Though this Swiss mecca for skiers, walkers and hikers is almost unknown compared to its world famous neighbor, we at Gemütlichkeit prefer its authenticity and more country ways.
Two small Swiss towns, less than five miles apart. They share the same canton, the same climate and the same mountain setting. Both offer the usual array of summer and winter Alpine recreational pursuits. Both boast a range of lodgings including enough five-star luxury to suit the average oil sheik or prime minister. One town is so famous it has copyrighted its name. Mention the other, though, and even experienced travelers look puzzled. It's in Italy, right?
The two Swiss towns are in Graubünden (Grisons) in the southeastern corner of the country - the Engadine. The famous one, the one you can't name a soft-drink, candy bar, sweater or fragrance after, is St. Moritz. The lesser known but in our view, more charming town is Pontresina.
Where St. Moritz has been somewhat spoiled by success - post-war architecture, traffic, commercialism - Pontresina has maintained its identity as a Swiss mountain village.
Most of the town, which lies on a hillside at the beginning of the Bernina Valley, is gathered along one, long, sloping street. Buildings are typical of the Upper Engadine, with thick walls, arched entrances and small, deep-set windows. Many are decorated with the unique plaster designs known as sgraffito.
The town's setting offers a fine view across the Ova da Bernina, the river which runs through the floor of the valley below Pontresina, to the Bernina peaks.
Our last visit was in July and never have we seen so many hikers and climbers in any Swiss town. In the late afternoon they flow like rivers out of the mountains to fill up every sidewalk table on the village's main street. Many, of course, arrive via the Engadine's perfect little red railway cars, the Rhätische Bahn, to explore the region's more than 300 miles of tended paths. One of the most popular walks is a nearly level route between Muottas Muragl and Alp Languard, a distance of some four miles. Take the chairlift from the village to Alp Languard, at an elevation of a little over 8,000 feet, and walk eastward around the mountain to Muottas Muragl where there is a restaurant. You can descend on foot in about an hour and a half, or faster via the Muottas Muragl funicular.
The air in Pontresina is dry, refreshing and there is much sunshine. The weather is particularly lovely in summer, when there is little humidity and the nights are cool.
Though outdoor activities are the tourist mainstays, there are one or two more cerebral attractions. The small Santa Maria Church, located at the highest point in the village, attracts visitors to its murals which date from the 15th century and cover virtually every inch of every interior wall. In St. Moritz, the Engadine Museum, is of interest.
A most pleasant Pontresina diversion in summer is the daily orchestral concert from 11 a.m. to noon in the Tais forest.
The best place we found to watch the comings and goings of Pontresina was on the town's main street from a table in front of the Hotel Schweitzer Hof where our favorite beer, Pilsner Urquell, is served on draft. It's a good spot for an alfresco lunch or a late afternoon refresher.
While not inexpensive, hotels are cheaper than in St. Moritz. Most prices given below include breakfast and dinner. Hotels are within walking distance of the railway station, though all except the Hotel Bahnhof require an uphill climb.
The Kronenhof is about as grand as any hotel in Switzerland, and in a small mountain village its presence is unexpected. It offers a nice - and less expensive - alternative to the better-known Lifestyles-of-the-Rich & Famous bastions of nearby St. Moritz.
Its impressive wrought iron entry gate and large courtyard is accessed from Pontresina's narrow main street. The central wing of the massive turn-of-the-century building overlooks the river and acres of tennis courts, lawn and swimming pools. The view is stunning.
The tastefully appointed public rooms reek of top quality European luxury: magnificent Neo-Rococo paintings, Gobelin valances, Art Nouveau ceilings, priceless antique furnishings. Note the painted ceilings done by Otto Haberer in 1942 in the lobby and dining room.
Guestrooms are spacious and elegantly furnished, of course, with such amenities as hair dryers, 15 channel satellite TV, safes, heated towel racks, etc.
In addition to an array of restaurants; the elegant, cherrywood Kronenstübli, the Sun Terrace, and La Court for fondue and raclette; plus such other five-star hotel favorites as bowling alleys, hair dresser, masseuse, bridge club, winter ice rink, indoor-outdoor swimming pool and tennis courts; the Kronenhof has a winery. Young wine, mainly from Italy, is brought to the hotel where it is filtered, barrel aged, bottled and labeled. Winery tours can be arranged at the Pontresina tourist office.
The Kronenhof is a great hotel and gets our highest rating.
* Grand Hotel Kronenhof CH-7504 Pontresina, phone 082-6 01 11, fax 082/660 66, singles 170 to 340 Sfr. ($119-$238), doubles 320 to 660 Sfr. ($223-$461), including breakfast and dinner. Major Cards.
* Grand Hotel Kronenhof: V
Hotel La Collina
The comfortable La Collina is in a beautiful position on the high end of the village. It is unimpressive from the outside but many of the hotel's 45 rooms, some with outstanding views, have been recently redecorated. Our corner room, Number 407, was big enough for a long stay and an expanse of windows provided panoramic views.
