Travel to Switzerland is most vividly about enjoying the outdoors: skiing or hiking in the Alps, taking boat rides on blue lakes and rivers, or just walking and shopping your way through historic towns and cities. Cafes, restaurants and museums can fill rainy or snowy days, but for a culture built in healthy measure on sport and fitness, the indoor complement to the athletic outdoors is the spa.
Over the years, with my family, I have enjoyed many fine Swiss spas — once I got over that initial American awkwardness about being in the coed Nacktbereich (“naked area”) that is the core of most Alpine soak and sweat zones. I had been working out in the months before this trip, so for once: no worries. If you are going to show it, might as well make a statement, right?
Observation for first-timer men: a naked woman in a Swiss hotel spa will not eye you judgmentally. Indeed, she will talk to you as affably as if you had met her around the fireplace in the hotel lobby — as long as her naked husband is seated beside her.
It was snowing heavily in the resort town of Lenk, in the Bernese Oberland (about 55 road miles due east of Montreux) when our kindergartner, Ryan, dared me to take a ride down the waterslide at the spa in our hotel, the Lenkerhof Gourmet Resort. With only a short interruption, for nearly 330 years the Lenkerhof has been serving guests who have come to Lenk to “take the waters,” but the opportunity to butt-slide down a water-soaked pipe is relatively new.
You also have a choice of an indoor or outdoor pool (even when the snow falls) and, on the floor below, the fitness center and the Nacktbereich.
A staffer turned on the water, which poured down the slide as if it were seawater rushing into the hull of a sinking ship. In I climbed and down I went, faster and faster, around and around, until I came to a stop near the end. I waddled out and to the exit door, which was locked, obliging me to lumber, soaking, up the nearby metal stairs — all to the amusement of Ryan (who had done it before and knew what to expect).
Swiss spa lesson one: Never accept a dare from a kindergartner.
In the hotel’s Nacktbereich, there are seven rooms set at temperatures ranging from 30 degrees Fahrenheit (in the ice grotto) to 185 degrees Fahrenheit (in the Finnish sauna). In other words, you can literally stand naked in a freezer or cook in a wooden skillet, or go back and forth, as you please.
I was sweating it out in the Finnish sauna when, precisely at 5 p.m., Sara came in, announcing in Swiss German what sounded like an “oof goose” (High German: Aufguss, meaning “infusion”). Sara poured ice onto the hot stones of the sauna, and then she flailed a towel with a whiplike snap in front of each occupant. The effect was to increase the heat momentarily to about the temperature needed to melt anodized aluminum.
A couple of guys who had clearly neglected their workouts could not take the heat and left, heads bent; the rest of the men stayed in, if only to not be outshone by the only woman present, who was enjoying herself as calmly as if she were sitting beside a Dyson fan on a shady veranda.
Swiss spa lesson two: If you are going to chicken out somewhere along life’s winding road, don’t do it while in the nude in a crowded room.
The Lenkerhof was built over a sulfur spring because sulfur water would alleviate the symptoms of everything from rheumatism to digestive problems — or did so until Swiss insurers stopped paying for policy holders to take the cure. That caused an immediate cash-flow crisis among hoteliers and clinicians engaged in the ancient trade of offering water that smells like rotten eggs to anyone willing to drink and bathe in it.
One room in the Lenkerhof’s spa is a sulfur grotto, where you can inhale sulfur and drink sulfur water. On your way there, sulfur water sprays you from the ceiling.
Fortunately, the hotel also has Spettacolo, a Relais & Chateaux gourmet restaurant, where Stefan Luense, a native of the Black Forest (also once a cure region that has become a culinary destination), cooks up a six-course antidote to whatever all that health-inspiring sulfur water might offer you.
Swiss spa lesson three: As good as taking the waters may make you feel, it does not compare with chestnut cream soup followed by Wagyu beef with sweet potatoes and mushrooms, paired with a bottle of Ardosino Duoro (2008).
A few days later, we were staying at the B2 Boutique Hotel (plus) Spa, in Zurich, visiting friends and preparing to head back to our home in New York City. The hotel has been elegantly superimposed by the local architectural firm of Althammer-Hochuli upon the main building of a large brewery that, until 1996, made Huerlimann beer.
There are beer bottle chandeliers in a lofting bar/library with over 33,000 books that line shelves ascending far above you. The roof has a year-round outdoor pool, and in the former beer cellars is a state-of-the art spa. On a gray day, after Ryan had his time in the pool, where children are welcome, I tried the spa, where they are not.
The Irish-Roman bath, as reimagined in one part of the B2 spa and at some Swiss mountain resorts, is a multi-step experience where you spend a designated range of minutes in assorted hot, tepid and cool baths, in steam rooms, and in different kinds of lying around, chill-out zones.
The difference at B2 is that signs are posted to admonish that you are actually required to wear a bathing suit, and no one directs you to move rigidly from step to prescribed step. Instead, you are free to graze in your Vilebrequin boxers among the offerings like a visitor to a theme park choosing which rides to enjoy.
The basic entry price is modest, and the spa cuisine offered on two floors is healthy and inexpensive. On the weekends, the spa is filled with young couples, snuggling in warm, bubbly water. It was standing-room only in the floral steam bath, which so fogged up my glasses, I could hardly see all the aquatic amorousness when I exited.
Swiss spa lesson four: When enjoying an Irish-Roman bath, take along a cuddly friend who looks good in a swimming outfit.
After visiting two fine hotels that feature capacious spas, the whole family was well cleaned and relaxed, each from our different experiences.
Swiss spa lesson five: When doing hotel spas with your kindergartner, leave time for parent-child and adults-only activities. And bring a cloth to clean your glasses: There really is quite a lot to see.
If you go
Swiss International flies from seven airports in the U.S. and from Montreal. Contact: 877-359-7947; www.swiss.com.
Relax and take the trains! Contact Rail Europe: 800-622-8600; www.raileurope.com.
Contact the Lenkerhof Gourmet Resort at 41-33-736-36-36 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also book through the Relais & Chateaux hotel and gourmet restaurant association: 800-735-2478; www.relaischateaux.com.
Contact the B2 Boutique Hotel (plus) Spa at 41-44-567-67-67 or email@example.com.
For further information, contact Switzerland Tourism: 800-794-7795; firstname.lastname@example.org.