TripAdvisor has become an important decision making tool when booking hotels. Love it or hate it, you've most likely used the online review service when planning a trip - even if, like me, you've always taken the reviews with a grain of salt.
In January TripAdvisor released its Traveler's Choice Awards, naming Switzerland's Grand Hotel Kronenhof the 2014 world's best hotel. When you're crowned the world's best hotel by arguably the world's most influential hotel review site, it can be hard to live up to the hype. However, after staying at the Kronenhof myself, I have to say that this time TripAdvisor got it right. As one online reviewer puts it, "This is not only a hotel, it is a whole story".
Getting up the mountains into the hotel is half the fun: if you're not flying into the nearby private airport like some guests do, you take the train up the UNESCO World Heritage listed railway to Pontresina. Situated on the hill opposite the train station, the 112-room Grand Hotel Kronenhof seems to anchor the entire village, it's green and gold Kronenhof sign glistening in the afternoon sun.
The view of the hotel might be picture-perfect, but it's the view from inside the hotel that packs a punch: every time I'm in my room I find myself lingering by the window, drinking in the view of the Bernina Range glaciers and pine forest of the Val Roseg to my left, and the alps above St Moritz to the right.
It's a relief to discover that rooms at the hotel emphasise comfort and function over the modern-day trend of minimalist design. There's plenty of storage space in my walk-in wardrobe, the sheets are soft enough to melt into, the bathroom is a generous size and there's a comfortable sitting area near the windows.
Half-board is included in the room rate, and each evening and morning I dine in the neo-baroque dining room, which could hold it's own in the palaces of Europe. The dress code is formal, the service impeccable, the food divine and the people watching… interesting. The clientele here are discreet, a firm reminder that while St Moritz is all about glitz and glamour, Pontresina is more refined.
As much as the hotel appreciates the TripAdvisor nod, it's clear it doesn't necessarily need the accolade. About 60-70% of its guests are returning clientele; requesting the same room at the same time each year (one TripAdvisor reviewer notes she's a fourth-generation visitor to the hotel).
The hotel director slowly walks the dining room on Saturday night, unobtrusively and warmly greeting each table and guest by name during service. Sipping coffee on my second night and observing the flow in the room, I think I've worked out the Kronenhof's secret: this is a place where you are made to feel like you belong. It isn't a place that is about design or trends: this is a hotel that has solid confidence in its tradition of service and how it delivers to guests, doing so with warmth.
The only time the veil lifts for me is after I'm shown the hotel's wine cellar, filled with a century's worth of antique sleighs, restored carriages, old bobsleighs and swimming-pool sized wooden wine vats. The cellar is used for special dining events. Antique skis line the walls, each with a faded brown luggage ticket in cursive script attached; a tribute to the guests who left them here before World War II and never returned; their fate unknown.
We exit the cellar via the dining room, just before service starts. The staff, in their white jackets and full livery, gather around the manager for their briefing. It's like something out of Downton Abbey. Except this is 2014 and it's real life - this is just how things are done here at the Kronenhof.
Of course, the hotel also offers exclusive perks: private night skiing on Corvatsch mountain in St Moritz with sister hotel the Kulm is arranged during the winter season, and the hotel also delivers on the facilities. The 2000-square metre spa is the most modern part of the hotel, with a light therapy pool, saltwater and aromatherapy grottos, and separate females-only hot sauna.
Snow sits a metre deep on the ground outside as I wade in the indoor infinity pool. When I dive in, I'm surprised to hear Massive Attack's Teardrop playing underwater. Alone in the spa in the early AM, floating on my back in lukewarm water, music floods my ears. The mountains are back-lit with pink dawn light, and I feel the most relaxed I've felt in months. I've forgotten TripAdvisor, the internet and my day job even exist.
In truth, the hotel is so comfortable that it's hard to leave the grounds - but I'm glad I do. I take a 14-kilometre horse and sleigh ride through the Val Roseg and walk the Philosopher's Trail at the top of Muottas Muragl, which overlooks the Alps.
A large portion of the hotel's success can be attributed to it's location, with the Engadin receiving 322 days of sunlight each year - and the sky is blue the entire time I'm there, making the snow glitter. I check out on Sunday feeling like I've spent two weeks here, not two days.
Could I find fault with the hotel? Did anything bug me? No. The only inconsistency I noted was that hot tea was available by the pool on Saturday morning, but wasn't on the Sunday morning - and that's hardly something to whine about on TripAdvisor.
So is this the best hotel in the world? Possibly. I haven't stay in them all, and until I have, it would be unwise to declare it so. But it certainly exceeded my expectations, and I would have no hesitation recommending it. And while it is expensive, it delivers the level of service expected for the price. This isn't just a hotel on list, this is an experience, one that captures an era of elegant hospitality. Will I be back? Absolutely. The location is somewhere special.
Rooms at the Kronenhof for the 2013/2014 winter season start from 395CHF (A$476) per night per room, including half-board, spa access and shuttle service to and from the train station. Packages offer the best value. Prices for the 2014/2015 winter season to be advised.
The writer was a guest of the Grand Hotel Kronenhof and Engadine tourism.