Learning to ski in St Moritz, Switzerland: The Swiss slopes made for ski virgins

I'm as fresh to skiing as the virgin snow that fell last night on the cobbled streets of St Moritz and more heavily on the mountains above, but there's no judgment here. The staff at Ski Service, who pose in the company's glossy catalogue as well as fit boots and skis, are gracious and encouraging and make me espressos to get me pumped. My instructor, Susi Wiprachtiger, speaks several languages and has been skiing since she can remember because "that's what Swiss people do". Yet she tells me, in the first 10 minutes of the lesson, that I'm picking it up quickly and she can see I'm sporty by the way I fall.

The town of St Moritz is at an altitude of 1822 metres in the Upper Engadine Valley of Switzerland's most eastern canton, Graubunden. Traditionally Romansch-speaking, Swiss German predominates these days and English is widely spoken. And, with the border so close, there are many Italian instructors here inadvertently teaching the tiny ski-goggled obstacles around me to perfectly pronounce "pizza" and "spaghetti" as they slide, stop, slide, stop.

At the Swiss Ski School we're one funicular and a horse-drawn sleigh ride above St Moritz. It's the country's oldest ski school, and some even say winter sports were born in this region. A century and a half ago the Swiss Alps were a summertime-only tourism destination until Johannes Badrutt, the original owner of what is now Kulm Hotel, convinced some English guests to visit in winter by offering them free unlimited accommodation. After several months they returned home, suntanned and high on endorphins, raving about the revelation of "dry cold".

Although I'm learning to ski on a slope with cartoon-decorated dividers, chocolate-bar-shaped poles and a rainbow archway over the magic carpet, Wiprachtiger respects I'm an adult and doesn't talk pizza and spaghetti. Her instruction isn't technical but, rather, encourages intuitive skiing. We discard my poles, she holds my hand for a while then, within half an hour, I'm independently weaving between the Toblerones.

St Moritz hosted their first Winter Olympics in 1928, the ski school opened in 1929 and in 1930 the town trademarked itself with a sun logo representing the 300-plus days of sunshine it sees every year. St Moritz continues to be attractive to the rich and famous because of the area's physical beauty and remoteness and a local population unmoved by celebrity.

"Let's see if you can really ski," Wiprachtiger soon says, directing me to a more advanced beginner slope. At first I skid athletically into the soft edge because it feels too steep to manage a turn, but then make it the rest of the way down feeling relatively in control. After a few more attempts I call it quits while I'm still warm, dry and on a high. At the ski school cafe we rehydrate with Rivella – a traditional Swiss drink made with milk whey – and a bowl of Engadine-style barley soup. I return to town by horse-drawn sleigh and funicular while Wiprachtiger, keen for a blat, skis down.

Back in St Moritz we step into the bakery-confectionary section of Hauser, which first opened in 1892 and is now also a hotel with a restaurant and bar. Each handmade chocolate, I'm told, has passed through the hands of the pastry maker three times before reaching my lips. Out on the street again, Wiprachtiger introduces me to a friend of hers who looks exactly like Kirk Douglas. At Glattfelder we gaze upon golden caviar priced at thousands of dollars per kilo and decide that asking for a sample would just make things awkward.

As evening falls, celebrities I don't recognise and fur-wrapped Russians on Orthodox Christmas holidays descend on Badrutt's Palace, the epicentre of St Moritz glitz. Just up the road, Hauser is a more casual apres-ski hub with flaming towers of gas warming an outdoor bar area where everyone assumes I'm a skier. And maybe now I am.



www.myswitzerland.com; www.stmoritz.ch



Swiss International Air Lines, along with airline partners, offers daily connections from Sydney and Melbourne via Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. See www.swiss.com.

For train travel in Switzerland, including Swiss Pass information, see www.myswitzerland.com/rail.


Hotel Hauser, Via Traunter Plazzas 7, is a relaxed family-run hub in the centre of St Moritz. Over winter, double rooms start from around CHF200 ($280) a night during the week and CHF300 ($420) a night on weekends. See www.hotelhauser.ch.


Ski Service Corvatsch, Via Stredas 11, is conveniently located for gear rental being just a few awkward ski boots steps from the funicular. See www.skiservice-corvatsch.com.


Restaurant Engiadina, Via Dimlej 1, St Moritz, see restaurant-engiadina.ch; Hatecke, Via Maistra 6, St Moritz, see www.hatecke.ch.

Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.