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Affordable Luxury

Affordable Luxury

Features
By John Fry
posted: 09/14/2005

Trying to ski for less than $50 a day has long been a problem. Today, however, many Americans face a different challenge. Burdened with Oracle or Intel shares and stock-options, 8 million households have a net worth of more than a million bucks. Many may be skiers who need ideas on how to spend it.

Last winter, sensing that I could help, I volunteered to accept a first-class Swissair flight and train ride to St. Moritz, Switz., mountain home of the obscenely rich. Here, surely, I would find the solution sought by people who love skiing as much as their 300 shares of Cisco rising 25 points. Indeed, with a gain like that, you can treat yourself to a five-star ski week. Better still, the strong U.S. dollar buys 15 percent more here than it could only a year ago. A five-course meal costing $60 at St. Moritz's fashionable, gemütlich Chesa Veglia restaurant would have cost you 80 bucks a couple of winters ago. For American skiers, the good life in the Alps is steadily becoming cheaper.

Start your journey to St. Moritz by flying to Zurich in a 747 first-class cabin. Here, in addition to swilling free champagne, you can push back your oversize seat virtually to horizontal, raise the leg rests and doze comfortably on the overnight trans-Atlantic flight. The 100,000 frequent-flyer miles to buy a first-class round-trip are well spent, considering that the pampered occupant doesn't arrive dazed and craving sleep like the wretched underfinanced passengers in steerage. For another 15 bucks a bag, you can do what you can't on a U.S. ski vacation: check your luggage directly through to your hotel.

From the Zurich airport, a daily jet flies in 30 minutes to the Engadine regional airport ($300 one-way), although I prefer the scenic four-hour train ride. Awaiting you on arrival is a limousine from the hotel. St. Moritz and neighboring Pontresina are home to five hotels classified as five-star, the highest possible rating. A greater concentration of luxury lodging doesn't exist elsewhere in ski country.

My favorite is Suvretta House. Removed from the hustle and noise of the streets, it's St. Moritz's only five-star located directly at the bottom of a ski slope. In the morning, after the porter hands your skis to you, you're a few steps from the hotel's own beginner T-bar hill. Suvretta House also employs its own staff of instructors.

Après-ski takes place in a palatial one-quarter-acre lounge, whose monstrous windows look south across an alpine meadow toward the mountains. Gregory Peck, the Shah of Iran, Evita Peron and Crown Prince Akahito have been Suvretta House guests.

Suvretta House's luxury rooms cost $365 a day (per person, double occupancy) in high season. Breakfast and dinner (included) are served by waiters who've made a life's career of coddling millionaires in a majestic dining hall. Its wood columns rise 40 feet to an ornate coffer-work ceiling.

Don't feel self-conscious. Europeans have long understood the wisdom of vacationing in decorous splendor. The idea is to transport the guest from a dreary gray, work-bound life into a temporary fantasy of palace living. As an escape from everyday mundaneness, it's way ahead of Disney World.

The St. Moritz five-star experience can't be found at an American ski resort. Stein Eriksen's Lodge at Deer Valley or Little Nell in Aspen lack the lavish, spectacular public space found in these venerable Swiss castles. By comparison, the Sun Valley Lodge lobby is closer to a Holiday Inn's, and the dining room at Stein's approximates a corner of Suvretta House's lounge. Public rooms in the Kulm contain antique furniture that would sell for six figures at a Christie's auction. In the Palace, a Rubens hangs above bridge-playing guests.

Of all the places in the Alps, the 6,000-foot-high Engadine valley comes closest to matching Colorado in its number of cloudless, sunny days. Winter guests are mostly Swiss, Germans and Italians. Americans account for about one in 20 visors.

The Palace is the most famous, even notorious, of St. Moritz's five-stars. The hotel's longtime proprietor, Andreas Badrutt, who died last year, built the Palace into a luxurious warren of rooms that are baroque, occasionally rococo, some would even say bizarre in décor. By manipulating room rates and possessing an intimate familiarity with haute monde society, Badrutt attracted an exotically attractive mix of aristocratic families, artists, heads of state, actors, the wealthy and the beautiful to adorn the hotel's bars and disco. The Palace has housed Aga Khan, Charlie Chaplin, Gunther Sachs, King Gustav of Sweden and King Hussein of Jordan. Alfred Hitchcock, who spent 30 winters here without once skiing, poor fellow, conceived several of his best films in his Palace suite.

