Laax & St. Moritz
This is a land of effortless beauty with mountains as its backdrop. The flight from London’s City Airport is less than 90 min and the pristine airport spits out your luggage almost as quickly as you can get to the carrousel. Then a one-stop ride to Zurich main train station, a quick change and the journey to Chur begins in earnest. It is not arduous at all, the lush green countryside passes by the window revealing mountains in the background free of snow in August. This is where I will be E biking and trekking this afternoon.
Travelling by train is by far the easiest way of seeing Switzerland, it has a comprehensive and well connected system, just as well as it is not always possible to fly direct to your chosen location. Nothing beats the romance of a train journey in my book. It’s stress free, children don’t have to return to their seats for landing and you get to see that breathtaking scenery.
Chur train station is, as you’d expect a spotless example of efficiency and right next to the bus station. We boarded and were in Laax in a short while. In the winter Laax and its near neighbour Flims are the hip hangouts for the young and trendy to ski, snowboard and well just hang out. This is a cool place to be. In the summer it changes its credentials slightly and becomes the trekking centre of Graubünden. Situated in the East of Switzerland and close to the Italian border it can count one of its local languages as Romench, a Latin based dialect said to have been imported from Italy then corrupted over the centuries. Swiss German is still the main language but as with everywhere in Europe, English will get you by but it’s always helpful if you can manage a word or two.
The E Bike, hired from the Eprova Bike School is an easy concept to grasp it is a battery-powered bike that assists you when you peddle – simple. So while not replacing peddle power it can certainly take the edge off the steeper hills you will encounter. Our group set off dressed in shorts, T-shirts and trainers and with rucksacks on our back. It is always advisable to carry some sort of waterproof jacket and a sweater as well as a bottle of water with you.
The ride lasted about two hours and was a breeze for the younger members of the group. For me it was doable but I must admit that I should really have been a bit fitter. Organised rides are available at all levels running several times a day you can even attach a trailer to your bike to accommodate little ones who can still enjoy the ride. With battery exchange points and mechanical back up this is a very safe but adventurous activity.
The Swiss are extremely fit and seem to have limitless energy, there are many different routes you can follow just check how long it will take before you set off! Our guide took us through some beautiful woodland and with rest points carefully placed it was a lovely afternoon’s ride. A brilliant family activity that all would enjoy as you can go at whatever pace you like. We cycled down to lake Cauma, a picturesque beauty spot where you can swim in the crystal clear waters. There are changing rooms to preserve modesty and a cafe to fuel your bodies. Of course you don’t need to use E-Bikes but could have a more rigorous ride on mountain bikes, it just depends on your skill level and bravery! If you have the energy it’s worth getting as far as the II Spir viewing platform. Not for the feint hearted, this structure is like a bird with its wings spread wide, climb up and it will afford you a matchless view. You will be standing over half a kilometre above little Swiss Canyon.
I stayed at the Signinahotel, which has very comfortable beds (you will need these as all that exercise makes you sleepy) I checked out one of the restaurants. Nooba is a modern pan Asian eatery with large modern photographic artwork and a smooth vibe. The Thai pink beef satay salad hit the right spot after a hard afternoon in the saddle and I adored the gyoza dumplings.
You may wonder what you could do if the weather wasn’t on your side on an activity holiday? Well they have thought of that, a vast indoor area called The Freestyle Academy. Here you can practice your snowboard techniques on one of two slopes and landing in an enormous pit of foam bricks. Or try your hand at the trampoline? There are instructors on site ready to teach you whatever you like. A large skateboard bowl and street skate areas will keep your children in the dry and busy for hours. The climbing wall was very popular when I visited, as was the bar with the adults!
The next day was out off saddle and into walking boots (these are a must if you wish to go trekking). Taking chair lifts and then a gondola to the summit of a Mountain was a real thrill. I must confess to having never skied so have never taken a ride on a chair lift. This really is a trip of firsts. Why has nobody told how magical it is? A smooth silent ride up looking down on the village of Flims made me feel like an eagle casting its eye across the Alps. Being on top of a mountain (another first) is exhilarating and humbling. We spent about an hour walking around watching the weather system change by the second. Sitting above the clouds you really feel on top of the world. To my astonishment I saw a couple of people preparing to paraglide down. Later I saw these human ‘eagles’ floating gently, catching the updraft of wind and soaring through the air for over an hour.
Our decent was with a guide down a gentle trek. The walk offers breathtaking views of the mountains and as you pass through the woods you get glimpses of the outside world, the only thing to remind you where you are. It is an otherworldly experience akin to walking among the giant red woods of Canada or a tropical rain forest, alone in the presence of greatness. The silence and calmness are priceless. As you have no real timetable you can take as long as you like and get to truly enjoy walking over a series of seven bridges affording you spectacular views of waterfalls and woodland. These treks are carefully signposted so even a novice will find the way easily.
Dinner at the hotel was Italian, not so strange as we are near the border with Italy and in the Romansh speaking region of Switzerland. It was comfort food of a high standard as we devoured our pizzas and pasta and a glass or two of good Swiss wine replacing all the calories we had burned on the mountains.
A new day brings a new adventure. After a short Post AutoBus ride (they used to deliver the post and in some remote areas still do) with as ever scenic views with every turn in the road another postcard is framed in my memory.
We arrive at Chur to catch a very special train, The RhB UNESCO World Heritage route (one of only three railways in the world to be awarded this prestigious title) going to the most glamorous of places St. Moritz. Built 120 years ago to transport TB sufferers to the healthier air of St. Moritz it has since become a byword for luxury. Unless you own a private plane this is the way to get St. Moritz. Winter sports are 150 years old this year and it all started in St. Moritz with some plucky Brits who wanted a challenge and invented the bob sleigh by accident. The world has never looked back.
