A Swiss retreat with a decadent spa

Andermatt: a favourite of The King – and a former queen

Queen Victoria and Elvis Presley both fell in love with Andermatt. For them, the tiny Swiss village in the Lepontine Alps, population 1,355, was the perfect destination. But despite its former popularity (and apparent ability to appeal to both real and musical royalty), Andermatt faded into obscurity – that is, until Egyptian billionaire property-developer Samih Sawiris came along.

Sawiris has pledged to spend £1.3bn on transforming the former garrison town into a ski resort to compete with Swiss rivals Verbier and Saint Moritz. Once finished, it will feature six four- and five-star hotels, roughly 500 apartments and an 18-hole golf course, not to mention the ski slopes and facilities. The small town is made up of a cluster of chalet-type buildings in the Urseren valley, overlooked by Gemsstock mountain and ski slopes that crisscross the peaks. If you go for a wander through Andermatt, perhaps stopping at a café or outdoor-activity shop, you are likely to hear people speaking Swiss German, Italian (due to its proximity to the Italian border), or even Romansch, a language spoken by just 70,000 people in the neighbouring canton of Graübunden.

On the first day, my guide and I took the cable car up Gemsstock to admire the view of the Alps. Though the scenery was fantastic, the two paragliders who were taking off from the mountain as we arrived undoubtedly experienced even better views. Lunch was at a mountainside café, where we ate traditional sage and artichoke ravioli, along with “Rivella”, a Swiss soft drink produced from milk whey.

Once you’ve had enough of wholesome activities out in the fresh air, you could do worse than head into the five-star Chedi Andermatt hotel, named Hotel of the Year 2017 by the Gault & Millau restaurant guide. The hotel’s interior is packed with dark wood and luxurious suites, as well as a wine and cigar library, though I was most impressed by the floor-to-ceiling cheese room.

The hotel’s spa is incredibly decadent. There is an indoor and outdoor pool, and upon padding into the room in soft slippers and a robe, you are met with a platter of sliced fruit and a shot glass of smoothie. Alongside a sauna and steam room is a pleasingly unnecessary number of pools of differing temperatures and sizes, all inside a peacefully muted (both in light and sound) room. Finish up with a meal at Chedi’s much-celebrated Asian restaurant. The food was all wonderful, although the cocktail I ordered was so trendy and baffling I had to ask the waitress how to drink it. 

My final day began with a walking tour that took us out of the town into the surrounding hills. My tour guide was impressively knowledgeable about the region’s history, telling me stories of how the Urseren valley was first formed – the area was populated as far back as 4,000 BC – and how legend goes that the townspeople once bargained with the devil in exchange for a bridge that allowed people to travel through Andermatt to the other side of the Alps. Holidaymakers with slightly more modern interests might prefer to visit the town’s petrol station, which appeared in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger.

Rooms at the Chedi Andermatt hotel (TheChediAndermatt.com/en) start at CHF450 (around £350) a night; or you can rent one of the privately owned apartments from CHF155 (around £120) a night. Prices for buying individual apartments in the resort start from CHF390,000 (around £300,000) and CHF9,000 (£7,000) per square metre (Andermatt-SwissAlps.ch/en).

A 600-year-old tradition lives on

Andermatt Woldmanndli

Once a year in Andermatt, a procession of men dressed in jute bags leaves the Gurschen Forest and enters the town, blowing goat horns and ringing cowbells. These are the Woldmanndli, or “men of the forest”, continuing the 600-year-old annual tradition of declaring the woodland, which divides the town from the mountains above, an “avalanche protection forest”. The declaration, first made in 1397, threatened “extreme penalties” for anyone who took anything from the forest – you could not even take the rowanberries or pine cones. This year’s Men of the Forest festival will take place on 21 October.