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Natural beauty and outrageous luxury in Switzerland

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By Neil McQuillian
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In 2014 Switzerland’s Graubünden region celebrates its 150th anniversary as the birthplace of winter tourism. Although much has changed since then, Neil McQuillian finds plenty of old-school luxury – and some pleasing eccentricities.

My guide John and I were about to be shown round the spectacularly sited Romantik Hotel Muottas Muragl, and had just met the manager. In the small talk preamble it transpired that she was German, not Swiss. “So,” asked John, looking her in the eye and smiling. “How did you find paradise?”

Had his tooth twinkled or was that just the snow? As a rather lounge bar sort of question, it suited this corner of Switzerland pretty well. My three-day stay in the mountainous Graubünden canton was full of I-can’t-quite-believe-this-is-happening moments: most were down to the landscape’s unrelenting beauty, but others were definitely about the place’s singular sense of style.

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A case in point: sitting just shy of 2.5km above sea level, accessed by funicular and overlooking a long valley of startling natural drama, you’d think the hotel has quite enough going for it – mostly of the quiet, awe-inspiring sort (not to mention nicely understated décor). Yet, in 2013, it was decided this winter wonderland could use an injection of boogie, and Earth, Wind and Fire were drafted in to play out on the terrace, an anecdote related to me with no little relish. Obviously this was a one-off – and I was a wide-eyed newcomer to Graubünden ways – yet for now I was struggling to see how a supergroup could enhance these surroundings.

With its “plus-energy” credentials (it produces more than it consumes) this Samedan hotel is an Alpine trailblazer. Yet it can’t claim any world firsts, unlike Graubünden neighbour St Moritz, where the very concept of winter tourism began a century and a half ago this year – a fact that the region is proudly celebrating throughout 2014 . The story runs that a group of British summer tourists accepted local hotelier Johannes Badrut’s proposal to return in winter to his Engadina Kulm hotel, on the basis that if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t pay for their journey. It’s fair to say it caught on. In fact, though you could hardly call it tourism, the region was already a popular destination for tuberculosis patients, who hoped that the pristine, dry air might ease their symptoms. It was they and their carers – craving entertainment and distraction respectively – who helped trigger the development of competitive winter sport, said to have begun with the toboggan race between the towns of Davos (who won) and St Moritz in January 1885.

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That Johannes Badrut’s guests ended up staying on until the spring suggests that they weren’t short of a few bob, and St Moritz is undeniably a wealthy folks’ playground to this day. The town is of village-like proportions yet boasts (it really does) five 5-star hotels and a strip of perilously high-end boutiques. Many of its venues riff on the alpha theme: the members-only Dracula Club, founded by renowned “playboy” Gunter Sachs (once married to Brigitte Bardot); the Kulm Hotel’s Sunny Bar, where you can demonstrate your prowess by doing pull-ups on gymnastics rings; and the world’s largest whisky bar at the Waldhaus am See hotel, with one bottle that’ll cost “9000 Swiss francs a nip, once the owner opens it”, according to John.

The previous night in Pontresina, hours after my arrival in the region, I’d already sampled Graubünden chic myself: at the hotel restaurant, dinner was served by men in white tuxedos with gold epaulettes while Black’s Wonderful Life played on a white electric piano; upon returning to my room, I found that a small cloth bearing the hotel’s name had been laid on the floor by the side of my bed (I still can’t fathom why). Reading reviews online of the town’s other restaurants, one referred to a dish called canard à la presse (“only available in a very few places in Europe”) whereby duck is carved up at the table by waiting staff and served in a sauce of its own blood and marrow, these goodies squeezed out by way of a mean-looking contraption. Haute cuisine in excelsis. I’d come upon old-school standards of hospitality I didn’t realise still existed.

Yet even 150 years into the maturity of St Moritz as a high-end resort, you can still feel what got those winter sports pioneers all excited. I’d come to discover what appeal the region holds if you’re sans skis, snowboard, sleigh or jet-set salary. But watching the skaters on the frozen lake for ten minutes I wanted to get out there; down at the town’s famous bobsleigh track and Cresta toboggan run, the thing that stuck me was how simple they are: just ice compacted down in the interests of having a bit of fun. I got an itch to have a go. Perhaps it’s not so much that you become beauty-fatigued; maybe a compulsion grows to get tangled up in the landscape even more. Still though – Earth, Wind and Fire?

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Yet mostly I was happy just looking and basking. St Moritz’s smiling sun symbol, celebrating the sheer heady light the resort enjoys? This spoke to me. And it was these sorts of pleasures that increased tenfold on the journey out of town. I’d ridden the famous Rhaetian railway here from Chur, but in darkness thanks to a delayed flight. On the return leg it showed me everything it’s got. One of the few railways to be UNESCO-listed (and Google Street View-ed), the scenery unspooled in all its naked glory beyond the train windows, as if casting off the ornamentation of St Moritz. It was always most impressive as the train passed out of tunnels, emerging into falling-away whiteness and jagged pines and a chaos of scrambling rock surfaces. And it costs far less than a seventy five-second ride on the bobsleigh run, for which you’ll shell out 250 Swiss francs.

The viaducts and tunnels were engineering feats that I should have been marvelling at – it was for this, not the view, that UNESCO listed it, after all – but I was most concerned with the landscape. Other passengers, not so much – a woman knitted, a teenage girl looked utterly bored, many dozed. I thought of those nineteenth-century consumptives and their companions, finding ways to pass the time once the impact of the place’s gorgeousness had worn off. I thought of Earth, Wind and Fire.

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But I remained enthralled, projecting my own sense of smallness onto bricks and mortar and steel. Passing by settlements, buildings reminded me of nervous gangs of meerkats, the mountains glaring down ominously at them. Church spires looked slightly pathetic. The train itself – surely the greatest man made achievement hereabouts – seemed rather flimsy, its progress wary. Could it be that, when faced with such natural majesty, we get a little nervous – I obviously was, deep down – and that this can result in trying too hard to compete (cue elegantly eviscerated duck, in the form of canard á la presse)? On that note, I’ll be sure to take things up a notch during my next trip to the region by hitting Switzerland’s lone national park, in Graubünden’s east. Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014, in the publicity shots it looks even more unnervingly beautiful than the areas I’d visited already.

After the “paradise” of the scenery (John was right) and the heavy luxury of the resorts, down-to-earth Chur, the canton’s capital, came as a relief. I wandered around the town that evening, nearly seeking out company at Café Fontana, where every table was taken by old folk drinking and playing cards, but ended up in the excellent Tom’s Beer Box, hearing stories from locals of the town’s day-to-day life. I did nearly try out the Alien-themed bar that belongs to H. R. Giger, a son of the town and the film’s set designer, but decided to keep back at least one slice of pleasing Alpine eccentricity for the next trip.

Neil McQuillian was a guest of Graubünden. For more information about the region, and to arrange tours of St Moritz and Chur, visit http://www.graubunden.com. For timetables and ticketing information related to the UNESCO World Heritage railway, go to http://www.rhb.ch. For accommodation in Pontresina: Hotel Walter offers double rooms from CHF 320 in summer and CHF 360 in winter. For accommodation in Chur: Romantik Hotel Stern offers double rooms from CHF 105–CHF 150 per person including breakfast buffet, and Hostel JBN offers dorm beds from CHF 43 per person and twins/doubles with shared bathroom from CHF 55 per person.

Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.