Travel and Lifestyle
Aug 29th, 2017
All aboard Golf's Glacier Express!!
GP goes capering in Switzerland
Words: Tim Southwell Photography: GolfPunk Styling: GolfPunk
All Aboard Golf’s Glacier Express!!
I’ve just hit a tee shot with my driver and I’ve really connected. I mean, really connected. Which is unusual for me. Especially using someone else’s golf clubs on a course which is totally new to me. What’s even more unusual is that, two, three, four seconds later… the ball is still in the air, just hanging there like a scene from Happy Gilmore.
To the unwitting onlooker it would appear that I have acquired super human powers. But to the locals this is run of the mill stuff, a daily occurrence. That’s just what happens when you’re 1,437 metres feet above sea level in the middle of the Swiss Alps and you hit a good one.
A two minute video journey through Switzerland's Alpine golf wonderland
Nonetheless, it’s enough to inspire any mid-handicap GolfPunk and I proceed to have the round of my life, hitting drives 30 yards longer than normal and having to club down, yes down, on anything from the middle of the fairway.
It probably hasn’t done me any harm to have had my Nike Pro Combo irons from 2005 replaced by the whole kitten caboodle of the TaylorMade M2 range. They look and feel absolutely brilliant.
Welcome to Andermatt Golf Club nestled in the Urseren valley, where your golf cart is an unrestricted Audi sports car and hire clubs come with the distinct smell of wrapping having very recently been removed.
Add to this the fact that the hotel we’re staying in has just gone straight into my top five of all time and you could be forgiven for emitting a mighty roar of joy as you stomp off down fairway one and begin your Swiss golf adventure.
Add to this the fact that, in two days’ time, you are going to board the Glacier Express (a train that winds its way up and down through the Swiss Alps en-route to even more golf capering in the world-famous St Moritz resort) and you’d be quite at liberty to grab the nearest stranger and give them a great big kiss.
GolfPunk is out here on a golf caper/spa hose down, the like of which doesn’t land in your in-box too often. Would I have thought to go golfing in Switzerland ordinarily? Well, yes, as it happens. A couple of years ago we went on a similar jaunt to Austria and again it was all cow bells on the mountain side and golf courses in pristine condition after the spring thaw.
If you’ve ever felt you were chained to your desk, your tea's gone cold and everything seems hopeless, treat yourself to some alpine golf, it never fails to help the gravy.
Andermatt itself offers up an interesting story. Right now it looks every bit the destination of the well-heeled golf/ski enthusiast but, on a walk-round-tour we find out that, up until 1818 it was virtually inaccessible. Andermatt was so prone to heavy snowfall, avalanches and rock falls that Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Disentis, located 18 miles east across the Oberalp Pass, dismissed it in the 13th century as “the Valley of the Devil”.
And with good cause. In the ‘Flight Of The Earls’ in 1608, Irish Earls lost a fortune when all their gold fell into the ravine as they attempted to cross the treacherous ‘Devil’s Bridge’ on St Patrick’s Day. The loot has never been recovered and is known as ‘The Lost Treasure Of The St Gotthard Pass’.
Indeed, until the St Gotthard Pass was made road-worthy for stagecoaches in 1818, it was a part of the Alps best avoided. But with a new transport link, Andermatt became a haven for the rich and ill across Europe as they sought out the town for its apparent restorative qualities. A spa town was born and even the cows looked happy.
Then, in 1881, the Swiss built the St Gotthard railway tunnel. Unfortunately for Andermatt, the tunnel bypassed the town completely, going directly underneath Andermatt (surely it was then called Undermatt?...sorry... – Ed), making other nearby towns connected to the line much more attractive to visitors.
Devastated by this turn of events, by the 1930s, Andermatt was nothing more than a mish-mash of run-down, abandoned hotels and businesses. It looked like a ghost town. With nothing better to do, it became a garrison town for the Swiss Federal Army which still retains a training camp there to this day.
Andermatt’s fortunes were revived at the turn of the 21st century as it began to establish itself as an alternative ski resort to its more expensive neighbours St Moritz and Gstaad.
With the help and vision of an Egyptian billionaire, Samih Sawiris, who committed £1.2billion to the Andermatt Swiss Alps’ project (ASA), Andermatt is now one of the most prestigious places to go on any world traveller’s hit-list.
