The curtains were drawn. Happily cocooned in soft bedding, I had slept soundly. Even though the room was dark, I sensed it was morning. I checked the clock. Time to get up for another adventure. I pulled back the curtains.
In the distance, mountains shared the horizon with an Instagram-perfect sky, dark blue with streaks of white clouds. I heard cow bells as I looked out over a pasture to a line of trees. The day before I was in Crans Montana, south of Lake Geneva, within sight of the Matterhorn.
I almost imagined I was still in the Swiss Alps. But I was in Zurich, Switzerland’s largest metropolis.
The 5-star Atlantis by Giradino sits half way up the mountain called Uetliberg. A celebrated destination the moment it opened in 1970, the hotel was a magnet for jet-setting athletes, musicians and movie stars. Harry Belafonte, Shirley MacLaine, Freddie Mercury, Steffi Graf, Jean-Claude Juncker, Grace Jones, Elton John, Steve McQueen and many others stayed and partied.
A Future Designed in the Past
The building was as famous as its guests. Designed by the Swiss architects Annemarie and Hans Hubacher and Peter Issler, the sleek, curved lines of the building echoed Scandinavian, modernist designs popular at the time. Today the building is a better version of itself. Revitalized, updated and reopened in 2015 after several years of careful restoration, the hotel reduced the number of rooms by a third to create ninety-five airy, spacious guest rooms and suites. To enhance the focus on wellness, the spa was updated and an 82’ short-course Olympic-sized lap pool was added behind the hotel.
With an historical designation, the Giardino Group approached the renovation with care. Preserving the exterior also meant protecting the celebrated polished concrete spiral staircase in the center of the building. A marvel of engineering, the staircase rises from the very bottom of the building to the top, spinning like a flamenco dancer caught in an embrace.
The new version of the hotel takes its cues from the past. The look of the original staircase is echoed in the spiral staircase to the right of the reception desk. Embracing the original design, all the public spaces, lobby, bar and restaurants, feature floor-to-ceiling glass walls that bring the beauty of nature indoors. The furniture by Molteni gives the interiors a comfortably elegant feeling.
Hide & Seek
Mornings began at Hide & Seek. The large dining room is open on two sides to outdoor terraces. To take advantage of the sun, I chose to sit on the terrace facing the meadow with a view of Zurich in the distance.
The complimentary breakfast can be enjoyed two ways. Go to the buffet inside and choose from a large selection of breads and baked goods, ice-filled bins of bottled freshly squeezed juices, plates of charcuterie and cheeses, bowls of yogurt, platters of dried and fresh fruit and pots of specialty jams. Chosen to have positive health effect, a selection of linseed, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, dried fruit, soya milk, lactose free milk, chia porridge, oats and coconut milk are labeled as “Ayurvedic specialties.”
Or order from a menu that offers breakfast dishes and eggs just about any way you want with a choice of meats and potatoes. Scrambled. Over-easy. Eggs Benedict, Florentine or Royale. Pancakes, regular or vegan. French toast. Waffles. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are available on the buffet and the menu.
One of my favorite dishes was the simplest, rösti, the Swiss national potato dish. Usually served as a side dish as a thin, plate-sized pancake, similar in texture to hash browns or latkes, at Hide & Seek, rösti arrived at center stage, as a circle of crusted deliciousness. Crisp and chewy on the outside, inside the potatoes were moist and full of flavor. Two rösti, one over-easy egg, an espresso and a glass of freshly squeezed red grapefruit juice was my way to begin the day.
Panoramaweg (“road with a view”)
The pleasures of the hotel are so many, there is a temptation to spend the day lounging around the outdoor pool shaded by Japanese maples and snacking on treats from the Ocean Bar, enjoying a cigar while reading a novel in the Cigar Lounge or luxuriating in the Dipiù Spa. I looked forward to all those, but first I wanted to explore the area around the hotel, in the foothills of Uetliberg.
Fifty feet directly behind the hotel the Panoramaweg, a paved hiking, biking and horseback riding trail, traces the contour of the mountain. The trail separates the hotel grounds and farm pastures surrounding it from the forest that stretches to the top of the mountain. The hike to the summit of Uto Kulm takes approximately 1 ½ hours. Find the trail called Hohensteinweg and head straight up the mountain.
