The highway narrows near Chur and swings south, away from the lakes and Lichtenstein and the giant peaks surrounding Calanda and Pizol. It follows A13 through a deep valley there, then turns left onto Route 3, following an endless coil of switchbacks over Julierstrasse Pass. It was cold up there, surprisingly cold considering how springlike the valleys were. The lakes and streams were frozen solid. There was powder in the hills and ski tracks running to the road. At the top of the pass, a row of taxis waited in a pullout to pickup backcountry skiers.
The way up the pass was painfully slow, but I followed an Audi A4 on the way down and, after several strategic passes, blew into St. Mortiz at 3 p.m. There weren't many people on the sidewalks. Traffic was light. The sky was candy blue as it had been across Switzerland for a week. Not much powder but plenty of base. I drove straight through town the first time by accident, then hooked a U-turn, scanning the skyline for the iconic towers of Badrutt's Palace. The hotel was higher on the hill than I thought and, after navigating a skinny road up from the lakeshore, I pulled into a small crowd of doormen awaiting my arrival.
Badrutt’s is not the hotel that Wes Anderson based The Grand Hotel Budapest on. That inspiration came from grands: Grandhotel Gellért, Grandhotel Pupp, the elaborate Palace Bristol Hotel. Badrutt's probably should have been on the shot list, though. From the moment you approach the stone edifice, guests leave what they thought was their life behind and enter a tailored fantasy that lasts as long as their stay.
This was my fantasy… The POWDER staff had been on-location in Switzerland for over a week, documenting the oldest ski resorts in the world, the greatest mountains, the most pure Alpine culture, and the most fattening food on the planet. We rode the Glacier Express, skied under the Matterhorn, blasted through more than a dozen resorts in a week, and met more skiers and classic mountain personalities than you usually see in a lifetime. But we still hadn’t been to the birthplace of the ski resort, the wellspring from which Chamonix, Verbier, Vail, Aspen, and Whistler arose from. My fantasy was to bring the POWDER staff and St. Mortiz together on our last night—and party like it was 1899.
But we still hadn’t been to the birthplace of the ski resort, the wellspring from which Chamonix, Verbier, Vail, Aspen, and Whistler arose from. My fantasy was to bring the staff and St. Mortiz together on our last night—and party like it was 1899.
Some background… The Badrutt family got into the hotel business when Johannes Badrutt founded the Hotel Engadiner Kulm, now the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz. He then bought the Hotel Beau Rivage in 1892. His son, Casper, opened the hotel as a summertime wellness spa in 1896 after an extensive renovation. A few years later, he offered a bet to five of his most well-heeled clients: come in the winter and stay for a week. If you don't have the time of your life you get your money back. The result: the creation of most winter sports as we know them.
Walking into Badrutt's lobby is like walking into the foyer of your grandparents house—if they were incredibly wealthy and lived in the Belle Époque. (Americans: "B.E." is like "A.D.," in that after the opulent, optimistic, artistic awakening known as the Bell Epoque—late 1800s—nothing was the same. At least, in high society, which back then, and usually now, fully encompassed the "ski society.")
Every member of the Badrutt's staff in the driveway, doorway, concierge desk, lobby, and bar introduced themselves when I walked in. A young woman stepped out from behind the concierge desk with a folder in her hand and said she would check me into my room. We took the elevator to the fifth floor and she walked me through the Grand Deluxe. Most of the cars I have owned cost less than this room. I loved those cars. I would have traded them in for the view out the window, though, and the night that was to come.
It took about two minutes to change into a robe after the woman left. I had been traveling all day and needed "wellness"—a form of hospitality the Swiss perfected in the early 1800s. The wellness center, the woman explained, was five stories down through the center of the mountain. When the doors opened, another tunnel led to a set of stairs and a pool with a 200-degree view of the Alps. The air was heated to 80 degrees, the pool to 90. A heat pump in Lake St. Moritz powers 80 percent of the hotel and plenty of that energy was coming here. There were more footman, handing me towels, water, showing me the three steam rooms, two saunas, the button that opens a glass door so you can swim outside, a fake grotto with a waterfall, jacuzzi, chaise lounges. I don't know how long I lay down for. There was a vibrating sound that may or may not have been real, like the sound of a thousand monks humming, that put me to sleep. When I woke the sun was setting over the peaks and the POWDER staff was about to arrive.
