Just Back From
During the ski season, breakfast at my in-laws’ in Zuoz, a cute town in the Engadin Valley, is a busy affair. Theoretically, it should be cozy: the setting is an apartment under the eaves with a view of an old church tower, and the spread offers a plethora of delicious local specialties. But then there’s the phone. It rings, and rings and rings, as the family’s skiers start discussing the day with friends across the valley. Most important: the weather. The older generation consults the weather service, the younger checks its iPhones and, if nothing seems trustworthy, there’s the crucial call to the friend who lives next to a St. Moritz ski teacher who always has the latest intel on what area is best that day. Like pro surfers chasing the perfect wave, the skiers hone in on the most favorable conditions, and by the end of breakfast the final verdict is pronounced – with names like La Galb, Corvatsch, Diavolezza and Corviglia being passed up and down the valley like secret codes. The plan is set — another ski day in the Engadin has been worked out with Swiss precision.
This daily ritual is not unique to my in-laws’ and their friends. Because of the spread-out ski areas of the Engadin, days have to be mapped out properly. Yes, there are some hotels and a few prized chalets in the St. Moritz area, especially in Suvretta, that offer ski in/ski out, but for the most part, visitors have to partake in car, bus or train travel to get to their desired areas. This idiosyncrasy is not the only one to know about St. Moritz and the Engadin Valley when weighing whether this is the winter or summer resort right for you. St. Moritz’s reputation precedes it – with its luxury shopping, billionaire chalets, fur-clad guests and sky-high prices. But the real discovery here is that the town is just a small part of the Engadin story. The valley itself has a history and a soul – if you know where to look.
Here are Ten To Know before planning a trip there.
Every year, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel comes to the Engadin in large parts for its excellent cross-country skiing. The town of Pontresina is the capital of cross-country – it has a world-renowned school – and there are about 125 miles of prepared ski runs throughout, all of which traverse terrain with incredible views. There are also gorgeous hikes, particularly around Lake St. Moritz and into such valleys as Roseg, Fex and Bever, all of which culminate in lovely local restaurants. And, best of all, most of the most celebrated mountain restaurants are also reachable via gondola, chairlift or on foot. In fact, on a sunny day on the Corviglia, you can see as many snow boots on the chair lift heading up to the Trutz Hütte as you see ski boots.
With four major ski areas, the options for skiing in the Engadin are varied, so a first-time visitor can spend a good week here without ever repeating a piste. And while there are some very challenging parts, as well as some off-piste, the Engadin is not as challenging as Lech, Kitzbühel or even Garmisch. It’s also not an extreme ski town—many people opt for a half-day ticket, starting around noon, and most everyone takes a long lunch break at one of the sunny mountain huts. Rarely do you hear bragging about how many runs where squeezed into the day. Blame the proximity to Italy: this is definitely a relaxed approach to doing sports.
St. Moritz is an expensive resort but, surprisingly, the ski passes are quite affordable. A day pass starts at around $50 (for the family friendly Zuoz mountain) and the half-day pass from around $45. Compared to, say, Deer Valley, where day tickets are more than $100, this is a bargain. Best of all, most hotels, including the Palace, Kulm and Suvretta House, offer a special deal with a two-night minimum stay: a daily ski pass can be purchased for CH35 (about $34).
Again, that proximity to Italy – the food both on and off the mountain is generally fantastic. Many of the high-end options are part of the luxury hotels, like Nobu at Badrutt’s Palace, Da Vittorio at the Carlton or the Kronenstübli at the Kronenhof in Pontresina. But some of the most terrific spots are smaller, family run restaurants serving top Swiss fare. Favorites include: Chesa Veglia, Hotel Sonne, Murtaröl and Veltliner Keller, as well as the stunning on-mountain Muottas Muragl, the Trutz Hütte and El Paradiso.
Each of the top hotels has a top-of-the-line spa and wellness center, particularly the Carlton, Kulm and Kronenhof, and guest passes are available for use of the beautiful pool/wellness areas. The 2014 season also saw the opening of the new Ovaverva, a massive complex with several pools, including an Olympic-sized one and a diving pool, all framed by huge picture windows with mountain views. A spa, gym and sports center are also on the premises.
The only aspect lacking — ironically — is the town's shopping. St. Moritz is lined with the usual luxury suspects (Vuitton, Bottega, Prada, Bogner etc.) but you miss the independent boutiques that carry local specialties. You can find a few in Zuoz and Pontresina, but for the most part, unless you’re looking to stock up on couture fashion, shopping is not really the point of a trip here.
Whether it’s the high prices or the fact that this is definitely a resort destination with an old-world feel, St. Moritz does not get the young, hip crowd of a Lech or a Val d'Isère. And while every season sees the arrival or one or two pop-up bars, like this year’s wildly successful Bamyan Club, overall the party scene is subdued, even a little staid, with nightclubs like Dracula and King’s Club, that have been around forever, feeling like they miss the ‘80s.
Unlike many ski destinations that center around a single town, the Engadin offers an entire valley of activities. There are villages that seem to have emerged from another century; valleys dotted with working farms, situated in stunning old farmhouses; and restaurants and hotels that have been run by the same families for hundreds of years. When you walk into one of the glorious valleys – Roseg, Bever or Fex – you can hear the bells of cows and goats, or spot a fox making a quick getaway between slender pines. Some locals never even venture into St. Moritz during the height of the season, much like many homeowners in the Hamptons might never set foot into East Hampton during Fourth of July weekend.
Unless you're based at the top hotels in St. Moritz Town, whose staff will organize your ski schedule and logistics, the Engadin is a bit of a puzzle and explorer types will be happiest here. For example, the St. Moritz hotels usually only offer shuttle service to the Corviglia ski area, which is, granted, one of the best. But you miss out on Corvatsch, La Galb or Diavolezza if you only stay there. It’s easiest if you have a car at your disposal to tour the other villages, drive between the different ski areas and to the best hiking, as well as to the restaurants a bit more off the beaten path, like Murtaröl and Chesa Salis. Of course, hotels can also organize cars and drivers, and the train and bus system here is excellent (it’s Switzerland, after all). But to feel independent, many in-the-know visitors rent a car.
Unlike many other Alpine resorts in Switzerland, Austria or France, the Engadin is a wide valley broken up by several glacial lakes, which gives the whole place a huge sense of space. It’s also on a high altitude – up to 5,900 feet – and is surrounded by some of Switzerland’s most famous peaks, including Bernina, Nair and the Morteratsch Glacier. There are toboggan runs, hundreds of miles of cross-country trails, moonlight skiing and nearly 100 miles of winter hikes. In short, save for a very short pedestrian street in St. Moritz Town, where the ladies parade with shopping bags, this destination is truly for the outdoor aficionado.
Case in point: this winter there was a sunset across St. Moritz of such Technicolor splendor that it literally shut down traffic. Cars pulled over, the local bus abandoned it’s spot-on schedule, and everyone gaped at the wild oranges, reds, pinks and purples splashed across the horizon. This awesome nature spectacle recalled the presence of past visitors —writers and artists — who were drawn to this valley by the same lakes and mountains, the same big, bold sky. As wrote Thomas Mann: “I repeat myself yet again – this upper Engadin is the most beautiful abode in the world. I do not easily speak of happiness, but I almost believe I am happy here.”
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