St. Moritz was Switzerland’s glitziest resort before glitzy was even a word. Now the most exclusive of European mountain towns is feeling the onslaught of globalization. Is that all bad? Luke Barr returns to his former homeland to find out.
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.
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.
When I was a kid, cross-country always seemed like a tedious affair—pushing skis along in other people’s tracks, never leaving the parallel grooves. But here under a grand Alpine panorama, circling the Silvaplana Castle, the sport suddenly makes sense. The small stone structure, built in the 19th century on the edge of Lake Silvaplana, is now at the intersection of a number of ski routes. What’s as appealing as the view is the dynamism of "skating," a style of cross-country done on shorter skis, the movement of which resembles ice skating or rollerblading. It’s much faster than the classic sport, and skiers follow wide paths and slopes rather than a track.
Olivier Molly, a private instructor, explains all this to me. "More and more, people are switching over from downhill," he says, "especially as they get into their forties and fifties." Molly grew up here in the Engadine, and teaches tennis in the summertime. He’s a thoughtful guy, and when I ask him how St. Moritz has changed, he answers by reeling off some troubling developments: "The town is more and more built up, and yet apartments are empty most of the time," he says. "It’s a bad trend—the place is going to die out! Look at the stores—there’s only luxury shopping, and nothing else. No one even manages to stay open all year-round." (St. Moritz effectively shuts down in the spring and the fall—the hotels, the mountain railroads, the shops, everything closes.) The solution, Molly believes, is to tax the empty houses.
"Half of them are empty for 48 weeks a year. And they’re being heated!" says Hanspeter Danuser, head of St. Moritz Tourism since 1978, who came up with the tax idea. "We sold the cow instead of the milk," he says, when I visit him in his downtown office. A 2005 law limiting new residential construction has made prices skyrocket. The Shah of Iran’s villa (built in the 1960’s) just sold for about $34 million. Recent marquee developments include two from architect Norman Foster: Chesa Futura, a beautiful blob-like wooden apartment building completed in 2003, and Murezzan, his residential development in the center of town, with its chic restaurant, Post Haus.
Both of these projects (and especially Chesa Futura) are striking and elegant and cool, more proof that Foster is the great architect of our age (just an opinion, of course), but they are also emblematic of the changes here. The luxury real-estate market is booming at the expense of affordable, middle-of-the-market places like the now-closed Albana and Posthotel, which were four-star properties before being incorporated into the Murezzan development. Danuser’s idea is to force absentee owners to rent their residences out or pay a punitive tax. This would draw a broader spectrum of people to town, not just the extremely wealthy. "But," he says, "people are afraid of the new. And in Switzerland, property is holy." He laughs. "They call me an old radical, a communist Alp Marxist. But we need to solve the problem before the bureaucrats in Bern decide to do it for us." The proliferation of vacation houses is a political issue—and not just in the Swiss capital. Many wish to preserve the authentic character of the country’s small villages.
On my way out of Danuser’s office, one of his assistants asks how I’m enjoying St. Moritz. "Have you been to La Baracca?" he asks. "I’m going, I’m going!" I answer.
After all the talk of over-the-top, $20 million villas inhabited by the super-rich for a few weeks a year, I jump at the chance when a friend invites me to see one and meet its owner. Luca Bassani is the Italian founder of Wally, a company that makes superfast, high-tech megayachts, the sort of things James Bond would pilot and which cost even more than St. Moritz villas do. Bassani’s house in Suvretta, a hillside area in St. Moritz, is quietly spectacular, with lots of pale woodwork and lots of light. It’s built in the traditional Engadine style, with modern touches: floor-to-ceiling windows, bent-wood chairs, a squash court, a pool, and art photography on the walls. Bassani and his family spend weekends here all winter, and summers in Portofino.
He built the house in 2000, he tells me while showing me around, and plans to build another on an adjacent plot of land and then sell it. He met some potential Russian buyers who wanted both houses—this one and the yet-to-be-built property next door. Bassani doesn’t say what the offer was, but laughs at the memory of the astronomical sum. "They also asked if it would be possible to install bulletproof glass." He told the Russians he wasn’t selling.
