Sometimes it takes a crisis to get us motivated to change our routines in life. In this case my dear friend was experience life threatening health issues. As she neared the end of her days she challenged me to face some unrequited travel desires to explore my Swiss heritage and treat myself well after years in a very stress filled job as an educator with bourgeoning class sizes, limited budgets, and demanding parents. Josephine had found out years earlier her husband had created a sizable amount of debt for a luxury trip to Italy. She was furious when she found the credit card statements, but as she neared the end of her life, she said it was the best thing they did together and it was worth every penny. As she was about to leave this life she looked at me and said, “It is all worth the expense to travel, explore and create memories.” I am not advocating going into deep debt to travel but a investment toward travel can yield a lifetime of memories, and I was about to discover that premise.
Like most Americans, prior to my career as a journalist, I never traveled much outside of North America, but wanderlust along with the fact that 5 decades had quickly passed on my native terra-firma, propelled me forward with a hunger for international travel and frankly to forget the budgeting and do something very special for myself. I wanted to visit places within my maternal ancestor’s home of Switzerland that were known for firsts, since this was my first solo trip across the ocean. From the fabrics of the top designers, to the best in train travel, a historic grand hotel that is a forerunner of wellness tourism, I found what I was looking for and much more.
Now was the time to get out of my comfort zone and onto the train platform in Switzerland.
Ok, I am a confessed nervous Nelly when it comes to navigating travel alone and this being my first solo journey overseas, I discovered simple tools that made it easy to navigate my way around a country where gorgeous views arise from every angle, a place with a rich and varied history to glean from, and many luxurious treats along the rail.
From that faithful day in 1882 when the first Alpine railway opened in Switzerland, to the present day of sophisticated train travel, I came to appreciate the ease of mobility in this marvelous country that runs with precise punctuality while honoring the pristine landscape. Switzerland has premier rail systems and has been rated first in rail systems in Europe. Conveniently located and integrated with other forms of transportation, the Swiss rail system made my decision to travel this country alone a rather easy one.
Embarking on my first solo trip to Europe, I flew directly from Las Vegas to Zurich with the efficient Edelweiss Airlines. I made my way into the business class section late in the evening to find my place for the next 11 hours. Flying business class is THE only way to travel especially with pampering in mind. I loved finding the cute amenities kit on my assigned seat; like a kid finding the prize in Cracker Jack box. Why bring a toiletry kit when my kit held a pair of comfy socks, toothbrush and the cutest miniature tube of paste, ear buds, moisture cream and mouthwash.
Entering my pod-like seat, I noticed my armrest held a digital pad, indicating how to convert my seat into a bed while activating massage features; I relaxed with a deep exhale knowing that my first solo trip was starting out just fine. Curiosity compelled me to convert my seat into a bed several times, but I felt scooting back and forth over and over may be annoying to my neighbors, but thankfully no one was around to discourage my discovery. After placing my bright blue airplane motif softy socks on my cold feet, I adjusted my seat to dinner mode then scrolled through the countless first run movies that played on my mini movie screen. Soon copious amounts of Swiss wine were poured to accompany my sumptuous 3 course meal.
Sleepily satiated, I comfortably cocooned myself within my sleeping pod. Soon the day’s nervousness dissipated with each slumbering snore. Coffee aromas and the clanking of the beverage car awoke me to the fresh-faced Swiss Flight Attendant as she cheerfully handed me a warm towel to alert my slumbering self into a day of adventure. Refreshed, yet a bit anxious as to my test of navigating the train system alone, I retrieved my modest roll-away bag knowing that I alone would have to traverse through several train stations and cobblestone streets.
A big bag stuffed with stuff would prove to be burden. I opted to travel light and travel far by packing together a stylish yet versatile lot of spandex-y outfits and a great pair of broken in walking shoes. Travel tip: pack less since most upscale hotels have heated towel racks where you can wash and dry out clothes-if needed. Travel tip: Skip the big bags and high heels. The train is the most versatile form of transport, but God help you if you are lugging a supersized suitcase on and off train platforms in il-fitting foot wear.
