On a picturesque mountainside overlooking Lake Lucerne from thousands of feet above, surrounded by snowclad Alpine peaks, sits the historic boutique Hotel Villa Honegg of Switzerland. As we drove up the winding drive, the view of the stately peaks across the valley took my breath away.
“And this isn’t the good side … wait until you see the other view over the lake,” smiled a bellman as he opened the car door.
Built in 1905, the Art Nouveau-style villa was recently completely renovated to both preserve its historical charm as well as usher it into 21st century luxury and innovation. It sits to one side on top of the Bürgenstock –– a peninsula ridge that juts out into Lake Lucerne –– which overlooks the quaint town of Ennetbürgen on the lakeshore. The other side of the ridge looks out across the water to the city of Lucerne, a popular Swiss town known for its famous medieval wooden bridges.
Karen, a lovely Swiss lady, checked us in and showed us up to our room. We were immediately greeted with a welcome tray of fruit and nuts and a handwritten note from Peter, the manager, expressing his pleasure at our staying with them and his best wishes for our visit. The room was so spacious and commodious it felt like a suite. It had a small sofa, ottoman and desk in addition to a flat screen TV with free movies on demand. The panoramic view from our bedroom afforded me my first glance across the lake, and I walked out onto the balcony to enjoy the fresh air while taking in the dramatic scenery of the water far below, surrounded by the grandeur of the Alps.
“And everything in the wet bar is complimentary,” said Karen graciously. This included mini Toblerones, which they replaced each day … much to my delight!
Before Villa Honegg’s reopening, the staff made a list of all the things they disliked at typical resorts; one that was high on everyone’s list was breakfast ending at 10 a.m. “We offer breakfast until 2 p.m.,” explained Karen. “That way, you can sleep as late as you’d like, or you can do an activity first and come back for breakfast.” This is only one example of how thoroughly every detail has been crafted to cater to ultimate relaxation, and it was clear that the staff did not wish for anything to cause guests an iota of stress while visiting their paradise. They even offer a movie theater, which seats 20 people, and can be reserved for the movie of a guest’s choice.
Villa Honegg is known for its pool and spa— features that clearly received copious attention during the recent renovation. We made frequent use of an elevator that only services the room halls and the spa, so that guests can go straight down to the spa or pool area from their room clad in their bathing suits and spa robes.
Describing the indoor/outdoor swimming pool as an “infinity pool” does not do it justice — it seems to hang out over the very edge of the mountainside, looking across to the dramatic peaks, creating the feeling that we were suspended up over the valley and lake. On our only “rainy day” (where it did not actually rain — we were literally in a cloud) we couldn’t see one another across the pool! It felt like I might just sail over the edge off the mountain, because the ground below was invisible in the mist. Every other day, however, was bright sunshine with clear views of the striking scenery. The pool was heated to 93 degrees, which is much warmer than the typical American “heated” pool, but cooler than the typical 100 to 102 degrees of a hot tub so guests do not feel overheated. This temperature proved to be the perfect balance for guests to enjoy in any weather. Perhaps most remarkable about the pool is its metal structure; the pleasant smooth surface became partly self-heated in the sun. Jets of all sorts shot out of every nook and cranny, showing the work of an ingenious engineer with an unrestrained imagination. Different seats and benches with varying types of jets and bubbles made the pool seem like a futuristic contraption from Back to the Future or The Jetsons.
Heavy, flannel blankets covered in fur, rather than the typical rolled up towels, beckoned from the plush lounge chairs. Nestled in the fur’s warmth, I enjoyed my book after a swim, although it was hard to stay focused reading with the mesmerizing, spectacular view right before my eyes. There were also many hawks and kestrels to watch, as they wheeled and circled about hunting. Occasionally, I would even see one flutter and hover for a moment before diving down to earth to lay hold of his dinner.
I had heard that the Swiss and Germans were known for their spas and saunas, and my expectations were not disappointed. Both the sauna and the steam room smelled delightfully of eucalyptus and pine, and there was an antechamber between the two rooms with fresh towels — both smooth, linen towels to sit on as well as plush, fluffy towels to wrap up in and dry off — water, crushed ice, vegetable broth, showers and a small, cold plunge pool. The sauna, complete with wooden headrests, had a quaint sand timer for guests to flip upon entering and measured out the time in five, 10 and 15-minute increments. I treated myself to a massage one day with masseuse Lubico Koch, and she incorporated stretching as well as deep muscle pressure to work out any remaining stress knots from the daily life I had left behind.
