salastrains (Hotel Salastrains, Corviglia; 41-81-833-3867; www.salastrains.ch), where hearty Swiss fare is woven seamlessly with Northern Italian favorites (like tissue-thin tuna carpaccio) in an invitingly warm dining room. About 66 francs for two with wine.
WHERE TO GO AT NIGHT
The oldest and sceniest is still the King’s Club (Via Serlas 27, adjacent to Badrutt’s Palace). Expect late nights, big jewels, the occasional starlet and pricey drinks (35 francs for a Cosmopolitan).
Plenty of St. Moritz regulars pack themselves into the tiny, wood-paneled Piano Bar at the Hotel Schweizerhof (Via dal Bagn 54), which manages to look a lot more casual than it really is.
Walk down the long flight of stairs into Vivai (Via Traunter Plazzas 6) and it immediately becomes clear: this is the kids’ club, the haunt of the crowds of seasonal workers. Anyone over 22 will feel old.
WHAT TO DO
Ski. Lift tickets are available for just Corviglia, the main St. Moritz mountain, but many opt for the marginally more expensive all-Engadin Valley pass, which gives access to all the mountains — 58 lifts when in full operation, though only 36 were open last Monday — as well as the public transportation to get you around. Five days with the latter is 305 francs per adult, one day is 119 francs (www.bergbahnenengadin.ch).
Go to the races. White Turf is an annual international horse race held on the frozen lake since 1907 (www.whiteturf.ch; 41-81-833-8460).
Learn Cricket. Every February, the lake plays host to a Cricket on Ice tournament begun in 1988 by local Anglophiles; www.cricket-on-ice.com.
Shop. Wander around town and take in the ultra-pricey duds at Jet Set (Via Maisra 23), gold standards like Prada (Via Maistra 25) or ski wear at Corviglia Sport (Via Maistra 21)
Toboggan. The century-old Cresta Run is still men — and membership — only. You must apply for temporary membership to ride; www.cresta-run.com.