Now it was time to find the train station located conveniently at the airport with my Swiss Travel Pass already in hand and . Travel tip: The SBB App offered by the Swiss Travel System is free and proved to be a vital resource in giving me up to the second on when, where and how to traverse throughout my weeks journey to the villages of St. Gallen and Bad Ragaz. Travel Tip: The SBB is a much needed tool navigating every form of travel within Switzerland. Through this informative app I was able to pre-program all my train stops. I would soon be off the plane and into the train for my first transfer in Zurich and then to the town of ST. Gallen-Bodensee.
As I landed, I assured myself that the Swiss rail is right in the Zurich airport with connections all through Europe, and with my preparedness, I just followed the signs, and found my platform in time as I marveled at the multiple tracks where numerous trains came thundering down each side of the platform to then effortlessly halt for a few minutes allowing passengers to enter and exit with upmost efficiency and order. Surveying my surroundings I believed I was at the appropriate platform for St.Gallen but being somewhat of a control freak, I walked over to an older couple to confirm my direction and with a nod and a kindly yes, I was on my way. Switzerland is a country where the citizens are required to speak four languages English, French, German and Romansh. So finding someone to help you is non-obtrusive or linguistically challenging.
Whew! I made my first train hurdle. Now, the train’s stations overhead signs are labeled with number and letters for 1st and 2nd class, time and destination. I was prompted to get the first class rail pass since it enables me to not only travel with ease, but it also allows me free admission to many of the museums, and has information of many other forms transportation. Train travel tip: be respectful and keep your voice low on the train, no feet on the seat and definitely never, ever leave trash anywhere! Switzerland is one of the cleanest countries in the world and I certainly didn’t want to end that trend.
St. Gallen in north eastern Switzerland was chosen as my base because of the easy access to many other big cities and only one hour from Zurich airport. Considered to be a very cosmopolitan city rich with culture and ambience, yet with a small village feel, St. Gallen at the center of north eastern Switzerland piqued my interest with its rare and rich textile history. Irish monk St. Gall in the 7th century established a primitive hermitage which then became an abbey of important educational standing in the 11th century. The former abbey and the monastic buildings now showcase one of Europe’s’ finest baroque structures most noted is St.Gallen Cathedral which hold’s Europe’s oldest church bell within its stunning sanctuary. The abbey is home to a library that has over 170, 000 books from antiquity enclosed within a stunning Rococo room.
983 the abbey district was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Aside from prolific religious antiquities, St. Gallen has an 800 year history in creating some of the most sophisticated lace and fabrics, both for fashion and industry. According to Martin Leuthold, creative director for luxury brand Jakob Schlaepfer and area historian, that during a tour of the Abbey Library, he was once again reminded of the, “phenomenal archives of our libraries and museums, the diversity of the people around us, this many-layered culture is that is something we can draw endless inspiration from.” I wanted to share in that insight with a visit to the famed abbey, cathedral and textile museum. Being a chocolate lover, a tour of only chocolate factory that allows guests to and see Swiss chocolate production bolstered my candy cravings with a must-do detour into a Swiss Wonka-world.
Where to stay: The Einstein Hotel was my choice for this 2 day learning adventure. Not the namesake of Albert but of David Einstein, an embroidery manufacturer in the 1830’. Owner Max Krimler has grown the brand to support the hotels 4 star superior rating with rich amenities including a 2 star gourmet restaurant on property, a bistro with upscale food choices with a sleek modern feel, a lovely bar area and an adjacent Davidoff Cigar lounge on property. Interesting and eccentric art works by local artisans cheer the walls with modernist pieces and eccentric portraits. The Hotel also holds a convention center and a large fitness area. Guests have varied interactive options with cooking classes, jazz nights, and social gatherings. Travel tip: start your day with a trip to the local tourism office where a treasure trove of great information awaits you. The hotel concierge or a friendly local bartender will be handy with insightful local information.