Sawiris is Chairman of Orascom Development, a developer of “integrated international towns” such as El Gouna on the Red Sea, The Cove in the UAE and Jebel Sifah in Oman.
When Sawiris first visited Andermatt he was captivated and pronounced it was to become the site of Orascom’s first European town (the second being a nearly 1.7 million-acre work-in-progress eco town in Cornwall). Two years later, the ASA project was launched.
The anchor for Andermatt’s comeback was the 5 star Chedi Andermatt hotel which opened in 2013 and provided the catalyst for further luxury hotel developments.
We stayed at the Chedi and, well, wow. Designed by Jean-Michel Gathy, the hotel seamlessly balances tradition with nature. Alpine chic meets Asian nuances throughout the 5-star residence.
In the 123 appointed rooms and suites (from 52 square metres to 330 square metres) Gathy achieves this cohesion by using local elements with a keen attention to detail – large fireplaces, wood panelling, and terraces allowing the indoor and outdoor spaces to blend seamlessly together.
As a place to hang out when you’ve finished crushing drives and investigating the local village bars and restaurants, it’s absolutely perfect. I can personally recommend the full body massage which had me wandering around the hotel in my dressing gown in a daze for 20 minutes after. Once again, apologies to the Swiss couple waiting for their taxi in the lobby who I accidentally sat on in my confusion.
We played the Andermatt twice and both times it was an absolute delight. The 18-hole, par 72 championship golf course is located in the beautiful Urseren Valley between the mountain villages Andermatt and Hospental, surrounded by mountains and the Reuss River.
Designed by renowned golf course architect Kurt Rossknecht (who also designed the superb Son Vida GC in Mallorca and the Chervo Golf Hotel Resort & Spa), the course meets strict environmental standards. Once you’ve got used to the cow bells and the fact that some of the cows seem to be suggesting your back swing is so short you could unleash it in a phone box, you’re in golf heaven.
There are several different tee box options depending on how ambitious you’re feeling and the course offers a truly unique experience whatever your handicap.
And so to the Glacier Express. From the moment I set eyes on a picture of this train gliding through the Alps over a huge ravine I was hooked. The fact that it came as part of a golf travel package seemed like someone was taking the mickey. I’m a sucker for a good train journey and then you have the golf in the mountains? Get out of here!
The train station is a short walk from the hotel and, as we arrive, it’s impossible not to feel like you’re immersing yourself in a classic James Bond movie.
Once on the train we settle in, order some wine and watch in amazement as the train winds its way up through the mountains, offering up the most incredible views of the valley, town and golf course below. It’s not often you get to see the location of your most recent golf adventure from the clouds but that’s exactly what you’re getting here.
A couple of hours later you’re feeling positively guilty that your ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaahhs!’ have given way to ‘where’s the waiter?’ and ‘have you got any signal?’. A quick slap to the face and you’re back in the carriage, staring down at vast ravines, up at imperious mountain tops and wondering just how anyone got around this place before the train line came?
The Glacier Express is officially the slowest express train in the world. The full journey takes 7.5 hours but ours is slightly less as we board after the first couple of stops. The train links the two famous resorts of St Moritz and Zermatt, and crosses 291 bridges and passes through 91 tunnels. It’s bucket list alright.
The one thing you do have to prepare for in Switzerland is the cost of doing stuff. The strength of the Swiss Franc – and the fact that everyone looks like they belong in a flip-book of the wealthy and gorgeous – means you may have to operate in a state of suspended animation throughout your stay.
And so to St Moritz. One of the first things that strikes you as you wander around the famous streets is that, should you be bi-lingual, you can get by in any of four languages: Swiss-German; Italian; French and the historic Romansh. They also seem to understand our haphazard, hybrid English-French AKA these people know how to be polite...
St Moritz may have dominated jet-setting headlines in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but it first became notorious for hedonism back in 1887 when The St Moritz Tobogganing Club & Cresta Run was set up after locals complained about the British visitors who had made a sport of terrorizing them by hurling along the streets on sleds and sleighs. If the mad Brits had a proper run, they’d be less likely to cause chaos in the town.
St Moritz was put firmly on the showbiz map when it was featured in Hitchcock’s 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. It’s also been the location of at least two Bond films and Private Lives by Noël Coward.
