St. Moritz: rates go down when flowers come up

Many travelers have the impression that St. Moritz, in the Engadine Valley, is a very posh, very expensive resort whose season runs from Christmas through the first week in March. This is quite true. However, it is also true that during its off-season St. Moritz offers a holiday suited to every budget.

From May to September, when this resort town of 6,000 people has hillsides of wild flowers, clean air, an inviting lake, and long days of sunshine followed by cool nights, prices drop by 10 percent. Then a couple can stay at a small family-run pension in St. Moritz for no more than they would spend at a seaside or mountain inn in New England.

The price of a hotel room varies greatly. A single room at the Palace Hotel, the leader, from mid-April through August, bears a minimum tag of 100 francs. (Current rate of exchange is 1.65 francs for $1 us). Lowest price is 30 francs a night at Hotel Sonne. Between is Hotel Steffani at 60 francs. Prices include either full bath or shower, breakfast, and service charge.

What does one do here in these sunny months?

Sports are aplenty. There are 25 outdoor tennis courts, four indoor ones, two squash courts; an 18-hole golf course, the oldest high altitude course on the Continent; 25 mountain lakes -- four are ideal for surfing, sailing, and water skiing; two summer skiing areas (Corvstsch and Diavolezzo). The fees for doing any of these sports are perhaps a bit under that charged in similar American resort areas.

On each of the panoramic hiking routes is a punch with which the hiker cuts off the corresponding part of his free holiday pass. Every holidaymaker gets such a free pass at the St. Moritz official Tourist Office.

St. Moritz is so tightly knit that you can either walk everywhere or board a local bus. Forget using a taxi, for the fares are exhorbitant. Below the Palace Hotel is the postal and telegraph office, starting place for the long-haul postal buses. The railway station is a 12-minute uphill walk to the center of town.

Andrea Badrutt and his brother, H. J. Badrutt, own and operate the Palace Hotel. Their grandfather Johannes Badrutt boosted tourism here where he built this hotel in 1896, the first "Palace" hotel in the world.

"Once again we are getting American families who come from the winter and summer seasons -- from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, et cetera. Not all stay at the Palace; some go to less expensive places. This is a good sign," Andrea Badrutt told me.

"Frankly, we would be most happy to see the dollar rise against our franc, and I have a feeling that, gradually, this will increase," he added. "Remember, we, including the Palace, are no more expensive than America's luxury hotels, both in your top resorts and in New York and Los Angeles, and price here are lower than the top hotels in the West Indies."

After years of living in and visiting Switzerland for extended periods, there were times when I scrimped and saved to spend one or two nights at the Palace, the lounges of which look like livable museums.

The Palace Guard (its staff) have unshakable aplomb.

A few weeks ago I was standing at the desk chatting with one of its two famous hall porters, Jakob Rest, and in came a young English lord who told Jakob , "Three years ago I left my deerstalker (hat). Rather fond of it. Would you please. . . ?"

Jakob checked a register. Two minutes later the deerstalker hat was handed to the young Englishman and he plunked it onto his head, thanked Jakob, and left.

The next evening, during the late dinner hour, another young man walked into the Palace's main dining room. He was dressed in faded levis and a shirt. "Can I eat like this?" he asked Hugo the headwaiter who has met more world figures than Jimmy Carter. Hugo said politely, "Yes, sir you canm , but you maym not. May I suggest a tie and jacket."

Not snobbery, this merely a refusal to lower its standards. For that matter, 20 years back there was a sign by the Palace's hall porter's desk -- "Evening clothes only." That no longer holds there, although occasionally you see some of the old guests so dressed.

The Kulm, Suvretta House, and Carlton Hotels also maintain high standards. The smaller hotels and pensions are far more casual.

What about the price and quality and service of food? I do not think there would be much difficulty in spending $150 a couple for an a la carte meal at the Palace. but a couple can also go to a small restaurant and get a fine dinner for two at $20 to $25, or a good, simple one at $12, including tip.

Remember, breakfast is included in your hotel price. At lunch, buy the makings of a picnic at one of the St. Moritz supermarkets. Take a hike, find a lovely setting, loll in the grass, and eat.

Or for a midmorning snack or lunch try Hanselmann, in the center of town, founded in 1894, and now owned by the Mutschler family. The place is sunny, spotlessly clean, gracious, and inexpensive. As you enter, jog right to a display counter holding sandwiches and pastry. Pick what you want, pay for it, and carry your plate to an empty table and order a beverage. Your bill should run around $4.50.

Above Hansemans, to the right of the Official Tourist Office, is Chesa Veglia with its clutch of small dining rooms. Not too expensive, its two-course plat du jour is $8.

At Chesa Veglia is a room lifted from a very old house near the Maloja Pass. During Napoleon's peak period, it was headquarters for Marshal Ney, French cavalryman, and Napoleon stayed there after his stunning victory over the Austrians at Marengo on the plains of Italy. According to the legend, it was in this room that chicken a la Marengo was invented on the spur of the moment by Napoleon's personal chef.

La Pizzeria, one of the rooms in Chesa, offers as fine pizzas as I have ever eaten. The pizzamaker is from Emilia, the waiters are Italian. A pizza will cost 6 francs.

Less expensive is Hotel Sonne at St. Moritz Bad. Pizzas, for example, work out to 5 francs, other Italian dishes mean a tab of around $7. The night I was there someone produced a mandolin, and all the Italians present sang.

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