Where to Eat: Train depot to upscale eatery, Lokal is was a lovely relaxed open dining space that is both elegant and casual with flavorful curries, local fish dishes, and hearty steaks. The well thought out wine list comprised of Swiss and European offerings will please any oenophile, while creative cocktails keep the palate pumping along the gastronomic track. The location also contains an art museum, cinema, and a theater. Intimate eateries located along the cobblestone street of old town are abundant, including Restaurant Bierfalken, which drew my drooling attention to a halt for a refreshing pint and a spicy sausage. This is an authentic Swiss eatery featuring local beers and Weisswurst sausages that can be embellished with a variety of mustards. I happened upon the local farmers market where fragrant fresh produce and flowers packed a punch of color and flavor against gray skies and historic buildings.
What to see:
My visit through the streets of ST. Gallen discovering the history along the remarkable old world buildings with their intricately carved window structures or oriels captivated me with their whimsical carvings of animals, gargoyles, and cherubs while in the center of town rose the ubiquitous Abbey Cathedral where panoramic biblical hand painted ceiling and wall murals held me quietly reverent within the hushed sanctuary. The 2,000 rare manuscripts within the Abbey library required me to don special slippers in order approach the archives of antiquity, which included an Egyptian mummy. “The mummy was a gift to one of the donors, “said the docent upon my inquiry. “He kept the mummy and the sarcophagus at his home, until his wife said there is room for only one mum in this house and that one needs to go.” He promptly donated it to the Abbey library.
It is the textile haute culture that shaped the fabric of St.Gallen history in later years. The creation of the first embroidery looms that manufactured the finest lace in Europe promoted a fierce and competitive labor force which included many children that were often used as manufacturing slaves. Swiss officials legislated some of the first child labor laws in order to protect youngsters from being exploited. The Textile museum holds an extensive collection of old world lace and vintage clothing.
The current display of the fine costumes of Circus Knie had me reveling in sequined suits and feathered gowns that have adorned generation of performers that have enthralled the crowns of Europe with their dazzling horsemanship and acrobatic prowess. Clothing designers from around the Globe pilgrimage to the museum to see rare vintage fabric design catalogs and rich historical offering.
Train trip day two:
My next train trip to the nearby town of Flawil for a look at what Chocol-aholics love about Switzerland. Willie Wonka may have been a creation of Roald Dahl’s imagination but the Chocolarium at Maestrani’s chocolate factory could cause an oompa-lompa to jump for joy. Eagerly awaiting the train under the platform with Maestrani written above, I was ready for some sweet tooth action. Being a forerunner in Chocolate and sweet production in Switzerland, Maestrani’s is a must for those who inner chocolate child wants to come out and play.
The very motto of as you enter the gates of The Chocolarium is “Chocolate is Happiness”, and there is a reason why. When you pop a piece of creamy milk or dark chocolate in your mouth-you are going to smile-and perhaps like those naughty children in Wonka’s factory have no self control as you dive into the marvelous madness of this real-life candy land. Interactive exhibits, including a virtual milking cow, wall dispensers filled with candy samples and a candy making bar of which you can create the candy bar of your dreams held my inner-child’s attention and taste buds. The Chocolarium is a fun, interactive and interesting place to explore Switzerland’s chocolate history and is the only chocolate production company that allows visitors a rare look at Swiss chocolate production. Chocolarium.ch
The Ultimate Train Trip: The Glacier Express Excellence Class
Bucket list time! I packed up my few belongings and my satchel of Swiss chocolates and headed down the hill to the train platform to catch the train to the small alpine town of Brig where the eponymous Glacier Express depot awaited my life time wish. A tourism guide assured me, “Don’t worry, when you get to the train station you will see signs for the Glacier Express.” The Excellence Class which began its Elite offering in March 2019.
I would have a generous 20 minutes to catch my train but my heart raced as I saw no signs to lead my along as I was so well assured. As my eyes adjusted to the backlight of the underground tunnel, a young girl with large I on her checker vest came ambling towards me. When I asked her to please direct me-as I dearly hoped she was the information bearer for the directionally challenged, she pointed straight ahead to a separate track area specifically designated for the Glacier Express.
