We revisit one of our all-time favorite country hotels and find its location as idyllic and restful as ever and its staff just as welcoming. The kitchen, however, aims too high. Many dishes seem over-sauced, over-seasoned and too complex.
By Bob Bestor
I am lying on the right side of the bed in room Number 205 of the Waldhotel Doldenhorn in Kandersteg, less than an hour by car or train into the Bernese Alps from Interlaken. It is my favorite room in one of my favorite hotels.
I have only to move my head slightly to the right for a straight-on view of the graceful strips of waterfall that drop perhaps a thousand feet from the high meadow shelf past a sheer rock face to the valley floor. Even for Switzerland, it is spectacular.
The Doldenhorn is an authentic country hotel, tucked amongst a few dozen tall, straight pines at the base of the mountains that ring the Kander valley. It is located at the valley's southern end where it narrows just before the Löthschberg Tunnel; the falls are less than a mile away across the flat valley floor.
This is a corner room; to my left are French doors opening to a protected balcony that overlooks a small pond in a stand of trees. Through the open doors burbles the sound of the little creek that tumbles off the mountain and through the property. Directly below this room is the outdoor terrace and the hotel's new, all-glass wintergarden.
If our travel didn't require us to continually seek new Doldenhorns, this might be an annual stop but, as it is, we haven't been here for seven years.
Except for the wintergarden and a new spa and pool currently under construction, things are just as we remembered them. Room 205 has exactly the same furniture - including the brass floor lamp, the prints, the gold-framed beveled mirror, and the pretty little Luxa clock. Without refurbishment, the room has held up amazingly well these seven years.
Downstairs, the dining room hovers somewhere between homey and luxurious, though we chose to eat in the wintergarden where one night a furious show of thunder, lightning and heavy rain entertained customers and staff.
Situated between the dining room and the wintergarden is a brightly-lit, rustic little Stube where guests can finish their evenings with a coffee, a drink and perhaps a card game.
On a previous visit we elected the halbspension plan and were impressed by the well-prepared four-course dinners. This time, however, we chose from the a la carte menu which was more expensive and left us wondering if we wouldn't have been more satisfied with the more straightforward, half-board fare.
Methinks the kitchen aims too high. The menu is lengthy and the dishes we tried seemed over-sauced, over-seasoned and too complex.
Slices of lamb from the loin came in a tomatoey sauce that tasted of too much sage and salt.
Medallions of beef were more successful, but with each medallion liberally draped with goose liver slices and an intense dill weed reduction sauce, the richness meter was definitely in the red zone.
Smoked salmon soup, veal steak with morel mushrooms, and chopped calve's liver sautéed in butter, rosemary, chives and shallots, all contained fresh ingredients and were unquestionably edible, but we wished the chef would have backed off just a bit on the seasonings, sauces and salt.
Perhaps the best dish was a first course of white asparagus with noodles and morels, but worst of all was an artificial-tasting tomato/basil risotto.
Even the vegetables, bathed in heavy, rich sauces, seemed overly-prepared. Cherry tomatoes were stuffed with a heavy spread that obliterated their tangy freshness.
Both the dessert and cheese carts offered a wide assortment of delectables. Except for a delicious and fragrant Burgundian cheese - Epoisses by Jean Gaugry - all our choices were good but stopped short of sublime.
The wine list is lengthy and intriguing though there are few, if any, bargains. Les Pyramides, Grand Cru De Salquenen 1995 (59 Sfr./$39), a soft, Swiss pinot noir was a decent value. This is, after all, Switzerland.
The young servers were most friendly and eager to please and, of course, Frau and Herr Mäder, the innkeepers, made the rounds each evening.
Without beverages, our two dinners came to $84 and $65 respectively and here's an oddity: though we didn't complain about the awful risotto, we weren't charged for it. Apparently it was noticed that we ate no more than a bite or two and, unknown to us, the charge was waived. A pleasant surprise.
As you might expect, breakfasts are bounteous affairs. A name-card reserved our table each morning and a daily, one-page flyer in German told of village activities and the expected weather.
The Doldenhorn is one of the most restful hotels we have experienced and we strongly recommend it, even taking into consideration our reservations regarding the food.
Daily Rates: Singles 95 to 100 Sfr. ($63-$67), doubles 190 to 250 Sfr. ($125-$165)
Contact: Waldhotel Doldenhorn 3718 Kandersteg, tel. +41/033/6758181, fax 6758185.
Hotel Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 16/20
Restaurant: Quality 12/20, Value 10/20
Just across the road, a few hundred yards from the Doldenhorn, is the Mäder family's second hotel, a 16-bed, weathered but beautifully restored Swiss farmhouse. Despite its country authenticity, it is still quite comfortable.
The Mäders are so into making the Ruedihus an all-Swiss experience that all beverages and food served in the hotel have to have been produced in Switzerland. So don't look for bananas at breakfast and forget about a campari and soda as an aperitif.
The restaurant features Swiss specialties such as raclette and fondue.
Guestrooms are cozy and, of course, decorated in the rustic farm style that features elaborately painted cabinets, beamed ceilings, lots of rough wood and antique furniture. There is no lift or television.
Room Number 601 is a nice double with a canopied bed.
Both the Doldenhorn and the Ruedihus discount their rates for children as follows: under 6, free; 6-12, half price; 12-18, 25% off.
Daily Rates: Per person rates range from 85 to 95 Sfr. ($57 to $63)
Contact: Landgasthof Ruedihus CH-3718 Kandersteg, tel. +41/033/751580, fax 751828.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 10/20
On our one full day in Kandersteg we ate a late breakfast (served until 11am) then walked the mile or so to the chairlift into the mountains to the Oeschinensee. The ride up is some 5 to 10 minutes and costs 8 Sfr. ($5) per person einfach - one way (13 Sfr./$9 roundtrip). From the top it is about a mile walk to the lake.
Once there, you can rent a rowboat or a little electric-powered boat for a slow cruise through the green water.
Or do as we did, which is walk left about halfway around the lake to a waterfall. Along the way you'll notice a number of wood sculptures carved out of tree stumps.
Before heading back down the hill, either via the lift or on foot, there are a couple of simple but pleasant restaurants with terraces overlooking the lake and the steep rocky escarpments rising from it. Those who choose the approximately 30-40 minute walk down to the town should understand the trip can turn seldom-used quadriceps muscles to Jello.