Two of the world's most prominent hotel and property developers and a big media honcho are standing in the snow, puffing on Trinidad cigars, wrapped up, single malt in hand. Behind them is a gigantic creation of Asian/Alpine fusion, The Chedi Andermatt, a hotel that would be spectacular even if it landed in St Moritz or Gstaad, but has even more effect for being in the heart of this previously little-known resort.
Such was the scene at the gala opening. Now, six months later, the town is quiet, waiting for the action to begin. Permits for construction of new skilifts arrived. Outdoor swimming pool ready. But a relenless rain, cascading down the mountainside, puts a hush on things. Time to spa!
On the other side of the railway tracks at the end of the garden is the rest of the development, still a building site, that will see more than a £1bn invested in a several hotels, a golf course, numerous apartment buildings, luxury shops and even an entire new lift system, all built to a carbon-neutral standard that means Andermatt Swiss Alps will be the greenest place to ski in the Alps, if not the world.
The opening gala of The Chedi, a hotel and spa like no other, is slightly curious. For those of us more familiar with seeing these resorts in the balmy climes of Oman or Bali, it is an effusive Asian welcome in the middle of an Alpine scene. There's the spot where James Bond filmed a scene for "Goldfinger." And quaint old guest houses line the streets. But not as curious as the whole development, which, from Chedi to new lift system, is being created by an Egyptian.
Samih Sawiris has been called in by the Swiss to rescue and revitalize one of their crumbling resorts.
Samih would never put it that way of course. Elegant and hyperactive with liquid blue eyes and a constant smile, he first visited Andermatt nearly a decade ago, when it was a village with an army base attached that you only visited if you were either a serious powderhound (it has one of the best snow records in the Alps) or you were doing Swiss military service. The army was pulling out and the place risked disappearing into irrelevance as¬ contrary to public perception -- Swiss villages with no wintersport income can be poor, rural communities.
Sawiris, who had created an entire resort on the Red Sea at Gouna -- not just hotels and apartments and infrastructure but schools, hospitals, local housing and administration¬ told the Swiss he saw potential for a super-resort. Andermatt's location on the north face of the Alps provides excellent snow cover, its position near the main Milan-Zurich motorway and railway means rapid access.
Several years, and an enormous amount of persuading, charming, cajoling and negotiating later - the first part of the Andermatt Swiss Alps development, The Chedi is a beautiful hotel. The projected apartments, which first sold slowly, and are selling more rapidly now the hotel is there, range from the pleasant to the oligarchical. Managed by Singapore-based General Hotel Management, designed by an architect based in Kuala Lumpur, it is a fresh interpretation of the Swiss Alps with a touch of Asian chic.
For me, luxury is defined more by experience than objects, and the experience of the ski lounge at the hotel is a real bragging right: instead of fighting your way to the sweaty local ski shop, you will sit in a wood-lined lounge bar, sipping Oolong tea, while a smart young gentleman fits you out with boots and skis he conjures out of nowhere, which he then carries to the car or the lift for you. Suddenly, the ugliest part of the wintersports experience has vanished.
Next year, they are installing a new lift with an entrance in the hotel's back garden.
The Sawiris family (Samih is one of three brothers) are properly self-made, for Egypt has no natural resources for its business leaders to plunder. But there are far easier ways of increasing your wealth than trying to transform a conservative community in central Switzerland into a fabulous resort, which would be a challenge for a Swiss, let alone an Egyptian (as Samih readily acknowledges). So what does drive him? It's not ego; he's a relentlessly humble, pleasant man, educated for engineering in Berlin. It's not power, and certainly not quick financial gain: there are still no guarantees he will make money on the development.
I suspect, watching the great and good of Zurich and beyond, the rather conservative Mittel European wealthy who wore their Hemmerle jewels and their Hermes blazers, and stared wide-eyed at the dramatic interiors, Taittinger in hand, that Samih is driven by a desire to do things that others say are impossible.
Next: Enjoying The Chedi