In 1864, Alpine skiing mythology suggests the modern winter vacation was born from a bet. Caspar Badrutt, a local hotelier in St Moritz offered a money-back guarantee to four, or possibly five, British holiday-makers, offering a winter time trip to his Kulm Hotel that would be just as rewarding as the summer trip they were enjoying at the time. The bet was placed, the guarantee didn’t have to be paid out, and St Moritz started its journey as the capital of the wealthy and glamorous world of alpine skiing holidays.
Throughout the 20th century the popularity of Alpine skiing vacations grew, and St Moritz grew along with it. In hosted the Winter Olympic games in 1928 and 1948, and by the 1960s was the preferred alpine resort of the wealthy and fabulous, garnering no less than three references in James Bond novels that this writer is aware of, including being the neighbourhood for Ernst Blofeld’s mountain retreat.
Today, St Moritz maintains its rarified position with sporting events like the frozen-lake horse race, a shopping street full of international luxury brands and high-end art galleries and a restaurant cantilevered off the side of mountain. For those with unlimited budgets, there are equally unlimited options for consumption.
Approaching from the North East by car on a chill December evening, St Moritz does not disappoint. An illuminated Alpine town sitting behind the famous frozen lake of the same name, with lodges and grand hotels creeping up the valley sides.
The choice of hotel for this trip was the Grand Hotel de Bains. Founded in 1815 and now one of the three hotels in the Kempinski empire that they actually own (well, lease) rather than just manage. It is indeed a grand hotel, with direct access to the slopes, the eponymous baths now part of a luxury spa, and a general air of luxury and wealth.
Being 150 years old doesn’t come without cost however, and the standard rooms can be a bit cramped, especially if you are in the higher floors where the steeply-raked Alpine roof impinges. Service can also be a bit inconsistent given the top-end price tag, but they will win you over again with their spectacular breakfast.
A train ride through the Oberalp pass, and the Glacier Express snakes its way to the town of Andermatt. Until 2013, Andermatt was a small skiing village, famous for the off-piste afforded by the Gemstock mountain, beneath which it lies. In the 1980s it suffered from underinvestment, whilst its close neighbours invested in facilities and accommodation to appeal to the emerging wealthy middle class. Accordingly, Andermatt remained the choice of the adventurous skier, but missed out on the apres-ski focused market whose dollars are now fueling other ski resorts.
Now, however this situation is being dramatically reversed, and a phased USD1.8bil investment by the Egyptian tycoon Samih Sawiris is making Andermatt the most significant change to the luxury alpine market in recent years.
The investment covers modernisation of the ski facilities, connecting to the nearby ski area of Sedrun, to create the largest ski area in central Switzerland, with more than 120km of runs. More interestingly perhaps, it includes an 18 hole championship golf course, presumably to attract the summer vacationer, and improve the proposition for those thinking of buying one of the new apartments, condominiums or chalets currently being built.
The starting point for the grand reinvigoration of Andermatt is the Chedi. Opened in December 2013, it is a true luxury hotel, with adjacent serviced residential apartments and penthouses.
Externally, the Chedi is a medium sized hotel, in a more-or-less traditional alpine style. Internally however, the meticulous design of Chedi architect Jean-Michel Gathy becomes apparent. Unsurprising then, it has more than a passing resemblance to other Chedi properties (dark woods, slate tiles, symmetrical design) but tempered by a very alpine feel with the open fireplaces and soft furnishings.
The rooms are stylish with large balconies and fireplaces which turn on at the touch of the iPad provided (which also controls lights and temperature, and has a button to summon your butler to explain how the iPad works).
Downstairs, there are indoor/outdoor swimming pools, a fantastically expensive thermal spa, a library/cigar lounge, ski-shop/museum, restaurants and a cheese-room. Suffice to say, the visual, tactile and gustatory delights just keep on coming.
These two alpine towns, and their respective hotels, leave the first time visitor with very different impressions. One of grand, if slightly faded, glamour; the other of villagey charm on the brink of substantial change. It is clear, however, that they are two points on the same trajectory, Andermatt is just placing its big bets on being the next hub for luxury winter sports, just as St moritz did 150 years ago.