I hustled to my room and put Badrutt's concierge to the test. I left my phone in the car. And the cigars. And a comb. My shirt needed ironing. One by one, young men appeared at the door carrying a silver tray. Cigars, comb, ironed shirt. I got the whacky idea to grease my hair. "Do you have hair gel?" Five minutes later it was at the door and I was slicking my hair back for the second time in my life.
The crew arrived 10 minutes later. I met them outside the lobby bar—the room where Alfred Hitchcok, Erich Kästner, celebrities, and scions from royal lines from across Europe have frequented for over a century. There were seven women in the bar. Three of them wore leather pants. A man spoke to one of them, pointing, showing his art, his wares, like salesmen trying to make the perfect pitch. The woman looked disinterested. A small fire glowed in the fireplace and the air was thick with cigarette smoke. It was the kind of place you could do just about anything and no one would ever hear about it.
The staff was cleaned up, wide-eyed, escorted by a bellman. We rode the elevator to the room. Two shots of Appenzeller and a beer later we were well. It was 6:40 p.m. and our press contact was waiting in the lobby. Madlaina Rauch was wearing a navy blue dress and blazer with a brass name tag on the lapel. She started the tour immediately, strolling down the "St. Moritz catwalk," a black-and-white marble hallway framed by giant windows, oil paintings, and a hand-carved wooden ceiling. Madlaina showed us the main restaurant, then a smaller one on the side that Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (Nobu Sushi founder) himself had founded.
One by one, young men appeared at the door carrying a silver tray. Cigars, comb, ironed shirt. I got the whacky idea to grease my hair. "Do you have hair gel?" Five minutes later it was at the door and I was slicking my hair back for the second time in my life.
Upstairs, Madlaina showed us the suites. The largest goes for $20,000 a night, with a one-week minimum stay. It was the most luxurious space I'd ever seen, complete with a grand piano in the corner. I can't play the piano, but I did learn one song when I was eight years old. The "Black Bear Stomp" never sounded so good.
We were late for dinner so Madlaina ushered us out and up the hill to a 1600s farmhouse called Chesa Veglia. She said it meant "old house" in Romansh, an ancient Latin language spoken by only a few in the Alps these days. (Madlaina's name is also Romansh.) We took a corner seat and ordered the works: oysters, lobster, venison, fish, pasta, cheese, wine, beer, shots. After years of brown bag lunches, Ramen, and leftovers, the meal was beyond extravagant. There were toasts to the birthplace of skiing, the genesis of POWDER, the camaraderie among mountain folk, and working together. There may have been a point at which we got too rowdy. It's hard to say. Excellent hospitality is like a fog and before we knew it we were—hastily—walking back into the cold.
Madlaina was kind enough to help us get to our next destination, dropping us off at Max Schneider's La Baracca. Set in a shack in the middle of a parking lot, the place could not have been more different than Badrutt's. It was also packed—with guests standing on their tables and chairs, dancing to 1980s pop tunes. We joined in immediately with a round of beers. Someone yelled, “Cheers!” and smashed their stein into 20 pieces on mine. There were more shots, a few soldiers down. Max ran around the room maniacally with his wild gray hair sticking straight up in the air.
Everyone in the room was a skier. Maybe for a day or a weekend, some for many years. We sang Italian opera together and spoke and gestured in a half dozen different languages. When we finally left in the early hours of the morning, the mountains were lit blue by the starlight and a sliver of moon was rising. Soon, everyone limped toward bed. I walked alone to Badrutt's. There were no lights on in any of the other buildings, not a soul on the street. It felt like 1899 in every way, especially when a doorman met me outside the hotel, led me into the lobby, and bid me goodnight.