It’s time the British went back to St Moritz, the evocative Swiss village where, as 19th-century tourists, they invented the adrenaline sport of bobsleighing by appropriating delivery boys’ sleds and speeding around the lanes.
More than 140 years later, it’s estimated that only 4% of winter hotel guests in St Moritz are British, yet the sports of racing, polo, skeleton bob and even cricket on ice that take place in exhilarating fashion there at this time of year are surely quintessentially British.
English is still the only language allowed in the St Moritz Tobogganing Club, one of the last bastions of Corinthian sport, where brave-or foolhardy, depending on your view-men in thick woollen plus-fours hurl themselves head first down the Cresta Run every morning. The Englishman crisply announcing the start of each run was pretty much the only voice to be heard in St Moritz during my visit in early February, when the streets were devoid of pretty much any nationality. However, that was most likely due to the perishing cold, a breath-removing -20, rather than the equally eye-watering prices in the top-notch boutiques.
People were missing a trick, for the blissfully quiet ski slopes were groomed to a perfection I’ve never experienced in 25 years of skiing; squeaky, icing-sugar-like snow making gliding down them feel thrillingly easy and flatteringly graceful. Heated chairlift seats were no hardship either, nor the animal-skin seats at chic mountain restaurants.
Another startling statistic is that only 40% of visitors come purely for skiing-perhaps the journey, 3.5 hours from Zurich airport (www.swiss.com) by train, puts the skiers off, but, again, they are missing out. The stretch from Chur to St Moritz through spectacular mountain passes, part of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and links with the famed Bernina Express line from Ticino, Italy, is pure joy, passing an unchanged world of pretty villages, toboggan runs, chamois and eagles. A first-class ticket, which means larger windows on the carriage for enhanced viewing, is money well spent (www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk).
* Subscribe to Country Life and save over £50 a year
Most visitors apparently come purely to have a winter holiday, in the spirit of hotelier Johannes Badrutt who enticed the first winter tourists-four Englishmen-to St Moritz in 1864. Indeed, if you’re staying at the Carlton, it’s quite hard even to drag yourself outside, so sublime is the level of comfort.
The five-star hotel, which celebrates its centenary next year, is perhaps considered the little sister of more historically recognised names like the Kuhm and Kempinski, but it cheekily gets more sunshine on its spectacular eyrie-like perch overlooking the lake and beautiful Engadine valley.
Refurbished in 2007 by Italian designer Carlo Rampazzi, the Carlton is now an all-suites hotel; they all have a lake view and every one, from Junior to Grand, pays homage to an enticing combination of simple grandeur yet maximum comfort-outstandingly elegant, but never overpowering. Elsewhere in the hotel, the bar and lounge areas manage to combine inviting cosiness with elegant splendour, every single mouthful of food was exquisite, and the staff, who combined character as well as showing typical Swiss efficiency, were charming.
The Carlton is a Leading Spa and alongside the renowned pampering treatments is a decent-length swimming pool and a glorious hot tub arrangement, in which you can swim outside into the bracing mountain air. Even with all these temptations, the skiing’s still the big thing for me, but I did find the hot tub hard to leave.
All British skiers should try and visit St Moritz, if only to understand our significant role in the development of winter sports, and there’s still time to fit in a proper old-style mountain holiday before the end of the season. Mid-season (until April 9) prices start at 1100CHF (£760) per night for a Junior suite, including bed, breakfast, dinner, butler service and skiing and train station transfers (www.en.carlton-stmoritz.ch).