Why the Alps is the healthiest place on Earth

Sarah Baxter
Taste the fresh air in the Alps - This content is subject to copyright.

As the boat slipped away from the jetty, my stresses slipped away too. For starters, this being Switzerland, every plane, train and water-mobile had run right on time. But better, I was ploughing into a happy place: the sun was sparkling off Lake Lucerne, the shores were frilled with pine and pasture, mountains tantalised in the near distance. A pleasing breeze tickled my grin. And relax...

There’s something about the Alps. Not only do they provide a mood-boosting combination of green and blue space – which, studies have shown, reduce anxiety and sadness. They also offer pure air, revivifying waters, the aesthetic pleasure of a meadow bright with wildflowers and the put-you-in-your-placeness that comes from being amid formidable peaks. I’m not the first to notice. The Romantics raved about these mountains in the late 18th century, encouraging waves of Grand Tour-ists; Switzerland’s first mountain hotel opened on Lake Lucerne’s Mount Rigi in 1816.

Then, from the 1840s, slope-side sanatoria sprang up, touting the therapeutic effects of high-altitude air. But while the mountains remain as naturally cleansing as ever, the health resorts have moved on a bit, as I was soon to discover.

Lake Lucerne Credit: Getty

There’s been a hotel atop the lake-side Bürgenstock ridge since 1873. It’s always been innovative – its founders built the country’s first electric funicular railway (which still runs) and the Hammetschwand Lift, the highest exterior elevator in Europe. After its 1950s heyday as a celeb hangout – Audrey Hepburn married here – the hotel slowly fell into decline. But in late 2017, following an enormous eight-year renovation, the Bürgenstock Resort reopened. So I wanted to see how healthy both the hotel and its enviable location could be. 

The resort comprises four hotels; I was lodging in the Matteo Thun-designed Waldhotel, a hip hillside behemoth of untreated wood and stone that’s both luxury retreat and medical centre. Unlike the other three, the Waldhotel looks away from Lake Lucerne, which is no loss. This sunny south-facing aspect gazes into a secretive little scoop of green, where cowbells thunk, buzzards swirl and the high Alps loiter beyond. As I ate breakfast on the terrace, I could see the farm that supplied the cheese on my plate.

The best hotels for spa breaks in Europe

And it’s funny how even cheese feels more virtuous in the mountains; there’s something about being able to taste its provenance. Plenty of other local ingredients – from summer berries to Swiss lamb and veal – turn up in dishes across the resort’s eight restaurants, which range in theme from heavy haute French to healthy Mediterranean, where by courgette spaghetti came sprinkled with lavender. Those with deeper dietary concerns can book tailored weight management programmes, one of the Waldhotel’s range of lifestyle packages.

Nutritionist Zee Shan Razi gave me some pointers in the cooking lab, where we turned lentils and apples into a delicious lunch. The aim, he said, is not a dramatic two-week weight loss, but to initiate sustainable lifestyle changes; a takeaway of alpine healthiness.

All this eating, wholesome or otherwise, left me eager to exercise. While the gym facilities looked excellent, the great Swiss outdoors looked better: sunny, green, riddled with well-marked trails. I set out along the Felsenweg, the cliff-hacked path completed in 1905 so early wellness-seeking tourists could promenade above Lake Lucerne. It led to the vertiginous Hammetschwand Lift, which whizzed up to the 1,115m-high lookout, with views north to Lucerne, east to Rigi, west to Mount Pilatus, south to the high Swiss Alps.

The Bürgenstock Hotel’s Alpine Spa - 10,000 spectacular square metres of wellness Credit: Burgenstock Hotel Alpine Spa

I spent the rest of the afternoon threading together other paths, strolling in bird-sung forest (where a pine marten peeked out from its hollow), then walking via neat wood piles, a tiny chapel, pastures crazy with butterflies and a farmhouse honesty shop where I bought a jar of alpine honey. A hot, honest, fresh-air, blue-sky workout.

To soothe my legs, I tried the Waldhotel’s Ice Lab, a cryotherapy experience that exposes you, briefly, to -110°C in order to speed healing. Note, the top of the Matterhorn doesn’t dip below -30°C. And I wouldn’t attempt that wearing only bikini, gloves and face mask. Standing in this human deep-freeze, my nostril hairs crackled, my lungs gasped and three minutes felt like 300. But I emerged alive and, if not cured of all ills, oddly invigorated. 

