Travel: St Moritz – Europe’s first winter resort

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Travel: Mark Browne ponders the attractions of a classic skiing option – St Moritz.

As the autumn progresses and the weather turns colder, thoughts turn once again to the upcoming winter sports season. With a myriad of options available, it can of course be difficult to determine where best to spend precious vacation time.

Nestled in Switzerland’s Engadine valley, surrounded by sloping mountains and verged by its iconic lake, St Moritz presents a picture-postcard vision of a winter resort. The winding streets of the town are resplendent with their luxurious hotels that present an interesting array of architectural styles, while the valley itself remains unspoiled by excessive construction. Festival lights brighten the dark on winter evenings and present a cheery glow amidst the darkness to beckon revellers after a day on the slopes. A veritable winter paradise.

The train journeys leading to St Moritz are worth a mention in their own right. Routes such as the Gottard Panoramic route are among the most scenic in the world. The Rhaetian Railway has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, due to the area’s outstanding natural beauty. The road route also presents stunning vistas and indeed has become popular as a touring location for classic car rallies.

Rather than engaging in further travel immediately after a flight to Zurich, it is pleasant to linger and explore the attractions of the city itself. Switzerland’s largest city and an international cosmopolitan business centre, it nevertheless retains the charm and intimacy of a smaller town. Its location on the lake, with snow-capped mountains in the distance and the Limat river running through it, affords fantastic vistas, while the historic old town is a delight to visit – its historic buildings are filled with interesting traditional and more modern dining options.

A great option that allows visitors to experience the city while ensuring that they are already in holiday mode is to stay in the Hotel Atlantis. This 5-star spa resort hotel, part of the Giardino group, is located on a hillside at the foot of the Uetliberg mountain on the fringe of the city, with views over both the city itself and the countryside around it from the hotel’s balconies. This allows guests to relax in the convivial detached ambience of a resort while still being close enough to visit the city.

The hotel has played host to numerous famous guests, including well-known luminaries visiting Zurich to give concerts, drawn not only by its luxurious setting but also its sleek modernistic style – the hotel was only built in 1970 making it a relative newcomer to the luxury world in Zurich. However, it was completely renovated in 2015, with rooms expanded in size to meet contemporary demands for a more spacious environment. Refurbished to the highest standards with excellent attention to detail throughout, the hotel maintains its 70s flare while featuring a range of Swiss styles in the guest rooms that lend a local flavour to the sleek post-modern style.

The hotel also houses the Ecco Restaurant, which boasts an impressive two Michelin stars. The resort officially opens for skiing in late October, however many hotels only open later in the season and closer to the Christmas holiday period. Timing is critical. Because the resort hosts various well-known festivals throughout the winter season, it may be preferable to select a quieter time during the season.

In addition to the usual winter sports, St Moritz is famous for tobogganing on the infamous Cresta run. Even novices can book a practice session to try it out – if they dare. Off the slopes, the town offers plenty of opportunities to indulge in retail therapy in its array of high-end shops. It is worth noting that St Moritz originally became famous as a place of quiet relaxation and recuperation due to the healing powers of its natural waters. Not surprisingly, it therefore remains a fantastic location to indulge in spa therapies.

A name that has become synonymous with alpine glamour and luxury is the 5-star Kulm hotel. Originally dating back to the 1850s, the substantial 173-room Kulm has been a centre piece of winter tourism in St Moritz ever since. It is perfectly located in the town centre, but high enough on the hillside to be afforded an uninterrupted view over the lake. The hotel offers all the facilities one would expect of a top-class, modern 5-star ski resort hotel (with seven restaurants, including the two-Michelin-starred K) but maintains the ambience of a bygone era.