AROSA SWITZERLAND — My mother has offered me a lot of advice over the years. Some of it I’ve heeded: “Look both ways before you cross the street.” “Always buckle your seatbelt.” Some of it I haven’t: “Don’t talk to strangers” — as a journalist, that’s part of my job, and, generally speaking, the stranger the better.
But one topic evaded her maternal warning system — “Never set foot in a frozen lake in a bikini.” Or rather, “Never set foot in a frozen lake, full stop.”
So, when someone suggested that I try ice-bathing amid the snow-covered Alps, my answer was, “Why not?” (common sense being less common than most would suppose).
Now, here I stand in a bathing suit on the shores of Lake Untersee in Arosa, Switzerland, about three hours by train southeast of Zurich Airport. EisbadiArosa volunteers have hacked a small hole in the lake’s blanket of snow and ice, and one of them, Carmen Prantl, is talking my friends and I through our penguin plunge.
Above: The icy cold waters of a Swiss lake did not stop our Amy Laughinghouse, right, from taking the plunge.
Except it’s less of a plunge (which would be too much of a shock to the system), and more of a teeth — and buttocks — clenching, slow-motion waddle. Like a Zen-master Lamaze coach, Prantl reminds us to focus on our breath. “You can do it. One step after another,” she purrs, as we walk down a short set of stairs into the Untersee.
Every stinging synapse in my body screams “Abort! Abort!” But with Prantl’s calm encouragement, I wincingly wade hip-deep into the lake, gasping like a guppy in between shuddering squeals.
“Now, when you breathe out the next time, just go down on your knees,” Prantl instructs. As she lowers her hands like a conductor, I mechanically follow suit.
Submerged up to my chest, I can’t claim it’s actually “lovely when you’re in” but the more numb I become physically, the more exhilarated I am mentally.
When I exit a minute later, I’m buzzing, with a throbbing current pulsing through my body. In addition to this rush of feel-good endorphins, Prantl says that ice-bathing burns calories, tightens skin and fights inflammation. And let’s not forget bagging bragging rights when you splash your “I double-dog-dare you” photos across social media.
Above: The posh Hotel Carlton in St. Moritz and its elegant interior is a palace property with a great history.
Ice-bathing may be the coolest — or at least, the coldest — offering on the Tschuggen Hotel Group’s “Moving Mountains” wellness programme, which I’ve come to Switzerland to experience. Created in 2021 by Dr. Götz Bechtolsheimer, one of the owners of this stylish quartet of Swiss-based hotels (the Tschuggen Grand and the Valsana in Arosa, the Carlton in St. Moritz, and Eden Roc in Ascona), the initiative is supported by five pillars: move, play, nourish, rest and give.
“Move” includes activities like skiing, hiking, and yoga, while “Play” features “curated adventures,” like ice fishing and jewellery making. “Nourish” translates as plant-based menu options. “Rest” is supported by lush spas in every property and “Give” refers to the family-owned, climate neutral hotel group’s commitment to environmental initiatives and local communities.
According to Alida O’Connor, a yoga instructor and the wife of Bechtolsheimer, Moving Mountains was inspired, in part, by the Covid-19 pandemic. The couple were at the Tschuggen Grand, a five-star property with a spectacular, 5,000-sq.m. spa, when the first lockdown began in March 2020. There they chose to stay for the next three months.
“It was the safest, nicest space … being around mountains and trees,” O’Connor explains in her soft Irish lilt. The seed of solace which she and her husband found in the Alps above Arosa grew into Moving Mountains, and the programme is proving popular with guests.
Above: Guests can get close to nature or participate in ice-sculpting sessions during their stays.
“Vegans are now specifically booking because of the (menu) choices,” O’Connor says. “You can have your Michelin-starred meal, and it’s all entirely plant-based and refined-sugar-free.”
For carnivores, the notion of a top-notch repast devoid of meat and dairy might sound as improbable as a sinewy Santa cycling around the world in scarlet Lycra, stuffing stockings with cod liver oil. But a six-course vegan menu prepared by chef Marco Campanella at the Tschuggen Grand’s La Brezza is a delicious revelation. One highlight is potato with onion and black truffle, which lends a meaty essence without requiring an animal to sacrifice so much as a whisker. Yet it’s hard to feel self-righteous when flavours are so fulsome and the sommelier’s wine-pairings are so scrumptiously quaffable.