Less challenging was a visit to the Bürgenstock Hotel’s Alpine Spa, 10,000 spectacular square metres of wellness. After being expertly massaged with alpine-inspired products, I got lost in the expanse of saunas, rasul steam rooms, Kniepp baths, infrared cabins and, my favourite, the cavernous Flotation Pool, where I lay suspended in saltwater as green lights flickered on the ceiling like the aurora. 

The Bürgenstock Hotel's heated outdoor infinity pool, seemingly dripping into Lake Lucerne

There was only one place to end though: the heated outdoor infinity pool, which dangles high above, seemingly dripping into, Lake Lucerne. I paddled in, rested my elbows on the edge, adjusted my shades and felt as glamorous as I ever will. Was this healthy? Getting too used to this might be a dangerous thing. But for the moment, I felt very well indeed.

Essentials

Rooms at the Waldhotel cost from around CHF410pn (£315), including shuttleboat transfers from Lucerne, the funicular, breakfast and access to the Waldhotel Spa. The Bürgenstock’s Alpine Spa costs from CHF95 (£70) for three hours (+41 (0) 41 612 6000; buergenstock.ch/en). The author flew with Swiss International Airlines from Heathrow to Zurich (0345 601 0956; swiss.com). For more info, see myswitzerland.com.

10 of the healthiest places in the Alps

Best for... active breaks

1. Southern Alps, France

Canyoning, kayaking, rock climbing, tree climbing, via ferrata, via souterrata (or ferrata-ing underground)... Get in touch with nature in a range of ways on a trip to the Southern French Alps, where the sun shines 300 days a year. Each traveller is allocated activity points, which can be used to build a personalised itinerary. Spend your points on everything from a High Ropes Adventure (1 point) to a summit attempt on Mont Aiguille (4.5) or an overnight adventure in an mountain shelter (6). 

One-week Multi Activity holidays cost from £349pp excluding flights; includes nine points per person. Undiscovered Mountains (0345 009 8501; undiscoveredmountains.com).

The Forsthofalm, a pine-scented eco-hotel 1,050 metres up in the mountains

Best for... all-inclusive wellness

2. Forsthofalm Timber Hotel, Leogang, Austria

This pine-scented eco-hotel, 1,050m up in the mountains, is built entirely from wood (cut at a positive phase of the moon, no less), which should get you off to a relaxing start – studies have shown wooden rooms can lower stress and aid sleep. Then there’s the food: organic, seasonal and local where possible, with a dedicated vegan chef preparing five-course meals and the chance to join herb walks. All guests get free access to the Mountain Life Programme too: unlimited yoga and fitness classes plus guided hikes in the hills.

Rooms at Forsthofalm from €128pppn (£114) including meals and activities (+43 6583 8545 55; forsthofalm.com/en). 

Best for...taking the waters

3. Flims Laax Falera, Graubünden, Switzerland

According to local legend, Lake Cauma has healing properties; it’s been drawing health tourists to nearby Flims since the 19th century. You can bathe in the turquoise waters or hike up Alp Mora for a dip in the glacial mills, a string of natural pools – ice-cold but invigorating. Alternatively get a workout by exploring the lakes by paddleboard or canoe, or explore the 250km of hiking trails and 330km of mountain bike routes.

Two nights at the Signina Hotel in Laax from CHF360pp (£276) including meals, spa access and entrance to Cauma Lake (+41 81 927 9999; signinahotel.com/en).

Lake Cauma has healing properties, according to local legend Credit: iStock

Best for... winter walking

4. Füssen, Bavaria, Germany

Winter doesn’t stop walkers in Füssen. Wearing either boots or snowshoes (conditions dependent), hike from the medieval town into the German Alps to exercise despite the season, breathing in pure alpine air. Summer crowds are long gone, lending tranquility to the forest and lakeside trails, and with Bavaria’s peaks and castles under snow, it’s like walking through a fairytale – a brilliant mood boost. Stay at a family-run spa hotel to end each day with a sauna or massage too.

A one-week Füssen: A Winter Fairytale trip from £1,150pp including flights. 27 December 2018, 14 January, 18 & 25 February 2019. Ramblers Walking Holidays (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk).

