Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


It is always a delight to see how the mountains come alive when the snow comes to the Alps. Here, it’s only the farmers and their livestock that seem to go into hibernation, as the villages and towns wake up and embrace the winter season. Towns and villages like Lech and Saint Moritz are blessed with picture postcard scenery, but they also have some of the best skiing in the region and make the very most of it. And while the traditional rural architecture of Switzerland and Austria is still carefully preserved and respected, the hotel and design scene is busily bringing the Alps up to date and introducing an enticing, vibrant new aesthetic to the hotels, restaurants and spas of the mountain resorts.

Mid-century master designers like Carlo Mollino and Marcel Breuer were fascinated by the Alps. Mollino famously reinvented the Alpine chalet and ski stations in the 1950s in northern Italy, while Breuer helped shape the identity and architecture of the French Alpine resort of Flaine in the 1960s.
Today, the design scene is more vibrant than ever, with Swiss, French and Austrian designers bringing a more contemporary touch to the region, collaborating with hoteliers and restaurateurs on buildings and interiors that are playful, fresh and enticing.

In Austria, the mountainous region of Vorarlberg has established an international reputation for its progressive architecture, pioneering mountain homes and sensitivity to green living, with many communities now blessed with their own biomass plants. Swiss architecture is renowned the world over, especially for its big name ‘starchitects’ like Herzog de Meuron and Peter Zumthor, as well as masters such as Valerio Olgiati and Gigon & Guyer. Zumthor famously revitalized the Swiss mountain town of Vals with his famous Therme spa, seen on the following pages; his own studio is around an hour’s drive from Vals at Haldenstein, near Chur.

But for those who associate Swiss and Alpine design with a pure, rather serious aesthetic, the news is that the joyful, playful spirit of the mountains has pollinated the architecture and interiors of the area. Dutch architect Bjarne Mastenbroek’s Villa Vals – a holiday rental home tucked into the side of a steep slope – is one great example (see page xx). But hoteliers such as Philippe and Daniela Frutiger of the small but beautifully formed Giardino group – whose Giardino Mountain hotel is pictured here (on page xx) – have also introduced a more informal and contemporary version of the Alpine look to spaces that are fresh and inviting. The region has never seemed so enticing, whether you are a traditionalist or searching for something a little more unexpected and engaging.


The night before we arrived in Vals the heavens opened. A good half metre of fresh snow floated down onto the mountains, dusting the trees, revitalizing the slopes and sending the snowploughs into overdrive. It was the perfect welcome to Vals – famous for its Valser mineral water and stunning mountain scenery – and to the Hotel Therme. The hotel and its famous spa, designed by Peter Zumthor, opened back in 1996 and put Vals firmly on the map, while also dramatically upping the stakes in terms of spa design, treatments and amenities.

When you arrive in Vals, the Therme itself is largely hidden from view and tucked away into the folds of the mountainside. The first glimpses of the hotel itself are not overly inviting, as it inhabits a small collection of 1960s buildings that were reinvented just as the spa alongside them was completed. But as you step into the main hotel building – with interiors also designed by Zumthor – the special character of the Hotel Therme begins to reveal itself.

No detail was too small for Zumthor, who involved himself in almost every aspect of the design, down to the rather minimal signage that turns the task of navigating the hotel and spa into a journey of discovery. The lounge and restaurant – where the dinner delights included some delicious rabbit goujons – make the most of views across the town and the mountains, with enigmatic gimpses of the spa complex itself.

The suites on the upper level of the hotel are best for savouring the views of the mesmerizing mountain scenery, with the slopes peppered with mountain huts and farmer’s livestock sheds in timber and stone. The rooms are predominantly in a calming black and white palette, with splashes of colour in the curtains and bathroom suites. There are no televisions, but ambient music is provided, including bespoke recordings and readings. Waking up with a view of the mountains unfolding before you is a memorable experience in itself.

But the glory here – and the key selling point – is the Therme. It can be accessed direct from the lower levels of the main hotel, hence the lifts graced with robed figures in pristine white dressing gowns, and the approach, along a sequence of tunnels, only heightens your sense of expectation. The spa does not disappoint and is about as extraordinary and as beautiful as modern architecture can be.