In pursuit of a more leisurely hike, I stayed on the Panoramaweg. The trail led through meadows and wooded areas. Occasionally I heard church bells drifting up from the city below, the voices of friends talking as they bicycled on the trail or children playing in the woods with their parents. But mostly the trail was enveloped in quiet.
For cross-country biking, gravel and dirt trails jutted up from the Panoramaweg. The trails cut into the forest, creating an easy way to find a secluded picnic spot or to explore the even quieter recesses of the mountain.
The trail passed the Dölt Schihoff farm’s orchard with apples ready to pick, then veered to the right, pressing under the forest canopy, crossing over a well-worn wooden bridge with a stream underneath.
On a promontory with a view of Zurich, I stopped to look at the small houses pressed close to one another, each with perfectly curated gardens filled with end-of-summer vegetables and tall stalks of brightly colored flowers. Fragrant roses were in bloom, adding color to the already beautiful scene.
Having spent the early part of the day crisscrossing the mountain, now I was hungry. Time to head back to Hide & Seek for lunch.
A Kitchen Embracing East and West
One of the pleasures of visiting Switzerland is enjoying well-made, fresh bread. Meals at Hide & Seek always began with slices of seeded, dark whole grain and egg bread. To season a slice, I sprinkled on flake salt and a pinch of dukkah, an Indian condiment made in the kitchen out of crushed seeds, nuts and aromatics. Delicious.
Reading the menu, there was little doubt that the kitchen borrows freely from western and eastern culinary traditions in search of healthy, tasty dishes. Latin, French, Mediterranean, Indian and Thai, all these cuisines contribute to making well-rounded dishes, full of flavor, unique and satisfying. The lunch menu offered risotto flavored with smoked Indian paneer, a mojito marinated salmon spiced with wasabi. Japanese miso and enoki mushrooms were added to Middle Eastern babaganoush.
One day I ordered a prawn soup that used crème fraiche to mellow the heat created by chili powder. Grilled octopus, perfectly charred and tender-moist inside shared the cobalt-blue bowl with orange-red Malaysian panaeng curry. Basmati rice paired perfectly with the rich, salty sauce. For another lunch, I wanted comfort food so I ordered a classic Caesar Salad with peeled, charred and still-warm, tender prawns.
For most of my visit, I stayed at the hotel with its creature comforts and proximity to the natural beauty of Uetliberg. But on two afternoons I traveled to Zurich for my city-fix.
Zurich has much to offer. Museums, quality restaurants, upscale shopping, outdoor cafes, confectionary shops and drinking fountains. Zurich loves fountains, especially drinking fountains, many of which are odd and wonderful sculptures. The fountains are variously classically elegant with angels pouring water or as odd as a half-torso wearing medieval pantaloons. For a quiet moment in the city, stop at the Zentralhof fountain in the secluded courtyard off Bahnhofstrasse behind Tommy Hilfiger. As you walk around the city, you will probably encounter the fountains, but if not, Matthew Moy’s Fountains in Zurich lists all 1,200. An interactive map will direct you to the one closest to your current location.
During my day trips to Zurich, I enjoyed walking on Bahnhofstrasse, the main shopping boulevard linking the lakefront to the main train station (Zurich HB or Zurich Hauptbanhof). Popular clothing designers line the wide boulevard. Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna and Bulgari and nearby the wonderful, high-end department store, Globus, to name a few. But I wasn’t looking for clothing, my must-stop reason to visit Bahnhofstrasse was ice cream and chocolates.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, Sprüngli (Confiserie Sprüngli) is famous for handmade chocolates, baked goods, cookies and icy desserts. I stopped in to buy handmade Swiss dark chocolates for my mother-in-law. I hoped she would enjoy a box of the seasonal dark chocolate covered apricots. (She did!)
During warm months, you may have to wait for a table on the sidewalk patio, but there are usually tables inside on the first floor or on the second floor with a view of Bahnhofstrasse. The menu offers a variety of light meals as well as an extensive list of extravagant ice cream sundaes. Besides the ice creams, which I love, I am a fan of the delicate, elaborately composed canapes.
A visit to Zurich must include a stop at one of its museums. For this trip, I explored the Kunsthaus.
