Michelin Red: The Best Travel Guide

To me, the travel year is officially underway when the new Michelin Red Guides hit the bookstores. My copies of the 1995 Germany and Switzerland guides, though they arrived just two weeks ago, have already lost their tight newness. I've been at them. Each year I look up every hotel I've ever stayed in to see how Michelin rates it. I never throw out a Red Guide and have them from 1973, including all 17 German guides, 1979 through 1995. I like the heft and feel of any Red Guide but particularly the Germany book. Switzerland, only in its second year and a much smaller country, is a little skinny. I also like the prayerbook-style red page marker ribbon. A "bible" should look like a Bible. A few years ago Michelin changed the color of the cover to a brighter red which at first I didn't like but now prefer and went to lighter weight paper. At 1,015 pages, the 1995 guide has nearly 100 more pages than the 1990 guide but is a half-inch thinner. You buy them at Travel Essentials.

There are also Red Guides for France, Great Britain, the Benelux countries, Ireland, Italy, Spain/Portugal, Portugal (separate Portugal guide for the first time in 1995), Paris, London and the Europe Main Cities guide. For the uninitiated, Red Guides cover hotels and restaurants. Michelin Green Guides provide information on sight-seeing.

As anyone who has been a Gemütlichkeit subscriber for longer than 24 hours is well aware, we consider these books the European traveler's single most useful reference. They are essential for the auto traveler but they are also a "must-carry" for train travelers.

Red Guides are highly publicized for awarding stars—one, two or three—to a tiny percentage of expensive, mostly French, restaurants. No doubt many guides are sold to persons interested only in starred restaurants, but elite eateries are only a tiny part of the value and scope of these books. Let's use the German guide as an example. It rates and provides a mass of information on more than 10,000 hotels and restaurants. A typical Frommer's or Fodor's guide for Germany lists about 1,000 establishments.

The Red Guides' greatest strength is in the country side. A Frommer's guide contains listings for only about 100 principal German cities. Michelin, on the other hand, makes hotel and restaurant recommendations in over 3,000 German cities, towns and villages.

There are several unique Red Guide features that are invaluable to the auto traveler. Particularly useful are the maps that accompany the listing for nearly 150 German cities. Let's say you are driving into Kempten in the Allgau, a town of about 61,000. Before you check out of your hotel this morning you use Michelin to phone Kempten's Hotel Fürstenhof for a reservation for tonight. Now as you approach the city you are faced with the problem of finding your hotel in an unfamiliar town. The Fürstenhof listing provides the map coordinates and tells you that the letter "v" indicates the hotel's location on the in-book map. You immediately locate it on the Rathausplatz about 100 meters according to the map scale from the Iller river. The map even shows the direction of the town's one-way streets and you have no trouble driving directly to the hotel.

Had you discovered that all the hotels in Kempten were booked you could have referred to your Die Generalkarte #25 map to find a nearby town. You might have seen that Wiggensbach is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Kempten. By looking up Wiggensbach in Michelin you would have discovered that it is a town of 3,800 and has a listing for the 24-room Hotel Goldenes Kreuz. Since Michelin rates this hotel as "comfortable" (it lists no hotels it does not recommend) you can be confident of decent accommodations very close to Kempten, your original destination.

Another Michelin feature which I find particularly useful, since I am always looking for special hotels and restaurants, are the 10 pages of locator maps in the front of the book. Throughout its guides, Michelin indicates special hotels and restaurants by printing their symbols in red. The cities in which these special places are located are shown on these locator maps. Let's say you have just crossed the border into Germany from Basel, Switzerland, and are driving north on the Autobahn. It is mid-afternoon and you feel like splurging; maybe a very good meal or an especially nice hotel. You turn to locator map #8 and immediately see more than a dozen choices within a 45-minute drive from your current location in the southwestern tip of Germany. The town of Auggen, for example, is, according to the guide, only 31 kilometers (19 miles) from Basel and is underlined in blue on the locator map. This is the symbol for a restaurant with, as Michelin puts it, "less elaborate, moderately priced menus that offer good value for money and serve carefully prepared meals, often of regional cooking." (These establishments are just one step below Michelin star status and I have never been disappointed.) Under Auggen in the main listing you find the Zur Krone where a complete meal ranges from 39 to 66 DM ($26 to $44).

