“People find out the hard way that when the Swiss say a train leaves at 8:02, it leaves at 8:02.” Ah Swiss efficiency. In this land of cheese and chocolate, the next thing Switzerland is known for is its ability to run things like clockwork.
When I checked my itinerary and found I would have to change trains three times in order to travel from Zurich to St. Moritz, I’ll admit I was a little worried. I had only six minutes to make a transfer for one of my switches. Throw in the fact that most instructions are given in German, and then reluctant English, and this control freak was a little freaked out. But then I remembered where I was. The land of efficiency. And beautiful mountain train rides, via my Swiss Travel Pass, which was a great bargain for traveling across the country. (It’s also good for boats and buses.)
St. Moritz, celebrating its 150 anniversary this year, has long held the reputation as the ski place to be seen in Switzerland, and I was intrigued to learn about the history of this legendary place. It was first and foremost a summer place, but in 1856 Johann Badrutt challenged his English friends to spend the winter with him at his small hotel. If they were disappointed, he would return their money. Not only did they enjoy it, they became the impetus for a resort which would become known for the first bobsleigh run (still made today with only snow and ice) and the majestic Kulm Hotel (owned by Badrutt) was the site of the first electric light in Switzerland.
The Cresta Run (a skeleton type run) precedes the modern-day bobsleigh, and to this day it is still a unique event that only invited guests can participate in. Rumour has it that women have been disallowed from the main event after the club president was beaten by his wife. Today, women are only allowed on the run on the last two days of the season. But that’s okay; there are plenty of other things to do in St. Moritz, including the high-end shopping, three main ski areas, watching polo or horse racing on the ice of the lake, or trying out a unique ski yoga class which involves cross country skis and natural balance. I did not try this. There is also a cross country ski marathon race which sees 12,000 participants. St. Moritz has hosted two winter Olympic Games, once in 1928 and again in 1948.
The population of St. Moritz is only 5,000, but during the “season”, 3,500 seasonal workers descend upon this small mountain town. Of the 39 hotels in town, five of them are 5-star hotels, all of which close at the end of March, to re-open for the summer season in June, then close again in September and open in November for the ski season. I had the opportunity to stay at the Kulm Hotel, and the Carlton Hotel, both of which exemplify the luxury hotels expected to be found in this village. Alfred Hitchcock was a regular at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, and Charlie Chaplin was also a frequent guest. Today John Travolta, Robert de Niro, Liz Hurley and Ivana Trump can be found on the hills and in the clubs.
Reluctantly, I left St. Moritz and jumped on a series of four trains which would take me to yet another upscale ski area, Gstaad.
Gstaad has quite different origins from St. Moritz. This ski area gained popularity built around the world’s most expensive private school ($110,000 per semester) called Le Rosey. The school is attended by Rothchilds and the children of celebrities such as Roger Moore and Liz Taylor. The school has a campus in Gstaad which their students attend from January until March, making it a natural place for their families to visit during the coveted ski season. With easy access to six ski areas, it’s easy to see why the popularity grew. The Gstaad Palace Hotel dominates the village’s purview; most of us will remember it as the setting for Blake Edward’s The Return of The Pink Panther. In fact, Edwards returned with his wife Julie Andrews many times, so much so that she became a resident, and dedicated a statue of a “sitting duck” (not sure of the relevance) to the town. But as much as Gstaad is about billionaires and being seen, it is also a very down to earth farming community. Cows migrate from their winter stables up to the higher hills in the spring, and are known to parade through town. The main shopping area, while filled with high end shops a la St. Moritz, is pedestrian friendly and does feature a number of local merchants as well.
Two other five star hotels, the Park Gstaad and the Alpina, have their own brand of luxury, the latter focusing on it’s world renowned spa and its eclectic art collection. The Park Gstaad is the oldest hotel in the town (build in 1910), but recent renovations give it a distinctly modern feel. Their Argentinian steakhouse is not to be missed for the serious red meat eater.
Since 1969, all residential and commercial buildings must be built in the traditional Swiss chalet style, lending Gstaad with a uniquely picturesque feel. While skiing might be the number one reason to visit Gstaad, there is a lot to do in the spring and summer months as well. Hiking, biking, golf, and a 3,000-metre run at the top of a glacier, at a 2,000-metre altitude, brings out the toughest athletes. Known for having some of the best biking in the world, due to the five valleys which define the region. Summer concerts, ATP tennis and a world beach volleyball series make it a popular stop for not just the Swiss (who make up about 64% of tourists visiting the area), but guests from Germany, France, and North America as well. Celebrities often seen in Gstaad include Anne Hathaway, and designer Valentino.
In terms of the food? Exceptional local gourmet fare at The K in the Kulm Hotel, featuring Swiss wines, which are not well known as produced and sold only locally. I had the best cheese fondue at Michel’s Stallbeizli in Gstaad, a restaurant where the diners sat on one side of the glass, and the cows grazed in a stable on the other. Talk about your farm to table experience. I did learn that you should drink alcohol or a hot drink while having cheese fondue or it will harden in your stomach.
The best chocolate I found was the chocolate shop inside the Hauser Hotel in St. Moritz, where I also picked up a traditional Swiss nutcake. My only regret on the trip? The Versace store in town didn’t sell stretchy pants.