Six weeks after booking our house, Yumi, Sachi and I rendezvoused with my parents in Zurich, packed ourselves into a sleek VW Passat from Avis, and headed toward the mountains, my father at the wheel. The three-hour ride was smooth, thanks to the neurotically maintained Swiss roads, and the hairpin turns up and over the 7,493-foot-high Julier Pass highly entertaining. The route was marked by a string of 16th-century villages—each with its own massive stone water fountain, where townspeople once drew their drinking water and did their wash—and by groups of placid, exceptionally satisfied-looking cows. Sachi waved a hand out the window.
Touching down in the wide Engadine valley, we drove through St. Moritz, admiring its small lake, palatial hotels, Rodeo Drive–like shops, and, Yumi noticed, a swank children’s boutique. But there was no time to dawdle. Our sights were set on the supermarket in the town of Samedan, a few miles from our house.
Provisioning, I must admit, is one of my favorite vacation activities. There’s nothing better than shopping for groceries on the first day of a weeklong stay in a house with a decent kitchen and a family full of cooks. We cruised the aisles, calculating our menus: Yes, we’ll be needing Emmenthaler and prosciutto and Gruyère and what’s this?Thin-sliced air-dried Bündnerfleisch, the traditional beef cold cut of Graübunden; potatoes and veal for a stew my mom was planning; and wine, don’t forget the wine. And juices and plums and strawberries, and a variety of yogurts (hazelnut is amazing) and creamy fruit-flavored ricottas (called Quark), and a round of whole-wheat bread, and tubes of Thomy mustard and mayonnaise. Was it enough?Maybe.
Our place was called Chesa Aivla, which means "Eagle House" in Romansch, the regional dialect and one of the closest living languages to Latin (though German is the area’s lingua franca). Thick-walled and spacious, the villa was stucco, stone, and dark wood on the outside, pale wood and no-frills modern furnishings inside. The balcony and terrace overlooked a field that led down to the Inn River, from which the valley got its name, and up the street was the general store, where we put in an order for daily fresh-baked bread.
Thomas, Susanne, and Valentin arrived the day after we did, and we all walked to the edge of the fast-moving Inn. I dipped a toe into what felt like barely melted glacial runoff. Thomas stripped down to his Speedo and jumped in. "It’s just right!" he claimed. My mother smiled at her baby brother and rolled her eyes. Susanne waded in, too, while Sachi and Valentin poked sticks in the mud. "Isn’t the water freezing?" I asked Sachi. "No," she said, her chubby calves impervious to the cold. I hovered, American parent–style, making sure no one got swept away by the current.
The Engadine is full of impressive 19th- and early-20th-century resort hotels where European aristocrats once summered with their vast entourages. St. Moritz has a number of such places (Badrutt’s Palace, the Kulm, Suvretta House), and closer to Madulain is the Hotel Castell, in Zuoz, newly refurbished and decidedly hip, with minimalist interiors and a James Turrell light installation. My old friend Benoît, visiting from Paris, was staying at the Castell, and we decided to embark from there on a bike ride to explore the valley.
But first came the hotel’s breakfast buffet, an enormous spread, in typical mountain-resort fashion—everything from salamis to muesli to sweet rolls. This one included a quaint ritual: on one table were eggs, a pan of boiling water, and colored pencils. We wrote our initials on our eggs, put them in the bath, and took hourglass timers to our table. "Look," said Yumi, showing Sachi the trickling sand. Sachi was briefly interested but quickly turned her attention to a slice of Appenzeller. My mother was amused. "See—she’s Swiss!" she said.