DAVOS, Switzerland — From the 12th to the 18th centuries this lovely little Grisons town had been many things to many people. It was a hotbed of paladins who hired out to protect merchants' goods moving from bazaars of the East over the Alps to the Germanic empire.
A century or so later it became the center for a less fortunate group, sufferers from tuberculosis and other lung diseases seeking the clear air that would hasten their recovery.
Thomas Mann wrote his masterful novel, "Magic Mountain," while tending his TB-stricken wife in a hotel at the foot of that mountain, the Zauberberg. But it was a healthy Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote much of his beloved "Treasure Island" while a guest of the town's century-old Hotel Belvedere.
Almost a century after another writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, kicked off the ski scene here, Davos is noted for five vast skiing areas that give a downhill dreamer near-limitless slopes; almost 45 miles of cross-country trails present countless challenges to hardy souls; the natural ice rink is Europe's largest, and a bobsled run goes all the way to Klosters, more than six miles down the valley.
And summers are a time to recharge with leisurely mountain walks as you breathe the 5,000-foot Alpine air and try unsuccessfully to count the types of wildflowers underfoot. There are also wonderful sailing on the Lake of Davos and endless bridle trails for riding.
Here to there: Pan Am, Air Canada and TWA will get you to Zurich, several European carriers with a home-country stop. Use your Swiss Holiday Card to board a train right at the airport for the 2 1/2-hour run to Davos.
How long/how much? Winter skiing calls for at least a week, with hotel and ski-school packages geared to that period, a summer visit depending upon your own schedule and interests. Lodging and dining prices run from moderate to expensive, with thanks to the sliding dollar.
A few fast facts: The Swiss franc was recently worth 65 cents, about 1.54 to the dollar. Any time of year is good for a visit, autumn lovely when the larch trees turn golden, best skiing from January until late March. Town buses are free with your ski pass, good also in Klosters, otherwise about 25 cents.
Getting settled in: Swiss resorts always chop their seasons into a patchwork of dates, making room and pension rates difficult to report. Those below are for medium season, running from Dec. 1 to end of April, less Christmas week and the February-March high season for skiing. The May-November off season is considerably cheaper, other winter periods more expensive.
For many years we've been partial to Hotel Alte Post (Davos-Platz by city hall; $78 to $91 double with half-pension). Every inch of the Post is as traditionally Swiss as an alpenhorn, rustic and charming beyond belief. Owners Claudine and Walter Camenzind maintain a little gem of an inn right in town center, dining exceptional, service warm and personal.
Des Alpes (Davos Dorf; $97 to $110 double, half-pension) is on the main street connecting Davos Platz and Davos Dorf, contemporary room furnishings offset by an excellent Trattoria Toscana and Swiss Alplistube for raclette and fondue. You may take your pension meals in either, a nice change of pace.
Parsenn Sporthotel (Davos Dorf opposite Parsenn lift station; $117 to $133) is a huge and handsome white chalet with traditional furnishings and handicrafts throughout rooms and public areas. Take meals in another cheerful stubli or in beamed dining room. A lively crowd of all ages.
Regional food and drink: Specialties of the Grisons, or Graubunden, are hearty fare indeed, yet the use of herbs and spices always seems to give them an appealing character all their own. Here are a few for your enjoyment:
Start your meal with a plate of very piquant sausage and air-dried ham, excellent with crisp Completer white wine. Capuns, a pastry stuffed with meat, celery and herbs and usually served with mangold, Swiss chard and a cream sauce are most memorable. Snails in a cream-and-nuts sauce border on fantastic.
Bread is seldom thought of as a dessert, but just try it when made with pears and nuts, great with butter or a soft cheese. And locals are very proud of their Malanser dry champagne, drunk with gusto before, during or after a meal.
Moderate-cost dining: On a half-pension arrangement, most of your meals will be in your hotel, but a la carte prices in restaurants and other hotels can add up quickly. So check menus carefully.
Hotel Alte Post's dining room is noted for being one of the best places to eat in town, often causing a waiting list of several evenings. Lunchtime is easier. Gerstensuppe is always marvelous here, a thick creamy soup of vegetables, barley and several kinds of meat and bacon, practically a meal in itself. Alte Post, like most Swiss restaurants, really knows how to prepare veal and fresh trout, and the hotel's stubli takes a back seat to none with its fondue and raclette.