In the follow-up to our feature on the anniversary of winter tourism, James Lawrence visits, too, the place where it all started, but with a difference…he doesn’t go near a piste.
In the space of just over seven hours, St. Moritz and all its charms were already working their magic. I had arrived at the legendary Kulm hotel and birthplace of winter tourism – spearheaded by us plucky Brits no less – which also happens to be the town’s oldest hotel, founded in 1856. In stark contrast to the reinvented sense of relaxed luxury prevalent in hotels today, the Kulm is superbly ‘old fashioned and proud of it’ in its approach. So let me say now that potential guests should expect world-class food, amenities and accommodation, underpinned by a distinctly sedate ambience. Visitors looking for excitement, wild parties and a hipster vibe, may wish to look elsewhere.
Instead, major relaxation is the name of the game at the Kulm, particularly now that it boasts a world-class spa, which opened in 2012. The train journey to this iconic Swiss resort is a major point of relaxation in itself, once you navigate the frantic hustle and bustle of Zurich’s train station. It did, admittedly, take almost four hours to carve a tour through the magnificent Alps, but the scenery is so spectacular and the journey so memorable that 4 hours seems relatively slight compared to a tedious car journey of 25 minutes in the UK – and they say you should make an entrance!
Only a total cynic could fail to be impressed by the views afforded by my spacious, Belle Epoque style bedroom, complete with an insanely comfortable King-sized bed and a pastiche of creams and yellows. Facing St. Moritz lake – which is used for several important events during the winter season – and the majestic Alpine peaks, it is truly awe-inspiring. An apology for the cliché, but no adjective really does the vista justice. It’s something you have to appreciate first-hand.
The hotel’s rooms are, for the most part, in keeping with the style and ethos of the Kulm, which one might describe as slightly stuck in a time warp. But, such an historic address would probably feel ridiculous all kitted out with modern decor, minimalist touches and 21st century overtones. There are 180 bedrooms and suites, complemented by the aforementioned deluxe spa, the main grand restaurant, a good pizzeria, the Chesa al parc restaurant, Sunny and Panopy bars. Dating back to the 19th century, the hotel has understandably been modified and enlarged since its original incarnation and is now composed of three interconnecting buildings; some rooms still boast the original wood-panelled ceilings whilst the interconnected suites are a bit more modern in style. But overall, the grandiose public spaces, complete with high ceilings and no more than a whisper from its inhabitants lend the Kulm a distinctly Agatha Christie air. The atmosphere was one of tranquil elegance – ideal for those with high blood pressure.
Dinner that evening was at the aptly named Le Grand restaurant. I was, however, not welcome at our table, not at least until I had borrowed a dinner jacket from the charming maitre d’. The restaurant insists on formal attire in the evenings, a dying trend perhaps, but one I was happy to oblige. The massive dining room resembled a Chateau banqueting hall, with the prerequisite chandeliers, gold-embellished red curtains and an army of professional staff, clearly trained with Teutonic precision bar none. The daily 6 course, French inspired tasting menu, while leaning toward the conservative, served up some mouthwatering delights for our table, including; classic Swiss consume, Chateaubriand with Bearnaise Sauce and potato gratin, Fish Tartar – prepared directly at the table – and Sole fillet with parsley potatoes and Mediterranean vegetables. I should add that as the hotel functions on a half-board basis, there are no particular signature dishes and the chef is happy to prepare just about everything, according to the hotel’s PR director. The restaurant’s wine list is also suitably grand and extensive, with several vintages of legendary bottles like Petrus and DRC available for those with deep pockets – more affordable options, incidentally, are also up for grabs.
The following morning called for an intense work-out to offset the guilt of more gastronomic indulgences to come. Then came the real reason I’d travelled to the Kulm – a leisurely day at the much lauded spa. While my companions had eagerly departed early to enjoy St. Mortiz’s slopes, I had only one thing on my mind. Which may seem absurd, but that’s the beauty of this resort, non-skiers can and do find plenty of other attractions to keep them occupied. There’s mountain hiking, tobogganing and bob-sled for starters. In fact, St. Moritz has a far longer heritage as a health and wellbeing destination – its first spa dates back over 3,000 years! Skiing is a relatively recent addition to the town’s tourist income.
Like the hotel’s choice bedrooms, the lavishly equipped spa enjoys spellbinding views of the lake and Alpine peaks. No complaints either with the impressive list of amenities on offer: Finnish sauna, steam bath, gym, Jacuzzi, salt grotto and 20-metre indoor pool. But the star attraction is the open-air heated pool, where I spent many hours lazing on bubbling waterbeds gazing at snow-capped peaks. I have been privileged to visit many spas over the years, but I cannot imagine many finer than the one housed at the Kulm. Moreover, as most guests head to the slopes during the day, it is usually very quiet. Not a murmur was heard all afternoon.
As you’d expect, the spa offers its guests a plethora of treatments, which are based on what the hotel calls a three-pillar approach: relaxation, purification and regeneration. I settled for a heavenly Swedish massage, using massage oil made from local Alpine plants. Laid on my front, enjoying my masseur’s delicate, but powerful hands was so relaxing and pleasurable, that I almost fell asleep through the treatment. And here lies the Kulm’s biggest strength; it is simply the most perfect hotel for guests in desperate need of rest, exercise and rejuvenation.
Of course, both St. Moritz and the Kulm aren’t for everyone: the town is small, not exactly bursting with nightlife options and a fair distance from any airport. But then, if the party crowd were tempted away from Courchevel and the like, the atmosphere and feel of the hotel would quickly change and for the worse I’d argue. There are plenty of hectic ski-resorts that cater to the apres-ski obsessed set. I hope the Kulm’s ethos never moves an inch.
Swiss air offers daily flights from London Heathrow to Zurich. You can buy a Swiss travel card to cover you rain journey to St. Moritz in advance at www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.
The Kulm, Via Veglia 18, 7500 St. Moritz, Switzerland (41) 81 836 80 00. For more information visit www.kulm.com. And if skiing was your thing, guests staying at the Kulm for more than one night can purchase a Ski pass for CHF25 (£17) per day.