Switzerland: Feast for the eyes

Kate Johnson at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, and Chillon Castle
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Ciao! Hallo! Bonjour! Allegra! How many ways can you say "hello" in Switzerland? Let’s just say: a lot. This melting pot of a country is heavily influenced by its neighbors, offering fascinating diversity and a bit of a cultural whiplash. This landlocked country is only the size of Maryland, yet has three principal languages if you don't count Romansh. Its surrounding neighbors, Germany, France, Italy and Austria, each have a special presence that seeps into the Swiss landscape, making each area quite unique and not as homogeneous as one would think.

From Milan, I set off for Ascona, Switzerland, a tiny city outside the better known city of Locarno. Set against the picturesque Lake Maggiore this quaint and welcoming little city is the epitome of the Italian Riviera vibe. With almost all its occupants speaking Italian, you don't feel like you're in Switzerland -- and the landscape is more reminiscent of Italy! I stayed at the Castello del Sole. The hotel has a heavy Italian influence, with multiple buildings as well as their own gardens and rice fields.

My room was situated in one of their newly renovated areas in the west wing. The grand room had a living area, tiled floors, modern bathroom, massive double walk-in closet and a balcony overlooking the lake and mountains. The food at the hotel was impressive, with a general dining room, cave-like bar area and their Michelin-star restaurant. However, perhaps what is most impressive about this hotel is their spa. The spa is equipped with a steam bath, hydropool (with 10 settings and 750 jets!), a private spa suite, gym and training room, solarium and ½ indoor ½ outdoor swimming pool. 

The next town on my Swiss adventure was Lenk. I took the scenic train through rolling hills as we chugged along through northern Italy and weaved in and out of Switzerland. The panoramic roof of the train made for perfect photo opportunities of picturesque towns and dramatic cliffsides.

Arriving in Lenk was like something out of a fairy tale. This small holiday town is snuggled between vast and impressive hills, boasting a population of about 2,000. My private driver from the Hotel Lenkerhof picked me up promptly from the train station in a luxury Mercedes sedan. We drove the 10 minutes to the hotel, winding up a little hill nestled along a mountain and overlooking the quaint town. The Lenkerhof Gourmet Spa Resort was so picturesque and youthful, despite being over 350 years old.

The reception and lounge area is illuminated by soft, warm lights, and the filit fireplace gave an immediate calm and welcoming ambience. There was a bizarre but thoughtful clashing of modernity with old-fashion. This juxtaposition of unconventional versus conventional played out in the rooms as well. With traditional sofa and chairs, but contemporary headboards and light fixtures, the resort played up the contrasts, making it a unique and fun adventure discovering them.

The hotel prides itself mostly on their incredible award-winning spa and sulfur pool, as well as their impressive gastronomic experience at Spettacolo. The restaurant offers a choice of 16 different courses which change daily. The head chef, Stefan Lunse, does not disappoint and uses locally sourced and mostly Swiss products in his cooking. The restaurant also has a cheese bar brimming with over 30 different kinds of cheese.

Nearby, guests can take the Betelberg lift up the mountain to soak in the breathtaking views of the charming little town, magnificent green hills and snow-capped mountains. At the top, there is a fun little restaurant, where you can have a pint and local delicacy while taking in the scenery.

The next stop on our adventure was to the French side of the country and the quaint college town of Neuchâtel. This medieval little village rests on the northern shore of Lake Neuchâtel and acquired its name from the French word: neu meaning, “new” and chatel meaning, “castle”.

We stayed at the beautiful Beau-Rivage Hotel in a deluxe junior suite that offered panoramic views of the lake. The hotel had a grand entrance that was in stark contrast to its business-like rooms. Their morning breakfast was sublime, with white-table cloth service, full buffet breakfast and a view of the waterfront to top it off. The property is perfectly situated lakefront, and only a minutes walk to the central part of the city. For what the town lacks in size, it more than makes up for in a robust nightlife and flourishing gastronomy, offering any visitor a fun time while bumping up your waist belt a few notches.