The town of Münstertal, 65 km (40 miles) from Basel, also looks promising. On the locator map it is highlighted in yellow with a Michelin star and also has a red marker. These indicate a starred restaurant and a "particularly pleasant or restful hotel." Turning to the listings you find the Romantik-Hotel Spielweg, which has 42 rooms, a one-star restaurant and has been awarded three red roof peaks. This is likely to be very special hotel with an outstanding restaurant. For its starred restaurants, Michelin lists the kitchens specialities (in German). You see one of them is Münstertaler Rehbckle mit Waldpilzen, venison with forest mushrooms. Complete meals range from about $39 to $70. Rooms at the hotel go from 150 DM ($100) for the cheapest single to 380 DM ($253) for the best double.

You can see how the guide allows one to travel according to whim, with no set itinerary or advance hotel reservations. This works in each country for which there is a Red Guide. Unfortunately, there is no Red Guide for Austria, though the German guide has a listing for Salzburg and the Main Cities list Vienna and Salzburg.

In addition to the unique features for use while traveling, Michelin is an essential bookshelf reference. For example, extensive information is supplied for each of the 3,000-plus cities and towns including: postal code, telephone area code, coordinates on various Michelin maps, population, altitude, distance to nearby and important towns, and the address, phone and fax of the local tourist office. The guide also lists principal sight-seeing attractions with their Michelin star ratings; sight-seeing attractions in the outskirts with their distance and direction from the town center; number of ski lifts; number of cable cars; number of cross-country ski runs; whether or not the town has a golf course and a lot more.

Another nice feature, especially given the dollars recent slippage, is the use of a symbol to indicate restaurants which serve complete meals for less than 25 DM ($17). In considering these inexpensive restaurants it is important to remember that Michelin lists no establishments it does not recommend.

Here are a few observations based on my first look at the 1995 Swiss and German Red Guides:

German Red Guide

Though we didn't count them all, it appears that there are at least 4,000 hotels whose highest price for a double room is $100 or less. A substantial number of those are under $80.

Eastern Germany has its first starred restaurant outside of Berlin. It is the Erholung, at Rissweg 39, in the Weisser Hirsch section of Dresden.

Another Michelin first is its recognition of restaurants in eastern Germany which "serve carefully prepared meals, often of regional cooking." In Schwerin, 89 km (55 miles) southwest of Rostock, it's the Zum Goldenen Reiter serving complete meals from 34 to 55 DM ($23-$36). In Binz, on the far northern island of Rügen, is the Hotel Poseiden. The Laubenhöhe is in Weinböhla near Meissen. In Görlitz, near the Polish border, is the Gutshof Hedicke. In Halberstadt, 57 km (38 miles) southwest of Magdeburg, is the Parkhotel Unter den Linden and Weimar has the Gasthaus zum weissen Schwan. All have similar prices to the Goldenen Reiter.

The nightmare that has caused celebrated Parisian chefs to fall on their boning knives has been visited upon Aubergine of Munich. It has lost one of its stars and now has but two.

Switzerland Red Guide

  • Even when one takes into account that Switzerland is a much smaller country than Germany, making for a thinner Red Guide, hotels charging less than $100 for their best double room, are far more scarce. Our estimate is that Michelin lists a little over 150 such hotels, most of which are restaurants with a few rooms to rent, mit zim as the guide says.
  • In this, the second year of the Swiss Red Guide (last year's book sold over 100,000 copies), Michelin has added several new features:
    1. A listing of ski resorts with tourist information phone number, minimum and maximum altitude, number of lifts, lift connections with neighboring resorts and the availability of ice rinks and indoor swimming pools.
    2. A list of holidays in each Swiss canton.
    3. A calendar of the main regional events.
    4. The symbol of a crossed-out automobile for towns and sights that do not allow automobiles.
  • The country's only three-star restaurant remains Girardet in Crissier near Lausanne. There are a handful of two stars, mostly in the French-speaking part.
  • Here's what looks like a hot tip. In Thyon-Les Collons (canton of Valais) near Sion, is La Cambuse, a hotel to which Michelin gives one red roof peak and a red rocking chair designating a "very quiet or quiet, secluded hotel." The listing also notes a particularly pleasant view of the Val d'Hérens. The highest price double room is 140 Sfr. ($112), amazing for a "red" hotel.

I have heard people object to the price of Red Guides—Germany is $25.95, Switzerland $23.95—but, in fact, they are a terrific value. At twice the price I would consider them well worth the money. RHB

February 1995