That’s the beauty of Moving Mountains. You can choose how and when to participate — or not. I confess, when I decide to explore the slopes above the Tschuggen Grand, I skip the hike and board the hotel’s Tschuggen Express funicular, which whisks me uphill to within metres of a hopping apres-ski scene where pint-swilling crowds bellow German stadium anthems. Never mind that I don’t ski, don’t speak German and definitely can’t sing. I do drink beer, which is all the qualification required.
Above: The stunning Alpine scenery surrounding these resorts is worth the price of a stay.
Drawing a veil over those insalubrious proceedings, I continue to St. Moritz, a scenic three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Arosa. Here, I check into the five-star Carlton overlooking the Lake of St. Moritz, where the rich and richer gather for the White Turf horse racing every February.
Like all Tschuggen Hotel Group’s properties, interiors are designed by Carlo Rampazzi, renowned for his bold use of colour and whimsical details. At the Tschuggen Grand, he has created a chic contemporary mountain lodge, while at the Carlton, built in 1913, Rampazzi opts for an elegant update of the Belle Epoque.
The Bel Etage, at the Carlton’s heart, encompasses a glamourous salon flanked by stone fireplaces, a bar, a terrace, and the Restaurant Romanoff. In Da Vittorio St. Moritz, the two-Michelin-starred Italian restaurant on the floor below, vibrant drawings of celebrities adorn the walls. Outside in the hotel’s forecourt, four stationary ski gondolas also serve as a fondue restaurant, where I enjoy a gooey feast of four (yes, four) types of cheese laced with champagne, kirsch, and black truffles.
While fondue proves the undoing of my fledgling vegan status, I atone by immersing myself in the Play programme, aided and abetted by the Carlton’s “outdoor butler,” Janis Lombriser. A multi-lingual native of St. Moritz, Lombriser is an enthusiastic outdoorsman who has been skiing since he was 18 months old.
On my visit, we attempt ice-carving under the cheerful tutelage of sculptor Reto Grond, who helps me create a chilly chunk that is not entirely unlike a cat. We also take a horse-drawn carriage ride, pausing beneath a large conifer to proffer handfuls of birdseed to a colony of twittering tits, which pluck kernels from my palm with tiny, tickling talons.
So far, so fabulous, but Lombriser has one more treat up his sweater sleeve: a torchlight hike in the forest.
“Torches, as in flashlights?” I ask, thinking he has adopted the British term. But no, Lombriser means the flaming sticks generally associated with angry mobs evicting zombies from their village.
Crunching along a snowy path with the golden glow from our torches casting our surroundings into dense shadow, we don’t spot any furry forest dwellers or B-movie monsters. But that’s quite alright with me. The real stars of the show are, well, the stars.
On the edge of a frozen lake, Lombriser extinguishes our torches so that we can admire the glittering panorama overhead. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spot a shooting star … and then another.
I catch my breath, then exhale deeply, releasing a vapour of pent-up stress that dissipates in the clean Alpine air. I feel at once peaceful, yet exhilarated. Hopeful. Renewed.
I’m not sure if I’ve moved mountains on this trip, but the mountains have certainly moved me.
JUST THE FACTS
Getting there: Fly into Zurich Airport. Arosa is about three hours away by train; St. Moritz is approximately four hours from the airport by rail. Air Canada and Swiss Air offer flights to Zurich from Toronto and Montréal.
Where to stay:
Tschuggen Grand Hotel
This five-star property, cocooned in the Alps above Arosa, features a superlative spa and five restaurants. Open 1 July – 4 September 2022 and 25 November 2022 – 10 April 2023.
Valsana Hotel Arosa
The four-star property in central Arosa is casual, family-friendly and ultra eco-conscious, with a massive “ice battery” that captures and re-uses “waste heat.” Open 17 June – 18 September 2022 and 2 December 2022 – 10 April 2023.
Carlton Hotel St. Moritz
Come for five-star, Belle Epoque glamour. Stay for Alpine adventures with the outdoor butler. 9 December 2022 – 26 March 2023.
What to do: Moving Mountains programme https://www.moving-mountains.ch/en/