facebook twitter pinterest instagram You Tube

Ice Capades

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

It is cold—bitterly cold, wickedly cold—in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the final week of January, with temperatures climbing no higher than the single digits. A detailed ice sculpture of a wristwatch, outside the F.P. Journe boutique across from the Badrutt’s Palace hotel, remains intact for five days. Fur coats suddenly seem practical. Locals who overhear tourists complaining about the weather reflexively laud its lack of humidity with the same frequency that Arizona residents say, “But it’s a dry heat,” and they are greeted with the same bemused exasperation.

Nonetheless, the alpine town’s resorts are full of visitors, and for several consecutive mornings, thousands of them bundle up and head for Lake St. Moritz, where wooden bleachers have been erected on the frozen surface of the lake, as has a VIP tent, a concessions tent, a media tent, a souvenir stand, and a stable. Several rows of cars are parked behind this tent city, and shuttles and taxis are constantly depositing passengers in a drop-off area near the arena’s entrance.

The spectators take seats in the bleachers or find standing room along a wall that rises to chest height. This wall marks the boundaries of a large, oval playing field that is covered with 6 inches of snow and features a pair of tall, conical, candy-striped goalposts at both ends. On the field, eight men on horseback—four wearing orange jerseys and four dressed in blue jerseys—chase an inflatable red plastic ball across the snow, hoping to launch it between the goalposts or stop an opponent on the opposing team from doing so. As with the ancient sport from which it derives, this is the essential tension of snow polo, which was invented in St. Moritz 21 years ago and reaches its zenith here at the Cartier Polo World Cup on Snow. The tournament, held annually in St. Moritz in late January, was snow polo’s first and remains its most prestigious.
 

No dainty Thoroughbreds up here. The ponies have got to be able to play for five days in a row, so you need tough ones.” —John Manconi, captain, 2005 Siemens team

When play stagnates, snow polo resembles a rugby scrum, with a cluster of riders huddling around the ball, making it impossible for any one player to establish possession. But when the action flows freely, it produces a glorious, furious scramble that sends 32 hooves thundering across the field until someone scores a goal or commits a foul, or until the seven-minute quarter, which is known as a chukka, ends. A typical game of snow polo consists of four chukkas plus overtime chukkas to break a tie. Spectators determined to watch an entire match can expect to brave the cold for half an hour at least.

Those in attendance on this day appear unfazed by the weather, some exposing not just themselves to the elements but their dogs and babies, too. Members of both populations are appropriately dressed and casually paraded along the wide strip of snow between the bleachers and the arena wall, the dogs on leashes and the babies in strollers with rugged wheels, except for one child who is seated imperially on a wooden sled. Numerous fans consider the tournament an ideal opportunity to flaunt their furs; one woman proudly wears a strawberry pink ensemble while another limits the pink to her boots, which complement her brown fur coat and cowboy hat. She occasionally turns away from her spot along the arena wall to corral her toddler daughter, who is dressed in a fuzzy pink coat and hat, and who squeals with joy when the Maybach team, the tournament’s eventual champion, scores a goal.
 
While even the youngest of spectators can recognize a goal, the rest of the game is difficult for anyone to follow, in part because of the confusion that the announcers create as they broadcast from a small tower attached to the bleachers.  They deliver their live analysis with enthusiasm, but it suffers from a vexing flaw: They call half the chukkas in English and the other half in Italian, and they deliver their pre- and postmatch comments in German. Even in cosmopolitan St. Moritz, this trilingual approach serves only to perplex.

Such confusion notwithstanding, more than 10,000 watch the finals, including a group of young Dutch fans who linger in the VIP tent long after the tournament has ended. They explain that they rooted for Maybach because the team wore orange jerseys, and orange is Holland’s national color. The Netherlanders stand near a 21¼2-ton, 12-foot-tall, gold-painted, wooden Buddha that greets visitors entering the tent and celebrates the cold weather that makes its presence and the tournament possible. In many previous years, the Buddha would have been verboten because of the strain its weight places on the underlying ice. Tournament press officer Fredy Weisser explains that the ice must be at least 10 inches thick two weeks before the event and 14 inches thick by game time. The current winter’s consistently chilly temperatures banished any fears about the stability of the ice. “Now, we are at 60 centimeters [24 inches],” says Weisser, grinning. “There are 2,200 tons of infrastructure—a tent city, stables, and also people and cars,” he says, describing the facilities that are erected on the ice to accommodate the tournament. “The most risky place is at the buffets [in the VIP tent]. If 1,000 people come to pick up food, the ice must be able to withstand the weight.”