I hurriedly made my way and waited a few moments when a sleek, modern engine with large panoramic windows pulled into the station. A dapper grey haired well suited bellman with an effervescent smile descended the steps, looked at my ticket, greeted me heartily and led me from the red carpet walkway to my seat.
My plush leather window seat abutted next to panoramic windows. Nearby well coiffed passengers where leisurely drinking coffee or sipping champagne. As I settled in, exuding a sigh of relief to have made it to my 5 hour bucket list train ride, a smiling young woman brought me a lovely pastry and a glass of champagne as she explained all the lovely amenities offered with the Elite experience.
Eagerly excited to begin my journey, I settled into my plush leather seat conveniently positioned next to the Glacier bar. An exquisite gold compass painted above the well stocked bar drew my attention upward while bottles of champagne awaiting consumption in polished silver ice buckets alerted my palate. The champagne came along with a menu that described all the lovely delicacies that would be served during my traverse though the Alps. A tablet was to my right with headphones available for my mile high history lessons through the most luscious landscape on the planet.
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Elaine and Scott Harris exploring a 5 star resort and celebrating Swiss National Holiday! @ResortBadRagaz #GrandResortBadRagaz #resortragaz #swissheidiland #heidiland #luxelife #luxurytravel @My_Switzerland #inlovewithswitzerland #swisstravelsystem #cuisineist #swisstravelpass #cuisineistconfidential #thedailymeal #travelchannel
The spectacular ridges and low canyons are dotted with charming chalets, rustic churches, and endless green pastures for the beloved Swiss cows to roam and wander. I pondered and paused with serious awe-hhs passing my lips as we traverse through Mother Nature’s finest while crossing 291 bridges and the famous Landwasser Viaduct, a marvel of engineering genius.
After my hours-long fine dining experience with lemony infused fresh trout, a perfectly pink beef filet among unctuous cheeses -all paired with Swiss wines, I was in a hypnotic state of bliss. Arousing me out of my food stupor, the bubbly server came with a small slice of chocolate cake. “This is the best piece of chocolate cake you will every experience,” she assured me. “It is made with the best Swiss chocolate and trust me you will love it.” And…..she was wonderfully correct.
hile savoring my heavenly dessert while gazing at a bit of heaven on earth, my mind took a memory-snapshot knowing that these sublime moments where disappearing far too fast as we speed towards our final destination. As the humming vibration cast a meditative spell on my relaxed body and mind, I drifted off for a few minutes before the coffee and petite fours were placed in front of me. Only a few more turns and twists of the tract and this bucket list train ride would be over but the memories are as mighty and concrete as the Matterhorn.
Final train trip:
This may seem a bit over-rated but training it from the Glacier Express experience in the historic town of Brig to the town of Bad Ragaz was worth my total of 8 hours aboard the Swiss Rail. Dusk was falling as I stepped off the train platform to the awaiting car. Silence and serenity filled my thoughts as we sped off through the towering pines, and winding roads to the sleepy Alpine town of Bad Ragaz. “Bad”- a prefix meaning “waters” -pronounced “bud” denotes a place having a combination of clean environment, great air quality and mineral rich waters along with institutions that offer wellness facilities that are indicative in promoting good health.
The area is as a fore-runner of spa tourism for hundreds of years beginning with a hunter’s discovery in 1240 of usually warm thermal springs in the Tamina Gorge where 36.5 c temp waters inspired pilgrims and sojourners to “take the waters” for their supposed healing properties. Philosopher and scientist Paracelsus in 1535 wrote a guide about the effect of the waters on the human body. Years later, railway director Bernhard Simon capitalized on the waters by diverting the thermal waters to the abbots building at the Hof Ragaz 4 kilometers from the spring. In 1841 Felix Wilhem Kubly created the Palais Resort from the existing governor’s mansion, luring hundreds to the area for the fresh alpine air and warm thermal waters. Swiss Poet, Rainer Marie Rilke exclaimed, “It is marvelous to stay here.”
