Swiss Alps hotels now thinking beyond the ski hill
As the Swiss Alps get warmer and European powder becomes more unreliable, hotels are offering alternatives such as fat-biking and tennis alongside art collections, Michelin-starred restaurants, cheese humidors and world-class spas.
My first evening at the Burgenstock Resort in the Swiss Alps was spent eating, among other things, mouhamara, the Syrian red pepper, pomegranate and walnut tartinade that is to hummus what foie gras is to cat food.
The next day, I ate breakfast at a French restaurant run by a three-starred chef, had a Swiss lunch in a modern chalet and learned all I ever wanted to know but was afraid to ask about three-stage cryogenic slimming in an on-site hospital-hotel. It was only after a day at the 10,000-square-metre spa, with its four pools, infrared sauna and a steam room redolent of a star-lit cave that it even occurred to me to ask where you go to ski.
Welcome to the new Switzerland, where across the Alps – the place where the ski holiday was invented – hotels and resorts are offsetting the increasingly unreliable snow with luxuries intended to make you forget about the weather.
Skiing in Switzerland has, for the past hundred years or so, been much like cottaging in Muskoka. It's beautiful, often involves a lot of money, but there's been a modesty that infuses everything. The typical Swiss ski lodge is built from unstained logs, the rooms are clean and comfortable, but mostly utilitarian. People are there to ski.
But since the 2012 opening of the $400-million Alpina in Gstaad and the high-design W in Verbier, the alpine game has been raised, and hoteliers have begun to enter the 21st century.
They've had to. Mountains across Europe are subject to wonky weather systems that can bring snow in October, replace it with 20 C heat in November, and then tease you with alternating snow and sleet in December and January before finally putting down some powder for a couple of weeks in February and maybe March.
"In central Switzerland, even at 1,450-metre altitude, we are not secure any more," says Jean-Yves Blatt, manager of the nearby Chedi Andermatt, another of this new magisterial breed of Swiss hotel. Andermatt, about 45 minutes north and 1,000 metres higher than the Burgenstock, has made a golf course part of its development plan, has started using snow cannons – unheard of in these parts until a few years ago – and the Chedi includes a skating rink and opulent lounges with high tea and classical pianists clearly meant for long indoor days.
Blatt calls this new breed destination hotels, and figures about 70 per cent of his guests come for the hotel itself.
There have always been luxury hotels in Switzerland, mostly in cities, such as the Baur au Lac in Zurich, or Lausanne's Beau Rivage Palace. But the ones in the mountains, such as the 100-year-old Gstaad Palace, have always relied heavily on their incomparable surroundings. Nice carpets, pretty chairs, comfy beds, good food; but it was mostly about what was outside.
Not any more.
In addition to that sprawling spa, the Burgenstock has one of the most boldly designed indoor tennis courts I've seen. There's the restaurant where I had breakfast, called RitzCoffier, run by Marc Haeberlin, whose other restaurant, l'Auberge de I'Ill, has had three Michelin stars since 1967, when his father ran it. Then there's Sharq, the Persian-Lebanese restaurant; Spices, the Asian one; and Taverne 1879 for traditional Swiss fare. It would all sound like one of those Mexican all-inclusives were it not for the fact that every one of them is run by a top-notch chef preparing food that's better than anything you'll find in town.
For its part, the Alpina has a world-class art collection on its walls, including work by General Idea, Tracey Emin, as well as a raft of international artists, including Canadians Terence Koh and the late Richard Hambleton. This isn't hotel art, it's a real collection, like George Marciano's at L'Hotel in Montreal. It also has an annual bike festival in January and rents glacier-friendly fat bikes to its guests. I took one out for an afternoon on the Diablerets Glacier, and once I began to trust those enormous tires, I was zooming down hills, taking sharp turns on ice and snow and generally forgetting all about those grassy ski runs.
The Chedi has two-storey cheese humidor, and it's debuting a watch lounge in December, where guests will be able to browse a collection of five- and six-figure timepieces while sipping cocktails made by 23-year-old Jason-Candid Knusel, 2017's Swiss barkeeper of the year, whom it got from another of those grand old-school hotels, the Widder in Zurich. (Try his yuzu sake cocktail with Earl Grey-infused Tanqueray with lavender, elderflower and orange syrups, served in a tea cup.)
But one suspects the real money at the Chedi went into the Michelin consultant, a former judge Blatt says it hired to tell it what it needed to do to get a star. And it worked. In October, the simply named Japanese Restaurant, headed by Swiss-born Aussie chef Dietmar Sawyere, became only the second Japanese restaurant in Switzerland to get a star (the other is at the Alpina). The kaiseki menu's hamachi sashimi served under glass in a cloud of oak smoke on a bed of ginger-infused sour cream is worth a star all on its own.
Walking the grounds of the Burgenstock, you realize the ingredients were always there. Originally built in 1871, it became one of Switzerland's most famous hotels for things like its 153-metre Hammetschwand elevator that you can still take up and down the side of the mountain. In the 1950s, owner Fritz Frey spent time in Los Angeles and immediately ordered a kidney-shaped pool built, with a bar underneath with portholes to watch the swimmers while bathing in the pale-blue chlorine-filtered light. Admission was members-only, but the atmosphere Frey created was enough to attract the world's richest and most famous. Both Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren lived on the grounds for years, and Hepburn married Mel Ferrer at the simple white chapel here. When the pool bar reopens next month, part of the grand relaunch after nine years of renovation and rebuilding, it'll be open to everyone.
You can still ski, of course. If you can find the time.
The writer was a guest of the Burgenstock Resort, and has been a guest of the Chedi, W, and Alpina Gstaad in the past. None of them reviewed or approved this article.