Swiss Ski Spa – Leukerbad In the Drink A little town in the Swiss Alps makes a big splash in the spa world BY ROGER TOLL The snow-striated cliffs and couloirs of the glacial valley of Leukerbad filled the large window in front of me, a frigid contrast to the thermal spring water in which I was immersed. I was settled in the high-tech comfort of a Swiss therapeutic bath, caressed by thousands of bubbles, and Michaela, my therapist, had placed a glass of luscious local Rhone wine on the table that spanned my tub. This, clearly, was not a typical spa treatment. Granted, I’d ordered the Fructus Vitis revitalization treatment, the “fruit of life” specialty of the Alpentherme Spa high in the Swiss Alps. It began with a 20-minute grape-seed scrub — skin, juice, and seeds — mixed with a neutral oil. Michaela took her time, methodically rubbing the mixture into nearly every inch of skin. Then she led me to the hydro-shower, where powerful water jets swept away the dregs of the grapes. The bath (and the wine) came next. She poured another grape extract and olive oil mix into the water, then set the air jets to a soft bubbling. Twenty minutes later, she returned to dry me like a baby, then put me back on the massage table for a superb half-hour back massage using, of course, grape oil hand-pressed by Alpentherme technicians. Perhaps Bacchus himself is the spa director here, I thought. The Alpentherme is Europe’s largest Alpine medical wellness and beauty spa resort. A handsome complex of 120,000 square feet over several ﬂ oors, it contains 30 treatment rooms and 55 massage tables, more than 150 treatments, 30 therapists, and two massive pools — one indoors, one outdoors — a “village” of saunas, each of ering nuances of dif erence from its neighbors, Roman-Irish bath, and other ﬂ avorful amenities. The spa’s large and modern building borders one side of the town’s dominant square, which is framed on the other sides by three handsome hotels. Those three buildings are now one grand hotel run by the luxury German group Lindner Hotels & Resorts, which purchased them in 2000 along with the Alpentherme, and connected them all via underground tunnels. Guests can now walk comfortably from their rooms to the spa in bathrobes. There are many Swiss spa towns, of course, and each tends to specialize. Leukerbad is known for relieving the pain of arthritis, rheumatism, and post-traumatic injury thanks to its hot, mineral-rich waters that ﬂ ow from 65 springs in this high mountain valley. The springs, which were well known to Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago, emerge from deep in the earth, so the water is very hot, in some cases more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Beyond its use in the town’s two sprawling spas — the upscale Alpentherme and the family-friendly Burgerbad — Leukerbad channels the water through pipes below some of the steeper roads, which keeps them free of snow, and into several of Leukerbad’s buildings and hotels as heating. The eight strongest springs supply more than 1 m illion gallons of water per day, the largest of which spews out 238 gallons a minute. Curious about the benefits of my grape-intensive therapy, I sought out spa manager Klaus Engel. Grape seeds, he explained, contain substances that destroy free radicals and prevent premature aging of the skin, and strengthen the metabolic, circulatory, and immune systems. The grape-seed-oil massage tones the skin and promotes cell regeneration. Engel gave me a tour of the impressive facilities, then left me at the door to the R omanIrish bath. “This area is naked only,” he said, leading me to wonder what bacchanals I might discover inside. In fact, the only other entrants were two couples in their 70s. Nevertheless, the recommended two-hour, 12-stage progression through steam rooms and pools of dif erent temperatures was fun, though I — eager to get to the sauna village in the basement — sped through it in 45 minutes. The highlight was a Turkish-style rubdown with soapy water; the nadir, an ice-cold pool.
The next day I visited the town-owned B urgerbad Therme, a ﬁ ve-minute walk from Alpentherme, which o ffers an even larger array of amenities: six indoor and outdoor pools as well as grottos, a mud bath for the a nkles, high-pressure and h igh-density showers, elaborate bubbling chaise-like metal structures for relaxing in the pools, a diversity of saunas, a w ater playground for kids … all incomparable to anything I’ve seen on this side of the Atlantic. My favorite was a dark, steamy cave under a dome of rough rocks from which a heavy stream of scalding w ater tumbled, creating a fog of steam in a 12-by-15foot space. People lolled around its perimeter in two feet of very hot water. New arrivals, their eyes unaccustomed to the darkness, shuf ed their way to an empty spot. Leukerbad sits at the end of a 9-mile mountain road that runs up a steep canyon from the city of Leuk in the Rhone Valley, itself about 15 miles down river from Visp, where the cog train departs for Zermatt. It’s a small town of 1,500 residents, which inﬂates many times that size during holidays. Though summer and fall seem to be the busiest seasons, winter is popular thanks also to a small ski area just a tram ride up the cliffs. The morning I took the Torrentbahn up, eight inches of light powder lay on runs served by a two-stage gondola, a six-seater chair and two surface lifts. For the Alps, it is small, but with 4,000 vertical feet, it ofers a couple of thigh-burning runs. I headed back down the tram, then crossed town, a 10-minute walk, to a second tram, the Gemmibahn, which accesses a huge high-alpine area of rolling hills and a lake, ideal for sledding, ski touring, and snowshoeing in winter, hiking, and mountain climbing in summer. Instead, I settled into the Wildstrubel Adelboden, a restaurant with plummeting views back to the village and the high mountain peaks south of the Rhone. The owner, Wolfgang Loretan, pointed out two via ferratas on the cliff side just below the restaurant that had my stomach churning with the thought of navigating them, with or without the secure steel cables. I lunched on a superb Swiss-style rösti topped with two fried eggs. When I praised it, Wolfgang chuckled. “But you have it in the States,” he said. “They’re just hash browns.” Hardly the same thing, I said. “You’re right,” he admitted. “The only thing in common is they’re made from grated potatoes.” Before leaving town the next morning, I headed back to the Alpentherme for a last soak in the thermal waters. They burbled about me as I lay in the pool on a metal frame, my thoughts veering back to Roman soldiers garrisoned nearby who would hike up to these waters two centuries ago for some R and R. By 1501, a local entrepreneur, the bishop of Leuk, was charging visitors for the privilege. Leukerbad’s ﬁrst hotels were built in the early 1700s. Goethe, Mark Twain, Guy de Maupassant, Pablo Picasso, and James Baldwin all rested in these waters. At the terminal, with 10 minutes to wait for the bus to arrive, I applied my new health-conscious learning in what I considered the most salubrious way possible. Dodging into the terminal’s cafe, I ordered a glass of wine. A local red, of course.