In Review

Grand Hotel Kronenhof Pontresina review: leaf-peeping in Switzerland

You needn’t cross the Atlantic to revel in an autumnal forest-scape of colour

Forget New England. Leaf-peeping of the highest order can be enjoyed in Switzerland’s Engadine Valley this autumn. 

Home to glitzy St Moritz and quaint, Instagram-ready villages over which tower snow-frosted limestone peaks, this corner of southeast Switzerland also boasts riotous leaf displays. 

As October’s frosts descend, forests of coniferous larch trees turn varying hues of yellow and orange. Covering the lower slopes of the Bernina Alps in the Graubünden canton, these intensely coloured woodlands create as colourful a commotion as anything you’ll find stateside.

In between bracing walks in this Engadine idyll we opted for maximum pampering with a stay at a five-star spa hotel – the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina. With the US currently out of bounds for international travel due to Covid-19 restrictions, a trip closer to home mixing majestic nature with luxurious accommodation makes sense.

The Kronenhof is a grand Belle Epoque hotel in the style that Switzerland does so well, a fairytale Neo Baroque building offering commanding alpine views. The horseshoe-shaped building dominates the high street of Pontresina, a well-heeled village six miles from St Moritz. 

But Pontresina errs on the side of Swiss reserve compared to the bling of its neighbour; its main street boasts rows of immaculate plaster buildings finished with intricate decorative sgraffito, a charming, low-key trompe l’oeil effect found in these parts. A few sportswear shops, fine restaurants and patisseries line the street, but its quieter vibe means it’s devoid of shopping hordes and nightclub noise.

Grand Hotel Kronenhof Pontresina
Grand display 

The Kronenhof is Pontresina’s jewel, its gold-crowned dome above the main entrance catching the low alpine sun. The hotel puts on a grand display from the off. Passing through reception, its vast lounge of towering columns, chandeliers, painted ceilings and acres of velvet invite guests to while away the afternoon while drinking in the view of the distant Roseg glacier.

Next door, the hotel’s bar is dark and handsome, full of couples whispering over cocktails. It’s almost worth developing a cigar habit to take full advantage of the Kronenhof’s new smoking room, designed in the style of an English country house library. Dark wood panelling, recessed windows, deep green drapes and walls - not to mention the fug of smoke hanging in the air - transport you to another century. Guests puffed away on cigars bought from the display case at the room’s entrance, while wait staff brought drinks.

The Kronenhof manages that tricky balance of celebrating tradition and delivering five-star service without being stiff. In common rooms that exude old world grandeur, the atmosphere is informal and friendly - making guests of all ages feel welcome seems to be its guiding ethos.

For example, staff displayed an almost supernatural knack of anticipating our every need. Each evening at dinner they remembered which wine I liked. As we left for a hike in the Swiss National Park one morning, reception staff produced packed lunches we hadn’t specifically requested. In a hotel of 112 rooms that was full the weekend we stayed, this was impressive attention to detail.

Parents will be pleased to know that the children’s club isn’t the afterthought you find in many hotels, unloved and tucked away. It’s a vibrant playroom of toys and tech gadgets designed to keep six- to 16-year-olds entertained. Parents are provided the option of having their kids dine with other children and nannies in a special dinner room or to bring the little ones into the grand dining room, where they were made welcome.

Grand Hotel Kronenhof Pontresina
Fusion served with flair 

The Kronenhof’s grand restaurant deserves special mention - it really is like stepping back to a time when guests dolled up in their finery came to see and be seen. The room is steeped in old-style pomp, with high vaulted ceilings, painted walls and chandeliers. A pianist playing classics and show tunes added to the ambience, while the flurry of waiters unveiling course after course from under a cloche added an air of theatricality to meals. The food, a fusion of Swiss cuisine with a French flair, was superb, and the cheese trolley a delight.

The hotel’s gourmet restaurant, the Kronenstubli, is a more intimate affair in part of the original hotel, reached from the hotel through a maze of corridors but with another entrance on Pontresina’s high street. It was dark, wood-panelled and candlelit, with attentive waiters-in-gloves serving Italian-Mediterranean and French fare - the seabass with mussels and zucchini melted in my mouth.

Unusually, the hotel’s rooms feature wildly varying décor, from sophisticated urban oases of sleek glass, white furniture and mirrors to traditional floral affairs. Room renovation is ongoing, but not so fast as to deter returning guests who cherish a country-house vibe. We were happily installed in the Bellavista wing of the hotel, built in 2007 at the same time as the hotel’s award-winning 2,000-metre spa.

Our spacious room was a modern take on traditional alpine décor - oak floors, doors and ceiling, but with clean lines and thankfully devoid of the alpine kitsch found even in swankier hotels. It was mere steps away from the Kronenhof’s piece de resistance, a modern spa with knockout views. 

The ample pool, from which emerges a diverting terracotta pillar, is flanked by rows of comfortable loungers pointed at floor-to-ceiling windows onto the alps. Next to it sits a large Jacuzzi whose bubbles soothed away the aches incurred during our hikes. 

Among the spa’s range of six saunas and baths, our favourite was the relax-floating grotto, a small pool with gentle waves and underwater music. Do keep an eye out for instructions on which areas are women-only and whether swimwear or nudity is required or you might end up red-faced.

Upstairs is a therapy area where massages and treatments are carried out by experts - I thoroughly recommend a relaxing 5 Senses Massage (CHF 160; £134.68 for 50 minutes), which sent me off into a reverie.

Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina, Switzerland
Sweep of fall foliage 

Believe me, it was needed after the two hikes we managed during our stay to offset all the self-indulgence. Our first walk, in the Swiss National Park, 40 minutes away by car, was a pleasant 14-km loop around the Trupchun valley, with only gradual ascents and descents. Switzerland’s only national park, it’s renowned as a popular wildlife spot and although we failed to see any deer, we followed the gaze of excited twitchers on the trail and saw in the distance a rare Swiss Bearded Vulture.

Our second hike was a more arduous adventure starting from the 2,500-metre peak of Muottas Muragl, accessed by a vertiginous mountain railway that’s been depositing visitors on its summit for more than a century. From there, on our 10km hike back to Pontresina, we traipsed up a steep, rocky ridge to the Segantini Hut, which looks out over the confluence of the Bernina and Upper Engadine valleys.

Cooling off with a cold beer amidst a throng of hikers at the hut, we drank in the sweep of fall foliage. More than two dozen mountain summits were framed against deep blue sky, including the region’s highest peak, Piz Bernina at 4,049m. The lower slopes were swathed in a checkerboard carpet of deep green firs and bright yellow larches swooping down towards the valley floor. St Moritz glittered in the near distance next to a milky blue lake.

It was a top-of-the-world view that captured a snapshot of autumn before the needles dropped and the snow blanketed the landscape.

With foliage like that so close to home, who needs Vermont?

The Grand Hotel Kronenhof offers a September Mountain Escape package, starting at CHF 395 (£332.52) for two people sharing a double room on a half-board basis. From 1 October, rates start at CHF 455 (£383) for the same. The hotel is open until 20 October. 

Images: kronenhof.com

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