In Upper Engadin valley in the southeastern Swiss Alps, everything revolves around the mountains and lakes, writes Fiona McCarthy.
Talk to the locals and they’ll tell you the landscape in Upper Engadin valley in Switzerland is never boring due to the way the light plays in different shades. It dances from the quaint gabled chalet rooftops and across the tips of dense pine forests to the 4,000-metre mountain peaks, creating myriad moods in just one day.
Upper Engadin valley is a three-hour journey by rail from Zurich. In the Engadin town of Samedan I’m completely unprepared for the panoramic beauty of this vertiginous alpine wonderland.
I’m on the little red Rhaetian Railway train. We travel through the spectacular Bernina Pass, a staggering network of heritage-listed stone tunnels and impossibly high viaducts. The view slopes dramatically from treetops to tiny towns tucked deep into valleys below, marked by the forest-green steeples of simple white churches. In between are meadows, mesmerisingly carpeted with vibrant wildflowers, showing off in the summer sun before the next snowfall.
Where to bed in Upper Engadin valley
There is no better way to experience Engadin’s magnificent landscape – and the generous hospitality of its people – than to stay at two of the area’s oldest and most prestigious hotel siblings. The 112-room Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina and 164-room Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz.
Grand Hotel Kronenhof
I arrive first at the 174-year-old Kronenhof, set in a charming village with traditional houses marked by deep-set funnel-shaped windows – designed to enhance light but keep out the cold – and façades etched with pretty sgraffito.
Window boxes lining every sill are ablaze with colour, overflowing with petunias, geraniums and edelweiss.
The hotel’s lobby lounge is equally dazzling, intricate Belle Époque frescoes of birds and flowers dancing across the ceiling with a centuries-old kron (crown) chandelier hanging at its centre.
Through vast glass bay windows, backlit clouds skirt across pine-clad mountains and ancient glaciers – a natural theatre rivalled only by the grandeur of the hotel interior.
Likewise, the Kulm Hotel – only a 10-minute drive from the Kronenhof – also boasts a million-dollar view, this time of the soothing, aquamarine waters of Lake St. Moritz and the surrounding Albula Alps.
Both the Kulm and Kronenhof offer all the understated glamour you’d expect from grande dame hotels.
Originally run by the Gredig family as a small guesthouse – with a wine shop trading from its cellar – the Grand Hotel Kronenhof was transformed in the early 20th century into the neo-baroque beauty it is today.
The Kulm Hotel also started life as a 12-room pensione, founded by hotelier Johannes Badrutt in 1855.
Engadin’s winter dreams
Long before the Upper Engadin became a winter playground for rock stars and royals, it was a sought-after summer destination for Europe’s holidaying elite who were drawn to its healing mineral springs.
Yet Badrutt saw its snowy potential, inviting British guests to come the following winter with the promise of warmth and conviviality in his frosty but blue-skied ‘paradise on earth’. If they didn’t like it, he said, he would reimburse their expenses.
Badrutt’s guests stayed until spring – and winter tourism in the area was born.
Eventually, the Kulm would become host hotel for both the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics; it’s also home to the death-defying tobogganing Cresta Club founded in 1887.
While both hotels must be magical when blanketed with snow, I’m thrilled with the prospect of plunging myself completely into Upper Engadin’s verdant nature during summer.
One morning, I walk past forests of lofty pines and scraggy larch to reach the tongue of the mighty Morteratsch Glacier. The next, I swim at sunrise in the crystal-clear, temperate waters of Lej Marsch, floating blissfully on my back with only birdsong for company.
Afternoons are spent being pampered in the hotel spas.
Both offer world-class treatments: at the Kronenhof, a massage using harmonising oils of Swiss pine and cedar, straightens out my kinks; at the Kulm, a Swiss-made Valmont facial leaves my skin feeling firm but completely nourished
Much of both hotels’ interiors have been masterly refined by leading French interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon.
Drawing on the muted shades of blue that are so intrinsic to Engadin’s surrounding landscape, Rochon has elevated the sense of alpine sophistication with contemporary apartment-living style.
Embroidered linens, bouclé, cashmere and embossed leather prove tactile foil to the simplicity of bedrooms already lavished in local pine.
Meanwhile, Rochon’s use of darker, daring shades – from emerald green to Yves Klein cobalt blue and juicy plum – across swathes of velvet and elaborate passementerie have brought depth to the Kronenhof’s newly reimagined cocktail bar and reading room.
These are spaces where you want to linger over the impressive gin list and play billiards into the early hours.
It’s much like the feeling you get in the Upper Engadin – this is the perfect summer destination to rest, relax and rejuvenate – and of course, be thoroughly immersed in the wonders of Mother Nature.
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