Bands of textured stone in varying widths forms monumental walls enclosing a series of pools and water rooms, with a choice of temperatures from chill plunge pools to high energy hot spots, while vast windows frame views of the mountains beyond. A short swim takes you from inside to outside, where you find yourself in a heated outdoor pool, set within a vast stone courtyard with epic openings to the landscape beyond. This is the real prize of the Hotel Therme.

‘The hotel set a new standard for Alpine hotels,’ says Hotel Therme director, Vera Wichmann. ‘It’s not just the design but the whole atmosphere – not having a tv in the bedroom, our cultural events and so on. We concentrate on what’s important and how people want to feel when they come to Vals. It’s the landscape and the place itself combined with the best possible level of architecture.’ - + 41 (0) 81 926 80 80


Just up the road from the Hotel Therme sis this glorious example of a new breed of Alpine holiday homes, which have brought a new dynamism to design in the region. Villa Vals – designed by Dutch architect Bjarne Mastenbroek of SeARCH Architects, in collaboration with Christian Müller - is set into the hillside so that it almost disappears into the landscape, especially during snow season.

Mastenbroek had been visiting Vals for over a decade, skiing and hiking in the region, before he started thinking about designing a house here for himself and his family, which is now also rented to guests for a large portion of the year. Wanting to preserve the integrity of the site as much as possible, as well as wishing to step away from the traditional pitched roofed houses of the region, Mastenbroek decided to push the house right into the hillside itself.

The villa is accessed via a small stone barn nearby, which leads to a subterranean tunnel. You emerge within a house that is surprisingly spacious and light; the façade may be discreet but the banks of windows – opening onto a compact courtyard – introduce a rich quality of natural light that might seem at odds with the idea of an underground home. Floor levels shift as you travel from the main living room, down to the kitchen, and up again to the first of the bedroom suites. There are another three bedrooms on the upper level.

‘The house is actually a lot lighter than traditional chalets,’ says Mastenbroek. ‘And it does really appeal to people, as it gives you that feeling of being comforted through being underground. It’s something that runs quite deep within us and the house is more relaxing than we thought for. Also, as the house is focused on one view of a mountain top across the valley, you do feel as though you are in the middle of nowhere, even though the house is part of the village.’

The interiors set up a contrast between concrete walls floors in some parts of the house and more organic textures and timber finishes elsewhere. The furnishings are sophisticated but sometimes playful, with splashes of colour and designs by Hella Jongerius, Moooi, Hans Wegner and Cor Alons. It is one of the most unusual and intriguing holiday homes to be found in the Alps and is heated and run on eco-friendly principles. - + 31 (0) 20 788 99 00


Hoteliers Philiippe and Daniela Frutiger have been building a small but beautifully formed group of Swiss hotels and restaurants. Their latest addition is the Giardino Mountain at Champfer, Saint Moritz, where they have reinvented a traditional mountain retreat in a fresh, contemporary style and have created a hotel that will appeal to families as much as romantics, with an informal, relaxed atmosphere.

The hotel overlooks Lake Saint Moritz, where ‘White Turf’ horse races are held each winter upon the frozen waters. Here the Frutigers have 78 bedrooms and three restaurants, yet the hotel still manages to feel warm, friendly and welcoming. The lounge and bar area – with a choice of seating zones – takes a modern but comfortable approach, with wooden floors and natural textures mixed with splashes of colour, particularly pinks, greens and violets – as well as pattern picked out in stretches of wallpaper and the illuminated panels, with a floral motif, that surround the bar.

Teenagers get their own designer space to hang out, with a games room, while younger children have the benefit of a crèche, playroom and junior café on the lower ground level, which also holds a substantial swimming pool and a welcoming spa, using Daniela Frutiger’s own Dipiu cosmetics line. The restaurants also have an original, modern Alpine feel (the slow cooked lamb is particularly recommended) and there’s a big emphasis on statement lighting throughout.

Suites are generous and warm, with timber floors and finishes used to great effect in creating spaces that are welcoming with notes of a modern rustic style, while the detailing is always impressive. The bathrooms are enticing, while larger suites have Victoria & Albert baths – with space enough for two – within the bedroom itself.

The Giardino Mountain has good relationships with the local ski schools and the many different slopes and lifts of the Engadin offer a broad choice of great skiing for aficionados of all levels. More than this, the Giardino offers a great new alternative to the more traditional hotels of Saint Moritz, while keeping standards luxuriously high.

