"There is no best hotel - only the best hotel for your mood, desire and purpose at a specific time."
These are the words that Baur au Lac General Manager, Wilhelm Luxem, gives a group of journalists at a cocktail reception. Luxem is referring to the fact that Swiss Deluxe Hotels, the organization representing Switzerland's top five-star hotels, has a portfolio of hotels that all earn the claim "best".
Having just stayed at three 5-star hotels in three different regions of Switzerland, Mr Luxem's words perfectly summarize my long-held thoughts. Hotels are more than a bed away from home. I have had the pleasure of staying at some of the most highly-rated hotels in Switzerland and abroad. But when asked about my favorite hotel, I must answer: "It depends on what you're looking for."
A Grand Tour of Swiss Deluxe Hotels
To highlight the variety of experiences that Swiss Deluxe Hotels offer, they created ten themed tours through Switzerland. There is a tour for every mood, desire and purpose: from family outings to golfing and spa getaways.
I am fortunate enough to be on the three-day wine excursion which will take me to some of the best culinary destinations in Switzerland. The tour goes from St. Gallen to Ticino, ending in Zürich. If you are planning on following in my footsteps, however, I would recommend at least six days or more.
Bad Ragaz: gateway to Graubünden, the birthplace of Pinot Noir
We start off at the rejuvenated Grand Hotel Quellenhof Spa & Suites in Bad Ragaz. After a 45-million franc renovation which took all but five months, the hotel has just reopened its doors.
I am beginning to believe that speed-renovation is a new Swiss sport – the overhaul of the Storchen in Zürich, another member of Swiss Deluxe Hotels, took an incredible six weeks. All joking aside, such comprehensive renovations are only possible thanks to modern technology and months, if not years, of planning leading up to the project.
Entering the Grand Hotel Quellenhof Spa & Suites feels like stepping into another world. For over a thousand years, people have lived in Bad Ragaz (formerly known only as Ragaz). However, it was the hot mineral water from the Tamina Gorge in the 1800's that made the town famous and is the reason why it received the title "Bad" (Bath) in 1937.
The Grand Hotel Quellenhof Spa & Suites is splendidly modern with details that point to its heritage as a traditional spa hotel. The rooms are spacious with balconies that look onto the surrounding gardens and into the Rhine Valley. Though the public Tamina Spa is attached to the hotel, there is also a spa area for guests. Having visited both, I prefer the latter for its more compact size and fewer visitors.
The Rhine Valley - specifically the Bündner Herrschaften - is believed to be the birthplace of the Pinot Noir grape and thus makes for a fantastic start of our trip.
We are welcomed by the IGNIV Restaurant’s sommelier, Francesco Benvenuto. (He has created a superb Pinot that any Burgundy lover would appreciate.) Our first stop is to meet one of Graubünden's best winemakers, Martin Donatsch. Martin comes from a family of winemakers, and his father was a Burgundy enthusiast before it was fashionable. The winery is stunning, and we taste our way through the aromatic Pinot Blancs to the Bündner speciality, Completer. And finally, we get to the silky yet bold Pinot Noirs.
As the name suggests, the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz is no small hotel. It encompasses eight restaurants and four bars. You will also find that the two superstar chefs, Sven Wassmer and Andreas Caminada, have a combined five Michelin stars here. Needless to say, we did not get a chance to try every restaurant or bar.
Dinner at Andreas Caminada's IGNIV is a splendid surprise of creative dishes designed to be shared at the table. In fact, the name IGNIV is Romansh for "nest," as the courses are small and designed to be picked at. The design of the restaurant creates a warm and pleasant atmosphere thanks to its use of many materials including wood, plaster, brass, glass and fabrics. It’s a blend of old and new – a superb setting for an intimate dinner with a partner - or for an exquisite family dinner.
Castello del Sole: farm to table in Switzerland's sun room
The next day, we wake up to cooler temperatures and rain. It would have been perfect to stay in the spa all day, but we are set to leave the Rhine Valley for Ascona. The journey with public transport across the San Bernardino pass takes about 3.5 hours. Across the Alps in Switzerland's so-called sunroom, the skies open up and the temperatures are noticeably warmer.
The concierge of the Hotel Castello del Sole picks us up at the Locarno train station. Situated on 14 hectares of prime real estate in the Maggia River delta, the Castello del Sole is actually a resort. Imagine buildings in warm colors with terracotta roofs, Mediterranean plants and rounded mountains in the distance. At Costello del Sole, you know that you are in the Italian part of Switzerland.
As we have previously reported, the Castello del Sole sits adjacent to agricultural lands, promoting farm to table dining. At the hotel’s own Locanda Barbarossa, our palates are introduced to local produce from the farm.
We enjoy a five-course dinner from Michelin-star chef Mattias Roock. From the risotto to the tomatoes - and let's not forget the wine, the main ingredients come from the hotel grounds and the surrounding Terreni alla Maggia.
Each course is served with a wine pairing, showing off the variety and complexity of the grapes. My favorite white is the Kerner for its minerality and zesty acidity. (It is a favorite at Castello del Sole.)
With the local guinea fowl and red polenta garnished with zucchini flowers and peppers, we are served Il Querceto. I consider this 18-month barrique-aged Merlot to be one of, if not the best, Swiss Merlot. Dining under the stars in the late summer and enjoying Mattias Roock's creations is an experience I wish I could give to everyone.
Baur au Lac: sometimes, the gems are in your own backyard
After trying our way through the modern cuisine and Bündner wines at the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz and getting a taste of Ticino at Castello del Sole, we make our way to the Baur au Lac in Zürich.
The Baur au Lac is perhaps the standout hotel of the three we visited because it was a complete surprise. I have lived in Zürich for ten years and had never been there. Sometimes, you really just need to look a little closer to find treasures in your own backyard.
The Baur au Lac is Zürich's first lakefront hotel. And since 1844, it has been an address for fine wine. No wonder they have a spin-off wine import and distribution company. But did you know that two employees hold the titles of "world's best sommelier" (Marc Almer) and "Switzerland's top sommelier" (Aurélien Blanc)? Put these facts together, and you can rest assured that you are going to have fantastic wines here.
Even if you do not end up spending the night at the Baur au Lac, you should plan a visit to the Restaurant Pavillion for a taster menu dinner. The two-Michelin-star restaurant directed by Aurélien Blanc with Chef Laurent Eperon in the kitchen is a delicate feast for the senses.
The "Menu Harmonie" with Swiss wine pairings is also a splendid way to wrap-up a wine tour. The Swiss wines are from all corners of the country: East (Graubünden), West (Vaud), North (Thurgau), South (Ticino) and in between (Zürich). The cuisine is modern French, combining classic ingredients with sauces in light and flavorful courses. The airiness of the restaurant with its large windows and domed ceiling further enhances the experience.
How to Dine with the (Michelin) stars at Swiss Deluxe Hotels
Whether you have one week or one day in Switzerland, any one of these three Swiss Deluxe Hotels is guaranteed to give you an outstanding dining experience.
Recently in hellozurich, there was an argument for packing your lunch for a month to avoid the cost of lunch in pizzerias and other restaurants. The purpose of saving the money is to use it for a genuinely fantastic lunch at one of the city's top addresses. I not only agree with this way of thinking but would also encourage anyone to have dinner at some of Switzerland's many top gourmet temples, such as IGNIV, Laconda Barbarossa and Restaurant Pavillion.
At approximately 350 francs per person including wine pairing, this means merely forgoing dinners out for one month to comfortably afford a Michelin-star experience.