Taking a train to the end of the line always has a special feeling. It is the feeling of going to a place with only one way out – namely back to where you came from.
When you take the train from Lucerne to Engelberg, that feeling only really settles in once you reach the terminus station: "Alle aussteigen, bitte." I had never been to Engelberg. But I am very familiar with stories of this Winter Wonderland renowned for its skiing, snowshoeing and, of course, its famous mountain: Titlis.
This time, I came here in the summer. And while my winter sport colleagues usually leave Engelberg the same way they came (namely with the train or by car), I was planning on leaving on foot!
Although Engelberg is not an unknown destination in Switzerland, it also does not attract the numbers of tourists that one sees in Lucerne, Interlaken, Zurich, or Zermatt. Nestled in the mountains of the canton of Obwalden, Engelberg has seen its share of ups and downs.
After seeing tourism become a major industry in the pre-World War I years, the post war years left Engelberg somewhat isolated - despite the work that had been done to better connect the area.
In recent years, Engelberg has started to experience a renaissance of its own - despite an overvalued Swiss franc and stiff competition from other mountain destinations in Austria and Southern Tyrol. Ultimately, Engelberg finds itself in that same market for German speaking tourists.
Swiss tourism and the mountain transport systems (Bergbahnen) have tackled this problem aggressively and are doing their best to promote Switzerland abroad. The main focus is on China, India and the Middle East. The results are notable, but still leave work to be done.
Hotel Bellevue Terminus
In Engelberg, I had the pleasure of staying at the Bellevue Terminus, a hotel ideally located directly across from the train station. It is also a perfect symbol for an industry experiencing rapid (and forced) change.
The beautiful Belle Époque hotel first opened in 1898, just 35 years after Thomas Cook's first packaged trip to Switzerland. The tourism industry in Switzerland was maturing and more areas of the country were being discovered.
Belle Époque meets 21st Century
Today, the hotel straddles the space between modern boutique hotel and turn-of-the-20th-century Belle Époque. When entering the main doors, the hotel comes across older than one might imagine from the booking.com pictures. However, once in the foyer, the modernity becomes apparent. I was fortunate to get a tour by owner and manager Mr. Roger Filliger.
Mr. Filliger has a background in the restaurant industry. In fact, he used to manage the in-house restaurant, Yucatan. Mr. Filliger loved the architectural features and history of the Bellevue-Terminus and found it a shame that the hotel was not being improved and modernized. In 2009, he got his chance to do something about it when he was able to buy the Bellevue Terminus.
Renovating a historic building
The first step for Mr. Filliger was to redo the hotel bar/lounge and give it a feeling worthy of this century with features reminiscent of a bygone era. And so the interplay between the modern design boutique hotel and the Belle Époque was created.
With a budget of 7.5 million francs, Mr. Filliger was able to have the entire south wing of the building gutted and 42 new rooms built from scratch. The design is beautiful, with expressive colors of blue, green, gold and purple on each of the floors. Details like finely decorated lamp shades and trimmings on the ceiling make the rooms memorable.
The north wing of the hotel is still in the old style, and the rooms there are perfectly suited to those not wishing to spend a lot on their accommodation. Mr. Filliger hopes to be able to renovate the north wing in the next few years.
An analogy for Switzerland's tourism
This dichotomy of old and new is interesting and in many ways is an expression of the Swiss tourism industry. According to an article on swissinfo, the hotel industry in Switzerland is being hurt by the so-called "undead" hotels.
Defined as hotels that are too small, too old, and too expensive to compete with other hotels, but which cause otherwise profitable hotels to lose money. With the renovations already completed at the Bellevue Terminus, Mr. Filliger is making sure that the hotel becomes one of the profitable and well-known hotels in Engelberg.
While many scoff at what they regard as gentrification of tourism and traditional areas, upgrading hotels not only offers guests better services but is better for the environment, too. One of the small details that I really appreciated was the water carafe in each room, with a note saying that this was for the once famous pure mineral water from the Urner mountains.
Like the upgraded insulation, windows and geothermal heating in the hotel, having guests drink tap water helps the hotel lower its carbon footprint which should in turn help to preserve some of Switzerland's beauty. Natural beauty is why tourists flock to the Alpine nation, after all.
Filling a niche
In its current state between modern and old, the Hotel Bellevue Terminus in Engelberg has also found a bit of a niche market as it can accommodate two types of guests. With the Engelberg Titlis Bahn having invested great sums of money into promoting the region in India and China, many guests will stay for just a few nights before moving on.
Having rooms available at two completely different price points means that the hotel is attractive to both clientels: Those looking for a luxury boutique experience, and those looking for a budget room and board.
One last piece of advice: Yucatan
I enjoyed my stay at the Bellevue Terminus and look forward to staying there again the next time I visit Engelberg. My last tip is to visit the hotel restaurant Yucatan. Though they serve Mexican food and burgers, go for the fusion dishes made with local ingredients. I had the local char and it was fantastic - exactly the type of meal you want the night before you trek out on an 80 km mountain race...
Phone +41 41 639 68 68