Best for... trekking and hiking

5. Tour de Mont Blanc, France, Italy & Switzerland

Most of the Alps is amazing for hiking. But the Tour de Mont Blanc, a 170km circuit around the region’s highest peak, is hard to top, combing three countries, spectacular scenery and varied accommodation options, from huts to hotels. There are lots of leg-testing, lung-busting climbs; complete it in a week for tough challenge, a fortnight for an easier test, or somewhere in between. It does get busy, but the on-trail camaraderie is part of the fun.

An 11-day guided Tour du Mont Blanc trek from £2,045pp including flights. 5 September 2018; self-guided trips available. Explore (01252 884 723; explore.co.uk).

10 destinations that are guaranteed to improve your health

Best for... healthy eating

6. Quintessence Sports & Health Retreat, Courchevel, France

Cleanse yourself inside and out at Quintessence, where the air is pure, the garden jacuzzis are a-bubble and the meals are free of gluten, lactose, refined sugar and alcohol. Instead, pure mountain water, local herbs and inventively prepared veg, nuts and grains will fuel your wellness retreat, which includes before-and-after fitness consultations, a cooking class, a health coaching session, a range of activities – from Nordic walks to outdoor yoga and hardcore HIIT – and a new philosophy on life.

Seven nights at Quintessence from £2,665pp excluding flights. Health and Fitness Travel (0203 397 8891; healthandfitnesstravel.com).

Cyclists in Alta Badia

Best for... cycling 

7. Alta Badia, South Tyrol, Italy

The fitness rewards of biking are available to all levels in Alta Badia. The region is excellent for keen road cyclists, who come to sweat over the seven passes of the Maratona bike race route. But this dramatic Dolomites valley also has the world’s highest ebike sharing scheme, ideal for those who need a bit of uphill help. There are six docking stations above 2,000m, plentiful traffic-free paths, Moviment activity parks where you can stop for extra alfresco workouts and gourmet mountain huts for quality refuelling. 

Seven nights at Hotel Col Alto, Corvara, costs from £750pp including flights. Ebike hire €35/€45 (£31/£40) half/whole day. Inghams (01483 791116; inghams.co.uk

Best for... natural therapy

8. Texelgruppe Nature Park, South Tyrol, Italy

The smart Design Hotel Tyrol has its own spa, saunas and pools. But it’s also well-placed for rejuvenating walks straight into the peaks and pine woods of Texelgruppe Nature Park. Here you’ll find Partschins Waterfall, the South Tyrol’s highest cascade, thunderous enough to create its own health-boosting ambience – the high humidity, they say, benefits the lungs and soothes the soul. Guided Climatic Therapy Hikes run to the falls via orchards, forest and fresh air, finishing with endurance and thermoregulation training at its base.

The Design Hotel Tyrol

Doubles at Design Hotel Tyrol from £77pppn B&B (+39 0473 967654; tyrol-hotel.it). Climatic Therapy Hike €20pp (£18) (+39 0473 967157; info@partschins.com; merano-suedtirol.it)

Best for... healing

9. Berghotel Schatzalp, Davos, Switzerland 

Opened in 1900 as a luxury sanatorium, the Berghotel Schatzalp has retained its Art Nouveau style and its healing properties. Perched 1,900m up on the Schatzalp – a peak purportedly high in good energy – the hotel is still only accessible by funicular or on foot. Once there, lounge on the long, south-facing balconies, where well-to-do TB sufferers once drank in the curative air, views and sunshine, or head off on a hike. There are numerous trails, including the Thomas Mann Way, named for the author of the Schatzalp-set The Magic Mountain. 

Doubles at Berghotel Schatzalp from £159pn B&B (+41 (0) 81 415 5151; schatzalp.ch/en

Best for... a detox

10. Hotel Post Bezau, Vorarlberg Alps, Austria

Owned by Alps-born skincare guru Susanne Kaufmann, the Hotel Post Bezau exudes her belief in the healing properties of nature. Regional and organic products feature heavily throughout, from alpine herbs in the spa to wildflowers on the (healthy) menu to Bregenz Forest linens in the rooms. Also, outdoors activities – hiking, skiing, daily yoga – are encouraged. For a full refresh, do the TCM Detox, which includes a range of toxin-trashing treatments such as lymphatic drainage, alkaline facials, nutritionist consultations and tailored cuisine.

One week at Hotel Post Bezau from £1,375pp excluding flights; TCM Detox costs £2,250pp. The Healthy Holiday Company (0208 968 0501; thehealthyholidaycompany.co.uk)

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