Justine Tyerman finds out why Switzerland’s Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort Lake Lucerne has been attracting the glitterati to its restaurants, pools and suites for decades
From my watery vantage point – a spectacular infinity pool that wraps around a glass-walled inside pool – I survey the clever melding of the dazzling new and the elegant old buildings of the recently-reopened Bürgenstock Hotels and Resort near Lucerne in Switzerland.
In its heyday during the 1950s and 60s, celebrities like Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren frolicked in the nearby kidney-shaped Hollywood Pool which had portholes looking into an underwater bar. Today, the iconic pool has been carefully restored so guests can still wave and toast each other through the portholes as they did decades ago.
Hepburn and Loren lived at the resort for many years, although no one seemed to know if they were friends, and stories like this – along with historic buildings like the 1879 Taverne, the 1903 Palace Hotel, and the little white chapel where Hepburn married Mel Ferrer in 1954 – make up what has become the Bürgenstock legend, now recorded for posterity in the Museum Corridor that links the new buildings with the old.
I am enchanted by the history of this place. The royal, the rich and the famous came to the Bürgenstock in their droves soon after the first of three hotels, the Grand, was built on the site in 1873, followed the Park in 1888 and the Palace in 1903. Switzerland’s first electric cable funicular was opened in 1888 to provide easy access to the ridgetop site 500 metres above Lake Lucerne. Fast-forward to the present and the shiny red funicular has been renovated offering a thrilling and historically-authentic way to ascend the steep incline to the resort.
‘Project of the century’
The 145-year-old resort officially reopened in May this year after 10 years of extensive construction and painstaking renovation valued at around 550m Swiss francs. Widely described as ‘the project of the century’ and one of the most significant hotel openings worldwide this year, the resort covers 60 hectares. Among the extensive facilities are four hotels from 3 to 5 star superior, 383 rooms and suites, 67 residence suites and villas, 12 restaurants and bars, three pools, a golf course, indoor and outdoor tennis courts (the latter converting into an ice skating and curling rink in winter), boutique shops, 70km of walking and biking trails, horse stables, a 10,000 m² spa and a state-of-the-art health and medical excellence centre with a multi-disciplinary team of doctors.
Steve Nikolov, the director of sales and marketing manager at the Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort Lake Lucerne describes the scale of the massive project, which began in 2008, as gargantuan. “You can’t turn over a rock here without a consent,” he says, and dealing with historic landmark buildings, environmental protection guidelines and Switzerland’s stringent building codes required no less than 147 building permits.
Earlier in the day, I had skimmed across a satin lake on the resort’s gleaming newly-commissioned catamaran and up the funicular to the lobby of the dazzling new five-star superior Bürgenstock Hotel, where the charming Dario had showed me to my sumptuous suite. It is warm and welcoming, featuring quartz stone walls, American walnut floors, an elegant Italian marble bathroom with twin vanities, a lounge with a double-sided fireplace, a super-comfortable king-sized bed festooned with a profusion of puffy pillows, weightless down duvets and the softest of bed linen . . . and a spacious dressing room to hide all my luggage. An overhanging window seat looks towards the lake, the majestic Belle Époque Palace Hotel and the 1127m Bürgenberg mountain with its famed Hammetschwand Lift.
The huge rain head shower revived me with a delicious deluge of hot water after my long trip while the double bathtub, with the same stunning view as the living area and the flipside of the lounge fireplace, promised to be the ultimate indulgence at the end of the day . . . along with the generous collection of Bvlgari toiletries.
A welcome card, signed by general manager Robert Herr showing the resort in 1907, fresh fruit, iced tea and Swiss chocolates were awaiting me, and I soon discover these treats are replenished daily.
Dinner on our first evening is a grand glittering affair in the Palace Hotel Salle, seated at tables beneath the magnificent chandeliers and artworks that Loren, Hepburn and contemporaries were once so familiar with.
We, too, are entertained like celebrities, and the proceedings are supervised by the delightfully gregarious culinary director Mike Wehrle, who becomes a familiar figure over the next few days.