On our first afternoon, we decided to drive a Villa Honegg golf cart up the ridge where we looked out over the mountain’s other side and viewed Lucerne far below. The ridge reaches so high over the lake that our view was like an aerial photograph. Another activity that quickly became a daily favorite was the complimentary e-bikes. They operated like a regular mountain bike, except for a power option when riding uphill. Four power settings gave us various degrees of a push with each pedal, making what could have been an excruciating uphill journey merely a slight workout. Cruising down the 3-mile winding, switchback paved road toward Ennetbürgen gave me an unforgettable adrenaline high. I felt as if I were flying and experienced the same thrilling sensation of snow skiing. There were long enough straight stretches before the turns so our party did not fear meeting a car unawares, and we reached speeds over 30 mph. Wide open meadows with wild flowers and pastoral farm land with sheep and cows bordered our ride all the way down the mountainside.
When we finally reached Ennetbürgen in the valley, we cycled by an old, quaint church and into a park bordering the immense lake where we paused and enjoyed the charming view from the bottom. It was amazing to look up and see how far Villa Honegg sat, high above … what a relief to know that we were not going to be relying on our strength alone to cycle uphill to the top!
It seemed we were always stumbling into little treasures during our explorations. As we cycled uphill one day, we took a side road which led us to the Chapel of St. Jost, a charming, picturesque sight indeed. The church had a small farm behind it, containing a peacock who burst forth in full strut, as if he knew the incredible backdrop of the Alps would only add to the glory of his feathered fan.
We also saw some farmers shearing a black sheep in their barn right off of the road who were amused with our fascination. After the sheep was finished, they went back into the barn and brought out one white and one black lamb, born only two days before. The kind Swiss gentleman put them in my arms, and the white one squirmed and bleated loudly, but the black one nestled down for a good snuggle. The farmers spoke little English but were tickled that we were so interested in their sheep.
On one morning after a bike ride, our Villa Honegg friends packed us a splendid picnic lunch, and we began exploring the hiking trails winding above the hotel. We soon found a perfectly situated bench and table that was too idyllic to resist for enjoying our fare: delicious roast beef sandwiches with butter, lettuce, pickle and tomato on scrumptious bread; cold, crisp apples; granola bars; and chocolate chip bread for dessert — not too sweet or heavy, just right. We watched planes take off and land on the Ennetburgen runway far below in the valley and marveled at how long it took them to reach our eye level.
We then climbed the trail through the woods to an even higher point on the ridge. From there we continued back in the direction of the mainland along the spine until we reached the highest point on the ridge. The woods seemed magical, like an enchanted forest … it was not hard to imagine why that area of the world is the motherland of our fairy tale traditions. We passed carved stumps of the selectively logged trees — high backed chairs resembled elven thrones, a squirrel appeared as if he might speak to me and several toad stools added to the magical ambiance.
At the top was a magnificent view looking out over the other side of the ridge, over the lake and Lucerne. There were several lookout points — railed, cement platforms suspended out from the ledge — that were as exciting as they were terrifying, even for one who enjoys heights, and looked out higher than 2,000 feet above Lake Lucerne. One platform led out to the Hammetschwand Lift –– an open-air elevator which opened in 1905 and goes down 502 feet, the highest exterior elevator in Europe. It was under repair, but the platform leading to the walkway had a lovely breeze, and the air felt so pure and pleasant. I felt like a dog with my face in the wind and could have stood there for hours, enjoying the occasional stomach drop whenever I dared to look down.
Meals at Villa Honegg were a daily highlight. Not only was the food amazing, but the servers made extreme effort to build relationships with us while waiting on us for our meals, remember our culinary preferences and past orders and even anticipate our requests before we could make them. The first morning for breakfast, I ordered a glass of grapefruit juice, and every morning after that I was brought a freshly squeezed glass before I could ask.
