If These Walls Could Talk... | Inside Audrey Hepburn’s Alpine Hideaway
We step inside this glamorous, historic Swiss resort, built directly into the mountains
If These Walls Could Talk… takes a look at the legendary stories behind some of the world’s most famous luxury hotels. This week, we're taking a look around the intensely glamorous Bürgenstock resort, which was sophisticated and secluded enough to charm Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren.
The Bürgenstock Resort: The Legend
Audrey Hepburn liked it at the Bürgenstock so much that she married there. Her home for more than a decade, Hepburn was spotted daily, driving to a local dentist outside of the resort to maintain her pristine Hollywood look. Sophia Loren, too, called the Bürgenstock home. During the middle of last century, the hotel was enjoying a frenzied heyday as Switzerland’s - if not the world’s - most desirable bolthole.
The heartland of Switzerland’s glitterati scene, the hotel’s natural distance from prying eyes was what made it so attractive to the rich and famous. Opened in 1873, the 007 team stayed here to shoot Goldfinger, perhaps the most superbly glamorous of Connery’s Bonds. High in the clouds on a sleepy part of Lake Lucerne, and only accessible by funicular, the hotel has a duality of mystery and opulence that goes unmatched.
"The restaurant uses the same silverware that was used by the hotel in the forties, which was dug out from a whole garage of cutlery”
The hotel fell out of fashion at the end of the last century, but in 2007 was acquired by a mammoth real estate firm who spent a staggering £440 million on its complete and utter renovation. In 2017 the hotel reopened in ode to its past, but with an eye on the future.
“There is nowhere in the world like this,” Bürgenstock chief director Mike Wehrle told me when I visited. We were drinking cups of fresh mint tea in a lounge backdropped by the largest floor-to-ceiling glass windows I’ve ever seen, which revealed a view of the Alps so pristine it looked like CGI.
“The Palace Hotel and The Grand residences have been left as they were originally, and then you have the Bürgenstock and the Wald Hotel, two examples of how history can be transitioned to modernity,” explained Thomas Goval, director of guest services.
Some thirty buildings make up the sprawling Bürgenstock resort, though sadly, few from the hotel’s glamorous past remain. A number of disastrous renovations throughout the twentieth century made restorations impossible, so a complete rebuild was needed for the opening of the flagship resort building, the Bürgenstock Hotel (the other main public properties are the Wald Hotel and the historic Palace Hotel, although there are others which serve as private residences and guest houses).
The dainty little chapel where Hepburn married still stands in between trees and outcrops of mountain rock, in delightful contrast to the giant futuristic structures of the rebuild.
At the flagship Bürgenstock Hotel, it’s easy to spot signs of the cash spent. The design includes impressive Nordic-style minimal fixtures contrasting with warm metals and dark textures; it feels generally Art Deco inspired. Unbelievable panoramas onto the mountains and lake have been worked into the design, but for somewhere this steeped in history, there isn’t enough of a sense of the historic past.
Within the neighbouring Palace Hotel, there are staggering signs of the past. Some big, some small: the RitzCoffier restaurant uses the same silverware that was used by the hotel in the forties, which was dug out from “a whole garage of cutlery”, according to head chef Marc Haeberlin. And the handsome salmon pink marble columns which line the lobby can be pleasingly spotted in photos along the Bürgenstock’s historic corridors, where an accumulation of objects, pictures, and video materials about life at the hotel can be found.
“For the guests, it's very touching to look at the pictures and say, ‘Oh I’m walking the same way as famous actresses,’” Thomas Goval told me.
“The history is there in every single dish,” Mike Wehrle said, as we strolled the kitchens of the resort. “We’ve looked through menus from the 1800s to bring back history, and to learn something. They’re totally different to how we cook today, but people like to have stories. We think, ‘Could we do something like this? Could we interpret it?’ You learn all the time”.
It might not be old, but the Bürgenstock spa is undoubtedly the hotel’s pièce de résistance. With a jacuzzi-warm infinity pool boasting views directly over Lake Lucerne and the Alps, it is surely the grandest of its kind in the world: a seemingly gravity-defying swim. I spent hours gazing over the lake from the pool’s edge, watching the hotel’s private catamaran sail back and forth to the city to pick up day trippers and those lucky enough to have a reservation.
Activities include ‘heli-skiing’, where guests fly to nearby mountain peaks for unmatched off-piste experiences. Staying here is on another planet, almost literally (my ears popped on the way up in the funicular) but it was encouraging to hear from guest service manager Thomas that bringing in a diverse audience of guests is important these days.
“A few decades ago, only a few lucky ones could afford such properties,” he said. “Nowadays, many more guests can afford to stay here. I’d say that’s really where the glamour is these days, to make everyone happy”.
It’s truly worth coughing up for access to the Bürgenstock spa though, which gets you as much tea, dried fruit, and words-fail-you views as you can stuff in your eyes.
“What would Audrey Hepburn think if she returned to the Bürgenstock?” I ask guest services director Thomas. “Hopefully she would appreciate that we manage to mix history and modernity,” he reasoned. “I really think we can offer the same glamour today.” Here’s to another century of that.
The Bürgenstock Resort: The Location
At first, nothing seems remarkable when you arrive at the Lake Lucerne port to visit the hotel, which is a 45-minute train ride away from Zurich. Look again though, and you’ll notice a cluster of well-healed people gathering at the very far end of the wooden jetty. Every so often, a pristine catamaran pulls in to gather them up, with guards on board who perform a meticulously orchestrated onboarding process. In complete silence, staff draw the boat into the dock, rope it in place and connect a ramp to the ground which protrudes from the deck as silently and strategically as a lizard’s tongue reaching for prey.
The ship has the word ‘Bürgenstock’ written assertively in black at the bow. As silently as the ship comes in it glides off again, across Switzerland’s sprawling Lake Lucerne to a historic funicular on the opposite side of the lake, which on arrival feels utterly deserted. Eye-catching in ruby red, the funicular jolts guests 874 metres above sea level to a destination most literally described as the innards of a mountain.
The Bürgenstock Resort: The Lowdown
Rooms at the Bürgenstock Hotel start from around £620 per night, with spa access included. Rooms at the Wald Hotel, where Adam stayed, begin from around £325. Day guests are welcomed to visit the resort’s many restaurants and bars, or book into the Bürgenstock spa (£100). Rooms at the four-star Palace Hotel cost from around £290 and rooms at the three-star Taverne hotel cost from around £135.
Adam was a guest of the Bürgenstock Resort.
Adam Bloodworth is a freelance journalist. Keep up with him on Twitter.