Like st. moritz’s winter season, snow polo began as a marketing stunt. Reto Gaudenzi, the Swiss polo player and professional hotelier who is largely responsible for inventing the sport in 1984 and arranging the first tournament in 1985, says that he was motivated partly by the need to fill a gap in St. Moritz’s January calendar. (Gaudenzi missed the 2005 tournament because he had accepted the post of managing director at Casa Casuarina in Miami Beach, Fla.; see “Open House,” page 90.)

The winter season itself was created in 1864 by hotelier Johannes Badrutt and four of his British summer customers. At the end of that year’s summer season, he bet the departing Britons that winter in the Alps could be just as enjoyable as summer. As part of the wager, Badrutt invited them back for Christmas to stay as long as they liked, free of charge, and promised to cover their travel costs should they find the St. Moritz winter disagreeable. The Brits accepted the challenge, made the trek across the Alps to St. Moritz, and enjoyed themselves so much that they stayed until Easter (reportedly sparing Badrutt from the financial consequences by volunteering to pay their own tab on the 10th day of their vacation).
 
When they returned home, the pioneering vacationers raved to friends about the experience, and soon interest in St. Moritz’s winter season grew like a snowball rolling down an alpine slope. In the ensuing decades, the town introduced winter activities such as tobogganing and curling, and spawned winter versions of established sports, such as the White Turf horse races, which have been conducted on the frozen surface of Lake St. Moritz since 1907.

Conceived as a novelty, snow polo since has spread to Moscow, Austria, and Aspen, Colo., and Sam McCardel hopes to extend its reach even farther. The Australian is in attendance at the Cartier Polo World Cup on Snow to establish connections and gather information that would help him start a snow polo tournament at his home polo club near Melbourne. “I think it’s possible to originate a tournament in Australia,” he says, noting that the state of Queensland is home to several mountain resorts. McCardel also is seeking information on the technical aspects of snow polo and says that he has learned something crucial: The ponies require specially made rubber inserts that prevent snow from becoming trapped in their horseshoes. These inserts enable the ponies to run safely on snow. “Otherwise, it’s like running on heels and flats at the same time,” Gaudenzi says. “If they go flat out [with no inserts], it’s no good; they’ll break their legs.”

Players also must select with care the ponies that they bring to the tournament, because it is played 5,978 feet above sea level. “No dainty Thoroughbreds up here,” says John Manconi, a tournament perennial who has played on four championship teams and is the captain and patron of the 2005 Siemens team. “The ponies have got to be able to play for five days in a row, so you need tough ones.”

As its leader, Manconi, an affable Canadian who works as a telecommunications consultant for Siemens, assembled the 2005 Siemens team, selecting Chilean Gabriel Donoso and Argentineans Juan José Brane and Oscar Mancini. Brane is a St. Moritz tournament veteran, but neither Mancini nor Donoso had played on snow before. Nonetheless, Manconi chose wisely; Siemens earned a place in the 2005 title match, and although it lost 7–6, the team forced Maybach to toil mightily through four intense, exciting chukkas. Brane, who played in the final despite having suffered broken fingers on one hand during an earlier match, finished the tournament with 10 goals overall, second only to Maybach’s Alejandro “Piki” Alberdi, an Argentinian who scored 13.

In the VIP tent after the final, Manconi is disappointed by the loss but remains chipper while greeting friends, other well-wishers, and journalists. “I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’d field more or less the same team,” he says. “We were very unlucky with the bounces at the end. It was unfortunate. But that’s the way polo is. There’s luck on both sides.” 

Alpine Heights

Despite its small size, the town of St. Moritz abounds in world-class resorts that have long histories.

