Switzerland in general, and eastern Switzerland in particular, is one of the few places on the planet where the scenery is an exact match for any technicolor postcard one might buy or receive. While skiing, chocolate, and cheese immediately come to mind, not to mention fine Swiss watches so one gets to the chocolate shops before closing, there is so much more to appreciate in eastern Switzerland.
The largest of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, Graubünden is famous as a winter wonderland. However, the other seasons are equally wonderful for those who want to engage in the many available outdoor activities, enjoy the many excellent therapeutic spa offerings, or visit one the pristine 615 lakes that grace the region.
At the foot of the Plessur Alps’ Parpaner Rothhorn mountain, many come to Lenzerheide to ski one of its 140-miles of runs. However, those in the know also come the rest of the year as there’s excellent hiking, trail running, and waterfalls. For mountain-bike afficianados, it’s a veritable Mecca with 560-miles of mountain bike trails, obstacle courses, and jumps. Part of the UCI Mountain Biking World Cup was held here this past summer and Lenzerheide is part of the greater “Mountain Bike Kingdom,” along with nearby Arosa, Chur, and Albula. It’s hard to imagine that here, amid all this natural beauty, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about Nihilism.
Lenzerheide has a range of accommodation styles, from simple to four-star. I hung my hat at the four-star Guarda Val Maiensäss Hotel, a series of refurbished farmhouses about two miles up from Lenzerheide town. There are 50 rooms, from singles and suites, to the Stailetta, a private alpine lodge with sauna and whirlpool. Traditional outdoor hot tub, hayloft massage studio, and sauna are on site. There are still cows, chicken, and goats on property, and while I was there a cow gave birth to twin calves. Foodies will enjoy the Michelin-starred restaurant where Chef Salvatore Frequente prepares artistic, delectable dishes like salmon stuffed beet ravioli and shiso black cod.
In town, Schweizerhof Hotel’s renovated Berg Spa has a large hammam circuit, including steam, regular and Finnish saunas, dipping pool, scrub room, and Rassoul room. Here one is handed a a stainless bowl containing what appears as gooey chocolate cake batter, but is mineral mud clay. When sufficiently coated, steam disseminates from pipes, followed by two sets of overhead rainshowers.
At nearby Churwalden, the sound of cowbells are pleasantly ubiquitous. If ever cattle could be deemed blissfully happy bovinae, it’s here where abundant, idyllic, hilly pastures prevail as far as one can see. While the Swiss can sometimes be a serious lot, there’s no shortage of humor. Taking the chairlift to start the speedy, nearly two-mile toboggan ride, I noticed several stuffed teddy bears also enjoying a ride near the café.
Sensational St. Moritz
Near Lenzerheide I took a 90-minute train ride to St. Moritz. Rushing waterfalls competed with miles of impossibly green forests amid spectacular snow-capped peaks followed by crossing the Albula Pass and UNESCO Langwasser Viaduct – a single-tract, six-arched curved limestone railway. In Graubünden trainrides are as marvelous as destinations.
St. Moritz has twice hosted the winter Olympics and has captured the hearts of many internationally as the luxury alpine winter playground for the uber wealthy. Make no mistake, being here off season for all manner of sports is fabulous. It’s also a fine place for retail therapy along Via Serlas and whiskey sampling at Waldhaus Am See Hotel’s Devil’s Place, allegedly the world’s largest, with over 2,500 varieties.
Staying in St. Moritz’s heart at Art Boutique Monopol Hotel was a excellent choice for location, comfort, and kind staff. Centrally located with views of St. Moritz Lake, a stone’s throw from the casino and funicular, most of Monopol’s 67-rooms have been beautifully renovated with sleek designs and furnishings. Public areas have Picasso, Dali, and Chagall canvas prints, along with several pieces from the owner’s private collection. Its Wellvista Roof Spa overlooks St. Moritz Lake and has a Finnish sauna, sanarium, plunge pool, foot tub, and very talented massage therapists providing a full menu of face and body treatments. Couples should opt for the private “Lifestyle Spa Night,” between 9pm and midnight, including champagne, fruits, and charcuterie platter.
