Our 15th Anniversary: Best Hotels of Germany, Austria & Switzerland

This month marks the end of 15 years of Gemütlichkeit. The first issue was January, 1987. Some readers have been with us the whole way and others are brand new. Sincerest thanks to all.

We started traveling frequently to Europe—and Germany, Austria, Switzerland—in particular in the mid 70s. But since 1987 Liz and I have made some 40 trips to our three countries to research destinations, hotels, restaurants, and back roads. These days we also rely on the good judgment of our correspondents Doug Linton, Jim Johnson and the Claudia Fischer-Roger Holliday team.

In the course of all this travel, we've stayed at or inspected hundreds of hotels and thousands of hotel rooms. Surveys tell us that most of you consider the choice of where to stay is one of your most important travel decisions. There are differences in what you're willing to spend for a night's lodging, so we have tried to cover a broad spectrum.

The majority of readers seem to be about where we are, somewhere in the middle—mid-priced hotels most of the time, with the occasional foray into luxury.

At any level we are always conscious of the price-to-value ratio. Where can our readers get the most for their money? The most important element in our hotel evaluation process is the room itself; cleanliness, quality of materials and furnishings, size, decor, view, lighting and air quality (we'll take an airy, cool room in a two-star over a hot, stuffy one in a five-star any day). After the room we look at people and service, location and setting, facilities, and, finally, public rooms.

The hotels that combine all these traits and offer the best value have become our favorites. Places such as the Art Nouveau in Berlin; Hotel Anker in Marktheidenfeld, Germany; the Sonnenhof in Bad Sachsa, Germany; Zur Stadt Mainz in Würzburg; Gutshotel von Kesselstatt in Neumagen-Dhron on the Mosel, Schloss Haunsperg in outside Salzburg; the Altstadt in Vienna; the Innere Enge in Bern; and the Waldhotel Doldenhorn, Kandersteg, Switzerland, are just a few of the places we've discovered over the years. Interestingly, every one of the above-mentioned establishments is family owned and operated.

Of course there are many outstanding hotels that have all these qualities, but at much higher prices: the Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne, the Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken, Berlin's Schloss Hotel, the Grüner Baum near Badgastein Austria, the Benen Diken Hof on the German island of Sylt, the Imperial in Vienna, Lucerne's The Hotel, Vieux Manoir au Lac in Murten, Switzerland.

Then there are the truly bargain hotels that may not have all the attributes we look for but whose prices are well below their peers. In that category are such places as Munich's Hotel Kraft Hotel, the Pension Heim near Füssen in Bavaria, L'Auberge De Chernex in the hills above Montreux; the Pretrisberg in Trier, and Salzburg's Jedermann.

A few favorite haunts are no longer in business or have slipped badly. Three in the latter category are the beautifully-located Forsthaus Grasek in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Munich's Hotel Adria, and the Brienzer-Burli in Brienz, Switzerland.

Simply gone are Schloss Neuhof in Coburg, Germany, the once-splendid Hotel Geiger in Berchtesgaden, and the fine restaurant of the Markgräfler Hof in Freiburg, Germany. Two music venues we miss are Vienna's Café Budva (Gypsy music) and the Ewige Lampe (blues/jazz) in Berlin.

Because of their attitude toward Americans, there are just three hotels that are to be avoided under all circumstances: Gebhard's Hotel in Göttingen, Germany, the Benediktenhof (if it's still in operation) in Ettal, southern Bavaria, and Vienna's Mailbergerhof.

Thanks to the strength of the dollar, hotel prices today are surprisingly close to what they were in 1987. According to the March 1987 issue of Gemütlichkeit, a double room at the Anker in Martkheidenfeld was $83. In late 2001, that same room is $86. The dollar in 1987 brought 1.82 DM. Today it fetches 2.19 DM.

Though fierce competition has kept car rental rates and transatlantic airline ticket prices about the same as they were 15 years ago, when that competitive element is not there, the picture changes. In 1987, a first-class ticket on the Glacier Express was $67. Today, even though the dollar is about 8% higher vs the Swiss franc than it was in 87, the same St. Moritz-Zermatt trip is $155. (By the way, Rail Europe is announcing increases in rail pass prices for 2002. Since most passes are good for travel up to six months after date of purchase, those planning to travel in the first half of 2002 would do well to take advantage of current prices by buying their passes no later than December 31, 2001.)

Though prices may have shown stability, the travel experience itself has changed. We have new airports in Munich and Frankfurt, and big improvements in Zürich. Germany has introduced 160 mile-an-hour ICE trains. In 1987, few hotel rooms had cable TV. Now they have CNN via satellite. The cellular phone is now more prevalent in Europe than here at home. Most European rental cars are now air-conditioned, while only a few luxury models had air 15 years ago. In 1987, we were almost always able to book hotel rooms in advance without providing a credit card number, and most hotels didn't even ask for a credit card at check-in. Today, some require a nonrefundable deposit when reserving in advance and most want to take an imprint of your credit card at check-in.

We have more territory to cover. In 1991, the Germanies—East and West—unified, opening travel to cities like Dresden, Leipzig, Weimar, Rostock and the former East Berlin. Excursions into the Czech Republic and Hungary became routine.

And now, starting January 1, we will see another major change. The euro, a new currency will replace the Deutsche Mark and the schilling (not Switzerland's franc) plus the currency of 10 other European countries. (If you have marks or schillings left over from your last trip, you can use them for payment until February 28, 2002. March 31, 2002, is the last day you will be able to exchange - them notes only, not coins - without charge for Euros at Central Banks in the 12 countries. Until December 31, 2002, commercial banks will also exchange old notes and coins for euros but there will be a charge. From 2003 onward, it will still be possible to exchange old currencies at the Central Banks.)

Changes notwithstanding, the mountains, the lakes, the meadows, the forests, all look virtually the same as they did 15 or 150 years ago. And late at night, when we're sipping a glass of local wine under a shaded lamp in a rustic little hotel deep in the countryside, it's as good as it ever was and as good as it ever gets. See you in February. RHB

December 2001