Spoilt for choice
Next morning, the choices are mind-boggling. I am torn between tennis, golf, horse-riding, heading back to the Alpine Spa for a massage and another soak in the dreamy infinity pool or hiking the Felsenweg Pathway. The pristine clear day calls for outdoor activity, so I head up the 20-minute Felsenweg, hewn into the rock-face above Lake Lucerne at the beginning of last century to provide access to the Hammetschwand Lift for the resort’s celebrity guests. I can’t help but stop every few minutes to absorb the ever-changing lake and mountain landscape and the sunbeams shining through the trees.
At the lift terminal, I read about the audacious project to construct the Felsenweg and Hammetschwand, described as ‘a perilous undertaking’ for the experienced miners from Austria and Italy who worked at the site from 1900-1905. At the time, the lift was known as ‘Switzerland’s Eiffel Tower’.
Slightly nervous at the prospect of careering 165m up a cliff face in a glass box, I hesitate before stepping into the capsule but the thrill of the ascent is worth the butterflies. The doors close and I am whisked in stomach-lurching seconds to a magnificent viewing platform with a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the countryside.
Blessed with breath-taking panoramas from its unique ridge-top location, it’s little wonder the Bürgenstock was the darling of the glamourati.
I indulge in a chilled rosé on the sunny decking of the summit restaurant before ambling back to the resort on a network of tracks, past impossibly pretty cows wearing bells. I find myself at the Alpine Spa, where masseuse Lisa’s expert touch and fragrant warming oils dissolve the residual tension in my neck and shoulders from hours of travelling.
Over the next few days, I explore all areas of the resort and dine at a number of the resort’s 12 restaurants.
The Spices Kitchen and Terrace Restaurant at the Bürgenstock Hotel is as visually spectacular as the Asian masterpieces created in the kitchen there. The dining room is cantilevered out above Lake Lucerne, which gives you a heady feeling of being suspended in space.
On the evening we dine there, the four stations of the open kitchen are abuzz with chefs from China, Japan, Thailand and India creating gastronomical delights in tandoors, woks, naan and duck ovens and dumpling steamers. Mike Wherle is in fine form, demonstrating the grating of wasabi root for the sushi using a shark skin grater or oroshiki.
Breakfast at the RitzCoffier in the Palace Hotel is an occasion, quite apart from the gorgeous array of food. The restaurant is a veritable museum with an original fireplace and antique wooden doors from the 1873 Grand Hotel’s walk-in refrigerator, a handsome black 19th century oven, oak parquet floors in a herring-bone pattern and hundreds of burnished copper pots and polished silver serving dishes decorating the walls and hanging from the ceiling.
Lunch at the Oriental Sharq Restaurant consists of 16 shared plates, prepared and served with theatrical panache.
Swiss horns, a folk music trio and schnapps set the scene for a fun Swiss night at the Bürgenstock’s historic 1879 Taverne, where we dine on tasty alpine dishes including fondue, a hearty veal ragout in a rich cream and mushroom sauce and raspberry meringue.
Another highlight comes in a visit to lovely Lucerne, a city with a history officially dating back to 1178 but quite possibly to Roman times. Our excellent local guide Rebecca takes us on a walking tour of the city, which is famous for its ancient covered wooden bridges and towers.
At the end of every day, the infinity pool draws me like a magnet. The sensation of floating, weightless, on a sea of bubbles, gazing at tranquil Lake Lucerne and her landmark peaks, Mt Pilatus and Mt Rigi, is mesmerising. Submerged in delicious 35 degree water, inhaling sweet alpine air, there never seems to be a good enough reason to get out, especially after I discover the buttons to operate the giant nozzles that pummell me with warm froth. Pure bliss.
Since returning home, I’ve been watching from afar as winter transforms the resort into an even more magical place. Lounging in that pool surrounded by snow . . . now that would be the ultimate. Audrey and Sophia would have loved it.