St Moritz, Switzerland - Glitzy, glamorous St Moritz has long been top of the wish list of well-heeled-and-booted skiers, anxious to get a piece of the jet-set dream. Yet as the years and decades of my skiing life have passed by, I'd long put off my visit to the Swiss resort. The reason? I'm not glitzy. Or glamorous. I'm just the grandson of a coal miner. My father, a teacher, taught me to despise excess, so I found the tales of casually discarded fur coats lying knee deep in the King's Club disco during the resort's heyday rather nauseating. The fact that the Cresta Run still bans women mad enough to want to try it added to my unfavourable perception. The guide books weren't enthusiastic either.
However, the story about the beginning of winter holidays there, 148 years ago, did intrigue me. A local hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, bet a group of English tourists returning to London after a summer in the Alps that they'd find the English winter climate more inclement than if they had stayed in his humble abode in St Moritz. They did, he won his bet, within a few years luxury hotels appeared, and the rest is history. So finally, after 25 years skiing - and more than 200 resorts visited - I made the trip to St Moritz.
You fly into Zurich and take a train direct from the station beneath the airport to the transport interchange of Chur. From here, the Bernina Express ascends over 196 bridges and passes through 55 tunnels on its two-hour journey. You soon understand why this is a Unesco World Heritage-rated trip.
Then finally you arrive in the high Alpine valley location of St Moritz, where the sun shines for 320 days of the year. It's a glistening white landscape with the eponymous and beautiful frozen lake at its heart. St Moritz Dorf (meaning “village”) rises on one side, with the towers of the Palace, Kulm and Carlton Hotels; the original spa resort of St Moritz Bad (“bath”, as in “spa”) is located across the frozen lake - linked by the road around it and in winter a path through the snow across it. It's certainly impressive.
My destination on that first trip was the Kulm, the original of the five hotels officially rated “five star superior” in St Moritz. This was once Johannes Badrutt's simple home, where those first winter tourists stayed. The original building remains intact, albeit absorbed in a corner of the mighty structure. I sat at Mt Badrutt's desk; I walked around the tiny rooms; I was transported back in time. Then I went into the hotel grounds and realised I was on the site of the venues for the second-ever Winter Olympics in 1928. Like countless people before me, I fell in love with the place.
The obscene wealth? Well, yes it's there. But it's at such a level as to be almost comical. The clash of the world's ultra rich leads to some wonderfully over-the-top fur creations, meaning you're likely to pass more people looking like Chewbacca than at any Star Wars convention.
It's also, surprisingly, as affordably as you can in any Swiss resort, which admittedly is never exactly a cheap option. There are plenty of normal shops, cafés and hotels among those designer boutiques and champagne bars.
As for the skiing, if you like steep black runs and challenging off-piste powder then St Moritz could be considered a little limited compared to Chamonix or Verbier, although the Prada-clad private ski guides who lead kings and oligarchs to secret stashes may disagree. Fortunately I love wide, sunny, intermediate-grade pistes I can fly down while pretending I look good. I also love whizzing back up on fast lifts - and St Moritz has those in abundance. The two main ski areas, Corviglia and Corvatsch, offer plenty of terrain to keep most of us busy for at least a week, but they are just part of the larger Engadin regional pass, which covers 350km of piste in total.
After that first trip I've been back several times, trying different hotels. The Carlton, which underwent a £100m refurbishment five years ago, will be a century-old in 2013. The amazing suites have beautifully created curving walls
But it's the St Moritz hotel I like best, although my fellow St Moritz-fan, King Charles Gustav of Sweden, would probably point you towards his favourite: Suvretta House. This lies in a private park, 2km west of St Moritz, making it the most exclusive address thanks to its isolation, but it still has ski in/out access. It's all down to the deepness of your pockets, as well as personal taste.
And talking of deep pockets, of course it's not cheap. But there are savings to be had. My grandfather would have loved it too, I think.
If You Go...
Kulm Hotel (001 41 81 836 8000; kulm hotel-stmoritz.ch) has doubles from CHF575 (R5 000) including breakfast. Suvretta House (001 41 81 836 36 36; suvrettahouse.ch) has doubles from CHF300 including breakfast. The Carlton (001 41 81 836 70 00; carlton-stmoritz.ch) has doubles from CHF800 including breakfast and transfers.
A new offer this winter allows St Moritz Hotel guests to pay CHF25 per day for their ski lift pass when they book an overnight stay, which works out at under £100, approximately half the average rate in the Alps.
cresta-run.com - The Independent