But of course it’s all an illusion, however delightful. I won’t pretend to be an expert in the ways and means of jet-setting European aristocrats or the hermetically sealed world of unspeakable wealth and old-school decorum they inhabit. But when you’re in St. Moritz you can’t escape the feeling that their grip on the place is loosening, that the town is opening up and awash in new money—bewildering amounts of it. Villas and condos are going up all over; there are construction cranes wherever you look. The gaudy boutiques lining the streets are filled with fur-clad Russians. "The Monte Carloization of St. Moritz," as one insider puts it dolefully, is in full swing. And while the energy in the air is undeniably thrilling, what the future holds is less clear. The town’s clubby and self-mythologizing nature—the very thing attracting newly minted oligarchs hungry for the reassuring prestige of brand-name luxury—is threatened by all the growth.
Which is why everyone here is talking about the Russians. And not in a friendly way, necessarily. Everywhere I go, they are a main and always entertaining topic of conversation. Russians, Russians, Russians. And if it’s not the Russians it’s La Baracca, a new and trendy restaurant recommended to me time after time.
"The girls are wonderful, but the men—the men are frightful!" says David Webb-Carter, speaking of the Russians. He’s only kidding, of course. Or he’s laughing, anyway. Webb-Carter is the secretary of the Corviglia Club, a 130-member group founded in 1930 by European aristocrats and today the epitome of jet-set exclusivity. I’ve wandered out of Mario’s bar and just around the corner, where the club has a small office off the Palace lobby. Up on the mountain is its private lodge, where members eat lunch. Webb-Carter is himself British, affable, and a former Army officer. "I can’t discuss our members," he says apologetically, though he does mention "royal types" and "South Americans." No Russians? I inquire. "We are gender blind, nationality blind, race blind," he answers. I take that to mean "no."
Webb-Carter spots a friend in the lobby and waves him over. "Come say hello." Sven is blond and good-looking, in his early thirties and dressed casually but exceedingly tastefully in jeans and a buttery-soft sweater. He’s closely involved with the Cresta, another of St. Moritz’s exclusive private clubs, though nowhere near as exclusive as the Corviglia. The Cresta is devoted to its namesake high-speed, headfirst toboggan run nearby.
"Sven is quite the daredevil," says Webb-Carter, introducing Sven Ley, whose parents founded Escada, the German fashion brand. Ley amusingly describes the numerous spectacular Cresta-member crashes posted on YouTube. "Just type in cresta crash of the day and you’ll see," he says. But soon the conversation moves along to the usual St. Moritz topics: global warming wreaking havoc at lower altitudes this winter; the existence of local Russian prostitutes; La Baracca, popular with the Palace crowd as well as everyone else (I’d better make a reservation); and Dracula, the private nightclub founded by legendary playboy Gunther Sachs. "On a good night, it’s the best nightclub in the world," says Ley. He tells me that what he likes most about St. Moritz is the airport, which makes the town so convenient and accessible. "NetJets," he says, "has made a huge difference." The popularization of private jet travel is indeed a wonderful thing, I agree, nodding solemnly, as if I might be considering buying a share of a plane myself.
The next day, I drive out of St. Moritz and into the wide Engadine valley, which is dotted with beautiful small towns. We pass through the center of Pontresina. Thick-walled medieval buildings crowd the street, many with traditional frescoes and elaborately carved wooden doors and window shutters. Traffic slows to a crawl; in some spots the road narrows into one lane. Snow blankets the wide-open spaces of the valley floor and the many frozen lakes, making for ideal cross-country ski terrain.