The sun shines for 322 days of the year in St Moritz – it’s Switzerland’s sunniest corner – and seemingly at odds with that fact is the huge lake, that one of the world’s swankiest ski hot-spots rests on, freezes over every single winter.
A multitude of events take place on this mass of ice every year, including a cricket tournament, polo matches, ice golf and the most thrilling of all: the horse-racing carnival, which will happen this year on the first three Sundays in February.
Known simply as ‘White Turf’, the races are set against the beautiful alpine backdrop of the Upper Engadine Valley and they take place on the flattest, fastest strip of racing ground any thoroughbred has ever seen. High society makes a concerted effort each year to flood into the makeshift hippodrome to witness the three different disciplines that make up this thrilling and dangerous spectacle.
Six races take place every day, and the cornerstone of the three-day fixture is undoubtedly the Grand Prix of St Moritz – the European championship on snow – and it rates as the race with the highest prize money in the country (almost £50,000). It’s staged as a contest over 2000m around the ice course on the final Sunday, and for those who like a flutter, betting is rife with almost £150,000 gambled by the 30,000 crowd last year.
Yet it’s the world-exclusive Skijoring races that attract the most amount of attention.
For a resort which harbours the renowned Cresta Run (the kilometre-long, gully-shaped sheet-ice slide that riders pay £200 to speed down on a metal skeleton) you would have thought the locals might have quit while they were ahead.
Skijoring, however, puts that white-knuckle past-time firmly in the shade. Strapped behind a galloping racehorse, the 12 jockeys ski behind reaching speeds of up to 50km/h. The slightest imbalance sees them potentially thrown forward into the hooves, or backwards, to be dragged along in ignominy until their four-legged friend decides to stop. It is a treacherous undertaking and one of the pluckiest, daring endeavours you can ever witness.
The carnival also stages some extra-curricular activities, which include a gourmet food fair and several art exhibitions – last year Nick Heidfeld raced a Formula One car around the circuit.
It must be remembered, however, that St Moritz is also one of the world’s premier ski resorts. Broken up into several ski domains such as Corviglia-Marguns, Corvatsch-Furtschellas and Diavolezza, there are 408km of intermediate-friendly pistes throughout the area. Shopping and drinking also feature highly on a visitor’s to-do list.
The town is split into two distinct areas and St Moritz Dorf is where all the glamour resides. The likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton have set up shop there and it’s almost impossible not to get carried away with the glitz.
Our old friend Badrutt needs to be mentioned once more because his descendents still run the landmark hotel in St Moritz. Badrutt’s Palace Hotel is an imposing structure in front of the lake, which not only has several high-fashion houses in residence as well as an outpost of restaurant Nobu, but it also boasts the Renaissance Bar, quite possibly the cosiest, chicest bar in town.
Punters not confident of entering such a high-end establishment need not fear, as the staff are friendly and care little if you spend the afternoon supping beer at £4 a go. Hell, they’ll even throw in some free snacks if you ask nicely, but don’t venture into the casino as you will need a jacket and tie.
The hotel is also responsible for the lake continuing to freeze over every year.
Badrutt’s brought in a new heat pump facility in 2006, which will reduce the hotel’s CO2 emissions by 75 per cent. It operates by sucking the heat out of the lake to warm the hotel rooms, while simultaneously ensuring the water freezes and the ice remains around 80cm thick.
For those who want something a little cheaper, St Moritz Bad is a 15-minute walk from Dorf and contains the more reasonable accommodation and restaurants. The architecture is as the name implies though, with council-style buildings dominating, but no one can argue with a dorm room in the local youth hostel (www.youthhostel.ch/st.moritz), complete with a ski and wax room, for £23.50 per night. Johannes Badrutt would consider that a very good deal indeed.