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Travel & Wellness

Engelberg: the «Belle Epoque» glamour reborn

The «Belle Epoque» splendor and its four decades of carelessness forged Engelberg’s reputation, the Swiss alpine resort. Today, many investors are reviving the 1900s glamour.

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino29 juillet 2021

The Kempinski Palace Engelberg hotel inaugurated last June (DR)

The largest Alpine resort in Central Switzerland, Engelberg is now living a touristic rebirth. Many investors involved in hotel and diverse sports infrastructure renovations are enabling the village to appear on the map of the chic and relaxed mountain resorts.

In Engelberg, luxury is nature. We attract clients that appreciate a relaxed and chic philosophy, close to sustainability

Alexandra Ellerkamp, the marketing director of Kempinski Palace Engelberg

The hotel Kempinski Palace Engelberg was recently inaugurated and sits at the heart of a return to the Belle Epoque glamor. The “Grand Hotel” spirit, much sought-after by aristocracy, then by the bourgeoisie from the 1860s to the 1900s, remains. Only exception, the great ballroom, has now been transformed into a lobby. All around, the materials magnify contrasts between historic parts of 1905 and the new wing. While the atmosphere is Belle Epoque, the latest technological innovations have equipped the entire hotel resort. A spa and a swimming pool on the palace top floor allow a moment to unwind facing the mountains, just like it used to be done after the Great Depression.

Between 1870 and 1914, the Belle Époque spirit reigned in Engelberg. In the foreground, the Grand Hotel Titlis, now the Kempinski, and on the hilltop, the Grand Hotel Terrace (DR)

A Chinese investor

While Kempinski heads the operations – a strategy that has been challenged by the group for a long time – the owner is not related to the local crowd. He is Chinese, and well-known in the region, as he already invested in several local real-estate and construction infrastructures (Frutt Resort AG). Yunfeng Gao, a Shenzhen entrepreneur, bought back the Grand Hotel Titlis Palace in 2011 and renovated it to trust the Kempinski group with its keys in 2021. But other well-known establishments are also in the hands of the Chinese tycoon, including the Frutt Mountain Resort, a chic and relaxed location in Melchsee-Frutt, about a six-hour walk from Engelberg, as well as the Tannalp or even the Palace Luzern which he bought from the Swiss hotel group Victoria-Jungfrau Collection, in 2015.

Engelberg holds among the ten best freeride spots in the world

Philipp Oeschger, product manager at the Engelberg-Titlis tourism office

Today, greatest hotels of the time are being renovated in Engelberg, including the Grand Hôtel Terrace, today in the hands of the Bergbahnen Engelberg-Trübsee-Titlis AG consortium. The alpine resort at the heart of Switzerland, 30 minutes from Luzern, is ideally located to attract Swiss and international clients. While the Frutt Mountain Resort is frequented by 97% of Swiss clients, Kempinski aims to have at least 60% of its occupation rate frequented by a Swiss clientele. Another great nation that loves Engelberg: “India of course, even more so than China, but mostly Sweden, explains Philipp Oeschger, product manager at the Engelberg-Titlis tourism office. The reason? Engelberg holds among the ten best freeride spots in the world. While the English particularly favor Verbier for the same reasons, the snow walls in the surrounding mountains nicknamed the Big Five are appreciated by the Swedes. The most experienced will test the “Atomic Corniche” on the Steinberg or the “Adrenaline Couloir” on the Sulz. Skiing in Engelberg is well-known, as well as its twelve mountain bike trails, its six via ferratas or its 500 km of hiking roads, in the summer.

One of the five slopes of the Big Five on which to practice freeride. Here on the Steinberg (DR)

Nature: the new luxury

Unleashed towards newness, the Engelberg resort attracts nature and sports lovers, as well as relaxation and discreet luxury afficionados. Alexandra Ellerkamp, the marketing director of Kempinski Palace Engelberg explains: “In Engelberg, luxury is nature. We attract clients that appreciate a relaxed and chic philosophy, close to sustainability. Our clientele wants to have a drink in our beautiful bar-lounge wearing jeans and mountain shoes or in after-ski clothes. A more jet-set clientele would prefer the St-Moritz Kempinski for instance.”

Several large circuits spanning over five days are organized by the tourism office of Engelberg-Titlis to discover the region, according to their intensity levels. Climbing by foot on the Fürenalp for an “Alpine Cheese Trail” or in a turning cabin on the Titlis to discover the ice cave and staggering “Cliff Walk”, launching into a via ferrata in Fürenalp or on a mountain bike across the “Traildorado of the Surrenen Valley”: the ultramodern installations are created to save time between two activities.

Of course, the Belle Epoque spirit of the 1870s to 1914s favored thermal care rather than mountain trails. It was even for these benefits that the Brits would stay in Engelberg during the Summer season. Many intellectuals spent their summers as well, including the literature Nobel prize winner Rudyard Kipling. The upcoming bourgeoisie of the second half of the 19th century had important financial means to enjoy nature in the mountains during the summer.

A view of the Schluchberg. Engelberg has over 500 km of hiking trails (DR)

Thanks to the rise of spa therapy, the need for fresh air and nature, Engelberg built its fame. The first great hotels of the aristocratic style built in the 1870s then placed the resort in the very selective list of holiday destinations. But, as of the end of the Great War, the resort saw its demise begin. The second World War definitively stopped the activity of several great hotels. In 1945, a federal expert even commanded the destruction of thermal baths. And during the 1970s, another type of tourism began, simpler and further from great outdated spreads.

Today, five decades later, the mountain seems to be rekindling its attraction from 150 years ago. Fresh air, nature, outdoor activities, the desire to enjoy a more relaxed chic, are back. The streets of Engelberg are animated with bars and restaurants with international inspirations. The restaurant Ober at the Alpenclub hotel offers a gastronomy that mixes northern and local influences, while every morning, the smell of fresh roasted coffee perfumes the main street of the Engelberg village. Two young Swedes Sophia and Oscar, passionate by their craft, bet on artisanal coffee production. The beans from Brazil, Ethiopia, Guatemala are sourced to Engelberg to be roasted and served onsite, in their library-café “Roastery”, for local inhabitants or shipped globally via the web.

The 4.0 splendor of the Belle Epoque in Engelberg: a concept that will continue to grow.

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