St. Moritz may be the home of extravagant après ski parties, but if you venture further afield to the lesser-known mountain village of Pontresina, you’ll find something slightly different; kite skiing
I can see nothing but white, crystal-flecked snow, majestic mountains and an endless expanse of nothingness. Skis are strapped to my feet, a harness is around my waist, and an eight-foot-long kite is stretched out in front of me. I’m standing atop a frozen lake waiting; just waiting and waiting, until, without a moment’s notice, the wind makes its first appearance, rushing in to transform the scene. My kite opens itself up like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon and I’m lifted violently from the ground. It’s a startling introduction to the world of kite skiing.
Kite skiing – or snow kiting as it is also known – is like nothing I have ever tried before. Given that I haven’t even mastered standing up on ice skates, let alone snowboarding or skiing (me on skis conjures images of Bambi on ice, as my legs move in opposite directions and my body will not cooperate with my brain), I’m not entirely sure the activity is going to agree with me. When done well, it can look like parasailing on ice. Using the power of the wind, and just quick and gentle movements of the 25-metre line anchoring you to the kite, you can soar across flat snow and ice with up to 40mph winds. My instructor flies through the air, turning direction as easily as turning his head, gliding with ease and finesse.
It’s an easy technique to learn but much harder to truly master. There’s a strong element of risk so the safety talk is extensive, but, really, it’s hard to feel bored when you’re standing in the Swiss mountains on a crisp winter’s day, basking in the midday sun. There can be a lot of waiting around, hoping for wind to appear, but when it arrives, it’s worth it for the sheer exhilaration of trying to control the weight and power of the kite, and the terror of desperately trying to stay grounded.
Whenever I get in a muddle with the kite strings, or find myself gliding too far afield, the instructors appear out of nowhere and rescue me on their own skis. After two lessons, I’m starting to get the hang of it and I find myself enjoying it far more than skiing – much to my suprise.
"It’s an easy technique to learn but much harder to truly master"
When your ‘holiday’ is as active as this, you will want to seek out the very best hotel to recover, relax and unwind. The best of the best, I discover, is the Grand Hotel Kronenhof. It’s situated in Pontresina, close to glitzy St. Moritz but with an altogether calmer, more refined atmosphere. This village is focused on a slower pace of life, rather than the shopping and Champagne lifestyle of its nearby neighbour, though if you wanted to speed things up, you’re still just minutes away from soaking up the glamour in the heart of St. Moritz.
Since 1848, the hotel has stood formidably looking down over the village, commanding full attention – its Neo-Baroque architecture casts an impressive shadow over its surroundings. A modest entrance opens up into the grandest of lobbies, set against a backdrop of the Val Roseg pine forest. There are royal touches in the crown-shaped chandeliers, warm cream tones and deep red furnishings – if there were ever a palace that could be described as homely and welcoming, it would look like this.
First stop: the spa. It’s just as impressive as the rest of the hotel, if not more so, albeit more modern: a generously sized pool overlooking the stunning landscape is a sci-fi wonder to be marvelled at. Housed in a glass dome that gives panoramic views of snow-blanketed mountains, it features unusual curved rust-coloured pillars, and offsets the traditional hotel.
And that’s just the beginning. Where you would expect to find the standard sauna and steam room combination, there are numerous pockets of relaxation: a saltwater grotto, Finnish sauna, floating grotto, stone steam bath and relaxation room don’t even cover the full list of what’s on offer, not to mention the gym, beauty department and private spa.
Pampered beyond reason, I struggle to pull myself away from the mountain views, but I needn’t worry, because it’s hard to escape them in this hotel – the Kronenhof has utilised its surroundings superbly. I pull on my fluffy white robe and slippers and wander back to my room, which is simply furnished but with everything I need, leaving the focus on what’s outside. Each time I walk past the windows or balcony doors, I get a glimpse of the impressive Bernina Range glaciers lining the edge of Pontresina, as well as being treated to a view of the Alps high above St. Moritz. It’s the middle of February, the temperatures are sub-zero and I can practically feel the frostbite taking hold, but nothing is going to stop me from sitting on my balcony and taking in this postcard-worthy view.
A quick change into formal attire and it’s time for dinner in the Grand Restaurant, a lavish room decorated with opulent golden drapes and lit through impressive floor-to-ceiling windows. The staff can’t be faulted, the food is exquisite and the setting is remarkable. If you want to mix up your dining arrangements each night, that’s catered for with the hotel’s other restaurants and bars, including the Kronenstübli, a historic, traditional Swiss restaurant. There you can sample the signature dish of pressed duck, an early 19th-century French dish prepared at your table with an unusual contraption designed to press all the juice out of the meat – a spectacle worth seeing. Or if you want to venture outside of this opulent castle, you’re welcome to pay a visit to the Kronenhof’s sister, the Kulm Hotel in centre of St. Moritz.
"The temperatures are sub-zero and I can practically feel the frostbite taking hold, but nothing is going to stop me from sitting on my balcony and taking in this postcard-worthy view"
But for a taste of the true Swiss experience, try a pit stop at the unassuming Berninahaus after a strenuous day kite skiing. A charming, traditional wooden hillside house, Berninahaus is celebrating its 500-year anniversary and serves a firm Swiss favourite: cheese fondue, made in equal parts from local mountain cheese, and white wine. It’s everything any cheese-lover has ever wanted, and a welcome respite from the cold outside. Despite the gooey feast, the owners manage to steal the show, thanks to their charming, if a little alarming, Swiss getup: think pigtails, ribbons, checked dresses and the Sound of Music. All we’re missing is some background yodelling.
Cheese, adventure and stunning scenery: this is your dream ski holiday, reimagined.