Gal With a Suitcase
Our intrepid business traveler explores Bill Clinton’s favorite hotel and the best restaurants in Davos, Switzerland, where world leaders just gathered for the World Economic Forum meeting.
Davos, Switzerland is a sleepy Alpine village 360 days of the year. During the other five, it turns into the business and political capital of the world. Forty years ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) hosted their first annual meeting in Davos and now every January you can find one of the most powerful collections of wheeler-dealers from across the globe. Busy-looking world leaders, determined philanthropists, and skittish-looking bankers zip in and out of meetings from dated buildings and crummy restaurants, while a lager-laden press corps waits to find that untold story on “why Davos matters.”
Click Image to View Our Gallery of the WEF Annual Meeting in Davos
I've often wondered what all the fuss was about, and having just left, I can tell you—it has nothing to do with the location. My former colleagues at the Financial Times always had a big presence, and after I stopped working for the venerable pink lady I was approached about a job by the WEF. The next thing I knew I was giving up an extended Thanksgiving holiday for a trip to Geneva. I’ll spare you all but two details: I did not take the job and I found the visit to this secret compound with serious-looking Swiss to be an odd experience by any standard. Perhaps this is why I had an eerie sense of déjà vu visiting Davos for the first time. “What should I expect?” I kept asking friends who were old pros. The two consistent bits of advice were to pace myself and wear conservative footwear.
Getting to Davos, the highest city in Europe, is a haul. The closest airport is Zurich and from there it’s a 93-mile drive through the mountains. The views are stunning, but the journey takes two hours if you’re lucky—three if you’re not. With 126 days of rain per year, Davos is quite wet, but it does boast the largest ski resort in Switzerland. The town is split between eastern Davos Dorf and western Davos Platz. The heart of the action takes place in Davos Platz, but its sister location is just slightly to the east and it won’t seem distant when you’re traveling between the two.
What you may not know about Davos is that it has long been the center of the region’s best healing options—allergy clinics, respiratory rehabilitation, and sanatoriums for tuberculosis sufferers. If you’re in need of a check-up then perhaps you should consider a visit; if not, then I wouldn’t recommend visiting Davos for a personal getaway. Simply stated, it’s dated and tired. Places like Verbier, Chamonix, or St. Moritz offer all the Alpine charms, but with a hint of glamour and style. Davos does not. As such, my below recommendations are based on visiting during peak season (like the Annual Meeting) so that, unlike me, you don’t have to learn about Davos the hard way.
I hope you’re in the mood for cheese. Davos feels like the fondue capital of the world. Cheese fondue is one of those communal dishes that always seems like a better idea than it is in reality. But when in Rome (or Davos), you simply must.
My favorite cheese was at Pot au Feu Restaurant on Mattastrasse 4 in Davos Platz. It is darling. Order a mixed green salad, some crisp white wine, and get your dipping sticks ready. Remember, three prongs are for cheese, two prongs are for meat. I recommend eating upstairs and wearing loose-fitting clothing.
Pot au Feu Restaurant Mattastrasse 4 7270 Davos Platz 41 081 413 50 68 www.pot-au-feu.ch
For delicious French fare like snails and homemade soups, try Bistro Gentiana on Promenade 53 in Davos Platz. It’s a tiny little gem where you will find people wagering deals in between slurps and sips. I warn you that they put a lot of wine in their fondue. (I sent mine back.) The second time it was better, but I’d stick to tomato soup, fries, and steak.
And for the ultimate pizza and pasta joint, there’s no place like Scala. It seems to be bustling at any hour, and with good reason: it’s the best pizza you’ll find in town. Order a cold lager and top it off with a mixed green salad and Pizza Diavolo. Just make sure you have enough water nearby. Now that’s some spicy salami.
Scala Promenade 63 7270 Davos Platz 41 81 415 42 20
Hotels in Davos are lackluster at best. There are literally thousands of rooms at dive-looking hotels and motels along the main roads. Plush, they’re not, but there’s one exception: Steigenberger Belvedere. If you can score a room here (like Bill Clinton does) then you’ll be happy. It is a grand old belle with 97 rooms and 30 suites, two restaurants, a bistro, and a bar. Pricing is irrelevant because if you can get a reservation, you should pay it. I’m also told they have a good spa.
Steigenberger Belvedere Promenade 89 7270 Davos Platz 41 81 415 60 00 http://www.steigenberger.com/Davos
A little off the beaten track, but lovely nonetheless, is Hotel Flüela. She boasts 125 rooms, a heated indoor pool, sauna, Turkish bath, and solarium, as well as a lounge and piano bar. The location is in the middle of Davos Dorf just opposite the railway station.
Hotel Flüela Bahnhofstrasse 5 7260 Davos Dorf 41 81 410 17 17 http://www.fluela.ch/
If you’re heading to Davos for the WEF Annual Meeting, it’s time to schmooze. Bring stacks of business cards. Everything is about access and the badge hierarchy at Davos would make the Indian caste system blush. A white badge means all access, orange means press, green means you’re a Sherpa, and purple means they didn’t want you to come and restricted your access to basically checking your coat. The funny thing about the experience is that the economic sessions are almost an afterthought. Everything seems to be about which of the endless parties you’ll attend.
As a general rule, all parties are at either Hotel Europe (their infamous Tonic Piano Bar boasts the effervescent Barry at the keys and is where everyone ends up during the late hours) or at Steigenberger Belvedere. Be strategic to cut down on commuting time.
Hotel Europe Promenade 63 7270 Davos Platz 41 81 415 41 41 http://www.europe-davos.ch/
Once you’re partied out, you should take the funicular up the mountain for a day of skiing in Davos Klosters. The panoramas are stunning and the altitude can clear your head from all the added responsibility you picked up during the week. There are five mountains; I’d recommend Schatzalp or Parsenn. With nearly 300 kilometers of slopes, it’s easy to find a way to unwind.
I tried to squeeze in a little culture in between my skiing and grinning. I went to the Kirchner Museum, founded by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. What a tired attempt at a Museum of Modern Art. It is a shrine to concrete: walls, floors, and ceilings. I found it totally dismal and uninspiring. Their current collection is from Sophie Taeuber-Arp on “Movement and Balance.”
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50% of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.