The Kunsthaus Zurich
When you arrive at the Kunsthaus Zurich (“house of art”). Don’t go in. At least, not right away. To the right of the entrance is a remarkable sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Installed in 1949, Gates of Hell (1880-1917) imposes like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Visitors stand mesmerized for long minutes, peering up at the massive eight-ton sculpture.
Stand close to see the details that Rodin put into each figure. No monsters torture these contorted human figures. The agony comes from within. No one is spared. Men, women, the old and the very young are all sent to hell to suffer for their sins.
At the top sits The Thinker. Rodin’s character of the contemplative man is usually displayed as a separate sculpture. Seen alone, he appears to be considering abstract ideas. Here, he looks down at the people below. His face betrays no emotion. As you stand at the bottom of the monumental sculpture, beneath all those tortured souls, the Thinker also looks down at you. He very well may be considering whether you too will fall into the abyss of hell to be tortured or perhaps he wonders whether you will step back from the Gates of Hell and take a different path.
In the lobby, check what special exhibits are showing. When I visited I saw Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) and the City of Lights, a comprehensive curation that traced the French artist’s relationship with Paris as his aesthetic and Paris’ realities changed. I recommend renting an audio guide. Inexpensive, the guides offer invaluable information that will greatly add to your experience. With the help of the audio guide, in one of the intimate galleries of the permanent collection I discovered an exceptional work.
Anna Waser (1678-1714) was a painter of great promise whose work was mostly lost and whose career was cut short. I stood in front of her “Self-Portrait at the Age of Twelve as She Paints the Portrait of Her Teacher Johannes Sulzer” (1691). Waser painted herself as a young artist painting a portrait of her teacher, an older man with an odd mustache. If you rented the audio guide, you will learn about this remarkable girl. At 12 she evidenced tremendous skill which brought her to the attention of powerful patrons. But when her mother became ill, Anna chose family over career and disappeared from public life. Today, only this one painting survives along with several of her drawings.
The second largest art museum in Switzerland, the Kunsthaus Zurich is well-respected. There are good selections of work by important artists like Marc Chagall (1887-1989) with ten of his paintings created throughout his career, Claude Monet (1840-1926), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) and the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966).
On the second floor of the original building, be certain to visit a gallery focused on the work of Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Ten of the paintings currently on display are part of the permanent collection. Four are on loan from the Herbert Eugen Esche Foundation. For anyone like myself who associates Munch with his most famous painting, “The Scream” (1893-1910), the works here are a revelation. Munch painted landscapes, cityscapes and appreciative portraits of his contemporaries. To see the evolution of the artist’s skill and vision, compare the calm of the “Music on Karl Johan Street” (1889) with his “Portrait of Albert Kollmann” (1943), completed the year before his death.
Differing markedly, the museum’s modern wing is a loft space able to display large format works like “Levitation” (2005) by the German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010).
The museum is about to change. An extension to the museum is currently under construction. Slated to open in 2020, the new building will allow the museum to exhibit double the number of works from the permanent collection and to increase works from many historical periods, especially from the 1960s and afterwards. The additional space will also allow for the exhibition of the E.G. Bührle Foundation Collection with its 19th-century paintings including those by Monet, Cézanne and van Gogh.
With the extension, the Kunsthaus Zurich will become Switzerland’s largest art museum.
The Dipiù Spa - a refuge to rejuvenate, revive and relax
Our high-tech world adds to the stresses inherent in everyday life. For my stay at the Atlantis, I unplugged. I left my smart phone in the room safe and put the TV remote into a drawer. Being above the city in a tranquil setting meant settling into the moment, focusing on nature, slowing down and, literally, smelling the roses.
All I needed to complete the program was to have a massage. For that, I descended the spiral staircase to the Dipiù Spa.
Besides massages, the spa menu offers facials, anti-ageing treatments, rejuvenating baths with aromatic oil or grape-salts, anti-cellulite contouring and beauty treatments. When Marion, the massage therapist, asked which treatment I wanted, I opted for something simple, the Classic Body Massage. Marion agreed that would be a good choice, but she recommended I try an Ayurvedic treatment, a therapeutic approach developed centuries ago in India. She suggested I have the signature treatment of the Spa, an Abhyanga Massage.
