There’s nothing like throwing money at a difficult situation to make it better. And family ski trips, let’s face it, can err towards the arduous. From old to new, with not an insignificant amount of Russian rubles too, there’s no lack of money in St Moritz, centre of which stands the Kulm Hotel, self-titled ‘cradle of winter tourism’ since Johannes Badrutt founded the resort on the back of an extravagant bet, in the winter of 1864.
More than 150 years later, that bet continues to pay serious dividends for those who prefer their ski experience to come with staff. Most indispensable of which: the Kulm’s fleet of black Mercedes gliding from hotel to cable car and back. We are beholden to this crack team of liveried chauffeurs who dash in and out of the spotless boot room holding both the doors and our cumbersome kit with effortless grace, depositing it into swish, lift-pass-activated lockers where heated boot driers await, leaving us to pad off to the spa. And, oh, the spa… From its icy foot baths (to numb aching ski toes), and series of steam rooms, saunas and salt grotto, to the expansive indoor pool and elegant outdoor whirlpool, where bubbling bed areas allow steaming under the stars, the spa alone is enough to seal the deal for our group: 12-year-old daughter, aunty, and me.
And yet that old money could also talk in uneasy terms for our all-girl trio. Announced daily on a wooden notice board in the hotel foyer: practice times for St Moritz’s notorious, men-only Cresta Run toboggan club. Then there’s the creaky-floored ballroom where canasta, bridge and cribbage are still a daily event for the women left behind, the nightly formal dinners catering to an ageing boarding-school crowd who still think monogrammed velvet slippers are acceptable public dress, and the endless parade of fur, mostly worn by an uber race of 6ft women with legs like ski poles. Daughter, Ella was agog.
Between the bonkers bits of heavy wood furniture that don’t quite fill up the endless acres of corridors connecting what were once two hotels, there are confident flourishes of contemporary cool: There’s the pop-up two-Michelin-star Tim Raue restaurant, and at the Sunny Bar, inked Peruvian chef Claudia Canessa serves us the coolest sushi fusion we’ve found anywhere in the Alps. We peek into the very grown-up Kulm Country Club newly designed by Richard Rogers, and duck out again in favour of the more family-friendly Italian where refined pasta and pizza are a win for our fussy half-Italian clan. Fondu at the cosy Swiss sister restaurant, a brisk if skiddy walk along the icy street, is licence to play with your food (liquid cheese!). If booked ahead, Kulm half-board costs just CHF25 (£20) per person, per day at 17 resort and partner restaurants (some with surcharges).
Throughout, from bar to buffet station, staff are faultlessly friendly. Guests are treated, without fuss, as VIPS, be they titled toffs, toddlers or those with waggy tails (as with any self-respecting country estate, dogs are a prevalent Kulm feature; a princely daschund is resident at the on-site jewellers). Children get complimentary daily ski lessons and a plethora of kids’ club activities. Seeing a bouncy castle crammed chandelier-high into the grand ballroom was a surreal Kulm experience not to be missed. It didn’t tempt the soon-to-be-teen but aunty and I were secretly keen for a go.
It’s tough to remember you’re here to ski. “I come every year but St Moritz isn’t really about the skiing,” says a lady in a gold lamé ski suit, our only companion in the cable car one morning. “Or at least it’s not just about the skiing.” There are palace hotels to lounge in, cafe-salons to sun at, and oodles of posh sports, from ice polo to skijoring (horse-drawn skiing), luring people to the frozen lakes of the St Moritz plateau. Non-skiers can walk an icy chain of river-linked lakes, while the pull of the Olympic bobsleigh, in this 70th and 90th anniversary year of the Winter Games being held in St Moritz, proves too strong for most guests of age (16+). Ella curses her youth.
Up on piste, we often find ourselves almost in glorious solitude — truly remarkable given that its peak February half-term ski season. And there’s plenty for us to ski — St Moritz’s local mountain Corviglia and neighbouring Corvatsch and Diavolezza incorporate 220 miles of pistes topping out at 10,843ft: snow-sure terrain that nonetheless enjoys the sort of sunshine you’d expect from its proximity to Italy. The wide blues and generous reds are a boon to intermediates — which suits our mixed ability group — while a string of snow parks with tunnels, kickers, boards, half-pipes and rails keep our snowboarder and budding freestyle skier more than happy. And, even more happily, a ski school, nursery slope and snow park sit just below our favourite trio of restaurants at Chanterella. Of the three, sprawling Salastrains has the buzziest sun deck, and an affordable-chic Austro-Italian menu. And if the seemingly free-flowing Aperol Spritz gets you, you’re right by the funicular station… where there’s also the chance for a cocktail or frothy hot chocolate before you descend, at Alto, a defunct red cable car that doubles as a teeny bar.
Alternatively, green tree-runs take us cruising down to Bad and Celerina, St Moritz’s less-glitzy adjoining hamlets to see how the other half live (still in stupendous comfort), our chauffeur on call to whisk us back to starry hub of St Moritz Dorf. But it’s the outlying peak of La Diavolezza that proves the gold standard. A 20-minute schlepp by car from Dorf, with just three lifts plus a beginner’s drag, this peak looks barely worth a glance, but its reds and blacks are high (9,770ft) and offer clear six-mile runs past glaciers to the base station. A beauty at any time but gold standard when you have it all to yourself.
Kulm guests get a run before the sun, and the hoi polloi arrive (such as they aren’t in St Moritz), on a dawn ski excursion before La Diavolezza’s lifts open to the public. The joy (albeit a bone-shattering one with our morning’s weather a freakish -23c) of pushing off with literally no one ahead or behind you. The glee of taking idiot wide turns, running breakneck fast because you can; the thrill of seeing the sun make its first laser-like appearance over the eastern peaks, snow sparkling like a diamond-encrusted carpet beneath you. All the while knowing that a VIP breakfast awaits at the summit cafe, and your liveried chauffeur at the base below.
Things to do: St Moritz
Rhaetian Railway: Rail connections from Zurich airport put passengers into Chur, where iconic red Rhaetian trains make epic mountain journeys to St Moritz. The Alp’s highest railway, from St Moritz, the route continues up past sparkling glaciers over the Bernina Pass: a highlight of any Swiss ski trip.
Sunrise & full-moon skiing: A VIP experience for Kulm guests: early runs before the sun and the public arrive, organised on the neighbouring mountain of Diavolezza. Or book general access tickets for the monthly (Jan-March) full-moon skiing.
It’s not all downhill: Hike the string of river-linked lakes from St Moritz Cross-Country Ski Centre to the Olympic ski jump, past frozen lakes Marsch and Champfèr. Hiking, ice skating and cross-country trails continue west to lakes Silvaplana and Sils. Regular ice polo and hockey events make thrilling spectator sports.
Double rooms from CHF675 (£500) per night; extra beds from CHF100 (£80), both half-board. The rate includes a dine-around package at 17 resort restaurants, along with VIP early-bird, night and full-moon skiing, ice skating on the Kulm Olympic lake, and daily group ski/snowboard lessons for children (three-12years). The kids’ club, early dinners plus treasure hunts, and mocktail mixing are all complimentary along with ice cream, juice and hot chocolate at all restaurants, and free children’s laundry service. Stay two nights or more to get half-price lift passes: CHF38 (£30) per day.
Travel from Zurich airport to St Moritz by rail is a glacier-spanning treat (three-four hours), adults from £116 and children (six-16years) £58 return.
Flights from the UK to Zurich from £58 one-way.
More info: myswitzerland.com
Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)