Beyond winter, there’s still plenty of snow. Taking the funicular a few feet from Monopol up to Chantarella, then Corviglia, and cable car up to Piz Nair, within minutes I was transported above 10,000 feet when the full meaning of St. Moritz’s slogan, “Top of the World” became clear. One doesn’t need fairy tales when breathtaking, forever views like this exist. From here one can see the area’s five closest lakes: Silvaplana, Sils, St. Moritz, Staz, and Champfer. There was too much snow to hike down from the top, so I took the gondola to Corviglia’s 8,100 feet and hiked down from there.
After eating western food for a week, I was very happy to dine at Asia 75 at Cresta Palace Hotel in nearby Celerina. Chef Rolf Schmitz worked in Asia for over 20 years bringing his expertise home and providing the area with top-notch Thai and Chinese delicacies. Wintertime Cresta is a lovely ski-in, ski-out property, off-season, there’s great hiking and two 18-hole golf courses nearby in Samedan and Zuoz. From Cresta I hiked up the forest path then down to Lake Staz, then to and around Lake Moritz and back up to Monopol. One could spend days or weeks here hiking, biking, paddleboarding, sailing, and windsurfing. Besides, one must love a place that spent 80 Million Swiss Francs on a public swimming pool, spa, and gym when there’s only 5,000 year-round residents.
From St. Moritz the drive along Route 27 is sprinkled with small villages, flowered balconies, and churches dotting the way towards Route 28’s Fluela Pass where winding roads and verdant forests are set against emerald hills and mountains. As it was Saturday, dozens of exotic cars, late model Rolls-Royces, and Porsches traveled Fluela Pass. With snow-capped peaks above and rushing streams below, I descended into Davos. Known for its skiing, spas, and the annual World Economic Forum, Davos consists of two towns, Davos-Platz and Davos-Dorf on the Landwasser River, just over 5,000 feet above sea level.
Approaching what appears like a massive alien spacecraft, the 216-room AlpenGold Hotel with Lake Davos views was designed as a horizontal pine cone. Locals however call it the golden egg. Inside, every possible mod con, including intelligent elevators that somehow made me feel very unintelligent as I desperately wanted to push a button. With spacious rooms, fantastic bedding, circular sofa, deep soaking tub, and large balcony to enjoy the views, it soon became clear why then VP Joseph Biden stayed here in 2016. (Some suites can adjoin up to five bedrooms accommodating staff and security.)
Off season, the open-kitchen Sapori Restaurant has traditional Italian fare in a chic atmosphere, while Nuts & Co Bar serves small plates in a comfortable library atmosphere. AlpenGold is also home to Spa Nescens, a 13,000-square foot state-of-the-art facility with heated indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, steamrooms, 24-hour gym, and 14 treatment rooms for treatments based on Swiss anti-aging science. If I didn’t look younger when I left, I surely felt younger.
After walking the 2.5-mile Lake Davos twice, I paused at one of the cafés taking in the pleasures of watching paddle boarders, windsurfers, and wake boarders from my comfortable perch. Set against azure blue skies, this was a slice of heaven. If you need new hiking boots or other sports paraphernalia, there are several good shops along the Promenade between the Belevedere Hotel and Stauble Jewelers, where you can conveniently pick up a new Rolex.
Another great hike is through the Dischma Valley along the glacier-fed and ice-cold Dischma river through an emerald green forest of trees and pastures with roaming cows, horses and several small farms. This hike brought me to the 100-year old Restaurant Teufi, known for their charcuterie, fondues, and delicious traditional barley soup. Some take the horse carriage ride up to Teufi then walk down, but as I’m prone to doing things contrary, I hiked up, took the carriage for about 15-minutes, then walked to AlpenGold totaling 10 miles.
Near Davos-Platz the funicular took me up to Berghotel Schatzalp, originally built as a sanitarium in 1900 for tuberculosis sufferers, but now a hotel with an aptly named X-ray Bar. Here Thomas Mann wrote his classic novel, “The magic mountain,” published in 1924, and the 2015 movie “Youth” starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Rachel Weisz was partially filmed here. From here are 167-miles of hiking trails to enjoy. If you have time, drive to Davos-Klosters about 20 minutes away. This charming town has an abundance of traditional Swiss A-frame wood homes perched hillside and was a perennial favorite of Charles and Diana.
As my week in Graubünden came to a close, it became clear I’d be departing desperately desiring to return. More remarkable, this desire had little to do with chocolate!