But of course, they’re buying anyway, and they’re not all Russians. Lakshmi Mittal, the London-based Indian industrialist, recently built what is said to be the most expensive villa in town. He had to arrange for 24-hour security at the construction site to protect the house’s gold-plated radiators.
My thought is to leave the hotel in good hands when we die," says Hansjürg Badrutt, owner of the Palace, explaining why he and his wife recently announced they were bequeathing the hotel to its general manager, Hans Wiedemann. I’m sitting in the lobby with the two men, who, after only four years of working together, have a father-and-son-style relationship that seems warm and absolutely genuine. The Badrutts have no children, and the backstory to their unusual act of generosity is an estranged cousin’s sale of his shares in the hotel to an Italian real-estate speculator; leaving their large ownership majority to Wiedemann is an act of legacy preservation.
Hansjürg Badrutt’s grandfather Caspar opened the hotel in 1896; the family’s roots in St. Moritz go back even further, to the hotelier’s great-grandfather Johannes, who founded the nearby Kulm Hotel (now owned by the Niarchos family) and by all accounts originated the very idea of the Alpine winter resort. Hansjürg has run the hotel since the 1950’s (much of that time with his late older brother), and he reminisces with pleasure about notable guests—Alfred Hitchcock telling him the idea for a scene in Strangers on a Train, Erich Kästner writing best sellers in the lobby, all the legendary playboys. "In the 60’s," he says, "everyone wore a tuxedo to dinner. And if you didn’t, other guests would complain."
There is a great store of nostalgia for the old days—the days of tuxedos at dinner and season-long visits. "People used to come for a month," says Horst Edenhofer, former head of Cartier Switzerland. "Now they come for a week." Cartier opened one of its first shops in Switzerland in St. Moritz, and sponsors an annual winter polo event on the frozen lake. Edenhofer has an air of wry bemusement about him. "You have to be a little crazy to be in St. Moritz," he says knowingly. But is that still true? "The good old ’sporting spirit’ is not there anymore," says Max Keller, who was the Palace general manager from 1980 to 1991. "Today it’s about the love of money—these are the times we live in."
"Look, the world is always changing," Wiedemann says. "January used to be a slow month for us, but now it’s the best month of the year. Why? Because of the Russians." Early in the month Orthodox Christmas and new year draw a celebratory crowd. "At first," he says, "it was not so comfortable—we had men lighting cigars in the lobby with 100 franc bills." Recently, though, things have gotten better. "We need to be open!" he says emphatically. "The Russians are here, and the Indians are coming, and so are the Chinese—like it or not. We are a small country, and there’s a big wide world out there."
Not all local hoteliers are as international-minded: at Suvretta House, one of the top hotels in town, Russians were nowhere to be seen until just this year. (Not that the hotel had an official anti-Russian policy, but I hear from numerous people that the staff feared their long-standing, very conservative clientele would complain about garish outsiders.) I spend a number of days at Suvretta House: it’s the most traditional of the luxury hotels in St. Moritz—which is another way of saying it’s the most Swiss. The lobby is grand but low-key. The wide hallways are hung with oil paintings, dark and mysterious. The main restaurant requires black tie at dinnertime. There’s a swank, understated austerity about the place, and whatever its unseemly policy of guest profiling may have been, I must say that I love the hotel. My room has a large terrace where I watch the moon rising over the Alps.
Skiing makes you hungry, and there are many places in St. Moritz to have lunch on the slopes. One day, after an invigorating few hours (my dormant skills ever improving), I sit outside on a sheepskin-covered chair at El Paradiso and order their Älpler Magronen, a Swiss specialty of pasta with a beef ragù, topped with applesauce. Which sounds suspect but isn’t at all—it’s delicious. El Paradiso is new, a beautiful space overlooking the valley, designed by local architect Hans-Jörg Ruch.