And the celebrities. Always the celebrities: Alfred Hitchcock, Friedrich Nietzsche, Audrey Hepburn, conductor Herbert von Karajan, Charlie Chaplin, Brigitte Bardot and her husband Gunther Sachs, who in their turn have since been largely superseded by the world’s new privileged class: the bankers, business tycoons, heirs to family fortunes and now GolfPunk.
The history of winter tourism and deluxe hotels in St. Moritz can be traced to the opening of the Kulm Hotel in 1856. Thanks to its founder, the hotelier Johannes Badrutt, St. Moritz and the Kulm Hotel became the best-known places in the Swiss Alps in the 19th century.
Its Grand Restaurant still enjoys an extraordinary status as the first place with electric lights in Switzerland in 1878. And where did Charlie Chaplin stay when in St Moritz? The Kulm, of course.
This is a most stately hotel, steeped in tradition, luxury and charm. If you like your hotel cuisines varied and delish then you've come to the right place: The Kulm Hotel includes five restaurants (the half-board Grand Restaurant, the Gourmet Restaurant the K, the Italian Pizzeria, Chesa al Parc serving local Engadine specialities and the Sunny Bar, which plays host to Peruvian chef Claudia Canessa in the evenings), in addition to the newly-opened Kulm Country Club.
The Kulm didn't get a reputation for being one of the world's finest and most famous hotels by standing still. Subsequently, the rooms and suites are under continual renovation.
The corridors and facilities are spotless and, as you walk around the place gazing at the Cresta Run trophy cabinets and discovering hidden little bars and lounge areas, you are reminded that you are walking the same walk, drinking at the same bars and eating in the same restaurants frequented by the great and the good of European royalty and celebrity legend.
The Kulm is the hotel equivalent of playing St Andrews. Standing on the first tee at The Old Course you feel the presence of Palmer, Nicklaus, Hogan et all – they've all made practice swings exactly where you are standing, they've all felt the same sense of awe and trepidation as they make their right of passage through golf's most prestigious links. At the Kulm, you are sipping martinis sitting on the same bar stools graced by Hepburn, Hitchcock and Chaplin, you're enjoying dinner with Roger Moore and Brigitte Bardot. It really is quite the caper...
St Moritz is, of course, home to the world famous Cresta Run and visitors can experience the thundering adrenalin rush in winter time. The four-man bob thunders down the natural 1,722m Olympic course at speeds of up to 135 km/h, reaching the bottom in just 75 seconds. The only reason I didn't do it is because it's the summer. And that's the only reason. Honest.
The hotel has a wicked little nine-hole golf course which is like traversing the Alps in miniature. In fact, it's like playing golf in a snow cone.. without the snow... (have you been at the cooking sherry again?! – Ed) while hitting shots over gulleys and valleys 100-150 yards into immaculate greens.
We're big fans of short/beginner courses here at GolfPunk and this par-3 track is an absolute corker. But it's not easy. the greens are protected by large bunkers and steep mountain side drop offs. You can lose a lot of golf balls here but you're not going to mind. It's an absolute visual feast.
But the ultimate experience is the Kulm Hotel's stunning Spa World. Aside from the infinity pool which looks out over the magnificent lake St Moritz, there are several different steam rooms, featuring everything from eucalyptus to salt infusions. Every well-being angle is covered and there are so many chill out & detox options available you can easily spend a couple of hours dousing yourself in luxury.
Just like Andermatt, St Moritz offers a wide range of summer activities such as hiking, mountain biking, adventure sports and fantastic mountain lakes for sailing and windsurfing.
But it’s the golf we’re here for. Aside from The Kulm Hotel’s charming little 9-holer, you can get championship, 18-hole action at the Engadin Golf Samedan and Engadin Golf Zuoz courses. You can walk these courses but you'll have to summon the mountain goat in you to do it with any dignity.
At Samedan, small streams and lakes abound, but the course has teeth, with all the greens being well defended by bunkers, trees and water. There’s also a new training infrastructure with a driving range with around 40 tees, a pitch and chipping area, as well as a large putting green.
A more demanding terrain is the Zuoz course. Unlike Samedan, this course rolls up and down like an alpine roller coaster throughout all 18 holes. As he drew up the design, golf architect Les Furber was convinced that even the most discerning golfers would love his work. Give that man a cigar, and a GolfPunk Seal Of Approval badge.
In fact, give golf in Switzerland a big fat cigar. And the ultimate Seal of approval. Arf!