Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles from outside of Canada on destinations that will be of keen interest to our audience. This profile focuses on the leisure haven of Engelberg, Switzerland.
If you believe the legend, the world needed Engelberg a millennia ago. Then again, around nine centuries later in the early-1900s, it was sought after to provide wellness and escape from the hectic pace of city living. Now, despite the fact life on earth has drastically changed, the Swiss resort town is once more giving those who venture to it a destination that eases their burdens and comforts their flesh and bones. The place is a little pocket of goodness — a village that seems so unlike any other.
It has the charms of a welcoming hamlet and, thanks to the recently launched Kempinski Palace Engelberg, a refreshed sense of its grandeur. Propelled by the opulence of the luxury hotel, much that was old in Engelberg feels new again, a rejuvenation that reverberates throughout the town of 4,600 residents. From 1850-1914, Engelberg was a Belle Époque leader, exemplifying that “beautiful age” in Switzerland, with a dozen glam hotels attracting travellers from afar who partook in a lifestyle that was lavish and restorative, a high-end luxury experience that was a match for the mountain setting. Like many haute locales of central Europe, Engelberg’s stature declined following the world wars of the 20th century and the economic toll that those conflicts inflicted. The village, though, maintained a reputation for scenery so breathtaking it conjures thoughts of Valhalla and Elysium, and an easygoing spirit that feels reminiscent of a beach town, not a haven for wintry thrills in the Swiss Alps.
A small community park attracts children who may be from the neighbourhood or visiting from abroad. They mingle joyfully on the playground and compete in spontaneous soccer games that take place in front of the terrace of the hotel’s Cattani restaurant. The playground is charming and a complement to the incredible mountain fun families can enjoy, including glacier walks atop the Western Alps, hikes that pass by blissful waterfalls, trampolines located on the exhilarating peaks, and alpine activities like a gentle toboggan run or more intense Via Ferrata cliffside climbs.
Restaurants in town and on the mountain are exceptional, because of Engelberg’s international ski clientele and its proximity to local artisan suppliers. In an era where summers are increasingly unpleasant in many parts of the world, Engelberg’s temperatures remain comfortable and residents can expect a bit of rain on most days on the mountains to keep the fields and forest lush and green. Cable cars that haul passengers to the summits of three of the mountains surrounding the town are accessible via free shuttle buses that depart frequently from the main train station. A self-proclaimed energy city, Engelberg is a leader in sustainability with hydroelectricity powering all of its ski lifts. Those lifts take skiers to some of the most desired mountains in the sport, where elite athletes such as Olympic gold-medallist Marco Odermatt — considered the world leader in the giant slalom — have trained for decades.
Skiing is what has driven tourism to Engelberg but it’s an all-season destination and once again a luxury one. Opened in 2021, the Kempinski Palace Engelberg is a marvel that seamlessly integrates contemporary decor and amenities with the property’s early-20th-century architecture that was influenced by the Belle Époque. The “palace” name is a misnomer. It was never a royal residence and it is without gilt and gaudiness. The property was renovated from the circa 1905 Grand Hotel Winterhaus, which was founded by three Italian brothers, the Cattanis, one of whom was a doctor and marketed the property as a wellness retreat. Revitalizing mountain air and reputed energy vortexes in the peaks that surround Engelberg are perpetual positives for the guests who arrive.
Purchased in 2011 by a magnate from China and operated meticulously by Kempinski, the hotel is a wonder of hospitality and history. The reconstruction was massive, taking more than five years and requiring a workforce of 150 craftsmen. Determined to retain the essence of the property, stakeholders aimed to blend a new wing with the old, retaining antique décor like chandeliers and floorboards in the Palace Bar while adding upscale features like a warm-water rooftop infinity pool that faces Mt. Titlis and includes a wading area for toddlers. It’s among the hotel’s family-friendly touches, all of which thoroughly impressed me.
Upon arrival, a basket of sweets greets kids, who select the candy of their choice before they are introduced to the hotel’s scavenger hunt, which challenges youngsters to collect stamps from the managers of different sections of the property, such as the pool and concierge desk. Those who complete the task earn a coupon for a mocktail (served in a copper-plated cup) at the Palace Bar.