After being seated for the all-inclusive breakfast, a three-tiered tray of jams, cheese, cold cuts, prosciutto and sliced fruit, as well as a bread basket, were delivered to our table. They also served their own honey, harvested from the hives at Villa Honegg. We could then order however many plates we desired of hot food from the kitchen. To encourage guests to try several choices, the portions were very small, resembling little breakfast appetizers. I particularly enjoyed the pancakes — six tiny, bite-sized, fluffy mouthfuls with maple syrup and powdered sugar drizzled and dusted on top. Two other favorites were a poached egg on toast with veal bacon or sausage as well as the rosti (Swiss hash browns) with an egg and sautéed mushrooms.
Lunch was offered practically wherever one wished to take it — in the dining room, the lounge, on the terrace or by the pool. The menu was delightful. At our frequent server Marisa’s suggestion, I particularly enjoyed the Arabic sandwich — a wrap with falafel, cucumber, lettuce, tomato and taziki sauce. Another day I ordered the burger, which was unanimously decided as the best we had ever tasted, served with their homemade, hand-cut French fries.
In the evenings, we enjoyed an “aperitif” in the lounge over a game of chess by the fireplace before moving through to the dining room. While I am not partial to gin, the Swiss make quite a variety. I was persuaded to try one that had predominantly fresher and sweeter notes as opposed to bitter, with a citrusy tonic made in nearby Lucerne. It was so delicious and refreshing that I regret not purchasing a bottle of each to bring back to the United States.
Dinner was an upscale affair suited for royalty. Patrik, Joel and Nadia frequently served us and made our party feel as if we were the most important people staying in their hotel. Tanja, who always brought us our selection of bread, quickly realized that out of the delicious assortment of plain, sundried tomato and olive, the olive bread was our favorite, and would prepare her basket accordingly. The butter was so soft and sweet, and the olive bread was especially delicious paired with their olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper. When we asked about nearly anything we were served or saw on the menu, the answer began with, “It comes from just below,” including the wine. I have never much enjoyed Rieslings, as they are usually too sweet for my preference, but Patrik prevailed upon me to try it, and to my surprise it was quite dry and smooth like a Pinot Grigio. I ordered it every night thereafter.
Our gracious servers always told us about each dish after it was laid before us in synchronized style, and they also waited to clear the plates until each guest finished. I do not remember the last time I was at a restaurant where that courtesy was observed.
One of my favorite starters was the beef tartare, which was chopped very fine and arranged in a cylinder with mint diced on top. The dish was served with two small pita bites and a creamy baba ghanoush spread dolloped around the plate with pomegranate seeds on top. Another favorite was the hay soup … from “just below.” It was surprisingly creamy and came in a bowl surrounded by hay grass. We were warned it was not the best choice for the allergic! They also offered a fabulous quail salad, served over lamb’s ear lettuce, which I had never seen before, topped with chopped grapes and a small, boiled quail egg. The quail legs were crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside, like a French duck.
My favorite entrée was the Lake Lucerne White Fish, served with pesto and couscous. It was lighter than air, and even though it wasn’t battered, the skin had a delicate crisp. That night I followed it with the dessert special — a blood orange and rosemary sorbet. Every evening after all courses were served, our servers brought a “chef special” mini dessert, such as chocolate covered hazelnuts and a jar of a sweet, syrupy water with pomegranate seeds.
All of the portions were such healthy sizes that while I always felt full after each meal, I never felt overstuffed … except perhaps at breakfast when there were too many options to resist. Next to the doors that opened onto the terrace was a coat stand with hooded, fur robes –– similar to the poolside blankets –– for going outside and enjoying the stars after dinner.
The local cuisine is not the only way that Villa Honegg incorporates the surrounding people and area. They strongly encourage the locals to come up and participate in this amazing hotel by not only dining there but also enjoying a day at the spa.
After breakfast one morning, we drove a short 20 minutes into charming Lucerne and walked across the famous wooden bridge, admiring the prolific medieval artwork decorating each set of beams under the roof. We poked around a few shops and were amazed at the plethora of shoe stores; I fell in love with the Swiss brand “Navy Boot.” We walked into the “old town” and bought different flavored Toblerones, which has been my favorite candy bar since I was about 9 years old. I loved seeing the murals decorating so many of the buildings in traditional, German style.
As lovely as Lucerne was, it was hard to stay away from Villa Honegg for too long! We were eager not to miss one moment of our time in paradise.