I hesitated. In the spa menu there was talk of heated oil dripped over my head, face and limbs. I wasn’t certain that was for me.
Marion promised I would barely notice the oil. The treatment would help eliminate toxins in my body. The oils would nurture my skin and spread warmth deep into my muscles. Borrowing from Indian practices and inspired by the natural beauty of Ticino, Switzerland’s warm southern region, the oil would be infused with local herbs.
I couldn’t resist.
First step in the Abhyanga treatment was to lie face down on the white sheet-covered table. Marion draped a second sheet over me. She asked me to raise my arms above my shoulders, then she spread warm oil over my back and arms. The oil was scented with curry-fragrant herbs. She stretched one arm, pulling it gently to coax out muscle tension. Her fingers pushed along my shoulder and forearm, pressing against skin and muscle. More heated oil and then she moved around the table to my other arm.
She folded back the white cotton sheet, the easier to reach my arm, shoulder and back. My resistance to the oil was gone. I hoped she would apply more oil. She did. Her hands separated this time, one slid under my chest, the other remained on my back. Though separated, they worked together along my right side, one on top, one below, spreading the fragrant oil across my skin.
She moved to my left side. Sheet folded back. Warm oil poured again, experienced hands pressing and stretching. My back and chest were joined together by her hands in a harmonious pas de deux. My muscles relaxed. My mind drifted. I fell asleep. She whispered, “Turn over please.”
As I did, she pulled the bottom sheet away from underneath as I turned to face the ceiling. She placed a heated cloth over my eyes to lock me into the sensation of soothing warmth. She drizzled fragrant oil on my right hand. She massaged each finger and then my palm, first one side, then the other.
At the beginning of the treatment, she asked about existing ailments and allergies, I mentioned a stiffness in my hands and the asthma that is aggravated by living in Los Angeles. “Move to Switzerland,” she said with a smile. Would that I could enjoy the wonderfully clear, clean Swiss air all the time.
As she worked on my hands and then my chest, she had taken my confession of ills to heart. The ache in my fingers was gone. As she pressed against my chest, I relaxed and took easy breaths.
She folded back the sheet to work on my hips, one side at a time. The warm oil preceded each touch. Her fingers pushed against tired muscles.
Next, my legs and feet received her attention. Warm oil drizzled and spread over my skin. Stretch. Press. Pull. She used a cloth soaked in warm water to wash the oil off my feet, refreshing them as she cleaned.
She covered my feet and placed a warm cloth on my chest. “Use this on your body,” she said as she smiled. “Is everything okay?” Oh, yes, I assured her, everything was very much okay.
She left the room and I did as I was instructed. The warm cloth felt invigorating. I stood up and wrapped the terrycloth bathrobe around me. That’s when I saw that the black plastic massage table was soaked in oil. I never had the feeling that she was applying very much, but clearly, as advertised, she had drizzled oil over me, head to toe.
I loved it.
Ecco Zurich Restaurant
On my last night, I had dinner at the hotel’s fine-dining Ecco Zurich Restaurant. As it turned out, I had saved the best for last.
Three of the Giardino hotels have two Michelin star restaurants. Ecco Restaurants Zurich, Ascona and St. Moritz. All were designed by executive chef Rolf Fliegauf. Chef Stef Heilemann, Fliegauf’s protégée, is in command of Ecco Zurich.
The restaurant is divided almost equally between an indoor dining room and an outdoor terrace. The interior is dominated by a delicate rippled-glass chandelier, elegant white leather banquettes and large floral displays, refreshed by the hotel’s two full-time florists. Just beyond the glass doorway, the outdoor terrace has a view of the meadow surrounding the hotel and Zurich in the distance.
Ecco accommodates thirty seatings for a single dinner service Wednesday through Sunday with a brunch service offered on Sunday. With one dinner service, there is no rush to finish the meal. Diners choose where to have dinner. During warm months, most enjoy an aperitif and appetizers on the terrace and move inside as night falls.
With the sun still high in the sky on a warm evening, I joined others on the terrace. Presented with a menu, I considered what was being served that night. All the dishes sounded delicious. Besides choosing what to eat, there was the question of how many courses. Given the tasting menus of three, five, seven and nine courses, I decided on five courses, three starters, an entrée and a dessert. That would make a very nice meal.
