It is a late January day with a clear sky and unseasonably warm temperatures as we walk through the Zürich main station towards the IC train that will take us to Valais.
It was a good idea to purchase a first-class upgrade in the SBB App as we can work on the train to Visp. We are on a gastronomic weekend getaway to Saas-Fee, a village I have heard lots about, but have yet to visit. The newly opened Capra Saas-Fee with its La Locanda restaurant by Michelin Star Chef Oliver Glowig has invited nine fellow Michelin awarded chefs to a Chef’s Symposium. The goal? Showing off their skills and learning from each other.
Our moving office
The train, even in first class, is comfortably full with folks seeking the white powdery stuff - and I do not mean icing sugar. The warmer than average winter means that skiing needs to be done at higher altitudes. Places like Zermatt and Saas-Fee can offer skiers exactly that.
With enough space we can both comfortably work on out laptops as the train rolls through the flat lands of the Swiss plateau before entering the mountains after Thun. Arriving in Visp in just two hours, we catch the last rays of sun as we board the bus to Saas-Fee. The first part of the trip to Stalden looks very familiar. (It is the same route to go to Zermatt.) As for the last stretch, everything is brand new.
Saas-Fee is the Pearl of the Alps
The sky in Saas-Fee is a dark indigo punctuated by bright white stars. The silhouetted peaks of many 4000'ers give you the feeling that you are in the mouth of an oyster, hence Saas-Fee’s epithet: The Pearl of the Alps.
We are picked up by the hotel’s friendly chauffeur in an electric bus like we know if from Zermatt. We learn that these small vehicles cost well over 100’000 francs and have very expensive batteries… The village has a nice snow cover and the air is crisp, clean and thinner than in Zürich. It is both invigorating and slightly exhausting at the same time. We will sleep well.
Our welcome drink is waiting in the Capra’s bar and lounge area. The chalet decor gives this hotel a homey feel. And this is exactly a part of the allure of the Capra: It has been designed to be a home away from home.
The luggage has made its way up to our room. After a brief rest, we meet up with other guests for the dinner at Waldhotel Fletschhorn, about a two kilometer ride in the electric bus.
Where the Valais' best wines are kept
The kitchen of this Michelin Star restaurant is headed by Chef Markus Neff, an Austrian who found his way to Saas-Fee in the 1980’s and never left. He worked under the guidance of Irma Dütsch, Switzerland’s first Michelin Star female chef. Later, he became a partner at the Fletschhorn along with Irma and her husband, Hans-Jörg.
At dinner, we have the pleasure of sitting with Hans-Jörg and listening to his stories about traveling and working abroad in Montreal, New York and Mexico, before coming back to Switzerland. It is a special night and we receive a dish from Irma herself as Hans-Jörg quizzes our sommelier about the wines he is serving. Watching the two interact is like watching a sparing match between a teacher and his pupil, where the younger seeks to one-up his mentor every once in a while.
All of the wines are local from Valais, and they blow all of us away. Now I know why I have had such few great wines from the Valais: They are all stored in the naturally cooled and humidified wine cellar of the Waldhotel Fletschhorn!
Our night at the Capra Saas-Fee
At the end of the night, the original plan of walking back to the Capra is scrapped and we ride back to the village with Hans-Jörg and Irma Dütsch. We are invited for a nightcap at the bar, but turn in as the mountain air, six course dinner and wine accompaniment have drained us of all our energy.
Back in the room at the Capra, the lights have already been dimmed and bottled water has been placed on the bedside tables. The mattress has the optimal density, the duvets are 100% down, and the rest is history...
(Photograph copyright The Capra Saas-Fee)
In the morning, we awake to rays of sun beaming over the mountain peaks. I go for a walk through Saas-Fee and take in just how quaint the village is. There is something very familiar and down-to-earth in Saas-Fee.
The notion of the village being the Pearl of the Alps is brought back to mind as the snow on the roofs of Saas-Fee glisten in the light. The arching peaks have faint shadows around them.
Breaking fast with class
Chef Frank Buchholz is already enjoying breakfast at La Locanda when we enter. It seems like a hard night in the kitchen and his night cap did not hinder his appetite or ability to get up early to hit the slopes in Saas-Fee. There is a small continental breakfast buffet in a niche, and an à la carte menu featuring poached eggs, salmon, and a selection of sweets dishes.
