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True luxury in St. Moritz [Tribune News Service :: BC-WLT-STMORITZ:MCT]

You are always alone atop a mountain, even in a crowd. At a beach - any beach - a solitary figure standing at the edge of your vision can make you feel intruded upon. On the summit of an Alpine mountain, a chairlift dumping out bystanders six at a time will offer you no companionship. I stand next to my wife at nearly 11,000 feet of altitude, in the St. Moritz region of Switzerland, on the highest skiable peak of the formidable Corvatsch massif. I have known my wife for over a quarter century, but she has momentarily become a phantom of herself, unable to interrupt my solitude with even the best of our mutual intentions.

Everywhere in view, lesser white-spiked peaks chip at the cloudless blue sky. Ski boots clang on the gray metal walkways of the observation deck overhead, and somewhere within, souvenirs are offered for sale. All encounters with great mountains are confrontations with lifeless grandeur, even on the fairest of days, and so it is now. I must face this mountain as I have all the others, with respect and on my own.

The oceans brought life to the earth, a truth underlying the primal call made by Botticelli's Venus and every other fertile woman, caught, in fact or in imagination, rising from a blue, fecund sea. Climb an Alp and you will cross a geological line above which trees cease to grow; go higher still and the ibex no longer leave their tracks in the snow. Only a small percentage of deaths on Mount Everest occur on the ascent; it is in their attempts to find their way back to the living that most climbers have succumbed. When you ski the Alps, it is never about going up, which is someone else's mechanized concern; getting back down is when your skills and a bit of luck will see you through.

My way down from Corvatsch is conventional: a pair of parabolic skis, rented to me with unceremonious care and a hat-tipping respect for my personal safety. I do own my ski clothes - bought over time at Bogner shops across Central Europe. That includes the branch in town, where the woman who sold me my favorite down jacket six years before has just replaced the lost signature "B" clasp of one of the zippers with a pair of needle-nose pliers. She has used a different color clasp and put it on backwards, apparently knowing she did and pleased with the results just the same. That makes it all the more enjoyable for me. It is a mistake to imagine, in a rugged place made glamorous, that quality is about perfection.

Problems at work, problems with love, unexpected problems such as the delivery van that backed into me the day before on a pedestrian path: you recognize, when you are skiing, the moment you lapse into letting your troubles bother you. That is when you lose focus and you fall. Skiing is pleasurable because it forces you to concentrate with the right side of the brain, to free yourself from language, to see and to feel rather than to think. You empty your mind of words and you take in space and movement, position and balance. When you traverse down, in control, you lose your consciousness to the mountain. There are no tricks, no deviations. You can only go where the mountain wills for you to have a chance of succeeding.

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Luxury is a state of mind. It is nominally about objects and service, but that is never the point. The pharaohs lived in luxury but could not place calls across the world or, for that matter, drop ice cubes into glasses of lemonade. St. Moritz is about luxury, as it was when Victorian visitors came for the summer, riding in trains and coaches because even the richest among them had no means to fly. Luxury is about expectation honed into results; it is about fantasy made into reality; it is about a wish for the better made into the display of the best. As every good Impressionist painter knew, it is about having someone less well off than you obligingly bend over and draw your bath.

Our hotel, the Kulm, was the first grand hotel in a town made famous for them. Each afternoon, the lobby fills with people casually whispering their wealth - in the clothing and jewelry they wear, of course, but also in attitude, poise and demeanor. The trappings of luxury may have changed beyond recognition since the days of the pharaohs; how to look like they are native to you has not altered a bit.

Luxury is about shared knowledge and consensual connoisseurship. If you have to explain what it is you own or are doing that is so much better than whatever someone in front of you owns or is doing, luxury becomes solipsistic, which is not very luxurious. That explains in part why brands are so important; each tells a story that the owner integrates into his own life's narrative and, by mutual awareness, becomes part of a narrowly enjoyed but collective experience. Luxury, in short, is a club open to those who can do and who know how.

