The storied Swiss resort of St Moritz, recognised across the globe as the mothership of Alpine luxury, has welcomed a shiny new five-star hotel, the Grace La Margna, ahead of the winter season, swelling its number to six stellar pads.
Following a €94 million (£81 million) renovation, the hotel has been transformed from a four-star family-owned property into the first five-star hotel to open in the resort since 1913. And it’s causing quite a stir.
St Moritz has welcomed visitors to its healing spring waters since the Bronze Age and makes the valid claim of being the cradle of winter tourism, thanks to a wager made by Johannes Badrutt, a local hotelier, in 1864. Following Badrutt’s game-changing proposal to four English guests that they try St Moritz in winter as well as summer, the upper crust started a now time-honoured migration to this lakeside town in Switzerland’s mountainous Engadin valley.
Those playful visitors set the St Moritz tone with lavish fancy dress parties, snow polo games and cricket tournaments on ice, and a worrying habit of fashioning homemade sleds to fly down the icy village streets.
Thanks to their patronage, the remote town became home to a handful of grand five-star hotels by 1913, attracting famous devotees from Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn to Robert de Niro and Sir Norman Foster, via Brigitte Bardot and Gunther Sachs, her third husband. As Sachs’s son, artist and designer Rolf, puts it: “St Moritz has always drawn eccentrics with a certain soul: sporty, humorous, elegant. It is a place you can escape real life, and be a bit childish.”
This rich heritage is all being channelled into Grace La Margna by David Frei, the hotel’s 37-year-old Swiss general manager. Sporting chinos, a casual blue jacket and white leather sneakers, Frei embodies the next phase in St Moritz’s evolution. Forget jackets for dinner and hushed bars illuminated by sequined evening gowns, Frei’s vision is for fresh, approachable service, with St Moritz playfulness.
Controversially, Grace La Margna is the first five-star hotel in St Moritz to remain open 365 days a year since the postwar era. It’s a gamble that appears to be paying dividends. When I checked into the hotel in early September, the phones were ringing off the hook with last-minute bookings from guests seeking to capitalise on the late-summer sunshine only to discover the neighbouring Kulm, Kempinski and Carlton were closed for the season.
Rather than rushing headlong into a first operational winter with rookie staff and an infinite snagging list, Grace La Margna has been a decade in the making. Frei has been omnipresent at the property throughout its two-year reconstruction and has surrounded himself with a team of young, international staff whose dynamism and sense of humour he prizes over experience.
Frei’s considered approach is appropriate for a hotel that has been a St Moritz landmark since it was designed in 1906 by renowned architect Nicolaus Hartmann for the town’s then-mayor. Hartmann is a favourite in St Moritz having designed many of its iconic buildings, including the railway station, Engadiner Museum and circular Segantini Museum, with his trademark use of traditional Graubünden styles.
La Margna, which is sandwiched between the railway station and the Carlton Hotel on the curling Via Serlas, was sold to the Greek-owned Grace Hotel group in 2013, but plans floundered, leaving a shrouded building site with an uncertain future for nearly a decade.
To local relief, the renovation of Hartmann’s building and the creation of an adjoining wing have now restored La Margna from landfill to landmark. With stone and tan-painted exterior walls punctured by arched windows on the ground floor and small windows framed by russet wooden shutters above, Hartmann’s hotel boasts his original flourishes including projected bay windows and ornate wrought-iron and gold window guards.
His vision has been preserved inside, too, with spectacular groin vault ceilings hung with their original wrought-iron chandeliers, and lake-view rooms framed by engraved stone columns and decorative wood panelling.
Where most hotel bars in town are dimly lit affairs, Grace La Margna’s N/5 The Bar is flooded with light by large arched windows, with soft grey walls contrasting with crisp white cornicing and Hartmann’s leaf-motif-painted columns.
It’s stylish, fresh and informal and the attention to detail is remarkable. Every item has been carefully considered, and generally locally sourced, from the subtly logoed Sknife steak knives in the restaurant to the herbal toiletries created exclusively for the hotel by Feuerstein, the local cosmetics brand.
When Grace La Margna does step away from local products, it often buys British, such as its house sparkling wine from Kent’s Gusbourne Estate. The property also worked with Divercity Architects in London to create the hotel’s sleek new Grace Wing. Hewn from sand-coloured stone, the cubist development blends effortlessly with Hartmann’s original house, creating a sense of intimacy that’s surprising given how much it contains – three distinct restaurants, a full-service spa and ski shop for starters.
Guests can now choose between the contemporary design of the Grace Wing’s 27 rooms, with their floor-to-ceiling windows and minimalist interiors, or the more mid-century feel of the 47 rooms in the La Margna Wing.
Over dinner of Mediterranean spiced gambas, fragrant spaghetti vongole and succulent pork fillet in The View restaurant, my fellow diners included a pair of Swedish supermodel types, an English/Asian couple – the former was celebrating his Big Birthday – and a table of local friends originally hailing from Russia and Brazil.
It was all very restrained until the birthday boy was tempted to the bar for one of master mixologist Mirco Giumelli’s infamous cocktails. The town’s most-talked-about address is kick-starting the winter season in the Swiss Alps in five-star style.
Need to know
Double rooms at Grace La Margna cost from CHF950 (£858) per night during the winter season, including breakfast. Fly to Zürich airport and transfer directly to St Moritz railway station in 3hrs 20 mins.
Gabriella was a guest of Grace La Margna and Switzerland Tourism.