In addition to the main building there are two annexes: Chesa Soldanella and Chesa Ladina with apartments and guest rooms serviced by the hotel.
"Stuvetta," La Collina's restaurant, is excellent.
The hotel dates to 1904 but the present owner, Ben van Engelen, took over in 1981.
Quality guest rooms, friendly staff, superb views and a first-rate restaurant earn our enthusiastic recommendation.
* Hotel La Collina CH-7504, Pontresina, phone 082/601 21, fax 082/679 95, singles 125 to 175 Sfr. ($87-$122), doubles 240 to 350 Sfr. ($168-$245), including breakfast and dinner.
* La Collina: III
Another hotel on the main street, about a 5-10 minute uphill walk from the railway station, the 27-room Chesa-Mulin, is Swiss-modern, bright, clean and comfortable.
The hotel has no restaurant but snacks are available. Arriving guests will find a basket of fresh fruit in their rooms.
Senior discounts of approximately 15% are offered during most of the summer and early fall and at certain times in the winter. Children 6-12 stay for 50% off, kids 12-16 get 30% off and children under six are free. Summer prices are about 10-12% lower than in winter. Best room is Number 25, a large corner double with two windows. The hotel is closed in November.
* Hotel Garni Chesa-Mulin CH-7504, Pontresina, phone 082/675 75, fax 082/670 40, singles 80 to 120 Sfr. ($56-$84), doubles 140 to 220 Sfr. ($98-$154). Major Cards.
* Chesa-Mulin: II
Expect to find a lot of kids in the 82-room Hotel Atlas. It not only welcomes families, it caters to them.
This rambling, relaxed hotel sprawls over the hillside next to the smart Kronenhof and provides acres of grounds and extensive play facilities for kids. There is both an outdoor swimming pool and a special children's pool, a playground, a trampoline, ping pong tables, tennis courts, a jukebox, a billiards room and a playroom that provides free supervised care for kids age three and above. There is even a separate, small dining room equipped with plenty of high-chairs for families with small children. The Atlas can also provide strollers and baby back-packs.
Though the Atlas is a little worn at the edges it still offers many of the charms of a "grand" hotel: antique furniture, great, high-ceilinged public rooms and the same spectacular views of its neighbor, the Kronenhof. But we were most impressed with the attitude of a staff that obviously enjoys a hotel full of kids. We recommend it especially for those with young children.
Families, of course, are eligible for substantial discounts.
* Atlas Hotel, CH-8024 Pontresina, phone 082/663 21, fax 082/679 92, singles 80 to 160 Sfr. ($56-$112), doubles 140 to 310 Sfr. ($98-$217), including breakfast and dinner. Major Cards.
* Atlas Hotel: II G
As one might surmise, the Hotel Station is across the street from the railway station where those clever little red trains of the Rhätische Bahn come and go.
This is a simple hotel; some rooms have only a washbasin. But it is clean and the bustling restaurant serves good country food. There is no elevator.
The Station is a busy friendly place and would be ideal for the rail traveler who doesn't mind Spartan accommodations.
* Hotel Station CH-7504 Pontresina, phone 082/662 42, fax 082/673 90, singles 72 Sfr. to 93 Sfr. ($50-$65), doubles 136 Sfr. to 186 Sfr. ($95-$130), including breakfast and dinner. Major cards.
Located in a quiet location above the village, on the path to the Church of Santa Maria near the Alp Languard chairlift, the Hauser offers 17 rooms, a few with toilet and shower.
* Hotel-Pension Hauser CH-7504, Pontresina, phone 082-6 63 26, singles 42 Sfr to 58 Sfr. ($29-$41), doubles 86 Sfr. to 148 Sfr. ($60-$103). No cards.
* Pension Hauser: I
Elevation: 5,863 feet
Approximate distances from:
* Geneva 480 km 298 miles
* Zürich 210 km 130 miles
* Innsbruck 220 km 136 miles
* Munich 300 km 186 miles
* Frankfurt 620 km 384 miles
* Tourist Office
* CH-7504 Pontresina
* Phone: 082/664 88
* Fax: 082/679 96
* Hours of Operation
* Mon.-Fri. 8:30 am-12 pm
* 2 pm-6 pm
* Sat. 8:30 am-12 pm
* 2 pm-5 pm
By automobile: The approach passes, Julier, Maloja, Ofen and Bernina passes are open all year; Albula in summer only.
By rail: Chur is the express train terminus. From there by the Rhätian railway via Samedan to Pontresina. Another branch of the Rhätische Bahn provides a way from St. Moritz, via Pontresina to Tirano, Italy.
By air: From Zürich (Kloten) airport via scheduled air taxi flights to Samedan (December through April).
Ski Pass Rates
Six days unlimited use of 65 mountain railways, cable cars, ski lifts, ski bus and indoor public swimming pool.
* Adults Sfr. 237 ($166)
* Children Sfr. 174 ($122)
Rental of skis and boots for six days is approximately $120. Six days ski school instruction (four hours per day in groups of maximum eight persons) is about $140.