|Leukerbad from Above
The "Hidden Treasures" series reports on places consistent with a philosophy of travel that seeks places English-speaking tourists seldom visit. For the most part, Hidden Treasures will be geographically defined; villages, towns, even regions. But a Hidden Treasure can also be a hotel, a restaurant, a gallery, a fountain, a vista, a country road, a museum, anything or anyplace, as long as it's worthy of your attention and is off the radar screen of most English-speaking tourists. Though some will be neither 'hidden' - a word that hardly applies to a town on every map of Europe - nor quite reach the 'treasure' level, we think you'll find all merit your consideration.
Up around the Furka Pass, at the foot of the Rhône Glacier, is where the river named Rhône begins its southwesterly trip to the eastern end of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). Think of the Rhône and its valley between Brig and Martigny as a spine with wiggly ribs extending from it on both sides. The "ribs" are intersecting valleys accessed by dead-end roads that snake up into the Alps. In these higher valleys are found some of Switzerland's best-known resorts: Zermatt, Saas Fee, Crans Montana, Verbier. Others, like Evoléne, Zinal and the Lötschental, are not so well-known - at least by Americans.
In the lesser-known category is Leukerbad, population 1,700, a modest resort enclosed on three sides by the spectacular Gemmiwand, a sheer rock wall that looms some 3,000 feet above it. From the town center, a cable car rises to the Gemmipass at nearly 8,000 feet, where walkers pick their way over a flat, rocky moonscape and picnic by an Alpine lake.
Leukerbad's main attraction for Europeans is the heated thermal waters which flow from the ground at 51 C (124 F) into dozens of public and private baths and pools. The town's public bathing facilities are impressive and extensive and many hotels have spa facilities.
But for most Americans, Leukerbad in summer is a place for taking it slow; poking around the village, lounging by a hotel pool, or perhaps riding up one of the cable cars for an easy mountain hike. Given its end-of-road location, about 30 minutes by car from the Rhône, Leukerbad is not a headquarters from which to make day trips.
The town is accessible by car and most SBB fast trains stop at Leuk-Susten where a bus winds the last 30 minutes up to the resort.
Leukerbad Hotels and Restaurants
One of our most memorable hotel stays was three nights in Leukerbad's Les Sources des Alpes, a swank 26-room hideaway with spa facilities and a top-of-the-line restaurant.
Your first day at Les Sources might begin with a sunny, alfresco breakfast that will include fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee brewed to order at your table in a Melior pot. Next could be a walk to the village to purchase supplies for a picnic luncheon. Assuming you left the hotel properly attired for a few hours in the mountains, the day's next event is a short stroll to the Gemmi Cableway station for a ride to the high country (22 Sfr.). As the gondola slides past that fearsome vertical rock face you'll notice the ant-like figures of fitter, braver souls making their way to the top (or descending) via a path carved from the rock. They are not climbers but walkers, and what they are doing appears dangerous only in the sense there are many places where the narrow trail skirts the very edge of the precipice.
At the top is a network of paths. One leads gently downhill to Sunnbuel, above Kandersteg, from which the Kander Valley can be reached via cable car. From Kandersteg, a return to Leukerbad is possible by rail and bus. Most, however, will probably want to find a spot by the Daubensee for a picnic and return via the Gemmi Cableway.
Back at the hotel you're just in time for your spa treatment and massage reservation. Afterwards, a bit weary from the high altitude and from being manipulated by strong hands and powerful jets of water at widely varying temperatures, you shuffle on shaky legs to Les Sources' inviting outdoor pool.
Tossing aside your thick terrycloth robe, you slip into the warm water and paddle about while watching a late afternoon thunderstorm gather above the massive Gemmiwand. With a nap and a magnificent dinner still to be crossed off the day's checklist, you gratefully contemplate the twists and turns of life that delivered you to this place at this time.
Just when the sky looks its blackest you climb out of the pool and into a big, thick towel the pool attendant takes from a stainless steel warmer. It is now officially nap time and through the open French doors that lead to your room's balcony, you hear the first drops of rain just as your head hits the pillow.
Dinner is in the hotel's elegant Restaurant La Malvoisie. After starting with a refreshing melon soup, you turn your attention to the main event; a Bresse chicken. It comes in stages. First, the breast is carved and served with a buttery truffle sauce. The legs and wings are returned to the kitchen for additional cooking and brought back a few minutes later with little skillets of sautéed wild mushrooms and a side dish of perfectly steamed spinach that began its day in the hotel's garden in Sion.
Your waiter has suggested a bottle of Capannelle rosse, a Merlot from the Italian house of R. Rossetti. The wine is delicious but expensive - about $50. No matter, tonight is a special occasion.
After a light dessert of house-made sorbets selected from containers off a cart brought to the table, you try unsuccessfully to ignore the restaurant's parting gift, a small plate of intensely-flavored chocolates.
The day nearly done, you follow the sound of live piano music across the lobby to the wood paneled bar. There you sink onto a comfortable couch or chair and enjoy the final beverage of the evening, perhaps a finger of single malt whiskey or a glass of vintage port. Now it's really nap time.
As you have by now discerned, Les Sources des Alpes is expensive. But there are dozens - hundreds if you add in a long list of vacation rentals - of less expensive accommodations in Leukerbad.
The modern Hotel Astoria, for example, is not far from the center and double rooms range from CHF 150 to 190. The more rustic, chalet-style Walliserhof has doubles starting at CHF 136.
On a hillside near the edge of town, the Appartmenthaus Alfa offers one-and-a-half and two-room flats starting at CHF 301 to CHF 501 per week.
The spic 'n span Apparmenthaus Europe has larger apartments with spacious south-facing balconies and sleeping accommodations for up to five persons. Depending on the season, weekly rates range from CHF 594 to 734.
Leukerbad Hotel/Restaurant Data
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 290 - 530, doubles CHF 470-710
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 85 - 105, doubles CHF 150-190
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 87 - 97, doubles CHF 164 -184
Rates: Weekly rentals from CHF 385
Rates: Weekly rentals from CHF 301