Idle Vice: Summer in the Swiss Alps at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof
Ashleigh Ralfe discovers it’s not all mountain climbing, brisk walking and hiking in the lush Swiss summers.
Summer in the Alps has always been a foreign concept to me. Grassy mountains are something I have stereotypically associated with Julie Andrews, Heidi and her little mountain goats. For, I like to ski. And like a typical Brit, I ascend to the pistes in winter and naturally gravitate towards the sea in summer. I’m not much of a walker, but as I blew the dust off my hiking boots and added a fourth layer of thermals in preparation for the biting breeze of the Upper Engadin, I asked myself, how is this so different from skiing? There’s still the piercing blue sky against the perpetual snow-topped peaks that never disappoints, I’m breathing in air I can feel my lungs thanking me for, I’m doing [fairly unnoticeable] exercise and, of course, there’s the prospect of a really good lunch. Unlike skiing though, there are no queues for lifts, no snowboarders cutting me up, no ski schools filling the restaurants and I still have circulation in my feet. No wonder the land-locked Swiss aren’t longing for a beach. I kicked myself for having never done this before.
The Engadin valley is, however, 1,800 metres above sea level and getting there is a little testing. For those of us who don’t have a helicopter, we must fly to Geneva and take four different trains before our luxury summer mountain experience begins. But don’t let this put you off. As a self-proclaimed public transport phobe, I too was hesitant as to which side of the country I’d end up in, but thanks to the renowned efficiency of the Swiss, the journey is delightfully hassle-free.
In the heart of the charming, historical mountain village of Pontresina – so small and intimate that the bus drivers know everyone by name – lays the Grand Hotel Kronenhof. With a history dating back to 1848, the original ceiling paintings and dark pine panels so typical of nineteenth century Swiss interiors, reminisce of days gone by and create a warm and welcoming sense of hospitality. The panoramic windows that greet you stretch from the floor to the sky, as the dramatic backdrop of the Roseg Glacier absorbs you. Around me, cocktails are being graciously served to gratified guests, relishing in the soft piano music by the open fire. I have immediately forgotten about the four train rides; in fact, I don’t know how I got here at all, and I don’t care. These people are at total peace; I can’t wait to get a bigger dose of this Alpine therapy.
Deciding which part of the valley to explore will be your biggest – and most likely, only – stress of the trip. For the hikers, the views are particularly spectacular along the shore of Lago Bianco on the Bernina pass, where you can soak in the panoramic Belvedere terrace before finishing the trail in Alp Grüm. Or for a more gentle stroll, meandering through the shady Staz forest is also rather magnificent. As I mentioned before, the combination of “hiking” and “holiday” has never sat comfortably with me. But once atop a green, sunny mountain with the wind in my hair, I am starting to get a bit of a Julie Andrews-like spring in my step.
I was just starting to feel rather smug about my newfound love for walking – especially after a member of my group likened me to a mountain goat – when we were asked to take off our shoes. I’m sorry? It’s barely above freezing and I’m wearing three pairs of socks (two on my feet, one on my hands). I explained about my poor circulation but was assured by our guide that hiking barefoot is liberating, it allows you to ‘take in every sensation’. Even though frostbite is a sensation I could live without, off went the shoes and on we reluctantly carried. Now, I’m not going to sugarcoat the experience because it was very, very painful. Having said that, after your feet turn numb, you can’t feel the piercing of pine needles, nettles and prickly cones. But the trail itself – through the woodland of San Gian, in Celerina – is beautiful. Dewy, enchanting and full of wildlife, apparently – I wouldn’t know, as I spent the whole hour looking down trying to find the smoothest route, but I did hear another barefooted sucker get very excited about a deer (followed by an inevitable string of swearwords). I get the idea behind it: being ‘at one’ with nature. Give me some warm grass or a sandy beach and I’ll happily forgo the footwear. But, in the mountains, my feet turned purple, and that wasn’t all that liberating.
