x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A forum for ski fanatics

My kind of place Davos is strikingly modernist for a ski resort and chalet-free, a legacy of its origins as a health resort over a century ago.

The Swiss Alpine resort of Davos.
The Swiss Alpine resort of Davos.

As a winter sports writer I am lucky to ski many resorts, but when I first visited Davos three winters ago I found it fascinatingly different; several trips later, it is now a firm favourite. Davos is strikingly modernist and chalet-free, a legacy of its origins as a health resort over a century ago, when tuberculosis sufferers came to gulp the clean, dry air on the long, sunny balconies of the flat-roofed sanatoria - many of which are now luxury hotels, often with slick spas. More recently, the high-altitude town has become (in)famous for the World Economic Forum (WEF), held every January, which attracts heads of state, business leaders, and an avalanche of movers, shakers and protesters. Like most of Davos' devotees, I come for the superb skiing and snowboarding: 307km of piste up to nearly 3,000 metres, served by 56 lifts, and shared with Klosters, Davos' more traditional, chalet-filled neighbour.
The slopes are spread over five different areas connected by bus and train - inconvenient, but good news for freeriders: you can access more than 100 off-piste runs by hiking no more than a couple of minutes from the top of the lifts. Sporty and innovative, Davos is also a great place for trying out other activities, too, from curling and snowshoeing to the latest craze, airboarding: hurtling down the mountain headfirst on an inflatable sledge like a surfer's bodyboard.

My favourite of all the former sanatorium hotels is the Schatzalp (www.schatzalp.ch; 00 41 81 415 51 51), built in 1900 on a sunny car-free terrace 300m above the valley floor, served by its own funicular. It still oozes period atmosphere, with its stained glass windows, clanking iron lifts, armchair-filled lounge and art nouveau dining room. Be aware that many rooms have ancient fittings, and no TVs to detract from the views. This winter the hotel's own "decelerated" ski area reopens, with just two lifts, and heaps of nostalgia. With a south-facing double room with balcony costing from US$413 (Dh 1,511), including breakfast and a five-course gourmet dinner. I also love the contemporary feel of the Waldhotel Davos (www.waldhotel-davos.ch; 00 41 81 415 15 15), which opened in 1911 as a sanatorium, and was the inspiration for the novel The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, whose wife was an early patient. The décor is stylish, with plenty of wood and sparkling ice-blue quartzite; the big balconies make the hotel feel flooded with life-giving light and air - the leitmotif of Davos. Doubles rooms cost $315 (Dh1,155), including breakfast. If accommodation is simply a means to an end - skiing - consider the Youthpalace Davos (www.youthhostel.ch/davos; 00 41 81 410 19 20), a minimalist but spotless youth hostel that started out as a clinic. Located a few minutes' walk from the Parsenn funicular, it has, alongside dormitories, 27 twin and double rooms, each with en suite shower. Double rooms with TV and balcony cost from $90 (Dh331), including breakfast and a four-course dinner; day memberships cost $6 (Dh21) per person.

The resort is strung out between the stations of Davos Dorf and Davos Platz, 4km apart; frequent buses loop between them. Hop off midway for a stroll starting at the Congress Centre, focus of the WEF. Head past the eau-la-la public wellness and pool complex to drop down into the Kurpark, with its cleared paths and snow-topped statues. At the far end is the cathedral-like Ice Stadium with its vaulted wooden roof, where the fanatical supporters of the local ice hockey team (2009 Swiss champions) come to worship; beside it lies Europe's largest outdoor ice rink. A short climb uphill, the shimmering cubes of frosted glass are a museum devoted to the Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who spent his final years in the valley. You are back on Promenade, home to most of the shops and nightlife.

Top rendezvous for skiers is Chalet Güggel (www.chaletgueggel.ch) on the Jakobshorn, with great views, cosy wooden interior, and, on the protected terrace, waiter service at the sun loungers; good for traditional dishes such as local bacon Rösti $15 (Dh54). There's also a great party atmosphere at the foot of the same ski area, on the edge of town, at the Bolgen Plaza (www.bolgenplaza.ch; 00 41 81 413 58 18,); try a regional speciality such as capuns (meat dumplings wrapped in leaves of Swiss chard, baked with cheese), $22 (Dh80). Take a break from shopping to eavesdrop on locals gossiping in Kaffee Klatsch at Promenade 72 (00 41 81 413 30 16), which serves more than 30 different varieties of coffee; good too for salads and light lunches. For sublime cakes and pastries, head over to Confiserie Choccolino, at Promenade 45 (00 41 81 413 68 61). Time-Out (00 41 81 415 36 72) has one of the best sun terraces in town, overlooking the outdoor ice rink; traditional dishes such as grilled sausage with rösti cost from $11 (Dh40) to $21 (Dh77).

My favourite views - of the valley floor, 300 vertical metres below, sprinkled with lights - are from the chalet-style Restaurant Schatzalp, next to the top of the funicular; Mediterranean mains with a twist cost around $41 (Dh150). Some of the most imaginative cuisine is on offer at Mann und Co. located in the Waldhotel Davos, where both the "classic" and "freestyle" menus emphasise seasonal and regional fare; mains around $48 (Dh175). Neighbouring Klosters, meanwhile, boasts more GaultMillau points per head of population than any other place in Switzerland; you can notch up 17, as well as a Michelin star, at the Walserhof (www.walserhof.ch; 00 41 81 410 29 29) - where Prince Charles has frequently stayed on his ski holidays. For a seriously romantic dinner, though, I'd book a horse-drawn sleigh for the ride through the snow-blanketed forests and meadows of the Sertig valley to the Hotel Walserhuus (www.walserhuus.ch; 00 41 81 410 60 30): local specialities in the cosy pine-panelled parlour include cheese fondue ($23; Dh86).

Pick up local foodie treats - such as prized air-dried beef, fine cheeses and wines - from Bündner-Land at Promenade 73. Confiserie Schneider at Promenade 68 (www.schneiders-davos.ch) sells exquisite chocolates, including champagne truffles - and the sublime caramel-filled Graubünden walnut tart. The same street is also good for watches and jewellery - try Bucherer at number 69 (www.bucherer.com) or, for more contemporary products, Christ at 55 (www.christ-swiss.ch).

Hunting for a hotel during the WEF (January 27-31, 2010) - although you will find the ski slopes empty.

A ride along the valley on the narrow-gauge Rhaetian Railway (www.rhb.ch), which connects the ski areas. For a longer excursion, drop down to Filisur, where you can change onto the Albula line - an engineering masterpiece of tunnels and giddying viaducts, declared a Unesco world heritage site in July 2008. If possible, catch one of Davos' spectator events - from ice hockey matches to floodlit polo on snow in Klosters (January 21-24) and the Olympic-standard Davos Ice Gala (February 19-20). Details on the resort's website (www.davos.ch). travel@thenational.ae