The server, Cornelia, had a different suggestion. As she poured a complimentary flute of champagne, she told me that chef Heilemann wanted to know if I would like his “surprise menu”? That sounded very much like a sushi chef’s omakase. Yes, I would definitely like to be surprised.
While the kitchen worked on my tasting menu, Cornelia placed on the table a small loaf of bread, two saucers of butter, flake salt, a wooden planter of sprouts and a pair of scissors. The loaf, she explained, was freshly baked potato skin bread. The butters were made in the kitchen, one from buttermilk, the other was smoked. The sprouts in the planter box were watercress. She suggested that after I buttered a piece of bread and sprinkled on a few flakes of salt, I should snip off some watercress and place that on top.
The bread was moist, the butters light and creamy, the salt crackled and the snipped-myself-watercress was fresh and deliciously peppery. With this simple presentation the chef had announced his intention to celebrate his ingredients and to use his ingenuity to present the familiar in extraordinary ways.
As a prelude to the tasting menu, I was offered an amuse bouche, a gift from the kitchen. Elegantly plated in a large white porcelain plate, a tiny portion of finely diced raw salmon trout was flavored with passion fruit seeds and freshly cut chives. As a witty, fine-dining riff on ceviche and chips, chef Heilemann had created two paper thin sweet potato crisps. A Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2016 Grand Vin Sec Bordeaux was paired with the salmon.
Each bite of ceviche and chip was a cascade of contrary sensations. Crisp, creamy, citrus-sour, sweet and salty. Looking across the terrace, I saw other diners enjoying the same amuse bouche. Everyone seemed lost in thought, contemplating the textures and flavors of each bite.
The setting was as lovely as the dish. The sun had begun its slow descent. In the distance a jetliner flew across the sky. The faintest sound of traffic floated up from Zurich. The music of the waterfall next to the terrace soothed out the rough edges of the day.
The next presentation was also an amuse bouche. Three bite-sized morsels of duck celebrated French and Chinese culinary techniques. A tiny rectangle of foie gras sat on a thin slab of soft brioche. Two impossibly thin slices of brioche, fried into crispness were attached to the sides. A steamed bun (bao) was filled with braised duck leg topped with a sprig of coriander and a cashew nut. For the third, a disk of duck skin had been fried to delicate crispness and topped with braised, shredded duck meat flavored with soy sauce. Each was delicious and perfect in its own terms.
A third amuse bouche featured raw kingfish mackerel, paired with paper-thin slices of radish varietals and iced pearls made with green radish. The three amuse bouche showed amazing talent in creating witty, visually stunning and delicious taste treats.
As part of the five-course tasting, the first two appetizers were generous portions devoted to the sea. One dish celebrated shrimp, mostly raw, dressed with a vinegar seasoned with Thai spices and served with acidic slices of bright red tomato and crunchy seaweed chips.
A Paul Lato (2015) “le Souvenir” Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay was served with the shrimp and the next course, a tuna filet kept warm in a delicate tomato broth with softened cabbage leaves and artichoke hearts. The chilled chardonnay had just the right light touch to accompany both.
By now the sun had set. Each outdoor table was illuminated by a single candle placed next to a miniature potted olive tree. Guests who had just arrived, chose to sit inside the elegant, intimate dining room. The diners who arrived when I did, stayed on the terrace, enjoying the night air and the view of the city lights in the distance.
The third appetizer arrived. A single ravioli filled with an egg and spinach, topped with freshly shaved white truffles and paired with a Conterno 2015 Barbera d’Alba Vigna Francia 2015, the first red of the evening. The rich, angelic yolk was grounded by the earthiness of the truffle and the strength of the Barbera. With each bite, I was reminded how, in the hands of a talented chef, a few ingredients can produce a deeply nuanced, richly textured dish
Philipp, the sommelier, poured a glass of Baron Widmann Auhof Cabernet Merlot 2015 Südtirol Alto Adige to accompany the main course, thick slices of Japanese wagyu beef, pan fried and served with an onion compote and mushrooms. Once again, Heilemann combined heaven and earth in composing a dish. The earthy onion reduction and the forest scented porcinis joined forces to ground the elegance of the tender beef and the lovely Cabernet Merlot.