Badrutt’s Palace
Caspar Badrutt, son of the man who first launched St. Moritz’s winter season, opened the 165-room Badrutt’s Palace in 1896, and his successors have preserved many of the idiosyncracies that arose during its evolution. This quirkiness is embodied by the tower that has become the resort’s logo, but it appears in other forms as well: A midnight blue 1968 Phantom VI Rolls-Royce collects guests who arrive at the train station nearby, and a bridge hostess is on hand to teach the intricacies of the card game in an alcove of the Grand Hall. The stewards of Badrutt’s Palace (it is currently owned by descendants Hansjürg and Aniko Badrutt) have maintained its dominance by constantly making upgrades and additions. In December 2004, the property unveiled two new suites: the three-bedroom Hans Badrutt suite, which includes a piano lounge, a steam bath, a terrace, and a Jacuzzi among its plush fittings, and the first-floor Helen Badrutt suite, which includes four bedrooms.

A range of restaurants keeps the dining options fresh, including Nobu @ Badrutt’s Palace, a Nobuyuki Matsuhisa outpost, and Chesa Veglia, a nearby historic building that dates to 1658 and contains three restaurants and two bars. (Rates for the 2005-2006 winter season range from $208 to $10,000, depending on dates and accommodations chosen; rates for two new suites are not published.)
+41.81.837.1000, www.badruttspalace.com

Kempinski Grand Hôtel Des Bains
Although it opened in December 2002, the Kempinski Grand Hôtel des Bains is sitting on a wellspring of St. Moritz tradition: the St. Mauritius spring, which drew ailing European pilgrims to the Swiss town as early as the 14th century. Guests can sample the spring water at a fountain inside the spa—it has a metallic taste because of its high iron content—and several of the spa treatments employ alpine ingredients.

The spa is not the only attraction; the property offers a modern alternative to the town’s other, more famous resorts. “Here, we’re more casual and relaxed,” says Wiebke Lohs, assistant to the hotel’s general manager. “We welcome children, and you don’t need to wear a jacket and tie for dinner.” (Rates for the winter season range from $200 to $9,615, depending on dates and accommodations.)+41.81.838.3838, www.kempinski.com

Kulm Hotel
The Kulm Hotel rises above the fray, for a simple reason: It is where St. Moritz's winter tourism began. In 1864, hotelier Johannes Badrutt made a fateful bet at what is now the Kulm with four British guests that St. Moritz winters could be marvelous, and he backed his wager by offering them free lodging if they would return for Christmas. They did, they loved it, and the winter season was born.

The Kulm is completing renovations in anticipation of its 150th anniversary in 2006. The original 18th-century building that Badrutt purchased in 1856 survives, and his former office is used by executive assistant manager Jean-Jacques Bauer, who keeps an 1863 photo of St. Moritz—then a far less developed town—on his wall. (Winter rates range from $881 to $5,072, depending on dates booked and rooms chosen.) +41.81.836.8000, www.kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch

Waldhaus Am See
Claudio Bernasconi calls his bar the Devil’s Place, but for a whisky aficionado, it is heaven. Located inside the Waldhaus Am See hotel, which overlooks Lake St. Moritz in the Swiss resort town, the Devil’s Place stocks an impressive selection of more than 2,500 single malts, blended whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, and bourbons—enough examples of the spirit to earn the bar a place in the Guinness Book of World Records 1999. Each year since 2000, Bernasconi has made a trip to Scotland to purchase a barrel from a different distiller and have it bottled for his customers. He released his 2005 selection, a Glen Garioch 14-year-old, in July, but if you want one of these limited edition bottles, you must travel to St. Moritz; Bernasconi will not ship outside of Switzerland. (The hotel’s rates range from $1,062 to $1,358.) +41.81.836. 6000, www.waldhaus-am-see.ch

Read Next Article >>
The capital city’s design gurus are redefining going Dutch.
The Sahara Hotel and Casino is now the SLS Las Vegas , completely revamped...
Soho House Chicago keeps it cool in the Windy City.
From the sun-soaked beaches of Southern California to the sky-high peaks...
A handful of high-end hotels are unveiling new spas, and with them, new...
Photo by Troy Campbell
Acqualina Resort & Spa on the Beach , located just north of Miami...
Photo by Tim Gerard Barker
For two weeks this November, Hasselblad—the camera company that...
The Park Hyatt New York opens inside the One57 skyscraper on Manhattan’s “...
Four Seasons meets Orlando’s great Walt Disney World complex.
For as long as it has been an elite summer destination, the Hamptons’...