The hotel’s Kids Club isn’t simply a baby-sitting space with toys and games. The instructors are hands-on with activities like baking and other crafts. The breakfast buffet includes a children’s section with waffles, pancakes, fruits, cereals, and treats. Perhaps best of all is the public playground and park where the wide field invites the guests from out of town to mingle with Engelberg’s children.
My 5-year-old, Gabriel, was so enthralled by his stay that he declared his love for the property frequently and was so despondent at leaving that he wept on the train platform as we departed.
Dubbed Little Patagonia because of its mountainous surroundings and alpine thrills, Engelberg’s name actually translates to “Angel Mountain” or “Mountain of Angels”. The town was founded in 1120 by Benedictine monks who, according to folklore, received a vision and message from angels to build a monastery in the valley of the majestic peaks, the largest of which, Spannort, rises 3,198 metres (10,500 feet). While adventurous athletes might try climbing that monolith, the majority of visitors journey to enjoy the offerings atop the three easily accessible mountains of Engelberg: Titlis, Brunni, and Fuerenalp.
From the town, Mt. Titlis is the most domineering, its jagged anvil of a crown stretching toward the clouds. Its summit enticements include a suspension bridge, hiking on the frozen landscape, an ice cave with a bar, and a pleasant heated restaurant. On the way up (or down), you can (and should) stop at manmade Lake Trübsee, which has a waterfall and playground. The lake offers rowboats for complimentary paddles on the calm waterway. Be sure to take a break on the terrace above the gondola station for excellent views and an outstanding hamburger stand, Smuggler’s, which prepares its beef patties and other menu items with carefully curated local ingredients.
For more family entertainment above the town, venture to Mt. Brunni, where kids can enjoy some culture with their play. Swiss mascots Globi (a bird) and Schmuggli (a donkey) may greet them before or after they can participate in a local game of rolling a wooden ball down designated tracks that connect from station to station.
At Fuerenalp, the sight of a trampoline and swings stationed atop the mountain greets you as you exit the gondola. Immediately, I thought, this must be the best playground in the world. Hikers can traverse about two kilometres past cows and pastures en route to a cheese factory for sensational flavours. From there, you can take a four-passenger cable car that is operated by the mountain’s farmers down to the base of Fuerenalp. Exquisite views of waterfalls that will remind you of scenes from “Lord of the Rings” and pub-style restaurants await, providing a pleasant respite before you trek back into Engelberg.
Prior to the global conflicts of the last century, Engelberg would attract more than 160,000 visitors per year. In 2019, visitation was more than double that number, reaching 369,474, according to Engelberg Mt. Titlis Tourism, and 2023 is on pace to top that number. While visitation has remained high during the decades, the region has relied on domestic travellers for its tourism revenue. With the five-star Kempinski, though, high-end accommodations are back in a significant way and there’s suddenly much more to attract foreign travellers who seek the kind of glory that made Engelberg an in-demand destination a century and a quarter ago.
If it’s a stress-free few days you’re after — and who alive in 2023 isn’t? — then this jewel encrusted with verdant scenery and some of the highest peaks in the Alps is an ideal place to satiate body and soul. Engelberg doesn’t so much turn back the clock as it makes you want to stop it, to replenish yourself in its setting and savour every moment in its darling landmark hotel.
MORE ABOUT KEMPINSKI PALACE ENGELBERG
Location: Dorfstrasse 40, Engelberg, Switzerland (see map below)
Room Rates: The starting price for a weekend night in December 2023 is 598.50 Swiss francs (about $920 CAD or $680 USD), based on a search of the hotel’s booking engine.
Getting There: Engelberg is 40 minutes by train from Lucerne and about 90 minutes from Zurich. The hotel is across the street from the Engelberg train station.
Currency: Swiss francs (CHF) are used throughout Engelberg; some retailers may accept euro at par. The current foreign-exchange rate returns 1 CHF for $1.54 CAD ($1.14 for USD).
Travel Tip: Switzerland is an expensive country for North American travellers; pre-pay for as much of your costs as possible to help with managing budgets and expenses after you arrive.
Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi was hosted by Kempinski Palace Engelberg and Engelberg Mt. Titlis Tourism. Neither entity reviewed the article before it was published.