Betting on success | Posted: 27 August 2014
Winter holidays in Switzerland were quick to catch on
Pioneers of winter holidays in Switzerland
Skiing has come on a long way since the first winter holidays in Switzerland

Swiss summer tourism and mountaineering were already in full swing by 1864, when the idea for winter holidays came about – through a daring wager!

As autumn came to the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz, and the season drew to a close, owner Johannes Badrutt made a bet with four of his English guests. Winter here was even more beautiful than summer, he said, and claimed that they would be able to enjoy the mild Engadine sunshine on his terrace – in their shirt sleeves – even in December. If he was proved wrong, he pledged to reimburse their travel costs; but if they enjoyed St Moritz in winter, as he promised they would, they could stay as his guests for as long as they liked.

Of course, the only winter the Englishmen were familiar with was the cold and damp one back home: it was hard to imagine things being much different here. Nevertheless, the bet was accepted, and they returned to the Engadine Valley in time for Christmas. Of course they loved it, and stayed right through until spring, leaving tanned, rested and happy; and effectively became the first Alpine winter tourists, able to enjoy a whole new world of winter holidays in the snow.

Not long after Herr Badrutt won his bet, the Engadine found itself welcoming as many visitors in winter as it did in summer. The British who flocked here, as well as enjoying the whisky and betting, were also rather partial to sport and the idea of competition. In fact, pretty much anything that could be done in the snow was turned into some kind of contest, and a considerable amount of creativity and imagination went into devising the various activities.

Related Holidays

Hotel Engiadina, Zuoz

12 miles up the valley from glamorous St Moritz is Zuoz, a handsome village of frescoed stone houses, in the midst of which is the 4-star Hotel Engiadina. Even the rail journey here is a delight and there is excellent cross-country skiing, plus a host of other activities.

More about our winter holidays in Zuoz >

150 years of winter tourism in SwitzerlandSome of these, such as the skeleton, bobsleigh and the Cresta Run for toboggans, have enjoyed a long and illustrious history; whereas others, like ice boating, skiing on stilts and snow biking didn’t quite catch on.

But there was no doubting the ingenuity of the participants, and it is perhaps the progress of skiing itself that was most remarkable. The early practitioners started out with nothing more than two planks of wood, woollen clothes and basic leather boots. And there were no lifts in those days, so considerable effort was required before the fun part could begin. But the rewards, as described here by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will be familiar to anyone who has cruised down a modern-day blue run: “You let yourself go, gliding delightfully over the gentle slopes, flying down the steeper ones, taking an occasional cropper, but getting as near to flying as any earthbound man can. In that glorious air it is a delightful experience.”

It was Conan Doyle, in fact, who, as well as creating the world’s greatest detective, helped to popularise the sport in Britain. After launching himself down the mountain with two eight-foot-long planks of Norwegian elm strapped to his feet, and following a month’s worth of ‘awkward movements and complex tumbles’, his perseverance paid off and things eventually clicked. Exhilarated, he was left in little doubt about the sport’s potential, and wrote: “I am convinced that there will come a time when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the ‘skiing’ season.”  How right he was!

Photos © Switzerland Tourism

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