Another day I stop at La Marmite, more than halfway up the mountain in the funicular station at Corviglia. This place is an institution: a slightly cartoonish rendering of a high-end gourmet restaurant, with a menu focusing on foie gras, truffles, lobster, venison, gravlax, and caviar. You get the idea. Needless to say, it’s a popular spot with the Russians. The waitresses wear ruffled lace aprons à la Heidi, and there’s a man singing Simon & Garfunkel songs in a dubious accent. It’s all just a little silly, but the food is remarkable—light and fresh, a relief after days of fondue and pasta. "I combine the best local products with exotic flavors," says Reto Mathis, chef and proprietor and all-around local dynamo, whose father founded the restaurant in 1967. Mathis has numerous restaurants and sidelines, including an annual gourmet food festival. He loves the Russians ("What you hear about their behavior—I find it unfair. They haven’t had a chance to prove themselves") and scorns the nearby Corviglia Club. ("So conservative—but good for my business. All the people who aren’t allowed in there come to me.")
It’s at Reto Mathis’s restaurant that I meet Reto Lamm (Reto is a common name in the Engadine), a snowboard champion turned entrepreneur. Like Mathis, he grew up here—in 1926 his great-grandfather founded Lamm Cashmere House, a shop in the center of town with the largest selection of cashmere sweaters I’ve ever seen, a place so traditional it’s almost trendy. Lamm dropped out of school at age 19 to go pro and, now 37, is one of the sport’s pioneers; these days, he organizes competitions, markets sportswear for Bogner, and makes movies. He coproduced the official Russian video that promoted Sochi’s winning 2014 Olympic bid.
"St. Moritz is becoming hip," he says, citing the Norman Foster architecture, the fact that snowboarders are coming—they never used to; La Baracca, of course; and yes, the Russians. "I think they’re great," he says. "They’re over-the-top. It’s no-holds-barred, money is no object—just bring me what you have, let’s party! The Russians are turning St. Moritz into a sexy ski town again!"
This is strange to say, but both of these men, these Retos, so quintessentially Swiss and rooted in Engadine tradition, also seem somehow American to me—their striving, their openness to new ideas and opportunities, their embrace of the Russians and all they represent. "You have to face the future," says Mathis, sounding a little like Donald Trump. "You have to do something, get out there, take the next step, take a chance."
At long last, I have dinner with friends at La Baracca. It’s on the outskirts of town, a nondescript shack in the middle of a parking lot. The lack of pretense or polish or "style" is clearly deliberate, and it’s refreshing in formal St. Moritz. Inside, the place is hopping. The crowd is a mix of locals and tourists, aristocrats and ski bums, and Russians, too. The place feels cosmopolitan, energetic, and casual—it feels "downtown." Max Schneider, the agreeable proprietor, squeezes past our crowded round table, the bartender makes mojitos at the bar for three young women, and a weather-beaten man starts playing a hand organ. A large bowl of salad arrives for the table, and we pass it around, family-style. Plate after plate of pasta comes after that, and it’s good, and the wine is even better.
This is the future, I think, the inevitable high-low combustion engine of change, connection, and fun. It’s not the Russian oligarchs who are transforming St. Moritz; it’s the new generation of entrepreneurs and restaurateurs who are doing the job, opening doors. Everyone is talking about La Baracca because it’s the kind of restaurant where strangers talk to each other.
And everyone is here.
Luke Barr is the news director of Travel + Leisure.
Getting There St. Moritz is a three-hour drive from Zürich, and 3½; hours away by train.
Where to Stay
Badrutt’s Palace Hotel. Doubles from $683.
Carlton Hotel. Doubles from $910.
Hotel Misani. Doubles from $150.
Hotel Saratz. Doubles from $275.
Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains. Doubles from $533.
Kulm Hotel. Doubles from $500.
Suvretta House. Doubles from $589.
Where to Eat
Chesa Veglia. Dinner for two $160.
El Paradiso. Dinner for two $60.
Hanselmann. Dinner for two $52.
La Baracca. Dinner for two $75.
La Marmite, at Mathis Food Affairs Lunch for two $180.
Post Haus. Dinner for two $159.
Where to Shop
Eisenwaren R. Eichholzer & Co. Hardware, housewares, and gifts. 3 Via Veglia; 41-81/833-4950.
Lamm Cashmere House 15 Via Maistra; 41-81/833-3315; cashmerelamm.ch.
Rebecca Ardessi Remarkable antique jewelry. 27 Via Serlas, Palace Galerie; 41-81/833-0006.