Home to majestic peaks and mighty glaciers, the Engadine is as close to unspoilt nature as it gets. It is where we will start our road trip in Switzerland.
During the height of summer, we decided to visit this valley once more for some scenic hiking. From there, we would embark on a four-day road trip, taking us from the Morteratsch glacier mound in Pontresina to the shores of Lake Constance.
For lodging, we reached out to Relais & Châteaux who have generously supported our trip along the Route du Bonheur. The label encompasses two dozen boutique hotels in Switzerland (and hundreds worldwide), all of which are individually owned and retain a unique character. I already had a chance to learn firsthand about the core ideas that all member hotels share: preserving the essence of hospitality and cuisine.
Day 1: Hotel Walther in Pontresina
On our first day, we cross the Albula mountain pass into the Upper Engadine. The larch forests are green and the lakes sparkle in the sunshine. As we approach Pontresina, we can already spot the grand hotel at the edge of town: Hotel Walther.
We receive a warm welcome by the hostess, Anne-Rose Walther, and her team.
Even though it was built during the Belle Époque, Hotel Walther does not exactly wear history on its sleeves. Sure, there is the exterior appearance with its corner towers, or the lavish velour furniture in the hotel lounge. But peel back a layer and you will find just as many contemporary touches.
The interior design in the room, the piano bar with its ceiling lamps made of buckets or the knight's armor are some examples of the playfulness we find over and over:
When in Pontresina, we recommend to always pick a south-facing room.
This town is called "sun terrace" for a reason... Needless to say, our room is sun-drenched and we cannot believe our luck! We have unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains, inviting us to hike and explore.
Today's goal is to see the Morteratsch glacier mound from up close.
The entrance to the glacier trail is within easy reach from the hotel, and the concierge suggests using a complimentary mountain bike to get there. (The hotel also has a fleet of e-bikes for its guests, but they need to be reserved ahead of time.)
About 20 minutes later, we lock the bicycles at the Morteratsch train station and continue by foot. While this walk crosses a rough terrain, the path could easily be walked in sneakers. Once we reach the glacier mound, we take a moment to listen to the cracking of the ice. It is awesome to feel the raw power of nature.
Day 2: along the River Inn to Liechtenstein
Stepping foot in the tiny country of Liechtenstein has long been on our list. The following day, we continue our road trip to Vaduz, the capital of Switzerland’s neighbor country. Our morning drive from Pontresina to Vaduz takes us along the young River Inn. The stream is being fed by the Engadine glaciers as it begins its 518 km journey to the Black Sea.
With all these sights, we barely notice that we have crossed the border into Liechtenstein. Here, the term "principality" gets a whole other meaning as it literally stands for "princedom".
Vaduz has just under 6000 residents, and with its Migros grocery store and restaurants, it feels rather like a normal town. But what makes Vaduz so unique is the historic castle overlooking the Rhine valley. It is the home of the House of Liechtenstein, presently helmed by Prince Hans-Adam II.
Park Hotel Sonnenhof in Vaduz
The manicured gardens of the Park Hotel Sonnenhof in Vaduz are an ideal vantage point to see the Vaduz Castle in all its might. This family-run hotel is run by Hubertus Real, a charming host who spares no time to receive us and show us around.
We learn that at a young age, Real knew that his destiny was to become a chef.
At 20 years of age, he would go on to win the World Skills apprenticeship championship in Sydney for Liechtenstein. His father, who at the time ran the hotel and once catered for the Prince’s wedding, saw him as the ideal successor. Real explains: "Chefs are at the pulse of the cost side of business. And my father wanted for a chef to run the Sonnenhof."
The host is now an acclaimed gourmet chef with 17 Gault Millau points. But despite all the accolades, Hubertus Real stayed "real" and used the pandemic lockdown to revamp his restaurant concept. His specialties, such as stingray, veal raviolini or this dish of Asian tuna cubes, have a permanent space on the menu.
We dress for the occasion because who knows, maybe the Prince has a reservation on the eagle nest outdoor patio, too?