It takes us along the same route as the Glacier and Bernina Express trains. Up 2300m above sea level the journey is smooth and relaxing. All the trains are run on hydroelectric power generated in Switzerland. The vastly experienced operators monitor the tracks and the weather with a signalling system that alerts all trains of avalanches manage snow or land slides. This is a country that overcomes the adversity of weather. Able to apply sand from every train this offers a traction a bit like snow chains on a car. Like a giant toy train set the Rhatische Bahn train winds its way through the alpine countryside. In perfect symmetry with the landscape and picture perfect villages along the route it is no wonder it achieved UNESCO World Heritage status.
Kids trips are available in vintage trains – one carriage for the ‘short’ ones and one carriage for the ‘long ones’ (children and adults respectively). Three times a year these special journeys take place with entertainment on board and gifts for the children, lunch in the woods. These are extremely popular and sell out very quickly.
After a couple of hours of smooth train ride and unbelievably gorgeous views we pull into St. Moritz. The driver meets us at the station from our luxury hotel: Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains. A jewel of a place with a rich history of 150 years, we enter the large foyer to be greeted with a glass of champagne. I smile and hear those immortal words “Our pleasure sir, any time is a good time for Champagne”. I knew I was in experienced hands.
The hotel is a large building but only has 188 rooms, with large public areas and a vast Spa area with a swimming pool. There are several restaurants and the breakfasts here are legendry, more of that later.
My junior suite was large and plush with everything I would need for a couple of nights in one Europe’s most sensational locations. Our group assembled and headed off to Switzerland’s only National Park about an hours drive away. The park is expansive and has plenty to offer. We trekked up to 1600m above sea level. This height can have an effect on your breathing so it’s best to take it steady and not rush. The philosophy of the park is to alter nothing unless it is dangerous. Fallen trees lay where nature put them and rocks and boulders sit in streams and rivers where they stopped. There is an atmosphere of respect for the land and elements that is common with all visitors. It is perfect walking country, varied trails and breath taking scenery combined with fresh air and mountain streams babbling at your feet. This is worth a day’s visit at least as there is so much to see and do.
The evening brought a very swish meal at the hotel. A nine dish, tasting menu served in three courses, each plate had three dishes complementing each other. The first had lime lobster essence and crustaceans praline, poultry cappuccino and sot l’ y ‘laisse and to complete this perfect prial, gazpacho sorbet and vegetable crostini. And this was just the first course. The standard of service and food was faultless.
In the morning we were advised to skip breakfast as an Alpine brunch in Monteratsch Valley awaited. Off into the wilderness and at the foot of a mountain is an old barn converted to provide what looked like a hundred cheeses and meats, breads and fruit all ready to eat. Juice and hot drinks were on tap as was hot milk for coffees.
The real pull of the Alp Brunch is to watch them make cheese over an open fire. A enormous cauldron of milk is heated gently over a wood burning fire and stirred continually (visitors are allowed to participate in the process if they like) and after rennet and bacteria are added and more stirring is done the cheese is ready to turn out, drain and press into moulds. They make hard and soft cheeses here (it depends on how hot they heat the milk, the hotter it is the harder the cheese will be). We looked into the cellar underneath the barn and saw hundreds of wheels of cheese maturing. This was informative and good fun. The setting was perfect at the foot of the Bernina range of the Bündner Alps, after a gentle brunch you cab set off for a gentle (or not so gentle) hike.
Our last evening was to be lively and great fun. We went to a local St. Moritz restaurant called Baracca. This is usually the haunt of the elite ski set in winter but as the evening proved it was very popular in the summer as well. In contrast to the Kempinski this restaurant has long wooden tables and chairs and a brilliant soundtrack playing anything from sixties soul to classic rock. This place was buzzing. The menu is limited to a choice of two per course I had a superb ox cheek stew with polenta. The perfect food after a day on a mountain (and the shops!), needless to say after a few glasses of wine the whole restaurant started dancing around the tables well into the early hours. Those who had the stamina carried on to another St. Moritz institution, Diamond Club, which I can inform you first hand (as I went there!) positively seethes with hedonistic enjoyment for the young and young at heart. It was a late night so time to retire.
The legendary breakfast at The Kempinski was my quarry, with a slightly numb head I wandered into a ballroom of food. The usual buffet regulars were there, cereals, toast, juices etc. But what caught my eye was the cooking station where you can order eggs any way, sausages any way in fact anything any way. Shown to my seat and given the drinks I’d ordered I noticed a small but discrete menu card.
This was what people have been talking about. From it I ordered Egg “Tartufo Nero” with Hollandaise sauce and a variation of steamed dim sum with soy sauce. Now it might seem strange to have dim sum (which is served in a bamboo steamer) for breakfast but I can recommend it. The flavours wake you up and give you that little boost needed after a late night. The truffled eggs however were divine in their subtlety, rich with the Hollandaise and freshly shaved truffle this is a dish that would make me return to Kempinski again and again.
It was time to leave and say goodbye to St. Moritz. The journey on the UNESCO World Heritage line was no less spectacular on the way back to Chur and then Zurich. This is the type of holiday I had never really considered, as Switzerland is synonymous with winter sports, snow and mountains. There is much to enjoy in the warmer months as I found out. It took me out of my comfort zone and for that I am grateful. I have seen the view from the top of a mountain and I can tell you it’s worth the climb (or ride in a chair lift!).
I travelled with SWISS, which offers up to 19 daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. Fares start from £147 return, including all airport taxes, one-piece hold luggage and free ski carriage.For reservations call 0845 6010956 or visit: www.swiss.com
For more information on Switzerland visit:
www.MySwitzerland.com or call
freephone 00800 100 200 30
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