In a small conference room, technicians from the IWC luxury watch brand are setting up the equipment - and pouring the Champagne - for a master class on watchmaking to be given to people who own IWC timepieces, which are built in Schaffhausen, the capital of a small Swiss canton. I am chatting about that with a representative when it occurs to me that the gold watch I am wearing is from the same luxury group - only more finely handmade, with more jewels than even a comparable IWC. Does that make certify me as a sybarite? Mine was made in Germany, in a town a short train ride from where my mother was born. Does it make any difference - does it bring luxury down to scale - that I bought it because I am a German national but, more to the point, because it reminded me of Mom? Does it matter that my ski watch - that is, a plastic Swatch - will likely, due to its quartz movement, keep better time than just about all of them?

You can fill your days in St. Moritz meditating on people and things not often seen by many. Perhaps all of this is one reason why I keep coming back here and keep urging others to go: it is a small and quiet place that invites me to ask more questions about myself and occasionally to proffer answers.

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Every town that depends on rotating caravans of moneyed outsiders for its economic viability needs places - or even a single place - where the locals can gather and pretend to themselves, if it is only for the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee, that the visitors have gone away and obligingly left their money behind. In the quiet back room of Hausammann, I order lunch in German from a young woman with an odd accent. Around me sit couples and groups of friends who sound like locals and who talk about what their children are doing and who will walk the dog. Part bakery, pastry shop, cafe and restaurant, Hausammann is really a spa - a restorative for the soul of the people who are what every town needs, which is to say, a true community.

When I finally ask my waitress where she is from, she answers in English better sounding than my own, "Ascot. Where the races are held." Would it spoil the interlude for the others around us for the British waitress and German/American me to remind them, merely by our presence, that little St. Moritz is a world city?

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St. Moritz has special events that keep bringing back those who love it. Foremost is a challenging international holiday conventionally referred to as Christmas. To participate, you have to stay for a long period of time - at least through the start of the New Year - and if you miss a season, your guaranteed reservation for next year may pass, like an unclaimed inheritance, to someone else; but as long as you behave well and pay your bills, the slot is yours, for life. Luxury is about exclusion, but among those who enjoy it, luxury is also about inclusion - up to a point. As was often said in Britain, "The upper class starts with me." I am only noting that because in my case (as with so many the others), that remains entirely true.

One of the signature annual festivals of St. Moritz is known as White Turf - horse racing on the frozen Lake St. Moritz. Global warming has come, but the lake surface still glazes over with about 2 feet of ice. Spread a little snow on top, like jam on toast, and properly shod horses can run a good race. I watch two horses battle it out and next comes a harness race. In lieu of a sulky (that chariot-like cart in which the driver sits) the vehicles here are racing sleighs, which are to czarina's sleigh what jogging strollers are to baby buggies - a rather odd but workable task-specific alternative.

I am deep inside a reserved prime viewing space before I realize that I have accidentally wandered into it, and just as interestingly, no one around seems to mind. So I have the best view of the races. But I am missing my family. My wife and son are at the spa at the Kulm or, if they have not yet made it there, they are watching all this from the balcony of our suite.

Over the years I have visited this place that is special to my heart I have learned to understand that the best luxury is enjoying time with my family. I leave the races behind to seek out their company.

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GETTING THERE

Swiss International Air Lines flies nonstop to Zurich from eight North American cities. www.swiss.com; 1-877-359-7947. You can send checked baggage ahead, from your departure airport, to any of 34 railway stations in Switzerland; inquire when reserving your flight.

St. Moritz is served by Samedan Airport (SMV), which can handle small aircraft, up to heavy general aviation. If your corporate jet is in the shop, consider that Swiss Rail operates some of the best trains in the world: http://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/swiss-travel-pass.html; or Rail Europe: www.raileurope.com; from USA: 1-800-622-8600; from Canada: 1-800-112-6680.

STAYING THERE

Kulm Hotel St. Moritz, Via Veglia 18, 7500 St. Moritz; www.kulm.com. It can be booked from the USA and Canada through The Leading Hotels of the World: www.lhw.com; 1-800-745-8883. FYI: If you would rather not take the train or fly in, the Kulm can arrange for a driver to pick you up at Zurich Airport for CHF 850 ($842).

SKI RENTAL

Rental equipment in Switzerland is always good and often excellent. (Unless you truly love what you own, bringing it is usually not worth the bother.) We rented from Ender Sport, which not coincidentally has a satellite shop in the Kulm. The main store, which also sells premium skiwear, is steps away at Via Maistra 26, 7500 St. Moritz; www.endersport.com; +41 (0)81 833 35 36.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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