After one fun night in Neuchâtel, we headed to enchanting Vevey – located just outside Montreux. This was hands down, my favorite stop in Switzerland. We were picked up in a luxury Mercedes at the train station and bumped along for five minutes down the cobbled roads to the bewitching Grand Hotel du Lac.

Our eyes could not soak in all the intricacies of the lobby at once. The first impression is overwhelming as you take in the scents of the extravagant floral displays, the ornate little tea room called “The Blue Lounge,” filled with historic and lavish trinkets, the vast ballroom with cloud painted ceilings, gold chandeliers and cathedral-like window – everything about the property feels surreal.

We were accommodated in an incredible Junior Suite room on the highest floor, with a walk-out balcony overlooking glistening Lake Geneva. The rooms were decorated with light and airy colors, playing with floral designs and blues matching the lake. Overall, the perfect mix of contemporary, Parisian and lake house feel that perfectly encompasses the destination.

The town itself was fun to explore, with many hidden gem bars and artisanal cafes throughout. In town that night was Circus Knie, the largest circus of Switzerland, and we were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the amazing acrobats flying through the air, adding to the overall whimsical feeling of the destination.

The Grand Hotel du Lac is also perfectly located right along the ferry route, which we hopped on to Castelo de Chillon. First constructed in the early 1100's, this castle is known for being the most visited Swiss monument and one of the best-preserved castles in all of Europe. Built on a limestone cliff hugged by nearby mountains, this fortress is truly an astounding tourist stop.

Up next was renown Geneva and the centrally located Hotel de la Cigogne. Located perfectly between Lake Geneva and the old town, this elegant hotel is a few minutes walk to many of Geneva’s main attractions. The hotel celebrates its history with rich and darker designs, low ceilings, and intricate room layouts featuring lofts reminiscent of its lineage.

What really makes this hotel a treat, besides its sublime location, is their restaurant. Executive Chef Nicolas Pasquier provides a mind-blowing gastronomical experience -- I've yet to find its match. Their delectible tasting menu included duck breast carpaccio and foie gras, Sardinian fregola pasta paella – style, veal rump braised with nectarines with a carrot fondant, and tatin-style apples in a vanilla and lime Bavarian cream with Granny Smith apple sorbet. The menu was absolutely decadent and a true celebration for the palate, with each course paired with one incredible wine after the other. I cannot say enough about the culinary experience at this property – and the passionate team behind every bite.

After a long day of exploring beautiful Geneva we hopped on our last train to the Dolder Grand in Zurich. To say we ended on a high note is and understatement. This lavish property, the absolute epitome of luxury and exclusivity, has wholly earned every bragging right, from being “that hotel in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” to hosting pop-icon Rihanna in their Maestro suite for $15,000 per night. The historic center of the property is flanked on either side with newly built wings, one the Spa wing while the other is the Golf wing. The resort is located high in Zurich’s mountains, overseeing the city like a King on a throne.

We were brought to our room in the Spa wing, and as the door swung open we were awestruck. This uber contemporary room was so incredible it kissed the edge of over-indulgent. With sweeping floor to ceiling windows, a balcony lined with a tree-inspired guard rail that when light protrudes through it casts a fairytale like forest on the blank white wall on your room. The entire guestroom was controlled by an iPad where you could even book cosmetic surgery should you desire.

Perhaps my favorite parts of the hotel are their impressive art collection as well as their magical bar. We enjoyed a delicious cocktail and assortment of finger foods in their bar, which was littered with hanging candles from the ceiling seemingly feeling like a scene in Harry Potter. Overall Zurich is a very fun city, however the Dolder Grand may not be the best pick for someone that’s looking for a central location, as it is quite a distance outside the city.

Overall the Relais and Chateux properties in Switzerland are all unique in their own right. Each owning its heritage and destination while introducing new and contemporary flairs to their designs and their menus. The boutique style feel, along with the incredible gastronomy that distinguishes a Relais Chateux property, is completely unrivaled in the industry and their Swiss properties are no different. 

Kate Johnson