I’VE been skiing just once, when I was 11. My chief memories are of floundering in a snowdrift as my Austrian instructor sped off cursing my inability to stay upright, and the fact that by the end of the week I still hadn’t even mastered the snowplough. It really wasn’t for me.
Since then, the Alps have remained firmly off my travel radar. To the committed non-skier, talk of glamorous destinations like Courchevel and Zermatt, discussions over the best “après” activities and grumblings about the cost of lift passes hold minimal fascination. The irony, of course, is that the winter side of Alpine tourism is just one – albeit very valuable – part of the story. The other, summery part, is more colourful, more varied in what it offers, arguably more beautiful and certainly more affordable. And with resorts piling investment into their summer offerings as the recession bites into ski revenues, the notion of them shutting up shop for the down-season is less and less a reality.
So last summer I made my return, and my base, ironically, was to be the place where winter tourism was born: St Moritz. It was here in 1864 – when the Alps were a summer-only destination – that local hotelier Johannes Badrutt enticed the first Brits to a winter visit. They came in droves, and St Moritz has never been out of fashion since.
Its location, in the stunning glacial curve of the Switzerland’s Engadin Valley, has the benefit of a microclimate that ensures around 300 days of sunshine every year. It’s in the country’s southeastern corner, less than an hour’s journey from the Italian border, and you reach it by train from Zurich. That journey alone is a two-hour stunner, whisking you upwards past evergreen forests, Alpine pastures, nestled villages with sloping roofs and church spires, and waterfalls cascading down rocky gullies. Everything gleams and shimmers – it’s like journeying through a <a href="http://www.lynxeffect.com/uk/lynx-videos" target="_new">deodorant</a> commercial.
The train’s ski-racks may be empty in the summer, but instead your fellow passengers come with every kind of hiking apparel, climbing gear, cycling kit, even waterskiing equipment for hitting the lake – the Alpine life is ever the active life. Or is it? Being met at St Moritz station by a gleaming Rolls Royce to take you about a quarter of a mile to the Badrutt’s Palace hotel – still run by Johannes Badrutt’s descendents – could suggest otherwise.
GRAND CHALET CHIC
St Moritz, of course, is a by-word for glitzy luxury, a place where restricting your energetic side to a nose around the boutiques before blissing out to an expensive massage is just fine, darling – and Badrutt’s Palace is its castle. A mixture of schloss fantasy and grand chalet chic, it stands sentinel over the town and its glimmering lake. Here you can laze around in the echoing magnificence of the Grand Hall, take tea in the sun on a luxurious veranda, eat like a film star in the Nobu restaurant or like a king in the ineffably elegant, Michelin-starred Le Restaurant… um, restaurant. The best feature of all, however, might be the spa’s large oval swimming pool, surrounded by towering windows looking out across the green mountain slopes and forests. It’s a very splendid place.
It would be easy to wallow in such opulence for days, but where there are ski slopes in the winter there are hiking trails by summer, and glorious Alpine countryside to bask in. The trails in the area are as numerous as the ski routes, and the tourist office and hotel concierges can supply details and leaflets. We took a funicular up to Muottas Muragl, a cosy restaurant on a plateau overlooking St Moritz from a height of 2,500m. You pretty much have to stick to well-trodden pathways which snake majestically round the fairy-tale terrain, every turn presenting a view more gorgeous than the last. It’s the kind of country in which you expect to find Julie Andrews dashing along with a retinue of lederhosen-sporting kids, or Heidi and her grandpa waving you on. If you can find it, it’s worth stopping off at Segantini’s Hut, a café in the former lodge of hermit painter Giovanni Segantini, which is only accessible on foot (spare a thought for the employees who lug the food and drink up there).
This kind of hiking, in majestically crisp air and a crystalline quality of light impossible to experience at home, nourishes the soul. And you don’t have to stick to hiking. Bikes are easily hired, and if you don’t fancy scrambling around on them along rocky trails, they make a good way to investigate the other towns and villages in the area, most of which retain their ancient, Alpine charm.
