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The concept of international winter tourism, so the story goes, started with a bet. By the mid-19th century, the Swiss Alps were a popular summer destination for aristocratic visitors in search of clean air but, in 1864, Johannes Badrutt, the owner of St Moritz’s Kulm Hotel, was looking for ways to develop a winter season too. His solution was a wager with four departing British guests: come back for the winter, he told them, and they would find crisp sunny weather quite unlike the damp winters at home. If they weren’t able to sit on the hotel terrace in their shirt sleeves, he promised, he would personally pay all their travel expenses.
They duly returned shortly before Christmas and, delighted by what they found, stayed until Easter. Soon word spread among the upper classes, Badrutt set about developing St Moritz as an all-year resort and Alpine winter tourism was born.
It has long been a cherished story, though the mundane truth is that no one has ever been able to produce any documentary evidence for the bet. Even a new official history published by the resort admits it may be an early example of creative marketing (the date rather conveniently trumps nearby Davos, where the first winter guests arrived in 1865). Nevertheless, the resort is gearing up for a winter full of anniversary celebrations.
Ice rather than snow was the main attraction in the early days. St Moritz’s “champagne climate” and lakeside setting made it perfect for ice skating, prompting Badrutt to set up a skating club beside the hotel. Early Scottish visitors were said to have brought curling stones, and in 1880 the first curling tournament was held at Badrutt’s fledgling club. The ice rinks are still there now, flanked by the hotel’s Chesa al Parc restaurant and sunny terrace, where you can watch the action snuggling under blankets.
Soon, the young, rich British visitors were looking for more sport to keep them occupied during what had become a thriving winter season, and took to careering through the streets on sledges. In 1884, apparently in part so that the young men would no longer terrorise pedestrians, the skeleton track known as the Cresta Run was built. Photographs of the exploits of early participants plaster the walls of the Kulm’s cosy Sunny Bar, still the place where the Cresta Run prizes are handed out. Today, anyone can have a go (instruction, kit and five runs costs CHF600 [£400]; book at cresta-run.com) – anyone, that is, except women, who have been banned from the run since 1929.
No such gender restrictions apply to the world’s oldest bobsleigh run, built in 1903 and still made from scratch every year using natural ice. What the club calls a “bob-baptism” – descending the 1.7km track at up to 135kph (alongside a pilot and brakeman) – costs CHF250 (£160; olympia-bobrun.ch). As part of this year’s celebrations, visitors can also tackle the run in a bob from 1939.
Downhill skiing didn’t really take off until the early 20th century: even by 1928, the Winter Olympics in St Moritz featured no downhill or slalom skiing. Now there are 350km of immaculate slopes, often used for competitions and training: it didn’t surprise me last winter to see US skiing star Bode Miller flying past.
The celebrations start on December 5 with the St Moritz City Race, when skiers will whizz through the centre of town. Open-air concerts and a fashion show will follow over the weekend. Later events include a bobsleigh race using vintage sleds, a skeleton race through the streets and a special “British edition” of the annual gourmet festival. Badrutt’s bet has certainly paid off.
Photographs: M Weintraub/Engadin St. Moritz; Imagno/Getty Images