Travel: St Moritz

Neil Geraghty encounters curious cattle amid steep Alpine slopes as he swaps skis for a mountain bike on the beautiful summer pistes of Switzerland

Part of the Chur to San Moritz stretch of the Albula Line. Photograph: Getty Images/iStock
Part of the Chur to San Moritz stretch of the Albula Line. Photograph: Getty Images/iStock

There’s nothing more enchanting than encountering calves in an Alpine meadow. They have boundless curiosity, huge doe eyes and silky brown coats, and when you’re in the middle of a difficult stretch of mountain biking they’re the perfect excuse to stop, regain your breath and take in the glorious mountain scenery.

I’m participating in a mountain bike lesson in the Engadine Valley, one of a range of summer activities organised by the five-star Suvretta House Hotel in St Moritz. The steep incline of this last stretch has been impossible for us novices and we’ve had to resort to pushing our bikes up the gravelly tracks, huffing and puffing as we gulp in the rarefied mountain air.

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When the path levels out, we pass a herd of Brown Swiss cattle lying in the summer sunshine. The meadows here contain one of the highest diversities of flower species in Europe and the beasts are surrounded by drifts of blue cornflowers. As we approach the herd the adults turn their heads and their bells slowly ring in unison. They continue chewing the cud uninterested in our presence with the exception of a solitary calf who scrambles to his feet and ambles towards us with his big wet nose twitching with curiosity. It’s love at first sight and our new friend conjures up all the magic of summer in the Swiss Alps.

Nosy cattle in the Alps. Photograph: Getty Images/iStock

The beautiful summer landscapes begin the moment you set foot in Switzerland. The three-hour train journey from Zurich is one of the most scenic in the world. The last section from Chur to San Moritz is part of the Unesco World Heritage Albula Line, a gravity-defying feat of engineering that was built between 1898 and 1904. With handy maps incorporated into the tables and information announcements in English, it’s impossible to miss the highlights. Gazing out of the window, I hold my breath as we chug along the sides of steep forested valleys where waterfalls cascade down the slopes like white ribbons.

When I arrive in St Moritz, I’m in for a delightful surprise. Suvretta House is the proud owner of a vintage 1920s Ford delivery van which is used as a station pick-up. Painted a vibrant bottle green the van is nicknamed Old Timer and cuts quite a dash as it rattles through the streets of St Moritz. It also gives guests a taste of the timeless nostalgia that awaits them in this legendary hotel.

When Suvretta House was built in 1912, St Moritz was already an established playground for the rich and famous. Hotel pioneer Anton Bon had the bright idea of building a palatial retreat well away from town where his illustrious guests could relax safe from the prying eyes of the press. The sumptuous Belle Epoque architecture and beautiful setting on a hillside overlooking Lake Champfer became an instant success. Early fans included the legendary ballet dancer, Nijinsky, and later on King Faruk of Jordan, the Shah of Iran and Eva Peron were all regular visitors.

Suvretta House is one of a handful of hotels in San Moritz that opens their doors for a brief summer season and from canyoning to gliding it offers an extensive range of exciting summer sports. After breakfast I drive over to the San Moritz Sailing Club which at 1,800 metres is one of the highest in the world.

Nosy cattle in the Alps. Photograph: Getty Images/iStock

There I meet Simone Mercuri, a local sailing instructor whose friendly demeanour and infectious enthusiasm is typical of sports instructors in San Moritz. As we push out into Lake San Moritz in a gleaming white yacht, it’s hard to imagine that this same lake plays host to the famous Snow Polo Tournament in January. What makes sailing possible in the lakes of the Engadine Valley is the Maloja Wind, a thermal wind that blows up the valley when warm Mediterranean air and cool Alpine air meet. We’re in luck as a fresh breeze has just sprung up and unfurling the sails we coast into it at a perpendicular angle and race out into the lake. For the following hour I learn all the basic principles of tacking as we zigzag across the lake sailing past beautiful vintage ski chalets and enjoying the fresh pine scented breeze.

However low-key the exercise is, you always build up an appetite practising sport at these altitudes and in the evening I don a jacket and tie and head down to Suvretta House’s Grand Restaurant. With its exquisite inlaid wooden roof and Corinthian columns covered with Art Nouveau floral motifs, it conjures up all the opulence of the early 20th century Belle Epoque. The summer season is when the hotel trains its new staff and as soon as I take a seat I’m surrounded by young Italian waiters diligently placing bread on my side plate and carefully pouring water into my tumbler. The young executive chef, local born Fabrizio Zanetti, earned his stripes under Gordon Ramsay in the Savoy Grill and his menu displays a similar penchant for French classics. Fabrizio adds a dash of fresh Alpine ingredients into these dishes and the result is magic. I order Bresse chicken stuffed with a fragrant medley of mountain herbs, sprinkled with golden ceps and exquisite miniature edible Alpine flowers.

Back on the slopes the following afternoon we say farewell to the adorable calf and from now on the cycling is all downhill. My confidence has grown and standing up on the pedals I relax my grip on the brakes and begin speeding down the slopes. For a good 20 minutes I’m dazzled by views of snow-capped mountains and jade green lakes and breathing, in the fresh herb-scented air of mountain meadows, I’d exchange a pair of skis for a mountain bike any day.

FACT FILE

Rates at Suvretta House in the summer start from CHF 440 (approx £353) per night, including breakfast www.suvrettahouse.ch

easyJet flies from London Gatwick to Zurich, up to seven days a week, with prices starting from £25.24 per person (one-way, including taxes and based on two people on the same booking). www.easyjet.com

For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call our Switzerland Travel Centre on the International freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail, for information [email protected]; for packages, trains and air tickets [email protected]

The Swiss Travel System provides a range of travel passes and tickets for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and destination. Prices are £112 in second class and £184 in first class. Each ticket offers free admission to more than 500 museums nationwide and half-price on the most scenic Swiss mountain railways.