Travel review: Escaping the heat with an Alpine adventure
The Swiss mountains are a blissful alternative to a beach holiday when the heat is on, says Josie Clarke.
It’s the middle of a blazing summer heatwave and even those still claiming that they “love this kind of weather” are starting to doubt themselves. For the first time since I moved to England, the thought of a beach holiday sweltering under more scorching sun holds no appeal. I have long wanted to visit Europe’s mountains in summer, not least because I spent much of my childhood reading and re-reading Heidi. The Swiss Alps are beckoning and it is time.
Less than a couple of hours after arriving at Zurich airport, I am on a little red train winding its way through the mountains en route to St Moritz in the Upper Engadine valley. The snow melt is rushing along the rivers in the valley below, and the ski fields are now hiking and biking trails, traversing pine forests and wildflower pastures – all with a soundtrack of gently tinkling cow bells.
The sun in St Moritz is gentle, temperatures are in the low 20s, and even a brief rain shower feels refreshing and restorative after weeks of dusty, dry heat back home. I have a weekend of alpine rejuvenation ahead, from my base at Suvretta House, an exclusive retreat with a minimum two-week stay policy for its well-heeled guests over the peak winter Christmas/New Year period.
During that time, the glamorous “grande dame” of the mountains is a fairytale destination with a private ski lift outside its front doors, providing access to the vast Corviglia area and grounds featuring outdoor ice skating and four ice curling rinks.
Come summer, it offers 580km of hiking trails on its doorstep, while the chairlifts and mountain railway remain open for adventurers wanting to hike the peaks, or simply make it to one of the resort’s high-altitude restaurants for an Aperol spritz and plate of pasta.
I start my break by setting off on one of the hotel’s mountain bikes, along a trail that leads from the Suvretta along pine and wildflower-edged tracks, to a lookout with spectacular views over deep blue lakes and forest-clad peaks still tipped with snow.
With a guide from the Suvretta Sports Bike School, we drop down to the lakes and follow a trail along their edge before cycling to the town’s aerial tramway, whose first stop is practically at the door of the mountain restaurant Chasellas.
The morning’s activity means I swerve the salads and relax with a meal more suited to a freezing day on the slopes – a huge plate of local Engadine sausage and fries and two glasses of red wine.
My decision to head next to the hotel’s spa has nothing whatsoever to do with my enormous lunch (although I will admit to catching the chairlift back down to the hotel rather than walk) and everything to do with wanting to experience the “signature treatment”. It promises to “induce a deep-rooted connection with the magical environment unique to the Suvretta’s mountain location” with the use of essential oil from the local pine trees.
An hour and a half later, I am more relaxed than I thought possible and I smell like a Christmas tree. That night I have the best sleep I have had in years.
The hotel’s vintage Ford truck – complete with liveried drivers – is on hand to drive guests to an idyllic spot with magnificent views of the mountains for a barbecue lunch. I opt instead to spend the next day hiking up hills for an hour and a half, accompanied by the sounds of the stream below and cow bells.
The track winds its way towards another, higher, mountain restaurant called Trutz, where today’s activities demand veal pasta, an Aperol spritz and a glass of red wine, all accompanied by even more staggering views than the day before.
It seems impossible that these mountains could not have provided the inspiration for Heidi’s adventures, and sure enough, I learn that the hut used as her grandfather’s cabin in the 1952 film of the story sits just above St Moritz.
The next morning, I set off on one of the hotel’s electric bikes for the 15-minute ride up to the hut. It has a bench in front for resting and gazing at the scenery, which stretches from wildflowers at my feet to majestic mountains.
Other visitors might choose to play golf, go goat trekking, take a glider flight or sail on the lakes, but visiting a scene from one of my favourite childhood stories – set high in the alpine meadows – is everything I had hoped it would be as a seven-year-old, and a charming way to end my break. Now I just need to make it back in winter for more red wine and pasta.
Doubles at Suvretta House (suvrettahouse.ch/en) start from CHF 410 (£314) half board in the summer.
SWISS (swiss.com; 0345 601 0956) flies to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh from £55 one-way, including hand luggage.
The Swiss Travel Pass (swisstravelsystem.co.uk) offers unlimited travel on rail, bus and boat. From £171 for three days.
For more information on Switzerland, visit MySwitzerland.com.