St Moritz, Switzerland - I was fortunate to grow up skiing the Alps when doing so didn't break the bank.
In the 1980s, my family acquired a condominium in Switzerland's Upper Engadin valley, home of St. Moritz, the crown jewel of resorts.
Here, in 1864, the enterprising hotelier Johannes Badrutt introduced sceptical Europeans to the radical concept of winter tourism.
Which is how one can forget that St. Moritz originally attracted visitors as a summer resort with curative mineral springs. Summer now is the off-season, and I've come here grateful that once the snow melts, the area becomes reasonably affordable. I want to hike and hike - that's free - but the Upper Engadin also offers mountain biking, sailing, kite surfing, spa treatments, equestrian competitions, gourmet festivals and cultural arts programming.
I have come prepared to keep my costs down. I've scoured websites, planned a budget. Yet I am able to fully decipher St. Moritz's creative discounts only after days of frugality. Here, more than any other place I've been, attention to the fine print on a hotel or rental agreement reveals the value difference between the bottom dollar and the best deal.
At the Zurich airport, I purchase a Swiss Half Fare Card, valid for a month on many state and local trains and buses. Both the panoramic Glacier and Bernina Express train routes, designated by Unesco as World Heritage sites, stop in St. Moritz. Discounted, my round-trip ticket to St. Moritz costs $203 (about R2 800). (Note: Swiss trains leave on the dot.) Once I'm there, I learn quickly that the superb infrastructure of these trains and buses conveys me easily to many starting points in the valley's expansive reach of hiking trails.
René and Edith Müller, old friends and local professional hiking guides, greet me. As a warm-up hike, we amble up Alp Muntatsch through evergreens furred with bearded lichen. They tell me how local ant species absorb sun and radiate heat back into the colony, point out that gentians shut their petals in cold rain, and teach me to recognise the short, keen whistles of marmots. We climb above the timberline, skirting lime-green fields. Sharp, white Alps rise and fall like the electrocardiogram of a massive heartbeat.
Below us, the Upper Engadin is traversed by the opalescent Inn River, fed by the waterfalls and glaciers of the eastern Alps. The riverbanks are dotted with well-maintained and pretty historical towns. (Just try finding a piece of garbage.) Lakes gleam indigo at the base of intensely teal mountains, their peaks brightly snow-capped. Approximately at mid-centre, curving around its own famed lake, St. Moritz sits pretty.
St. Moritz is divided into two neighbourhoods: the luxurious upper St. Moritz Dorf - of Prada and MiuMiu stores - and the generally more-affordable, lake-level St. Moritz Bad (which is not a description, but the German word for baths, a reference to the mineral springs). I direct myself to St. Moritz Bad. I set a nightly price cap of $150 for lodging, and budget $50 a day for food and other expenses.
Most Airbnbs require a week-long stay, but because I was arriving early in summer I had been able to reserve a four-night stay in a small, one-bedroom apartment for $111 a night.
Sven, my calm and punctual host, shows me the ropes, providing information and advice, eventually directing me to the Coop supermarket. By making my own breakfast, packing a lunch (sandwich, chocolate bar and water) on hikes and cooking dinner - say, spinach and ricotta ravioli, accompanied by a salad of arugula, tomatoes and nuts - meals average around $25 a day. A bottle of wine starts at $5.
This is terrific. It would be even better if there were two of us to share the room rate. Also, it would be nice to have WiFi, but I don't; I neglected to check that fine print. And I was careless about the one-time fee for linens and cleaning, which adds $130 whether I stay one night or 10. Nonetheless, I love that it's all mine, private and homey, with a million-dollar balcony view at no extra charge. I learn that if I had contracted directly, instead of booking through Airbnb, I could have negotiated a better price, because rentals and hotels are happy to pass on the savings to their guests from eliminating site fees.
The decor at the recently renovated St. Moritz Youth Hostel is minimalist hip, with sleek cement floors, huge windows and muted tones. In the reception area, a flat-screen TV scrolls breaking news and local happenings. Manager Roland Fischer explains: “The hostel ideal is not that you should stay in your room, so we have a number of common-use spaces.” This communal emphasis - free WiFi, a huge fireplace, children's play sections, a self-serve cafeteria, large storage rooms for sports equipment and some maintenance supplies, such as bike repair tools - cuts overall costs.
