St. Mortiz may be known as one of the most glamorous European alpine destinations, but don’t let its sparkle fool you. There are plenty of activities on offer for those seeking something a little more adventurous. We sent our Adventure Correspondent, Hugh Francis Anderson, into the mountains to find how many adrenaline loaded experiences St. Moritz has to offer.
The frozen wind screams past my ears, bringing with it a ceaseless flurry of fresh snow. Above, the sun is masked by an enveloping cloud, which floods the peaks in an opaque hue. “You’re now over 3 kilometres above sea level,” cries my mountain guide, “let’s see if we can find some fresh powder up here.” A smile quickly seals itself on my face, as we turn into the wind and career down the mountain in search of adventure. St. Mortiz may be glamorous, but it has a daring side too.
The route to St. Moritz starts with the exceptional Rhaetian Railway journey, deep into the Engadin valley. Officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the sublime route offers dreamlike views over this white fantasia. Tall pines lie covered with fresh snow, mountain peaks rise endlessly skywards, and the gentle pace almost transports you back in time. When you do finally arrive some four hours later, you are already awakened to the majesty of the mountains. So, it’s only fitting that nestled within this exquisite part of nature, one should find the most exclusive ski resort in the world. Since the British elite first started visiting during the winter season in the mid19th century, St. Mortiz has been the destination of choice for the rich and famous, and remains unchanged to this day.
It comes as little surprise then that some of the world’s finest hotels reside in this small valley, and I eagerly make my way towards one of them, the Grand Hotel Kronenhof, in nearby Pontresina. First opening its doors as the Rössli guesthouse in 1848, it has continued to grow and expand for over 150 years to be exactly what one would expect from an opulent 5-star Engadin hotel. The charm and sheer grandeur of its Neo-Baroque design is nothing short of palatial, and while its newly added spa is hyper-modern, the hotel itself remains largely original. I can’t help but wonder what fantastic stories its walls could tell. My room, one of the 13 junior suites redesigned by award-winning French interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, takes a step away from the traditional mountain retreat with a light colour-palate making the space feel suave and chic, yet its effect is stronger than that. With the Bernina Mountain Range and the mighty Roseg Glacier as the backdrop through enormous windows and a French-door that leads onto a private balcony, the focal point here is very much the blustering mountains outside. And while the Kronenhof is the perfect place to base myself during my stay, it is the very mountains I gaze over from my balcony that beckon me forth.
Indeed, while the luxurious side of St. Moritz is well known, it has also been a mecca for adrenaline junkies for over a century. The famed Cresta Run sees the elite and famous hurl themselves headfirst down the 1.2 kilometre bob run, reaching speeds of up to 90mph. Oh, and it’s traditionally done wearing tweed. Few sports are quite this extreme, but one comes pretty close, The Olympia Bob Run. As the oldest bob run in the world, the 1.7-kilometre course takes just 90 seconds to complete, where speeds reach in excess of 130kph and gravitational forces of up to 5G are experienced through the tight hairpin and horseshoe bends. Naturally, I had to find out more.
As I approach the top of the run, my pilot, Franz Baumann, tells me the one simple rule – hold on tight. I climb into the Kulm Hotel’s (The Kronenhof’s sister hotel) personal bob and try to nestle myself deep in the carbon-fibre bullet. Though I have never attempted anything like this before, the very concept of hurling myself down a chute of ice is staggering, but you can do it. Since the end of the 1930s, the St. Mortiz Bobsleigh Club has offered unique guest rides for those who want to feel the adrenaline rush themselves. It may not be a common activity, but my, it is worth it.
No winter journey into the alps in search of adventure would be complete without a healthy dose of skiing thrown in. Thankfully, the Kronenhof offers a chauffeured shuttle for all guests to Corviglia, St. Mortiz’s most prominent ski area. With over 150kms of skiable pisted terrain available, one could ski all day and scarcely cover the entire mountain. Yet, it is the off-piste opportunities on offer that I’m truly pining for, and an early meeting with Andy Steingruber, a mountain guide from Bergsteigerschule Pontresina, sees the adventure continue. Though the clouds are heavy and threatening to release their white armouries, we load our avalanche gear into our packs and head up into the mountains. Steingruber tells me that the face of the Corvatsch, the highest mountain in the valley, is the most sheltered from the wind, so we drive the short distance and ride the gondola to the very top. I take the opportunity to ask him why one should visit St. Mortiz for off-piste skiing. “It’s a high altitude, snow-sure area, and we have a lot of different skiable terrains,” he says, “the area here is bigger, you have more options and it’s less busy than many others.” With that, we head off across the powder-filled sections both on the mountain peak and further down amongst the trees. The best part? Fresh tracks without another person in sight. Indeed, the entire skiable area encompasses four mountain faces, Covilia, Corvatsch, Diavolezza and Lagalb, so it is really possible to escape the crowds and discover your very own mountainous nirvana.
At the end of a hard day’s adventuring, I can think of few better places to relax than back at the Kronenhof. Down in the 2000m2 spa, you’ll find everything from mind coaches and yoga sessions to Kneipp footbaths and a 20m infinity pool. A particular favourite to help soothe the muscles is the sauana-gus, and traditional method where essential oils are infused into the water used in the sauna, and a gus-master whirls the air until the temperature rises to almost 100oC. After 10 minutes, a rub down in fresh snow mere paces from the sauna ensures a vibrant and invigorating recovery. And indeed, the gastronomy on offer also aids recovery. From house meals in the Grand Restaurant under the famous frescoes of Otto Haberer, to gourmet-dining in Kronenstübli or a few cocktails in the hardwood-clad Kronenhof Bar, the entire experiential notion of luxury culminates here.
And so, as I depart after what has been a truly exceptional few days, I can’t help but feel a pang of sadness; with adventure, relaxation and luxury all in one sublime alpine retreat just hours from London, I dare say I’ll be back.
Rates at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof start from CHF 565 for two people sharing a double room
on a half-board basis. For more information visit www.kronenhof.com
To experience a guest ride on the Olympia Bob Run, visit www.olympia-bobrun.ch. Mountain guides available throughout the year with Bergsteigerschule Pontresina, visit bergsteiger-pontresina.ch
For more information on travelling in Switzerland, visit www.myswitzerland.com. Daily flights from all London airports with SWISS, for more information visit www.swiss.com. Train travel passes available through Swiss Travel System, for more information visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk