From the balcony of our hotel suite in St Moritz, my wife and I marvelled at the view. The majestic Swiss Alps were all around us, their towering peaks caressed by drifting clouds. Savouring the crisp sunshine and gentle breeze, we drank in the pristine Alpine air until we were giddy. Switzerland is one of the world’s most beautiful countries and St Moritz is the jewel in its crown.
A place of spectacular tranquillity, it is located in the picturesque Engadin valley and offers some of the greatest outdoor pursuits in the world, including hiking, climbing and the skiing for which it is so well known. We were in the Grand Hotel Des Bains St Moritz, built in the 1860s, which has welcomed Coco Chanel and other fashion icons down the years. We had been allocated a suite at the front of the building directly above the main entrance, where we could watch guests filtering in past the tree-lined boulevard and red squirrels darting in and out of the grass below. And then there was a knock on the door...
We’d timed our visit to coincide with a significant birthday – not that we’d told anyone about it. The hotel, however, had noted the nature of our hush-hush celebration from my passport details and within an hour of our arrival a maid was tapping on the door with an elaborately decorated cake. Sculpted into the shape of an Alpine mountain, the words ‘Happy Birthday’ had been piped in Swiss chocolate on to the plate. As welcomes go, it would take some beating.
Switzerland is sufficiently bijou to make a fly-drive trip taking in most of the must-see sights a sensible week-long option and we’d created our own itinerary, which included St Moritz, the Alps and Geneva. St Moritz did not disappoint. We’d arrived late in the day and as evening fell, we made our way to dinner in the Enoteca, the hotel’s main restaurant. The room listened with the sort of ostentatious shine that travellers enjoy in the dining room of The Ritz in Paris. Sparkling lights and impressive artworks were the backdrop to delicious Alpine tapas, reminiscent of the culinary pyrotechnics found at some of the world’s most fashionable restaurants.
St Moritz is, of course, also known as one of Europe’s greatest and most glamorous ski resorts, along with Zermatt, Verbier and Wengen. In my view, it has the edge over its competitors, offering an exceptional array of restaurants, accommodation, slopes and ski schools. It’s arguably best known for its Cresta Run; a 128-year-old toboggan ride that boasts speeds of almost 130 kilometres per hour and can turn even the most daring of people into jelly. It has claimed four lives since being opened and even the thrill-seeking movie star Errol Flynn took it on only once, vowing never to return.
Although the St Moritz ski season runs up until the end of March, the area actually attracts more international visitors in the warmer months. In spring the mountainsides are studded with brightly coloured wildflowers, and visitors can ascend to 7,500 feet, walking until their lungs are filled with sweet, fragrant Alpine air.
St Moritz is also the starting point for the renowned Swiss mountain railway, the Glacier Express. The journey to Zermatt takes around seven hours, passing along and through the World Heritage site known as the Rhaetian Railway where you can see some of the world’s finest mountain landscapes, incredible gorges and scintillating valleys, as well as a remarkable number of tunnels and bridges.
There are other sites to enjoy all year round in St Moritz, including the Leaning Tower, which dates back to the 12th century and was part of the St Mauritius Church demolished in 1890. The original Heidi hut used during the shooting of the Heidi film in the Engadin is located above St Moritz and is among the region’s most famous sites. We also managed to take a peek at the Chesa Futura, a block of futuristic-looking apartments designed by star English architect Lord Norman Foster.
We’d have happily extended our stay in St Moritz, but there was still so much more of Switzerland to see on our itinerary. Our second stop was Vevey, a beautiful mountainside settlement near to Montreux, which is home to a world-famous jazz festival. Vevey and St Moritz are connected by some of Europe’s most stunning roads, which wind a remarkable, mazy and vertiginous route through the Alps. We travelled happily between the two destinations along the Furka Pass, enjoying a stunning lunch at the top of the slopes.
At Vevey, we stayed at Le Mirador, a charming hotel situated on the side of Mont-Pelerin, around 100 kilometres west of Geneva. The lakeside retreat overlooks some of the region’s most breathtaking scenery, in addition to affording spectacular views across the eastern end of Geneva. It’s one of the nation’s most popular spa retreats and is regularly frequented by celebrities, the French national football team and other VIPs.
Dating back to 1904, Le Mirador was formerly the Mon Repos Medical Facility. People would travel from around the world to take in the fresh Alpine air, in the hope that it would cure them of assorted ailments. Today it retains its medical connections, with a number of highly qualified doctors offering advice on nutrition, lifestyle, exercise and spa treatments. Our dynamic host Heidi Kelly explained how the property had been completely revamped in recent times with millions of Swiss francs spent on new suites, each with their own terrace and panoramic views.
I made the most of the spa facilities and indulged in a Givenchy facial, never previously having enjoyed such a treatment. Within an hour, my skin felt revitalised, making me look at least five years younger – at least, that’s what my wife told me... Gourmandising was a thrill, too, with Le Mirador boasting a Michelin-starred restaurant in addition to a Swiss speciality eatery called Au Chalet, at which we enjoyed tomme cheese, poulet jaune and exquisite local delicacies.
Our final port of call before heading home was Geneva. We arrived in the city, one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan, to warm sun. The Grand Hotel was almost five kilometres from the airport, overlooking Lake Geneva and its famous Jet d’Eau. From the window of our palatial junior suite, we marvelled at the giant fountain, which is to Geneva what the Burj Khalifa is to Dubai; an iconic landmark. Dating back to 1886, the liquid asset is much smaller than the Burj, of course, and is entirely different in nature.
However, it dominates the cityscape in a similar way. The fountain has been much improved over the years and now spurts a dizzying stream of water 140 metres high, squirting 500 litres skywards each second at an F1-like speed of 200 kilometres per hour. The five star Grand Hotel is a stop-off much favoured by the diplomats, politicians and airline pilots who make Geneva a bustling global capital of international relations. Luxury, elegance and clockwork efficiency were allied to soft textures, handmade fabrics and state-of-the-art technology in our suite.
But we couldn’t stay in the suite all day and we half-reluctantly headed out to make the most of Geneva’s numerous attractions. It was a pleasing mix of trend and tradition, a city in which some streets revealed buildings dating back to the early 16th century while others were as modern as could be. We enjoyed sightseeing in the picture-postcard Old Town, which is easily explored on foot.
From the English Garden with its famous flower clock, to Bastions Park and its Reformation Wall monument, the Old Town was romantic, peaceful and steeped in history. We also found time to stop at the area’s most recognisable landmark, the St-Pierre Cathedral, whose steps are still open to visitors who want to ascend to the top so as to obtain the best possible views of Geneva.
We’d been thrilled by the fast-paced, cosmopolitan nature of Geneva, the slow and restorative beauty of Mont-Pelerin and the A-List wonder of St Moritz. Easy to reach, clean, beautiful and calming, there was nothing we didn’t enjoy. In the space of six heady days, Switzerland rocketed to the top of our must-return-to list of destinations. We’ve already begun planning our next trip.
Air France flies from Dubai to Zurich, which is the closest airport to St Moritz, from around Dh2,400 return via Paris. See www.airfrance.ae. For further details on the Grand Hotel
Des Bain, Le Mirador and The Grand Hotel in Switzerland, visit www.kempinski.com