But not everyone who comes here is on my tight budget. “Our guests are a special mix,” Fischer says. “One regular comes in by private jet. We get Bentleys and Range Rovers in the parking lot. Recently, athletes competing for Brazil's Olympics came to train at high altitude. And nostalgic seniors.” Though, he adds, the older crowd tends to ask for a private room.
So do I, even though a single bed in a four-person dorm, without bath, costs just $47, including linens and breakfast. Unfortunately, I have a mortal dread of strangers' snoring. My single room with private bath (also with linens and breakfast) costs $143, amounting to the same as my Airbnb apartment after the extra fees. With a plentiful dinner served in the hostel's cafeteria for a flat rate of $18.65, my daily food tab hardly changes.
But wait: A two-night minimum stay at the hostel also comes with a free transport pass throughout the Upper Engadin. Up until now, with my Swiss half-fare, I've been heading by bus or train to the in-town base of a trail and ascending as far as possible. A round-trip funicular ticket to Muottas Muragl would have cost me $34, $60 to Piz Corvatsch, and so on. With the added value of this transport pass, I now can ride to the summits for free. I stand on Muottas Muragl, where the panoramic map names 29 peaks lined up like runway models. Below the tallest, 13 284-foot Piz Bernina, is the striated Morteratsch Glacier. Far below, lakes compress into iridescent blue ponds, and St. Moritz looks like a toy town.
So far, so affordable. But a week in, I discover the Hotel Laudinella - which turns out to provide, fully included in the room price, an incredible smorgasbord of St. Moritz activities.
With a two-night minimum, it costs me $150 per night for a single, including breakfast. But it comes with these additional freebies: the aforementioned Upper Engadin free public transport and cable railway pass; admission to the glamorous Ovaverva pool and health spa (otherwise $37 daily); and the hotel's “Crystal events.”
The last perk means I can sign up, on a first-come-first-served basis, for any of the rotating daily events - including electric-bike cruising to a traditional working farm on Mondays; gourmet taste-testing in St. Moritz on Tuesdays; or the choice between sailing Lake Sils and flying in a glider on Fridays.
This is what I mean about the fine print - at Laudinella, I would be paying $7 more a night but getting so much more value. I assumed meals would burst my fiscal bubble here, but for $35 a day, I could have a prix-fixe dinner at any of Laudinella's six restaurants, as well as an afternoon snack.
Director Christian Schlatter tells me the hotel was originally a practice and performance space founded by a church choir; today, he says, it's “a hotel with a cultural soul.” A curated selection of artists performs for us for free in exchange for room and board, as well as time for practice and composition. That night, I watched violinist Kamilla Schatz perform on a Stradivarius as twilight draped the Alps in deep violet.
I'll never again treat the given price of a night's stay as the metric for budgeting in St. Moritz. Here, the delight's often in the details.
* Calcagno is a writer based in Chicago.
If you go..
Where to stay
St. Moritz Youth Hostel
Via Surpunt 60
Modern, minimalist and convivial lodgings. Shared rooms start at $47; private singles at $143.
Via Tegiatscha 17
Singles from $150. Rooms are wood-paneled and streamlined with red accents, with different price tiers for different sizes and views. Six wonderful restaurants are on-site.
Mountain Flair Apartments
Via Grevas 3
A broad range of apartment rentals; ask for Sven Arquisch. Doubles start at $143, including fees.
Where to eat
Hotel Laudinella, Via Tegiatscha 17
Large, scrumptious wood-fired pizzas start at $14; the salad buffet costs $9.50. Appointments include cozy, wood paneling and red tablecloths.
Via Grevas 34
Sailing-club restaurant on St. Moritz Lake. Local fare. Standing lunch menu: soup, salad, a main course and a soft drink for $16.
What to do
St. Mortiz Tourist Office
Via Maistra 12
Pick up hiking trail maps; horse ride schedules; information on mountain bike specials, spas, historic town tours and Segantini museum hours; Bernina and Glacier Express train schedules; and more. Open 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and until 6 p.m. Saturday; shorter hours off-season.