The Badrutt family recently turned over the Palace to sophisticated number-crunching American management, and there's speculation that oglers may replace the ogled, celebrity-chasers the celebrities. I do not know.

Compared with the Palace, the Kulm Hotel up the hill seems to cater to more of an old-money crowd. The view from the Kulm's south-facing rooms across the lake to the mountains is spectacular, as it is through the 30-foot-high windows of the vast indoor pool and spa.

The Kulm offers a deal as alluring as a steeply discounted Jaguar or Porsche. A three-night "Sunshine Ski Wellness" package, including free use of the spa and two massages, breakfasts and dinners, two days of lifts, tips and taxes, costs about $2,000 for two people occupying a luxurious junior suite¿less than $350 per day per person. Actually, the hotel's proprietors could easily afford to give it to you; they include the almost mythically wealthy Niarchos family, who also own the lifts on the Piz Nair and the Corvatsch.

Even greater bargains can be found at the five-star Carlton, a baronial pile of stone on the hill above the railway station. As the Brits, who frequent the place, say, it's slightly downmarket from the Kulm. The Kulm's guests wear Bogner, the Carlton's Obermeyer. A deluxe south-facing room at the Carlton, with dinner and breakfast, a six-day lift ticket and lessons, costs $250-a-day in March.

Similarly priced, a few kilometers away in Pontresina near the Engadine cross-country ski center, is the century-old neo-baroque Kronenhof, where I occupied a corner room as big as a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. If I ever refurbish my home with a dream bathroom, I'll import the marble, mirrored luxury loo from the Kronenhof, complete with deep tub, shower stall with seat, bidet, separate wc, phone and speakers. Downstairs, the Kronenhof has an old vaulted wine cellar and gorgeous ceilings, painted a hundred years ago with rich-hued, floral-bordered scenes of cherubs and elegant damsels swathed in white.

Amid such luxury, the Engadine ski pass looks absurdly cheap. With a six-day ticket costing about $27 a day, you can ride 59 lifts accessing more than 200 miles of prepared pistes at a half-dozen ski areas around St. Moritz. It's helpful to have a guide, at least for two or three days at the beginning of your stay ($180 a day for a guide/instructor.) Your guide can take you to Lagalp and, next to it, the spectacular Diavalezzo, source of the Inn River that flows through Austria and eventually into the Danube.

Immediately above town are the Corviglia slopes, which will be the venue of the 2003 World Alpine Ski Championships. Or you can take a five-mile run down the monstrous Corvatsch, with 4,600 feet of vertical, 200 feet more than the greatest vertical of any U.S. area.

Your lifts, by the way, won't cost you a nickel if you happen to be a Vail season passholder. St. Moritz and Vail are sister cities. But why use the lifts at all? There is helicopter skiing with your own guide ($900 a day). If you still haven't spent all your dot.com gains, take a taxi ride on a paraglider ($135) or ask the hotel's concierge to book you a breathtaking sled ride ($120, you're the pilot) down the historic, ice-walled Cresta track.

It's all there. And you can even bring your dog. All of St. Moritz's five-stars permit pets to stay in rooms with their owners. Try that at Vail's exclusive Sonnenalp for $500 a day!

Information Switzerland Tourism, 800-794-7795; www.myswitzerland.com. Or visit www.stmoritz.ch.
To contact hotels directly
Suvretta House 011-41-81-836-3636; www.suvrettahouse.ch.
The Palace 011-41-81-837-1100; www.badruttspalace.com.
Kulm 011-41-81-836-8000; www.kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch
Carlton 011-41-81-836-7000; www.carlton-stmoritz.ch.
Grand Hotel Kronenhof, Pontresina 011-41-81-842-0111; www.kronenhof.com.aking sled ride ($120, you're the pilot) down the historic, ice-walled Cresta track.

It's all there. And you can even bring your dog. All of St. Moritz's five-stars permit pets to stay in rooms with their owners. Try that at Vail's exclusive Sonnenalp for $500 a day!

Information Switzerland Tourism, 800-794-7795; www.myswitzerland.com. Or visit www.stmoritz.ch.
To contact hotels directly
Suvretta House 011-41-81-836-3636; www.suvrettahouse.ch.
The Palace 011-41-81-837-1100; www.badruttspalace.com.
Kulm 011-41-81-836-8000; www.kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch
Carlton 011-41-81-836-7000; www.carlton-stmoritz.ch.
Grand Hotel Kronenhof, Pontresina 011-41-81-842-0111; www.kronenhof.com.

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