Switzerland is a magical land where doe-eyed cattle set the pristine mountains tinkling with the sound of cowbells while the slowest express train in the world, the Glacier Express, trundles through snow-capped peaks. Neat and immaculate Zurich, the hide-away village of Sils-Maria outside St. Moritz and the famed ski resort of Zermatt have excellent hotels and restaurants where the Swiss enjoy themselves as much as visitors from other lands. Switzerland’s super efficient railway system and Zurich’s reliable tramways offer easy links and an easier conscience in this carbon-footprint aware times.
Dolder Grand Hotel
Zurich’s Dolder Grand Hotel, perched 200 meters above the city on the wooded slopes of Adlisberg Mountain, is part fairy castle, part ultra-modern edifice and part art gallery. Its towering nineteenth-century architecture is enclosed by a low-level glass and steel masterwork designed by Norman Foster. Inside, the huge and comfortable bedrooms enjoy floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over beautifully planted gardens. An iPad-guided tour of The Dolder opens your eye to works by Warhol, Dali, Magritte, Botero and many more. The spa is a work of art with a spiral pathway that leads to a cosy, mirrored resting room while leisure areas outside allow for skating and golf and the adjoining forest offers relaxing walks. A cute funicular railway makes access from the city centre an easy ride. Saving the best for last: the Restaurant earns two Michelin stars thanks to the imaginative genius of chef Heiko Nieder.
Built half a century ago in a modernist style and now sympathetically renovated, Atlantis Hotel by Giardino offers the luxury of a resort with proximity to the city. Vintage photographs of celebrities who once stayed here line the walls, stunning artwork fills the lobby and rooms are furnished in a modern version of classic ‘70s style. The hotel is surrounded by wooded hillsides and dairy farms and a well-trod walking path brings you to a high point for fine views over the city.
A quality restaurant and expansive breakfasts make the visit complete. A brief tram ride back to town gives you the opportunity to visit the Kunsthause , see the Chagall stained glass windows in Fraumünster church and enjoy an elegant lunch at Gotischer Saal which is set in a guildhouse that dates back to the 13th century. Da Angela, an Italian restaurant in the suburbs, but within easy reach, has had a place in Zurich’s culinary heart for decades. The capaletti, little beef pies, have been served here for 80 years.
For a well thought-out lunch using local ingredients, Weisses Roessli is well worth the tram ride. Meals are charged by number of courses while evening time brings a sophisticated atmosphere and regular customers who know this is one of Zurich’s best restaurants. Being owner-managed, Weisses Roessli brings a personal touch as well as fine food and a discriminating wine list.
A comfortable train ride from Zurich brings you to St Moritz from where a hotel pickup will whisk you away from the superficial glitz to the picture-perfect Hotel Waldhaus, perched like a grand fortress above the little village of Sils-Maria. Before the snow brings winter sports crowds to the village, it is a quiet place where you can walk in peace around the lake, climb into the foothills and visit the house where the philosopher Nietzsche stayed over many a summer.
Best of all is the comfortable hospitality of Hotel Waldhaus which has been run for five generations by the same family. Modernity and tradition blend harmoniously: a luxurious spa and heated pool but also a working candlestick telephone and sets of bells once used by guests to summon staff. The hotel’s grand lounge is intact, serving afternoon tea to the sound of a string quartet; bedrooms with all modern creature comforts still reflect the graceful life of old; and lovely views of the surrounding mountains.
Perched above Zermatt, one of the ski capitals of Switzerland, is a uniquely designed hotel called The Omnia. The space it occupies is narrow in width but architects responded to the challenge with imagination. Half floors and M C Escher-like staircases lead to lovely modern rooms while the lobby doubles gracefully as bar, lounge and library. A wellness centre with heated pool, Turkish bath and outdoor whirlpool, with views of the great looming Matterhorn above you, brings relief to tired limbs. The restaurant welcomes guests with an open fire and fine food which fully earns its Michelin star. Skiing apart, a trip on the cog railway to the tip of Gornergrat, from where there are stunning Alpine views, is recommended.
Less than an hour from Zurich by train, Lucerne is as attractive a destination now as it was a hundred years ago when visitors first began to arrive here in large numbers. Dominating the town’s shoreline is the venerable Hotel Grand National, a masterpiece of nineteenth-century architecture that once played host to the royalty of Europe. The whole edifice has been renovated sensitively and now has an indoor pool and several restaurants. Its guest capacity has been reduced from the original 400 or so rooms to a mere 40. There are photogenic views over the lake from the balconied bedrooms rooms which, among all the expected little luxuries, includes binoculars to bring the magnificent mountain scenery into focus.
A walk along the promenade outside the hotel brings you into the old town where there are two excellent places for meals – the Balances Restaurant, sitting beside the slow-moving river, and the historic Restaurant Wilden Mann. A highlight of any visit to Lucerne is a ride on the cog railway to the top of mount Pilatus before gliding back down to town in a series of cable cars. For braver souls there is the option of a swifter downwards journey in a toboggan.
The Glacier Express
You may not be able to stay overnight in the Glacier Express but you can certainly eat well in the Excellence Class carriage. The epic journey from Zermatt to San Moritz is spectacular but it takes eight hours. What saves it from the possibility of eventually proving wearying is the 5-course lunch with wine pairings, prepared onboard and served at your spacious armchair. It’s the nearest a rail trip comes to business class travel on a plane. The train trundles slowly through mountain passes, alongside gorgeously cute villages, into some 90 tunnels and across nearly 300 bridges. Huge glass panels in the carriage allow panoramic views and a recorded narrative explains key stages of the journey, like the glacier-formed Oberralp Pass (2044m) where one of the two springs of the Rhine is located.