A few hours into our Swiss holiday and I am beginning to feel like Emma Woodhouse, the heroine of Jane Austen’s novel, who went through life “with very little to distress or vex her”.
Switzerland always has this effect on me. I am never as serene nor as happy as I am when I am there. It might be the clean air, or maybe the spotless trains that all run on time, or the mild manners of its natives, but whatever it is, any ideal holiday for me includes at least an element of Switzerland.
I first discovered this affinity with Roger Federer’s homeland around 15 years ago, while skiing in Zermatt. I learnt to ski as an adult and as a result have always found it a most stressful way to spend a day. But all this changed when I skied at Zermatt. Not only is it a stunning resort, with marvellous boutiques, but the Swiss have had the foresight to make most of the runs almost totally flat. Ideal. If I can enjoy a skiing holiday here, I figured, I can enjoy anything at all this country has to offer.
The next time I went to Switzerland was to visit the La Prairie Spa in Montreux (you see, I pick my locations carefully). I was there to work, to write about anti-ageing methods. It was a tough job, wandering around the shores of the lake, breathing in the delicious fresh air and imagining how young I would look at the end of my pampering stay.
Last year, I decided to introduce my family to the joys of Switzerland. We headed to the Tschuggen Grand Hotel (yet another hardship posting) in the small town of Arosa, almost 2,000 metres above sea level. Arosa is a summer and winter resort, with a local population of just over 2,000, during January the population swells to double that. It’s everything that you would expect from a Swiss resort, with a lake called the Obersee you can row across in the summer and skate across in the winter. There is even a horse race on it in winter. The town itself has narrow streets with lovely boutiques and cosy cafes.
The day had started well. After a punctual train journey up the mountain to Arosa, we were met at the station by the charming Alfredo in his Mercedes-Benz who drove us to the hotel, where we ate a delicious breakfast of poached eggs on toast and were shown to our suite with its views around the mountains.
Obviously as soon as I had digested breakfast I headed to the spa, which opened in December 2006 and was designed by the architect Mario Botta, who is more usually associated with grandiose projects such as La Scala in Milan and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. This may explain why it has a rather grandiose, almost cathedral-like feel to it. The whole structure is built into the mountain and the light comes from nine glass “sails” that filter daylight into what would otherwise be a bat cave, giving it a calm, soothing atmosphere.
As I lay in the pool watching my son and husband frolicking in the water, I pondered my next move. Should I head for the exotic shower in a cave-like structure where you can experience rain from all seasons (this would be such a good idea for Abu Dhabi during the summer months). Or possibly make my way to one of several saunas or steam rooms (two of them in private spa suites) where Mido, the Egyptian sauna attendant, would be administering infusions and salt-scrubs? Decisions, decisions. Instead I swam slowly to the outdoor portion of the main pool and looked up at the sun-drenched mountains above, wondering if I would have the time to walk up there later on.
The Tschuggen Grand has been a hotel since 1929 but it has only been open for business during the summer for two years. I don’t understand why. Skiing is all very well, especially in Zermatt, but I can’t bear all that struggling into your kit that makes you look 10 kilos heavier. I also can’t think of a better place to escape the Abu Dhabi heat than the Swiss Alps. The air is as fresh as a glass of mountain water, the scenery stunning and there is plenty to keep you busy or idle, depending on your temperament. Just walking is a joy anywhere is the Swiss Alps, especially in the places where they have thoughtfully put in cable cars to take you up the mountain.
We headed to the Tschuggen Express, a small railway that was installed in 2009 to get hotel guests up to the mountain’s “mittel-station” to begin our walk. It is like a mini roller coaster only much posher. In fact it cost 7.5 million Swiss francs (Dh29.5m) to build. It is only when you try to walk up the mountain that you understand how well spent that money was.
Leo, my son, was rather disappointed when it stopped because he thought the main point of it was that it was a rollercoaster. I was stunned by the view of the lush countryside and my husband was pleased to see the Tschuggenstube, where we stopped for some light refreshments before going on.
Our guide for the walk, Max, told us that this particular hut is the most profitable one in the whole of Switzerland during the winter months. But his favourite is the Alpenblick, which you can get to by horse-drawn sleigh when there is snow. We went on foot, which after months of not going for a walk anywhere (living and working as we do near Muroor Road), is a total joy.
We went on a three-hour hike. “How will Leo cope?” I said to my husband. “Never mind him, what about you?” he replied.
The three hours passed quickly. It is incredible how much the view changes even though the mountains are so dominant, there is never a moment when there isn’t something to look at. And to look out for. The hills are alive with the sounds of the cow symphony, as well as their “Alpine pizzas”, as Max called them.
Max, of course, was there to make sure we made it back to the hotel to pay our bill. These Alps can be treacherous, cloud can suddenly come down and engulf you – before you know it, you’re lost in a different valley. Happily on that day there was no cloud, just sunshine and beautiful blue skies. We drank water from mountain springs and admired the delicate mountain flowers, without picking them, obviously. Max told us stories about legendary mountain dwellers who had long since died but spent years living in huts on the mountainside, never once venturing down to Arosa, let alone Geneva or further afield. “The mountain has everything,” he told us.
We were back in time for an abs class with Nadine, the hotel’s fitness instructor. Nadine is part of the in-house “wellness” programme, which includes food, free exercise classes and access to all the spa’s facilities including the meditation room and various pools. Many of the classes in warm weather are held on the mountaintop. The second morning I headed up on the Tschuggen Express with Nadine, Petra (a German guest) and my yoga mat. I challenge anyone to find a better spot for a downward dog, even if other hotel guests looked slightly bemused as they stepped off the train to see us with our bottoms in the air.
Thankfully after all that exercise it was time to head back to the spa and three hours of pampering. Corina was my first therapist; she gave me the Tschuggen massage, which consists of five different treatments including hot stones. “With one aim,” she told me: “to relax you”. And so it was – extremely relaxing.
Next it was time for a Premier Facial Deluxe with Madeleine. A relentless schedule. Madeleine is a beautiful young blonde with flawless skin. I can’t imagine she ever needs a facial. She tells me that my skin is too dry and that I need to drink more water. They always tell me that, but I’m only too happy to drink more freshmountain water.
By the third day I felt I knew most of the staff and a more amenable bunch of people would be tough to find. There are many things that make the Tschuggen memorable: the surroundings; the little smoothies they bring you with breakfast; the apples on the landing of your floor (red one day, green the next); the endless supply of dressing gowns and towels; never being asked your name or your room number; the sumptuous dinners and gorgeous bedlinen. But the main thing is the feeling that everyone is here for the sole purpose of making your life utterly perfect. You’ve got to love Switzerland for that.
If you go
Return flights from Dubai to Zurich on Swiss (www.swiss.com) cost from Dh3,025, including taxes
From April 10 (summer season), a deluxe double room at the Tschuggen Grand Hotel (www.tschuggen.ch; 00 41 81 378 99 99) costs from 411.50 Swiss francs (Dh1,620) per night, including breakfast, taxes and access to the spa. A Tschuggen massage costs 230 Swiss francs (Dh905) for a 75-minute treatment; a Sensai Premier Facial Deluxe costs 250 Swiss francs (Dh984) for a 105-minute treatment. Until April 10 (winter season), a three-night spa package, including dinner, bed and breakfast, a facial and a massage, costs 1,387 Swiss francs (Dh5,454) per person, based on two sharing a double room