With the winter ski season fast finishing, St Moritz will soon turn into one of Switzerland' most stunning summer destinations: grand views, clean air, hiking and great food.
“Allegra!” Hikers always greet fellow-walkers, and we are trying to sound like locals by saying “Hi!” in Romansh, rather than with the usual Swiss-German “Grüezi”. Here in Graubünden, in southeastern Switzerland, everyone seems to speak French, German, Italian, English and the ancient language of the province: Romansh.
We are in Guarda, one of the prettiest villages in Europe. Set on a sun-drenched, south-facing mountainside, Guarda’s name translates as ‘look out’. And that’s what it does – it looks out across the Engadine Valley to the Dolomites. We walk past tall houses with massive roofs and dark shutters that protect locals from winter snow and summer sun. We stop to take photos of the sgrafitto, the patterned plasterwork that has decorated houses for centuries.
In southeastern Switzerland, the Engadine Valley, the valley of the River Inn, is better known as a ski destination, but for me, it is even more glorious in summer and autumn. Some villages, such as Zuoz, are on the 50-mile/80km valley floor; others, such as Guarda and Ftan, are high up, perched on the shoulders of mountainsides. All have sgraffito-covered houses, elegant churches and stone fountains. The most famous, of course, is the town of St Moritz. Although the world is dotted with glamorous destinations, a mere handful are in a different league, like movie stars or top football players. The hotels are grand, the shops glitter with jewellery and the restaurants are ready with champagne and caviar.
But I prefer the simple life, out in the surrounding villages. These are all linked by hiking trails, where signposts state the time, rather than the distance, to your destination. Sometimes I take the lifts used by skiers in winter; other times, I hop on and off the yellow post buses. Wherever I go, the views are jaw-dropping. Dotting the valley floor are four glorious lakes; pushing up towards the clear blue skies are jagged mountains, over 13,000 feet/4,000 metres high. The summer air is clean and clear, the thermometer hovers around 25°C, and sunshine is almost guaranteed: on average, 322 days a year.
One of Switzerland’s most familiar forms of transport is the funicular, the mountain railway. A few minutes from St Moritz, between Samedan and Pontresina, is a century-old favourite that rumbles up to the top of the Muottas Muragl (8,000ft/2448m). This funicular starts in dense pines before crawling across the alpine meadows. The first stop is a hotel. Beware: it is hard to drag yourself away from the vast sun terrace, with its panorama of St Moritz and the valley below. But the walk to Alp Languard (4 miles/6.5 km) is worth it. Stop along the way to photograph the views that open up of the Val Bernina and the Val Rosegg. Look for chamois; listen out for the whistle of marmots, cheeky ground squirrels.
And stop for lunch, of course. The Swiss love their food as much as their spectacular views, so break your journey at the Segantini Hütte, named for a 19th-century Italian artist. Giovanni Segantini worked on his Alpine Triptych here; see the painting in the Segantini Museum down in St Moritz. Lunch might be organic cheese, home-made barley soup and a piece of chocolate pie, straight out of the oven. Then hike on down to the chairlift that whisks you back down to Pontresina. It is all so easy… and exhilarating.
Across the valley is a back-to-nature experience: cheese-making. High above Pontresina, the Morteratsch alpine dairy has revived a tradition that died out half a century ago. In a classic mountain hut, the centuries-old process begins with heating milk gently in a huge cauldron over a log fire. The end product is a firm, grassy cheese that tastes twice as nice in summer. Stop here to refuel on local produce, such as freshly-baked bread, cheese, yoghurt, honey and fruit.
But St Moritz and the Engadine offer so much more than hiking: there is sailing on the lakes, riding, mountain biking and golf. Playing golf at altitude is a special experience. Since the ball flies through the air with the greatest of ease (travelling as much as 10 per cent further than usual), you feel like Superman on the tees. Spend time practising on the driving range, remembering that the higher the ball flies, the further it travels. A local tip is to hit five shots with each iron to work out the change in distance.
Warm up by playing the nine-hole course at Kulm Golf St Moritz or take a lesson in Sils at Richard Foreman’s golf academy, next to the Romantik Hotel Margna. Then it is time for a round at one of the highest and oldest golf courses in Europe, the flattish Engadin Golf Samedan (18 holes, par 72), open since 1893. Ready for a challenge? The attractive but hilly course at Zuoz-Madulain only opened in 2003, but it is already rated as one of Switzerland’s best (18 holes, par 72).
So, if St Moritz has always meant ‘skiing and snow’ to you, think again. This corner of Switzerland is just as special in summer and autumn.
- Aer Lingus flies from London Gatwick to Zurich.
- Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Basel.
- easyJet flies from London Gatwick to Basel and Geneva; and from London Luton to Zurich.
- British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Basel, Geneva and Zurich.
- SWISS flies from London City to Basel; from London Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham to Zurich.
- Blue Islands flies from Jersey and Guernsey to Geneva and Zurich.
- Air Berlin flies from London Stansted to Zurich.
- bmi flies from Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Manchester to Zurich; from Birmingham, Cardiff, East Midlands and Manchester to Geneva.
Where to stay