Just a week after Oprah tweeted, “best spa ever”, I arrive at the Dolder Grand Hotel, perched in the steep hills above Zurich.
As endorsements go, they don’t get much better than Oprah.
The evangelical star stayed at the Dolder Grand while in town to attend Tina Turner’s wedding and browse pricey handbags.
The hotel is no stranger to celebrity, and Dolder staff excel at discretion, having hosted foreign dignitaries and Hollywood royalty, like Henry Kissinger, Elizabeth Taylor and Leonardo DiCaprio.
First built as a hotel in the late 19th century, the “city resort” underwent a multi-million dollar refurbishment five years ago. Sitting on the edge of a forest, rooms overlook Lake Zurich.
Zurichers come here for the decadent, multi-sensory stimulating spa, and the peaceful scenery, while others use the Dolder as a tranquil base for exploring the city.
A hotel shuttle, or the charming Dolder Bahn, a funicular that looks more like an alpine toy train (it only makes three stops), chugs up and down the hill for the 20-30 minute journey from the Dolder to the chocolate shops of downtown Zurich.
The hotel excels at exploiting, in the best possible way, the views visible from nearly every public space. Even the treadmill faces a floor-to-ceiling window staring into the forest.
Rooms are the model of Swiss efficiency where technology actually works.
Lights and temperature are controlled through a sleek, slender remote control. This, alone, has won me over. No fiddling with buttons that don’t respond, no calling down to the desk at 1 am to remind them the room isn’t meant to be a sauna. I count six power jets in the shower, yet, happily, I don’t need an engineering degree to switch it on, nor do I scald myself.
Japanese and European influences inspire a spa which is a theme park for grown-ups.
In 24 hours it’s impossible to experience everything. Beyond the usual treatments using all natural products, there’s a health centre for aesthetic and medical care. But the “oohs” and “aahs” come from the Sunaburo pebble loungers; tubs filled with smooth stones emanating heat and a snow room for cooling off, which resembles a winter sauna packed with ice.
The separate men’s and women’s spa areas are like entering another world; a low, Japanese-style wood table in the centre, featuring crystallised ginger, and tea, is surrounded by plunge pools, whirlpools saunas and steam rooms.
An outdoor jacuzzi looks out over the city and must be bliss in the dead of winter. A chill out room offers hammocks with headphones piping relaxing music, and a meditation room encourages solitary focus with a circular maze. This is a spa made for a weekend of quiet rotation between between calming experiences.
Then, there are all the sports activities, maximised by sunshine.
There’s a golf course, which also commands incredible views of Lake Zurich, clay courts, and a 50m outdoor swimming pool I desperately want to conquer, but instead, I take my punishment from Johannes, the strict German trainer during his morning boot camp.
That’s before I find the secret limestone doorway. Jo, the woman with the key, pushes gently on the concealed door outside, revealing a storage area filled with mountain bikes.
Good mountain bikes. Specialized mountain bikes.
There are cycles for all sizes, even one to fit my shorter-than-average frame. The forest, perfect for a vigorous hike or run, is made for cycling, and allows a bit of exploration beyond the luxury compound.
The interiors of the Dolder Grand are as stimulating as the exteriors, with more than 100 works of art by well-known artists. An 11 metre Warhol hangs just above the reception area and a Pissarro gracing the private dining room is one of the finest I’ve seen.
The private collection of hotelier Urs E. Schwarzenbach offers a rare glimpse of works by artists like Hirst, Haring, Henry Moore, Tamara de Lempicka and others which are precious, not only for their aesthetic, but for the limited access to them.
As artful as the paintings, is the food by Michelin-starred chef Heiko Neider.
The German chef won the restaurant two Michelin stars, and 18 points from Gault Millau. A selection of amuses-bouches is clever and inventive, with a play on Swiss Bircher muesli, topping birch foam with chanterelles, blackberries and cheese.
We embark on the the 12-course chef’s menu with a delicious dry Blanc de Blanc champagne by Eric de Souza and continue with eight wines.
The best are Swiss, produced in small batches.
It’s worth taking the 2011 Flascher Pinot Gris home, but the Dolder possesses the last remaining bottles in their 500-variety stocked cellar.
Favourite dishes are a gambero rosso which fit together like a puzzle in a garden of fresh lime pulp, orange, tiny tomato slices and coconut.
A red mullet dish celebrates the season with warm peaches, and calamari rings are dusted with a sweet paprika.
But the most more-ish bits are the bread. A “crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside”, small round boule is served with mustard butter, a blend of deli mustard whipped with butter.
It’s an unusual combination that works so well, I’m almost afraid to try it at home.
With ten chefs, and just four for the venison alone, this is haute cuisine with an emphasis on flavours and precise presentation. Dishes are reminiscent of pointillist paintings, framing Nieder’s experimental style.
I leave the Dolder like a child dragged out of a sweet shop, longing for just a little more time to linger in the spa, or ride back into the forest.
Even working on my balcony looking at Lake Zurich in the distance has turned work into pleasure. If time, or budget don’t permit a stay here, its worth coming just for a spa day, a meal, or a drink to take in the views and the art. What’s good enough for Oprah …