‘It’s easy going and made for all generations,’ says resident Manager, Katrin Ruefenacht. ‘It’s no problem for us to have different groups of guests in the hotel – families or people who might prefer to be quieter. We have made a place for people who like the comforts of a luxury hotel but you don’t have to wear a tie in the evening.’ - + 41 (0) 81 8367 63 00


Over on the other side of the Engadin valley from Champfer, the Nira Alpina offers the twin temptations of being a ski in-ski out hotel as well as beautifully designed and well appointed. The hotel sits right alongside a cable car station and the many runs of the Corvatsch sector of Saint Moritz, with the lower slopes passing right by the ground floor café and restaurant, where skiers pull in for lunch or an end of day drink.

The hotel, which makes the most of its extraordinary location, was taken over by Nira Hotels & Resorts last year and is now part of the Design Hotels collective. The life size Moooi/Marcel Wanders horse lamp in the reception lobby and the tongue-in cheek collection of Swiss cows gives you the idea that there’s a cosy, ironic flavour to the design, which plays with traditional Alpine motifs – like deer’s antlers, sheepskin and cowhide – and gives them a contemporary twist.

The atmosphere is relaxed, youthful and informal, with a resident DJ in the top floor bar, which makes the most of the vista across the valley and its frozen lakes. The restaurant is also on the top level and here sharing is encouraged – Swiss tapas style. We loved the quail tempura and the pork belly bites, followed by a sublime entrecote with gnocchi style potatoes.

Most suites make the most of the mountain views, with private terraces, timber furniture, fun sized beds and fashion photos by Amedeo M. Turelio, which also dominate the top floor restaurant. Waking up and looking out at the sun banishing the shadows on the summit of the peaks across the valley is a wonderful way to start the day.

The hotel also has all the services of a ski in-ski out retreat, with boot rooms, underground car park and ski rental a short walk from the door. There’s also a spa and a whirlpool with a view for relaxing after a busy day on the mountains. Slope side living doesn’t get much more enticing than the Nira in Saint Moritz. -  + 41 (0) 81 838 69 69


With its high altitude and breath taking mountain scenery, Lech offers some of the best skiing in the Austrian Alps within a long season. The town itself retains a sophisticated and rather exclusive charm, with development strictly controlled and second homes forbidden. Most visitors, then, rely on the hotels here and they don’t come better than the Almhof Schneider.

The Almhof has been in the Schneider family since 1929 and the first ski lift here only opened ten years later. Since then much has changed here and the Schneiders – and the Almhof itself - have certainly moved with the times. Gerold Schneider, who now runs the hotel, grew up in Lech and is an expert skier but he is also an architect and designer, who collaborates with his wife Katia. Schneider has also been collaborating with English designer Anthony Collett, of Collett-Zarzycki, for many years on a careful and sensitive update of the hotel.

Reinventing a landmark luxury retreat, with a loyal and longstanding international clientele, while bringing it into the 21st century was always going to be quite a challenge. But Schneider has pulled off this balancing act with great panache, creating a look that is elegant and evocative, but also contemporary in a soft, welcoming modern style. The detailing is exquisite, the craftsmanship superb and throughout there’s an emphasis on warm, natural materials like alpine fir, oak and limestone.

Over the years, Schneider has added a pool and spa and reworked almost every part of the hotel, from the wine cellar to the business centre to the restaurants and the 35 suites and 18 bedrooms. Our own double suite was an escapist haven, with two bedrooms and an indulgent lounge between them.

The menu, the wine list and facilities are all of the highest standard, but the hotel is never stuffy or pretentious. Royals rub shoulders with vacationing families, booking their children into the ski schools, which are among the best in Austria. Schneider and his family have also developed other projects in the town – including the Schneggarei restaurant and bar in contemporary rustic style – and seem to have boundless energy and ambition.

‘We have to prove that every step we take is really appreciated by the clients,’ says Schneider, ‘so it is quite a balancing act. The first rooms we did were very successful with blonde, untreated wood and simple, local materials. It’s a formula we have developed over the years and each year is devoted to a new project in our masterplan. We have to take things to the next level, whereas other hotels here might rely on a more traditional approach.’ – + 43 5583 35000