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The High Life: St. Moritz

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Photo: Benoit Peverelli

At the top of Piz Nair, the weather seems different, imported from another planet maybe. The raw and menacing peaks—10,000 feet tall—loom over us like something out of an IMAX movie, close enough to touch. The air is thin and cold; wind whips snow across our faces. There’s no time to check the spectacular view, really—let’s get going. It’s the last run of the day and my friends and I are taking St. Moritz from top to bottom—this here being the top, the alpine resort town below us in the valley being the bottom. I point my skis down the exceedingly steep slope.

I haven’t done this in years, but fortunately I have attached to my feet a pair of high-tech parabolic skis invented, I believe, by J. K. Rowling and able to ski themselves down any mountain at top speed—at least, that’s how it feels. At first, I barely manage to stay upright, throwing my body into the turns and doing my best to avoid other skiers. But soon it’s clear: these skis can do no wrong. Easy does it, go with the flow. Now I’m zipping across the soft and powdery snow, the sun is shining, and if you were to set this scene to music the song would be "I Believe I Can Fly," by R. Kelly. I am skiing like a god (and exaggerating only a little).

Forty-five minutes later we arrive in St. Moritz and clomp through town with skis slung over our shoulders toward Badrutt’s Palace, the fanciest of many fancy resort hotels in a very fancy town. I grew up skiing in the Alps, often enough with these same friends, but I can’t say this is the sort of hotel we stayed in back then. As teenagers we all lived and went to school together near Zürich, and so this is, inevitably, one of those life-is-good, remember-the-crazy-old-days moments. As we walk past art galleries and luxury boutiques and many, many people in fur, it is also a moment to take in how much Switzerland has changed over the years. But more on that later.

The lobby of the Palace is the white-hot center of high-society socializing, the place to see and be seen—if you know who to look for, anyway. A black and white marble corridor extends the length of the space, from the grand dining room at one end to Mario’s bar at the other. Along the way are comfortable armchairs arranged before huge windows overlooking the frozen, snow-covered Lake St. Moritz and an epic panorama of mountains. Their tips are lit up with the last of the day’s sunshine; a blue evening haze cloaks the rest of the valley; everything seems to glow slightly. I pass by a man playing softly on a grand piano, an elderly couple dressed for a ball, Italian fashion types, an oversize Russian speaking assertively into a diminutive cell phone.

Freshly showered, I head to the bar and order scotch and soda from the white-jacketed barman. This is Mario, it turns out, a Jean-Paul Belmondo look-alike and St. Moritz fixture. He’s Italian, and he’s been tending bar here since 1963. He has stories to tell—about celebrities and princesses, scandals and rumors and late-night escapades. "The woman was not his wife," he is saying, "it was four in the morning, he was drunk, and the car was stuck in a snowbank. Who else was he going to call?"

We all laugh and have some more drinks. I’m sure he’s been telling these same charming, rakish stories for decades. And indeed, sitting in his small bar off the grand lobby of this opulent palace, it’s not hard to imagine that time has stood still somehow, that this right here is la dolce vita of the postwar-decadence years, a fantastical place of refined taste and winking sinfulness, civilized and seductive and rich.

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