Why You Need to Visit This Health-Forward Spa in Switzerland

Courtesy Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort

The Swiss health spa has you down to a science.

I decided it was time for me to be a better person. In the style of modern freedom, my life was self-made and yet not at all my own. I had been living for some time between two cities and traveling with writing jobs to more. I had been exercising frequently to no particular effect, eating by circumstance, and sleeping on a schedule that seemed less predictable each week. My back hurt, inexplicably. I’d started getting migraine headaches for the first time in my life. I was coming to the finish of a busy summer, readying myself for a long project in the fall, and needed a reboot of energy. I envisioned a contemporary version of the alpine spas where, a century ago, skittish young men and aging neurasthenics would be sent for good air, isolation, and a course of soft Freudianism and hard water. Inspired, if that’s a word for desperation, and eager to leave the United States, I booked a stay at the Waldhotel, in Switzerland, and left home with too much baggage one October night.

The Waldhotel, a part of the Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort, may be the premier recovery hotel in the Alps today and, as such, heir to a long lineage in books and film. Think of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or, less venerably, The Labours of Hercules, the Agatha Christie collection in which Hercule Poirot seeks a murderer among guests trapped at a resort by a broken funicular. Recall Spectre, in which James Bond follows a villain’s trail to a health spa in the snow. Bürgenstock, perched on a peak above Lake Lucerne, could have been the model for any of these, although its history is a good deal more distinct. First founded in 1873, it flourished as a postwar celebrity haunt, favored by the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, and later as a global meeting place for leaders such as Kofi Annan, before wilting toward obscurity. It was bought last decade, put in the hands of Qatar’s Katara Hospitality—which also manages the Plaza, in New York City, and the Savoy, in London—and given a half-billion-dollar makeover. Now comprising four hotels, ten restaurants and bars, and a number of long-term residences, the resort caters to a clientele that includes heads of state and celebrities. Its facilities are equipped with four helipads, and there’s a decommissioned Swiss Army base over the hill where you can land your private plane.


Courtesy Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort

Personally I am without plane, so I arrived like a plebeian, landing at Zurich and catching a train to Lucerne—although my journey from there was not normal. The resort’s sleek catamaran (essentially a glass-sided yacht) took me from the quays of Lucerne station and bore me across the lake to a bright-red funicular, where an attendant ferried me and my bags to the top. From there, it was a short ride in a black car to the Waldhotel, which, though less overtly glamorous than the flagship Bürgenstock Hotel, is quietly the property’s crown jewel.

“The Waldhotel is very different from the main resort—we wanted something close to nature where people could recover,” Lauriane Zosso, who manages the property’s international markets, told me soon after I got in. We were sitting in the Waldhotel’s Verbena Restaurant & Bar, which offers oddly satisfying nonalcoholic cocktails. In the not-uncrowded world of Swiss health spas, many of them decadent or pampering-focused, the Waldhotel has tried to distinguish itself with a more down-to-earth focus on medicine. It has a staff of doctors, a laboratory for blood work and urinalysis, an operating room that can do anything short of general-anesthesia procedures, and wings for dermatology and dentistry. Verena Briner, the hotel’s chief medical director, led the medicine department at Lucerne Cantonal Hospital before being lured out of retirement to take the job. The building contains 23 rooms equipped with adjustable beds and handicapped access and, for the Swiss, whose insurance often covers treatment, doubles as a high-end rehabilitation facility for everything from joint replacement to cancer. For the rest of us—the plutocrats, the movie stars, and me—there’s a weightloss program, a detox program, and other reprieves from the pollutions of modern life.

Within a few hours of arriving, not yet having slept after my red-eye flight, I found myself half nude and rigged with
electrodes, tubes, and a Darth Vader mask, pedaling a resistance bicycle for a stress test as Christian Schüpfer, a cardiologist in a white coat, goaded me on. “More, more!” he cried every time my pace began to flag. “You must go to the limit—ja!” By the time I met my personal trainer, Andreas Buchner, the next morning, two things had become clear. The first was that my condition was, as Herr Doktor Schüpfer put it, “very good and sportive.” The second was that this was something of a mystery, because I’d been doing everything wrong all my life. I gave Buchner a résumé of my usual gym routine. “Please never do that again,” he said.

