When Gunter Sachs, the archetypal playboy and godfather of international jetsetting, decamped from the Riviera to the mountains for the European winter, it was toward St Moritz that he pointed his private jet.
To find him, his intimate circle of billionaires, shipping tycoons, movie stars and models would drop, at all hours of the day, into his penthouse apartment at Badrutt’s Palace hotel, edging past sculptures by César and Wesselmann as they did so. Sachs’ son later joked that his father was so swarmed by visitors that he installed “bulletproof glass” in the penthouse windows lest things turned nasty.
In the evenings, Sachs could reliably be found at his own Dracula Club, the bat-emblazoned dance club that still hums below the snow-lined streets. But, if the need ever arose for the playboy to duck off the radar, it was to the engulfing privacy of the Suvretta House hotel that he would head.
This is the role – according to the Maitre D’ of the hotel’s Stube restaurant – that the Suvretta played for many years: the hideout from the hideout; the retreat from the retreat.
And it’s not hard to see why. Though it sits just five minutes outside of the main town, Suvretta House feels like almost nowhere else on earth: a wood-panelled, deep carpeted idyll of privacy and luxury in the foothills of the most famous peak in the Engadine mountains.
As his health deteriorated in the dying days of the 1980s, Sachs retired from the St Moritz party scene to his mansion in the hills above nearby Gstaad. And for many, the party left with him. But now, his old haunt Suvretta House is being restored, in achingly beautiful detail, to its former glory. And the town is undergoing something of a resurgence of its own as a result.
The history of the place vibrates throughout the multi-million pound renovation. The reclaimed parquet flooring that lines the hallways recalls the mid-century grandeur of the town; the bespoke darkwood furniture speaks of the alpine forests that surround it.
Down in the Stube, the traditional Engadine veal cutlets are supported manfully by Swiss wines from ancient family houses, while in Anton’s Bar the hotel’s own Gentleman’s Gin lends a wonderful gut punch to a Martini straight from the 1920s. Stepping into the grand entrance hall reminds you precisely why the Shah of Persia and King Farouk of Egypt felt happy to call this place their winter palace.
The original alpine resort didn’t get by, however, on looks alone. Sachs and co. first descended on St Moritz in thrall for its potential for winter sports of every stripe and temperament. The Engadine region has long been famed for its exceptionally clear pistes and reliable powder snowfall, an asset that the Suvretta has long been championing with its private ski lift and eerily effortless ski-in, ski-out set up.
At the turn of the last century, when the European aristocracy left the valley as the snows melted, they’d store their skis and clothing in gold-labelled private lockers in the undercroft of the hotel, to be collected once winter returned – a neat little service that remains to this day.
But the devil makes work for idle thumbs and deep pockets. Today, the winter season represents a cavalcade of improvised and eccentric sporting events: a vintage car rally among the forest roads; the Snow Polo World Cup; the Cresta Run; the Maserati Snow Golf championship played in the rolling tundra of Silvaplana; the Cricket on Ice festival; the 42 km Engadin Skimarathon; the St Moritz-Celerina bobsleigh run, corner 13 of which is named after Sachs himself.
The highlight of that sporting calendar, however, has long been the White Turf. A series of horse races taking place on the frozen lake in the valley, the White Turf is a point-to-point on caviar and Laurent Perrier and bratwurst; an Ascot in furs.
The world-renowned flat race sees international jockeys compete in highly unusual circumstances and under gargantuan betting stakes, while the pounding of hooves is given extra drama by the thought of some million gallons of frozen water underfoot. Gunter Sachs pinched the idea for his own set of impromptu supercar races on the lake in the late 1970s – the local police, apparently grateful for all he’d done to re-invent the town, were said to turn a blind eye.
This year’s final leg of the century-old tradition takes place this coming weekend, and the beau monde of the Suvretta House hotel will descend in their hundreds to the grandstands. Right now, the Grand Hall and Anton’s are awake, as soon as the sun hits the hillside, with whispered tips between old friends.
The Grand Dame of the Mountains is back. Visiting the lake last weekend as the trainers tested the snowy ground and the totes assessed the going, you could sense – above the cigar smoke of the owners enclosure and the smell of freshly fried berliners – something of the rarefied atmosphere that Sachs and friends drank in by the stein-full.