We greatly appreciate the eggs and spinach - and the hand-crafted cappuccino. Having a freshly prepared breakfast more luxurious than a hot buffet. This breakfast energized us and has set the tone for the day.
While waiting for the pick-up, we browse the hotel library’s collection. It is eclectic and perfectly suited for a hotel where you might not get a chance to read an entire book.
When chefs use brooms
Next up is curling, a popular sport that involves delivering a stone weighing roughly 20 kg by sweeping the ice just right. None of us guests, chefs and hotel staff have ever curled.
We are welcomed by Medy Hischier, the owner of the Hotel Schweizerhof and an avid curler. He shows us the ropes and we play seven ends before calling it quits. We thought curling was hard, but then came snowshoe walking. It is harder than one would first expect, but the nature and stunning views from above the village make for a picture perfect hike.
After a few hours of snowshoeing, we return to the hotel to warm up and hit the spa. The hot tub and sauna help our muscles to relax and get us hungry for another night of feasting. This time, we are dining in La Locanda, and Oliver Glowig and Heinz Beck are in the kitchen.
La Locanda at the Capra Saas-Fee
A champagne reception in the lounge brings everyone together and the Chef’s Symposium week is recapped. It was a fruitful experience for the chefs who learned from each other and discovered the gastronomic paradise that is Saas-Fee.
This event is set to become a permanent event at The Capra each January, bringing together more star chefs from around the world. At dinner, we are seated next to two of the Capra’s owners and Medy Hischier. The owners are originally Greek but live in London. The man speaks with a flawless New Jersey accent, having grown up in the Garden State. They tell us how they fell in love with Saas-Fee while skiing, knowing that this was the right place to invest.
An addition to the hotel will open next season, expanding the capacity to 24 rooms. The owners echo the sentiments of Mr. Hischier and Mr. Herzog that today’s travelers are looking for personalized service and smaller places. The Capra offers guests a warm and intimate space. Everyone at the table is also confident that Saas-Fee is set to grow as a tourist destination in Switzerland.
The dinner is fantastic. Last night at the Fletschhorn, the highlight was a comforting lamb and polenta dish. But tonight, it is Heinz Beck’s artistic and gastronomic interpretation of geology with a mineral cube representing the mountains being dissolved by a broth (rain) and flowing into a garden of clams and sea flowers. Stunning and all done without salt.
The Free Holiday Republic
A few years ago, the town changed its slogan from "Pearl of the Alps" to The Free Holiday Republic of Saas-Fee.
There is some disagreement about whether this was a good marketing idea or not, but travel critics from around the world are discovering Saas-Fee for its fantastic skiing. Thanks to its glaciers and high altitude, snow conditions are more reliable than in other parts of the country.
For these reasons, Saas-Fee has recently been voted as the top Alpine destination for skiing by a major British paper. The guests at the table see events like the Chef’s Symposium as their way of drawing attention to Saas-Fee and the region, as they realize that they cannot expect the government and the tourism department to do all of the advertising.
There is an agreement that offering superior service and an unforgettable experience to guests is more in line with trends in Switzerland and Western Europe than aiming for the masses with huge resort hotels and all-inclusive packages.
The special attention to detail comes across in small ways: The hotel staff noted our preference for sparkling water at the restaurant, so we had sparkling at the bedside table on our second night.
The World’s Highest Subway
On Sunday, we awake slightly later and go down for breakfast. Some of the special guests are already heading out as they have long journey ahead of them. We decide to hit the glacier and go up to the ice grotto on the Mittelallalin.
To get there, we take the world's highest subway. The views are spectacular, and we decide that we must return for skiing in the near future. After being treated to all these culinary highlights, we have a simple lunch of Rösti in the revolving restaurant.
See you again soon, Saas-Fee!
Saying goodbye after just two days is hard, and this is why I prefer to think of it as “see you soon.” The staff made us feel like we are part of a family. As the bus rolls out of the garage, Saas-Fee has left its mark on us and we know that we will return.
We also have a feeling that the Capra Saas-Fee will be a major success. It hits the points of making guests feel like they are somewhere familiar and welcomed, and the team is proactive and inventive in how they promote the hotel.
A determiner of Saas-Fee’s rise as a premiere tourist destination is also the fact that the hotels support each other and believe in Saas-Fee being “The Pearl of the Alps.”