The Waldhotel’s Healthy by Nature program is divided into four categories: fire (high-intensity interval training), water (aqua aerobics), desert (weight-loss cardio), and wind (lifting). Each was a newly humbling experience. It emerged that I had no balance, flexibility, or coordination. Buchner, a well-built Swiss 34-year-old who had worked as a trainer in Southeast Asia and Australia before returning to the homeland, kept me at the bit with good humor. During a pre-breakfast constitutional on my third day (“desert”), he led me up the hill by staircase and then into stretches and breathing. It was a crisp, wet, fragrant morning, and from the hill there was a view across the lake. Buchner had me hang forward and sway my arms between my ankles. “Like a watch,” he instructed. He studied my form. “An English watch,” he said.

As part of my physical reset, I spent three minutes in the hotel’s cryo-therapeutic Ice Lab—basically a human freezer, held at about -166°F, that is advertised as offering relief from a range of complaints, from muscle aches and skin problems to weight gain. (The theory is that the body, exposed to such a deadly temperature, goes into survival mode, turbocharging its metabolic and immunity systems; the treatment also seems to help some people with pain management.) For safety and efficacy, and maybe also for the entertainment of the staff, I was required to enter the chamber in my underwear, wearing earmuffs, Mickey Mouse gloves, a surgical mask, and Crocs. Glancing in a mirror, I found I looked like something from The Silence of the Lambs. But when I got out I found myself breathing far more deeply, and my back pain had indeed faded away.

Designed by the Italian architect Matteo Thun, the Waldhotel was meant to blend into the landscape. (Wald means “woods.”)
Its façade is made with bundled stones left over from the excavation of the hillside. The exterior is framed with a wood cage of local timber. While the resort’s flagship hotel towers over the lake, the Waldhotel sits facing a valley filled with cows that provide milk for the proprietary Bürgenstock butter and cheese. When I opened the balcony door of my room each morning, I heard the cows’ bells like rain on a metal roof.

Although Waldhotel guests can—and should— use the resort’s dazzling central Alpine Spa, with its infinity pool looking out onto the lake and wonderful, very hot nude saunas with a view, the Waldhotel’s own spa gives the added gift of privacy: It’s open only to Waldhotel guests, of whom there tend to be barely more than a hundred in the high summer season. For those seeking cosmetic procedures, weight loss, and such, the Waldhotel can be an attractive alternative to the village gossips at home; discretion, after all, is Switzerland’s chief export. Also in the Swiss tradition, there is apolitical appeal. The week before my visit, Yekaterina Andreyeva, a longtime news anchor on Russian state television, had been a guest—a hard thing to imagine in, say, Aspen. The Waldhotel may be one of the few places where the rich and powerful of the U.S., China, Russia, and the Middle East mix without regard.


Courtesy Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort.

But then, it’s hard to be too wary in the middle of a Swiss pastoral idyll. One evening, I hiked through the neighboring woods and up to the Hammetschwand: a vista point of almost unmatchable alpine beauty and the site of the Hammetschwand Lift, a 502-foot outdoor elevator. A marvel of Swiss engineering, it was the country’s answer to the Eiffel Tower in 1905 and remains the tallest outdoor elevator in Europe. At the peak, I saw something I had never seen before: steam rising off my shoulders. It seemed a salutary rebirth, and a baptism into my new, healthier life.

At the Waldhotel, the turn to better habits often takes a culinary form. Kati Dinkel, the house nutritionist, calculated my target caloric intake on my arrival. She works with Martin Stain, the Waldhotel’s chef, to make sure guests meet their nutritional goals at the hotel’s Verbena Restaurant. Its centerpiece is a daily “color cuisine”: a three-course menu, prepared without gluten, bovine dairy, or added sugar, based on a different color for each day of the week. (Thursday, for instance, is orange day: in my case, an appetizer of lobster and sweet potato, a carrot soup, and a main course of pumpkin and freshwater fish.) Nutritional constraints are taken seriously. After turndown one night, a maid knocked on my door. “We left you chocolate, and you’re not supposed to have chocolate,” she said apologetically, brushing past me to remove the contraband from the nightstand.

Many of the Waldhotel’s guests are return visitors. Stain hopes they take away more good habits every time they come, and well they may. On my first morning at the Waldhotel, I overslept and zombie-walked to a breakfast of coffee, toast, and eggs. By my last morning, I was rising early, eating a big breakfast of porridge, fresh-pressed vegetable juice, and white tea, and feeling energetic despite the week’s exertions. After dinner on my last night— an evening afield at the Bürgenstock’s pan-Asian restaurant, Spices—I was moved, to my surprise, to order nothing but a piece of fruit for dessert. And, on the long flight home, I did not desire so much as a glass of wine. It struck me as ironic that one of the most luxurious resorts in the world should encourage such contented self-restraint. But if that is the future of decadence, well, please bring it on.

Rooms from $505; Healthy by Nature Activity Pro four-night program $7,012; buergenstock.ch.