For a softer stroll in fancier shoes, you can explore the radiant greens of the four golf courses in the valley. Having only just got my head around walking on ski slopes, you can imagine how obscure I found the prospect of swinging clubs on them, but in actual fact, the Engadin boasts the first ever golf course in continental Europe. Also a dream destination for cyclists, the valley offers 250 miles of varied routes. For a real challenge take the Bernina Express Trail, which leads from Pontresina through Morteratsch and up to the Bernina Pass. Your reward will come in the form of spectacular views of the glacier, as well as a thrilling descent into the Valposchiavo.
Personally, I prefer to be rewarded for outdoor activity in other ways, namely a massage and a drink, so I headed back to the Kronenhof Spa for just that. This Alpine health haven offers luxuries I’ve never even heard of. There’s the Experience Bath, the Bio Sauna, the Saltwater Grotto and, my personal favourite, the Floatation Room, with underwater music and wave projections. I skipped the Kneipp Footpath, where you walk through different pools of undetermined water temperatures, as I thought my feet had been through enough that day, but it’s supposedly very good for the circulation.
The hotel offers an array of dining experiences, to suit whatever mood you’re in. The Grand Restaurant is just as it sounds, with its opulent neo-baroque interior (think cherubs on the ceiling) and enforced dress code (‘elegance’ is vaguely specified for the ladies; jackets and ties for the men). Despite the extravagance, the atmosphere is relaxed; the waiters are attentive but not overly so, a cheerful pianist animates diners with upbeat, well-known classics and extremely well-behaved children flaunt their impeccable table manners alongside proud parents. And from squid carpaccio with fennel, to slowly cooked medallion of trout on chorizo iberico, each dish is cooked and presented to perfection.
In total contrast is the warm and cosy Kronenstübli Restaurant, boasting 17 GaultMilllau points and 1 Michelin star. Austrian Executive Chef Bernd Schützelhofer presents a creative menu of international classics and local produce. Or unleash your inner child in the hotel’s bowling alley, where you can enjoy a relaxed dinner and some good old-fashioned fun. Breakfast is served in the Grand Restaurant and offers everything you can possibly think of. But if, like me, you don’t trust yourself with too many options before a long hike, you can substitute your hotel breakfast with a trip to the Alpine Cheese Dairy down the road, to enjoy a rustic, open-air breakfast of local cheeses and fruits.
Being in such an aesthetically Swiss, German-speaking part of the country, it is also worth mentioning how surprisingly close you are to Italy. The Valtellina region of northern Italy is a mere hour’s drive away and perfect for adding some unexpected variety to your Swiss adventure. Just remember to take your passport, even though the typically nonchalant Italians didn’t check ours. On crossing the border, the transition, in terms of culture, architecture and temperature (the decline in altitude made it 24 degrees warmer) is immediate. Renowned for its wine making, the region is home to the infamous cellars of Mamete Prevostini. Try their whole range all over a seven-course Italian feast, al fresco in the upstairs Ristorante Crotasc. Don’t leave the country without a stroll and a gelato in the idyllic, chocolate box town of Chiavenna, Sleep all the way back to Pontresina. Your tummy will thank you for it.
Boarding the first of my four trains back to Geneva I feel utterly exhausted. Not by tube commutes, long office hours and unnecessary midweek festivities, but in that wonderful way that happens so rarely. My cheeks are flushed, my nose is rouged and my neglected muscles feel alive. I’ve overindulged, sure, but I feel good. It could be the mountain air that’s quick to destroy any threat of a hangover, the physical exercise that’s released a new world of endorphins, or just plain altitude madness, but I feel revived, refreshed and really quite happy. I just hope I can stop humming Do-Re-Mi by the time I’m back on the tube.
Grand Hotel Kronenhof, five star Superior Hotel Member of Swiss Deluxe hotels. CH-7504 Pontresina / St. Moritz Switzerland. Contact T +41 (0) 81/830 30 30 F +41 (0) 81/830 30 31. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. www.kronenhof.com.