Today the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz is considered a, “premier retreat for relaxation and recuperation,” and after my train journeying I was very interested in this almost mythical spa. The Grand Resort Bad Ragaz is a premier member of the Leading Hotels of the World with a collection of 400 hotels worldwide in 80 countries. Recently the resort underwent a massive 45 million franc renovation, and boasts an internationally renowned Medical Center-which includes the Swiss Olympic Medical Center. Seven restaurants, including 1 –star Michelin restaurant IGNIV by Andreas Caminada , 2 premier golf courses, on-site florist, luxury brand shoppes and the famed spa treatment areas.
I was on board to find out how to relax the first class Swiss style. Europe is known for its many wellness resorts, and Switzerland is a leader in that space, with its abundant fresh air, sweeping vista, thermal waters, many have sought respite and healing in this country. I only had a mere glance at the importance of this well-being concept within my mere 24 hour stay at this fine establishment. Many well-healed Swiss and Europeans seek out this particular hotel because of its unique medical spa, thermal spa, Michelin dining venues located within the property.
Blurry eyed and disheveled as I entered this Georgian styled manse over-stimulated by the sights and sounds of opulence as my eyes held steadfast at the cascading glass chandelier, of round hand blown spheres of blue, silver, and white undulated through a glided grand stair case. Captivated-my gapping expression was broken by the well groomed concierge hearty handshake-shaking me out of my stupor. She quickly gave me the necessary information on my accommodations while swiftly guiding me along marbled corridors and plush furnishings to the historical part of the hotel which was part of the original Palais built in the late 1800’s.
My room was more like an apartment with a parlor and a separate entrance but instead of surveying all the amenities, all I wanted to do was collapse on the premium plush duvet. I had no time to spare-as in Swiss time as a dinner reservation awaited me at the authentic Swiss restaurant, Zollstude. As I entered this chateau-uesqe styled restaurant with hard wood floors, and hand-crafted wooden tables festooned with checkered table clothes and vases brimming with sunflowers, my complete attention fell upon a traditional Swiss music band, Strichmusig Alder in the corner of the restaurant, wearing lederhosen and yodeling with great enthusiasm.
I loved their playful gnome- like appearance complete with matching red lederhosen, twinkling eyes, and rosy cheeks. Upon a brief break, a portly white haired dulcimer player came over to my table and introduced himself. When I told him I was visiting from Las Vegas, he broke out in a smile and said, “I played at the Flamingo hotel in Vegas several years ago and would love to go back there.” We exchanged brief pleasantries about our travels, when a band member urged him back to his station. Soon the band commenced with their lively traditional tunes as restaurant goers enthusiastically applauded and joined the merriment but after a long train travel day and a hearty meal, I was ready to dive into my duvet.
Early the next morning, I made my way to the traditional Swiss breakfast buffet that frankly held me spellbound as it was the most sumptuous and appealing line-up of food and beverage that I had ever seen at 7 am in the morning. I felt a bit guilty as I glided around copious hot and cold offerings: fresh juices’, teas, coffee and sparkling wine. My heaping plate of gourmet goodies was gleefully consumed as the sunlight filtered the through towering pines and verdant greenery punctuated by bright yellow flowers graced the landscape beyond the towering floor to ceiling windows. The staggering offerings would tempt anyone to over-indulge but noted for wellness, every restaurant held menus affording dietary options for those on a strict medical regimen for weight loss or wellness. Even at the 1 star Michelin IGNIV, dining can be managed to meet a guests needs within reason.
