Aspen Times Weekly cover story: One sweet Swiss trip
September 13, 2012
I had traveled to Switzerland several times before and my memories were very distinct. Driving by mountainside pastures, the resounding clang of cowbells music to my ears. Ogling tiny Swiss Villages from the 6,706-foot Oberalp Pass in a Glacier Express railway car. Swirling a crusty hunk of bread in a pot of bubbling fondue, then popping the whole creamy-cheesy bite into my mouth and washing it down with a sip of Kirsch.
This trip was to be different. Four days. Two destinations (the quaint alpine village of Gstaad and the modern city of Zürich). The objective? Total immersion in Swiss hospitality at a pair of historic luxury hotels.
It didn’t take very long to set in.
Switzerland oozes charm. The soundtrack on the Zurich Airport train was all mooing cows, the aforementioned bells in full swing and accompanied by lilting melodies from the long wooden horns, called alpenhorns, used by herders to call them to pasture. I was hooked.
Fast-forward a few hours. My arrival in the village of Gstaad (pop. 3,500) had a fairy-tale effect. Winding up, up on windy, two-way roads into the Bernese Alps, where picture-book chalets drip with hot pink and scarlet geraniums, my first glimpse of Gstaad Palace, where I was to stay, was its crowning turrets rising to the sky.
In my reading about The Palace, I’d come across a description that touted it as a destination where “every guest is a king and every king is a guest.” And, while it has indeed hosted royalty, including King Gustaf of Sweden and Lady Di, since its opening in 1913, it has also bestowed the royal treatment onto an international collection of guests as diverse as Margaret Thatcher, Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson, Liz Taylor and George Soros.
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Now it was my turn.
Both hideaway and playground, The Palace features 104 guest rooms and suites, indulgently appointed with the comfortable downy beds Switzerland is famous for, as well as plush furnishings and privates terraces. The largest, the 2,580-square-foot, three-bedroom Penthouse Suite, has a private lift and access to a rooftop Jacuzzi.
In addition to a sweep of grassy hillside, my room overlooked a quad of clay tennis courts and a dazzling, Olympic-size swimming pool. The courts were booked with a clinic, so I jumped into my bathing suit and dove in, both literally and figuratively, to my stay.
While The Palace’s attributes are obvious, not the least of them is its staff, some of which have been at the property for decades, and many were responsible for truly standout experiences.
“Breakfast like a king, lunch like a farmer and dinner like a beggar” was an expression I heard again and again while there, but if it was known to chef Peter Wyss, he never let on. Every meal was a feast, from breakfast (muesli, smoked salmon, fresh alpine cheese) at Le Grand Restaurant to a lavish buffet lunch at Le Grand Terrace to dinner (whole sea bass baked in a sea salt crust) at Le Grill.
Angelica, my therapist at the striking new spa, lived up to her name as she massaged away my jet-lag with Jardin des Monts essential oils and what resembled a skinny wood rolling pin. Maitre D’Hotel Gildo Bocchini, famed for his 40-plus-year tenure and neon eyeglasses, could be counted on for everything from procuring a glass of champagne from Le Bar to a spot on the dance floor at 70s-stylish GreenGo nightclub.
Linda Hayes is a professional travel writer who lives in Aspen.
The Bernese Alps are renowned for skiing, snowboarding and winter hiking on 155 miles of alpine slopes, serviced by 39 lifts, six gondolas and four aerial tramways. Glacier 3000, the only glacier ski area in the region, offers top-of-the-world slopes open from November-April. If my summer snowbus ride and hike was any indication, skiing the glacier is a definite must-do.
Non-skiers can take a scenic, 10-minute walk down the Wanderweg trailhead near The Palace entrance into Gstaad Village, where stylish boutiques, restaurants and food shops are plentiful.
Bleary-eyed after an early morning chauffeured drive down from Gstaad, I perked up big-time at my first glimpse of The Dolder Grand, my home for the next two days. Set prominently on a verdant dolder, or hilltop, with “a Beverly Hills address” and a big view of the city, Lake Zurich and the Alps, the historic hotel was an architectural marvel.
Reopened in 2008 after a major, four-year restoration and addition by world-renowned architect Lord Foster, of Foster and Partners in London, the steepled, 1899 main building was flanked with eco-chic glass wings (the Golf Wing and the Spa Wing) wrapped with glazed, stencil cut aluminum screens that curved gracefully off each side.
My eyes opened wide as I entered, entranced by both the grandness of the aptly named Stone Hall, with its sweeping staircase, and the significant artwork placed strategically within the adjoining reception, lobby and bar (all part of a more than 100-piece collection that includes works by such notables as Andy Warhol, Fernando Bartero, Joan Miro and Keith Haring.)
The dazzle continued with entry to my suite in the spa wing. Sleek and modern, yet comfortable and serene, it was typical of the rooms in the wings, except, perhaps, for the extravagant Carezza, Suite 100 and Masina Suites (scenes from Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were shot in the latter). Rooms in the original building are more traditional, though no less luxurious, in decor. Circling through sliding mirrored doors that linked the bedroom with the bath and dressing rooms, and out onto the terrace, I was tempted to press the “Do not disturb” button on my door and retreat.
Luckily, I didn’t. For then I would have missed hopping the Dolderbahn funicular down into the city for a tour of historic Old Town, and a lush organic facial at The Dolder’s Zen-like spa, which, in addition to 18 treatment rooms (two suites have Mother-of-Pearl walls), also featured Japanese-inspired lounge tubs filled with smooth, warm pebbles and the Snow Paradise, a cave-like room encased floor-to-ceiling entirely in “snow.”
But what I would have missed most was the elaborate dinner prepared by chef Heiko Nieder at The Dolder’s gorgeous, 2 Michelin Star dining room, called, simply, The Restaurant. Beginning with several plates of “small greetings,” and ending too many courses later to count with Swiss chocolates and petits fours, it was truly a memorable – and hospitable – experience.
For me, a highlight of visiting Zurich is swimming at one of the Art Nouveau “baths” on Lake Zurich (some, like women-only Barfussfar, or “barefoot bar,” turn into coed bars at night). If you’d rather not get wet, cruising the lake aboard one of the steamers that leave every half-hour from the central pier (info: zsg.ch) is a must. And, of course, there’s plenty to see and do on land.
• To get your bearings, climb the 187 steps to the Karlsturm tower at Grossmunster church (constructed around 1100) for 360-degree views of Zurich’s Old Town and beyond.
• Visit the Swiss National Museum (one of the 50 museums in Zurich), which houses the largest cultural-historic collection of objects in the country.
• Take in a movie lakeside at the open-air Orange Cinema (ornagecinema.ch). Anchored in the lake, the giant movie screen rises out of the water. Really. (Summer only, alas.)
• For shopping, stroll the Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s Rodeo Drive, which is famous for shops like Bucherer, Beyer (the oldest watch shop in Switzerland) and FREITAG. Or check out the urban offerings, including the Market Hall, at the Viaduct under the historic railway arches in Zurich West.