Built by the famous landscape designer, Enzo Enea, the eagle nest is one of the coolest decks I have seen. It feels as if everyone dining here shares a common experience: the clinking of champagne glasses during the apéro, the mountain sunset, and the chats with the host.
The wine pairing deserves a special note. The Bavarian sommelier teases our minds and palates with his detailed and inspiring descriptions. "My philosophy is not to bore guests with details, but rather to inspire them with emotions," he explains.
For the main dish, he hides the white wine label, asking us to take a guess. I go for the grape variety of Heida, and I am not too far off: it is a local Chardonnay with barrique notes from the Principality of Liechtenstein.
Restaurant Marée with its eagle nest deck is so popular that a reservation is needed any day of the week.
Day 3: Hotel Restaurant Mammertsberg in Roggwil
The next morning, we continue our road trip to the final destination. But before checking into the hotel, we take advantage of the nice weather to explore the lakeside.
When Lake Constance appears in our view, it feels more like the sea. It is wide, and generous, and we can only make out the German shoreline by squinting our eyes. The town of Arbon lives up to its name. The Latin word for “tree”, Arbon has many of these shade providers along the walkways and on public lawns. We spend the afternoon strolling through Arbon and sitting by the lake.
We conclude our road trip at Hotel Mammertsberg, located in nearby Roggwil. This historic country inn sits higher up and offers unobstructed views of Lake Constance. During the stay, I would take many pictures of this view - be it at dusk or at breakfast in the morning sun.
Our hosts, August and Luisa Minikus, have been awaiting us. Just like their colleagues at the other hotels on this trip, they welcome us personally. This authentic hospitality is exactly why we have come to trust Relais & Châteaux.
First off, we are invited into the open kitchen adjacent to the modern "Monolith" building. With August Minikus being the executive chef here at the Mammertsberg, the owner has involved him and his wife in the 2013 renovation. The chef’s vision for an open kitchen plan was implemented, and I can tell that the result is a source of pride for the hosts.
We are served a refreshing summer drink of peppermint lime ice tea with a splash of Prosecco. How fitting for an eatery that has graduated from a local train station restaurant to a gourmet temple.
The wine cellar with its 600 positions is the realm of Luisa Miniskus, the hostess and sommelier of the house. The Catalonian vineyard, Clos d’Agnon, produces the house wine for Mammertsberg.
It has an interesting Switzerland connection as the historic vineyard was purchased by six Swiss wine connoisseurs in 1998. WIth much passion and expert knowledge, the wine was rejuvenated and has won praise ever since. When asked about her favorite notes, the sommelier elaborates: "In order to feel the elegance of the wine, 13 to 14 percent Burgundy is what I like the most."
The centerpiece of the dining hall is a modern staircase which has put a spell on my camera... It looks spectacular from every angle!
Tonight's menu highlights the philosophy of Chef Minikus. Each ingredient is there for a reason, pops up and wants to be tasted. Needless to say, ingredients are locally sourced, such as the "Egli" fish from Lake Constance served on a bed of finely diced green beans. We tasted some sort of pepper, possibly black pepper, as well as mustard seeds with a hint of homemade mayonnaise.
Chef Minikus has prepared four types of salts for the homemade bread: chocolate salt, smoked salt, herbal salt with rosemary and thyme, and tomato salt with an Asian kick.
With fine dining, I often have these "I know this taste, but what is it?" moments. Tonight, I am having many of these moments. The harmony of each dish as a whole is amazing, but I am trying to pin down each flavor. Is it lime tree leaf essence? Is it cayenne pepper?
When Chef Minikus stops by the tables to greet all the guests, he is cheerful and joyful.
His cooking has the same joyfulness, but with the perfection of a seasoned chef. The colors, ingredients, tastes... There is joyfulness in his dishes, and the Michelin star is well deserved.
Thank you, Relais & Châteaux Switzerland, for taking us on this road trip in Switzerland - from the mountains to the lake.
(For the purpose of this article, Relais & Châteaux has offered one night at each of the before-mentioned hotels, including all meals.)