I’ve recently returned from four days near St Moritz, eastern Switzerland, where I was watching the Engadine marathon a week after Pippa Middleton gave the sport a flash of publicity (read more here and here).
St Moritz is named by Where to Ski and Snowboard, the annual guidebook, as one of the world’s priciest resorts.
I can believe this, having visited during my years as a polo reporter, and with its formal five-star hotels, its scary designer boutiques, its coiffed clientele and its trafficky centre, the town is not my kind of place.
However, the rest of the Engadine Valley is a different matter. There you’ll find tranquil, historic villages (free to roam), awesome scenery (free to admire) and excellent downhill and langlauf skiing (the lift pass is expensive, at up to 73 francs a day, but I have a plan to minimise the damage – see further down).
We stayed in a good-value hotel in Pontresina, but the cheapest rooms in the district start at £50 for a double in the most basic village b&bs. There is a hostel at Pontresina and a caravan park near Muottas Muragl, both of which were bristling with langlaufers (usually a down-to-earth, budget-conscious lot) during the marathon.
We found restaurant meals similarly priced to elsewhere in Switzerland, often with a regional or Italian twist (the border is close and Italian is as widely spoken as Swiss-German). At the characterful Berninahaus, 10 minutes from Pontresina, we had a substantial meal for four, including wine, water and coffee (and a free schnapps), for about £100. The rule – as everywhere – is that if it looks traditional and solid, it’s likely to be cheaper than the hip-looking places next-door.
On our short visit, we came across a few surprises – starting with the secretive camouflaged Range Rovers in our hotel basement parking, which were being tested, perhaps for the next Great British Winter, on the mountain roads in disguise.
Other surprises followed – not least the emptiness of underrated Diavolezza and Lagalb, cable-cars with nearly 1,000m of vertical 10 minutes from Pontresina. This is where my mother learnt to ski as a child, and I’ll be writing about them in more detail for a magazine next season.
For now my tip is to ski Diavolezza all morning, stopping to take in the view of Piz Palu and Bernina at the top, and have lunch at the excellent restaurant at the top of Lagalb before skiing Lagalb in the afternoon sun. If there’s powder, you’re in for a treat at both places, although beware rocks this year: despite great cover in most of the Alps, the Engadine hasn’t had its greatest winter.
There is masses of skiing, over three main areas, but I found this was an area where I didn’t want to ski every day, so much else is there to do.
With this in mind, and to limit the damage of the lift pass price, if I was there for a week, I’d ski three or four very full days, plus a Friday night floodlit skiing on Corvatsch.
I’d be sure, if I had good weather, to visit all the top stations, all of which have easy red runs down: Piz Nair, Corvatsch (the red from the top to Fuorcla Surlej restaurant has incredible views to Piz Bernina and the Bianca Ridge) and Diavolezza. If there was a blizzard, I’d steer clear of treeless Diavolezza and Lagalb and head for the two valley runs at Corvatsch – both are like downhill courses through the forest.
I’d spend the other days exploring the Engadine valley and its side-valleys (Roseg, Morteratsch and Fex) on langlauf skis, on foot and by car or public transport, and roaming the lovely villages, with their museums and churches and painted ancient houses.
By all means spend time, too, in glitzy St Moritz if you like. Just don’t come running to me if you end up spending 20 francs on a couple of ever-so-chic espressos by accident…
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