The night air was fresh and cool. The table was cleared. Time for dessert. Fresh plums and a quenelle of bright red plum sorbet were center stage with pale white ricotta mousse and a cereal-poppy seed crisps as supporting players. The plate was a salute to the end of summer, refreshingly cold with an acid bite.
That concluded the tasting menu. But there was more to come. As the chef sent out amuse bouche at the beginning to tease the palate, now came a crescendo of confections to complete the meal. Coco bean ice cream on macadamia nut-chocolate “sand.” Vanilla ice cream with a pumpkin seed crisp. A liquid center caramel-chocolate praline. A delicate canelé with passion fruit puree. A coconut shell with a citrus-scented marshmallow dipped in chocolate on a bed of grated fresh coconut.
Each dessert used contrasting textures and flavors to tease out an experience that was totally absorbing. The meal perfectly summed up my time at the Atlantis by Giardino. Engaging, stimulating, beautiful and rejuvenating. Staying at The Atlantis by Giardino offered the best of city and country. Easy access to busy, exciting Zurich and the opportunity to enjoy the quiet setting of the meadows, the Uetliberg forest, the spa and relaxed fine dining.
When you go
Information about Zurich can be found on the official website with a comprehensive guide of activities and attractions in and around the city. Look online and in hotel rooms for The Visitor: Zurich Magazine, an English-language guidebook with a wealth of insider information about the city.
A major airline and rail hub, Zurich is easy to reach. Once in the city, with the aid of Google and Apple maps, an efficient public transportation system of trains and trams makes it easy to get around. Taxis and ride sharing are easily available.
The Atlantis by Giardino, Döltschiweg 234, 8055 Zürich, Switzerland, +41 (0)44 456 55 55. The hotel is easily reachable from the airport and city by taxi, tram or train. Guests may also arrange to arrive by air taxi, landing on the hotel’s helicopter pad.
To explore Zurich, the hotel shuttle offers guests transportation to and from Bürkliplatz, opposite the Lake Zurich ferry landing. Because the complimentary shuttle books up quickly, it is best to make a reservation the day before. The S10 train to Zurich Main Station (Zurich HB or Zurich Hauptbanhof) stops at Schweighof, a five-minute walk from the main entrance on Döltschiweg. A second train station, Triemli, is a five-minute walk from the other side of the hotel, through a meadow and down the hill on Hohensteinweg.
The hotel prides itself on its service and friendly hospitality. The beverages in the guest room mini-bar and the coffee, teas and snacks in the alcove are provided and replenished without charge. That is a generosity rarely encountered even in the most exclusive hotels. At evening turn down, no little square of chocolate is placed on the pillow. You will find instead a plate of hand-crafted chocolates or a bowl of fresh fruit on the side table.
Ecco Zurich Restaurant. Priced as a tasting menu, choose 3 courses for 160 CHF, 5 courses for 200 CHF, 7 courses for 230 CHF or 9 courses for 260. If my meal was typical, expect several amuse bouche at the beginning and as many surprise dessert courses at the end. While the amuse bouche are small plates, the tasting menu courses are generous portions. Pairing wine with each dish adds to the pleasures of the meal. Sommelier Stefano Petta and his staff will make recommendations from the restaurant’s extensive wine cellar.
Le Chef Meta’s Restaurant, Kanonengasse 29, 8004 Zurich, Switzerland, +41 44 240 41 00. An intimate bistro owned by chef Meta Hiltebrand who enjoys the front of the house as much as the kitchen. Engaging, funny and charming, her food is well-prepared, thoughtful and delicious. For the table we ordered a well-charred medium-rare Argentinian steak topped with foie gras and a plate of risotto with giant prawns. Both were beautiful and delicious. The website is in Swiss-German only. Chef Hiltebrand and her waitstaff are fluent in English and will offer to translate the menu for you.
Restaurant Nooba, Kreuzplatz 5, Zurich, +41 43 243 60 06. Website in Swiss-German only. Close to a tram stop, a casual Thai restaurant with an open air vibe. Patio seating in warm weather. The food is good. So is the beer. Menus available in English.