One particularly lovely village is Sils Im Engadin, an evocative cluster of villas and chalets from which paths lead up to the lush, rolling pastures of the Fex valley. There are no cars allowed, but we hopped on a horse-drawn cart and clip-clopped upwards to the Hotel Sonne Fex, an idyllic little place next to a tiny farmers’ chapel (the frescos inside date from the 12th century). At the hotel’s outdoor restaurant we sipped local white wine and gazed over the sleepy green spurs of the valley – a delightful contrast with St Moritz’s showy razzle-dazzle.
It’s as romantic a summer spot as you’ll find on any faraway beach. Maybe it all looks just as fine covered in snow but I’m not convinced – it’s in the summer these mountains reveal their splendour.
THREE OTHER WAYS TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE ALPINE SUMMER
Live like Heidi in a mountain lodge
Staying in a hotel or chalet is one thing, but if you want glorious isolation, how about a remote farmers’ hut? Switzerland’s Gstaad Palace Hotel has acquired and renovated just such a lodge that’s hidden away in the mountains 1,700m up. Built in 1786, it’s only accessible in the summer months.
The beauty of the place is how little the traditional feel has been altered. Sleeping a family of four for two nights at a time or offering dinners for groups, the Walig hut, as it’s known, is all wooden floors, animal hide rugs and cosy atmosphere. And of course, the views are mind-blowing – the perfect place from which to set out for some truly magnificent hiking.
Alpine night for two adults including a three course dinner, from CHF1,600. For more information email email@example.com or see see www.palace.ch.
Hit the road in a supercar
Showy displays of wealth and good living go hand in hand with the glamour of the leading mountain resorts, and it’s not unusual to see some seriously impressive cars pulling into the hotel forecourts. Add to that some of Europe’s most exciting highways, and you’ve got a petrolhead’s paradise.
Travel company Black Tomato is offering the opportunity to mix burning rubber, beautiful scenery and luxurious hotels this summer with its To Stelvio and Beyond tour. Arriving in Zurich, you get a sports car – choices include a classic BMW M3 convertible, Ferrari F599, Porsche 911 Turbo convertible and Aston Martin DB9 Volante – delivered to you with pre-programmed sat nav to guide you through the Alps. Take in St Moritz, the Jungfrau and Eiger Massifs, drive through the glorious Swiss National Park and on into Italy, where you hit the Stelvio Pass, thought by some to be the world’s best driving road. Along the way, you stay in some fabulous hotels and enjoy VIP nights out.
From £2,300 per person (depending upon car type) for four nights, for travel between 10 June and 10 October. See www.blacktomato.co.uk or call 020 7426 9888.
The Alps on two wheels
If pedal power is more your thing, the Alps offer plenty of options. Resorts generally have networks of mountain bike trails for thrill seekers and rough riders to get around, with plenty of shops hiring out bikes and equipment. One option is Riders Refuge (www.ridersrefuge.co.uk), a company founded by a pair of plucky Brits offering mountain bike holidays in the French resort of Morzine, with chalet accommodation. Prices go from £299.
If road touring through the Alpine countryside is preferable, Freewheel Holidays (www.freewheelholidays.co.uk) offers an enticing Into the Valley of the Alps tour through the mountain range’s Austrian arm. Starting in the village of Krimml in the Hohe Tauern National Park, the 10-day trip follows the Salzach Valley through pine forests, pretty villages and meadows, a dramatic gorge and past Austria’s highest mountains. It’s leisurely cycling along village roads, dedicated tracks and cycle paths, with hotel accommodation, finishing up in the magnificent city of Salzburg. Prices are from £649 for adults and £499 for children for a seven night tour, or £749 and £519 respectively for a nine night tour.
HOTEL AND TRAVEL DETAILS
Standard double rooms at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, St Moritz are available from CHF365 per room per night . To book, visit www.badruttspalace.com or call +41 (0)81 837 1100.
Daily flights are available through EasyJet from Gatwick to Zurich, with prices starting at £24.99. Visit www.easyjet.co.uk.
The Swiss Transfer return railway ticket from Zurich to St Moritz starts from £75 in second class and £113 in first class and can be booked via www.myswitzerland.com/rail or 00800 100 200 30.