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Join Elaine and Scott Harris for a 20 Course Michelin Star Menu Tasting.. Brilliant! 20 course tasting menu #IGNIV by Andres Caminda 1 Michelin Star & 17 GaultMillau points @ResortBadRagaz #GrandResortBadRagaz #resortragaz #swissheidiland #heidiland #luxelife #luxurytravel @My_Switzerland #inlovewithswitzerland #swisstravelsystem #cuisineist #swisstravelpass #cuisineistconfidential #thedailymeal #travelchannel
The Wellness wheelhouse is in full motion at the hotels’ Tamina Therme which is open to the public as an integral part of new Ragaz Sauna Village which offers an unusual infusion sauna, the largest in the county. My focus however, was on the Grand Resorts, five star thermal spa with a historic Helena pool where I found myself bathrobe shrouded awaiting the new Tok Sen spa menu item: a treatment utilizing a small wooden mallet to open up bodies meridians or chakras. The hammer part had me nervous at first, but being a 5 star resort, I knew I was not going to be pummeled to death. According to massagearoundtheworld.com, “Tok Sen, makes reference to the instruments as well as application of the massage. “Tok” comes from the sound that the mallet makes when hitting the wooden wedge, and “Sen” relates to the Sen energy lines in traditional Thai medicine.”
As the petite Thai therapist moved the small hammer with tiny thuds of pressure up and down my spine, I relaxed into the process, yielding up my tension trouble as each move of the mallet seemed to magically melt away stress, leaving me renewed and feeling lighter- at ease. The combination of the hammers rapid vibration seemed to transform my energy giving me that extra boast need vitality as I slipped off my robe and into the awaiting thermal waters. The entire experience seemed to transform my mind body and energy into a new sensibility of over-all well being. The hotel’s mission was grandly manifested; health and wellness never felt or looked so grand, as I dressed and prepared for the final feast before departure, a meal at acclaimed IGNIV.
Stepping into the entrance of IGNIV-(a 1 star Michelin 17 GaultMillau points), I was already salivating in preparation of a meal journey that was on par with my phenomenal elite train experience. This is where chef Andreas Caminada, the youngest chef in Switzerland who earned a three star Michelin at his premier location, Schloss Schauenstein, now puts his culinary enchantment to work. As a solo diner I felt a bit awkward, as I noted the many couples sitting together in this parlor room warmed by the centrally located fireplace.
With its comfortable, yet sophisticated atmosphere, my loneliness dissolved as the attentive servers guided me to my table where I encountered Danny Mobes, Food & Beverage Operations Manager. He greeted every guest as if they were family. “We work diligently to meet our client’s dietary needs and preferences within each of our dining venues,” said Mobes. “Many of the diners come here several times a year and stay for wellness treatments. We do become attuned to our guest desires, providing the best experience in dining and wellness in Switzerland.”
As I positioned myself for the tasting menu, I could not help but think I may need to extend my stay for more diet treatments after this sophisticated meal. IGNIV means nest in the Swiss language of Romansh, and that theme is held in the décor with organic flowing fixtures in a cozy home-like atmosphere. Service was impeccable as appetizers of tartar of beef and duck liver with chocolate and cherry marveled my mouth, and ready my palate. The take on a “chicken nugget” was a playful bit arriving at table under a glass dome filled with smoke. Once lifted, a decadent piece of chicken is revealed with a dollop of refined BBQ sauce. This dish was indicative of the many others presented that even, reflecting Chef Caminada’s whimsical, yet respectful approach to tradition while emphasizing nuance, temperature and textures.
The hits kept coming with dish after dish- 20 in all, small bites of wonder; culinary artistry on a plate and the palate that filled my eyes with beauty and my senses with delight and gratitude.
Earning such acclaim takes not just superb dedicated skill, but inventiveness-as culinary skill meets the magic that is supremely created by Caminada’s exceptional hands. Even after the most astounding desserts-which appeared much too lovely to lift onto my fork, I was led down from my restaurant perch in this fine “Nest” of culinary magic, to the Candy Store. With only hours before my departure, my server urged me to take away a grand goodie bag filled with chocolate, pralines and divine fruit jellies.
After my exquisite meal in the “Nest” and a whirlwind, excellent trip of a life-time, I contemplated Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste the experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” This small window of time was indeed a rich and varied one, and it will be one that I treasure beyond the shadow of the Alps, but one in which the graciousness, grandeur and superb hospitality and cultural prowess of the Swiss will remain with me forever.