It’s all Champagne and furs as St Moritz puts on the glitz for the snow-polo crowd.
By EMMA VENTURA
“Hot news just in: the 999th bottle of Champagne has just been drunk!” As this vital piece of information crackles out from the Tannoy across the glittering frozen expanse of Lake St Moritz, over the border, in France, Europe’s first Covid cases are being reported. It is late January 2020 – the heady final days before the pandemic takes hold – and under Tiffany-blue skies, the Snow Polo World Cup St Moritz is in full swing.
Misty clouds of breath, unhindered by surgical masks, condense in the crystal air. Social distancing isn’t even a twinkle in the eye of the 18,000 spectators who gather to clink Champagne flutes during the three-day event. Kids dip in and out of the chocolate fountain in the VIP tent where 7kg of Swiss Oona is served, along with 2800 pieces of sushi. There is a lot of fur – and not just on the ponies galloping across the snow outside. Among the crowd, some 200 media professionals mix it up with the best of them, including a photographer in a tan pelt cape, snapping pictures of a silver fox arm-in-arm with a big-haired woman clad in black velvet so glossy it is tempting to reach out and give it a stroke.
Up on the stands, music plays in between each chukka, interspersed with informative match commentary by German polo expert Jan-Erik Franck, famous for his knack for punctuating the action with fun, kitschy asides: “Oh, there’s a whistle, there’s a whistle! Hold your horses!”
- People-watching aside, the Snow Polo World Cup St Moritz is a serious competition, as you’d expect from the ritzy Swiss town that lays claim to being the birthplace of winter tourism in the Alps. Established in 1985, the event is the only high-goal polo tournament played on snow and pulls teams from around the world (the final in 2020 was ultimately battled out between the locals and Team Azerbaijan Land of Fire). Down below, beyond the immaculate white tents and roped-off VIP enclosures, mallets are raised as the teams of four swing their ponies around by their heads, snow kicking up under hoof, in fierce pursuit of the red ball bopping up and down the field. The action is fast and absorbing, made easier to follow with Franck’s gossipy narrative. More than that, it just feels good to be out here, inhaling the pristine air in the cleanest environment imaginable and tucked against the long white parka of a friendly fellow female spectator who’s flown in from Bermuda just for the occasion.
- “Obviously there’s a high society scene,” she says, a little breathlessly, after busting out a quick YMCA between chukkas, “but if you’re not part of it you can still have a good time.”Having a good time has, of course, been St Moritz’s raison d’etre ever since the Romans discovered the healing properties of its mineral waters in 1466BC. The area remained a popular summer destination for more than a millennium until the 1860s, when British aristocrats started staying in what have become the area’s grande dame hotels. Drawn by the new craze for snow sports and climbing, and more than 320 sunny days a year, they formed the basis of a new tourist market and reliable patrons for the town’s increasingly luxurious hotels.For the sporting minded, there’s likely no better place to stay than Suvretta House, perched a stone’s throw up the valley in the Upper Engadine. The hotel’s green vintage courtesy bus, like something out of a BBC children’s show, conveys guests along the 2km of private road that leads out of town to the hotel. And that’s pretty much where you leave the quaint behind and the superlatives begin.Iconic hotel Suvretta House, St Moritz, Switzerland. Picture: Rolf Canal/St. MoritzIt took 400 workmen working from dawn to dusk to complete the hotel, built by Anton Sebastian Bon from 1911-12 in a belle epoque style designed by architect Karl Koller. Wes Anderson springs to mind as you survey its turrets and chateau-like facade. Bon wanted to create a refined refuge from all the partying going on down in the valley, and today it fits that purpose, its 181 rooms stolidly furnished rather than glamorously so, but its food, alpine amenities and levels of service second to none.
- Grand it may be, but Suvretta House has a warm heart. Managers Esther and Peter Egli have created a welcoming family-oriented vibe, overseeing about 280 employees, who wear stars on their uniforms to show how long they’ve worked there (one star equals 10 completed seasons).The communal spaces are characterised by high ceilings, open fireplaces, carved woodwork and long, broad hallways filled with vintage furniture. In the lounge, the tinklings from a grand piano accompany a high tea intended to rival those of the poshest London hotels and which commences daily at 5pm, reliable as the enormous sunburst clock that sits above the nearby elevators.
- There’s an extensive spa, sauna and indoor pool area, and a series of impressive meeting rooms and events spaces, including a ballroom where Vaslav Nijinsky performed for the last time. In the 1950s, Gregory Peck, the Shah of Iran and King Umberto of Italy all drank in what was then the Carousel Bar, so the hotel has a rich history of serving up excellent cocktails. In today’s Anton’s Bar, round out the day by sipping one of the gins made especially for the hotel using botanicals from the surrounding mountain pastures.Suvretta is a Romansh word that means “above the small forest”, reflecting the hotel’s position high up the valley. Among its joys are the offerings for winter sports’ enthusiasts: a curling and ice rink; a state-of-the-art ski room with a full rental facility and brilliant instructors; and its very own piste right out the back door, from which you can gain direct access to 350km of trails in the Corviglia-Piz Nair resort.
- Doing anything energetic at 1800m elevation requires serious fuel, which at Suvretta is overseen by executive chef Fabrizio Zanetti, who takes guests foraging for herbs in the summer. There are two on-mountain dining options: Chasellas, a stone-built restaurant at 1936m with a broad, sunny terrace, offering hearty pastas, soups and rosti for lunch, moving on to more refined fare in the evening; and Trutz, set at 2211m with views over the upper Engadine and easily accessed from the Suvretta chair lift.
- Back at the hotel, the Grand Restaurant is the most starchy of the dining venues, where a formal dress code is enforced and penguin-suited waiters toddle between tables. Countering that is Suvretta Stube, conjuring the feeling of an elaborate mountain cabin and serving up regional specialties, with a charismatic elderly waiter who scratches out orders on a fraying notepad.It’s a far cry from the semi-final day down at the polo, where the friendly Bermudian is talking about an influencer she’s seen being shot in town that morning with a retinue of stylists and not one but two photographers in tow. Wrapping her white puffy more tightly around her, she muses the juxtaposition of all this ostentation alongside the insane natural beauty of both the surrounding Engadine Valley and her beachy homeland.“You think about sustainability and the green movement, and then you come to a place like this and see all the luxury and you think, ‘This world isn’t going anywhere.’”
- In the know
- Winter rates at Suvretta House from CHF630 ($958) a night in a double room with breakfast and dinner.
- The next Snow Polo World Cup St Moritz starts on Friday, January 28. General admission is free and includes access to the stands. Tickets for reserved grandstand seating, including canapes, a blanket and one glass of Champagne, from CHF70.
- Emma Ventura was a guest of Suvretta House.