High above the Rhone Valley, I tried not to look as the bus driver deftly navigated the monstrosity around hairpin turns ever climbing. But there’s a thing about precipices where only a 2 foot high metal guardrail separates you from a vertical drop hundreds of feet into a rock encrusted ravine…it’s terrifying but ever so scenic! In this way, terror and enthrallment propelled my journey ever upward…how far was anybody’s guess…through the clouds? At 4593 feet, I reached Leukerbad, a Swiss village remarkably nestled in a valley of its own surrounded by peaks reaching even further to the sky.
Best known as the largest spa resort in the Swiss Alps, spa culture really took root in Leukerbad during the 1500s although the history of thermal springs in Leukerbad dates back to Roman-Helvetian times. Despite avalanche destruction, public baths (Volksheilbad), a proud tradition still in place today was established in 1556. Water fed by glacier melt from the Torrent filters 3000 meters in the Torrent massif before emerging as thermal water in Leukerbad, the largest outflow being in the St. Lorenzquelle town square. Centuries ago people were already aware of the therapeutic effects of thermal water making what was then an arduous journey along a mule trail to relax and recuperate in the mineral springs. To this day, 3.9 million liters flow from these springs feeding 30 thermal pools at 51 degrees Celsius which are then cooled to 34-36 degrees Celsius for optimal soaking. 4 Spa facilities are open to the public at all times. 2 of my favorites are the Linder Alpentherme wellness temple featuring both an indoor & outdoor thermal pool, a Roman-Irish bath, and a Valais sauna village while the Burgerbad, the largest thermal spa resort in the Alps has 10 pools with amenities like slides and wading pools for the children. You’re in luck if you happen to be visiting when the Burgerbad hosts their monthly in-spa champagne breakfast complete with floating trays as you soak in the mineral baths. This unique feature actually originated out of necessity in the early days when doctors prescribed day-long soaks to their patients.
Leukerbad is all about healthy eating with many dishes made using local ingredients like black nose lamb, alpine herbs, mountain rye, and seasonal vegetables. High above the village on the Gemmi Pass, Restaurant Wildstrubel and its accompanying Hotel caters to the outdoor enthusiast with quick and hearty meals prepared from scratch. Views from the dining areas, especially out on their cliff side patio majestically showcase Leukerbad far below with the Valais Alps defining the horizon. I was able to visit the kitchen to see just how the staggering variety of Rosti plates along with fresh baked pastry are prepared.
At the moment, Hotel Les Sources des Alpes is Leukerbad’s only 5-star hotel although manager Pierre Berclaz would like to see that change in the future. “Competition at this level would actually be good for business because it attracts more discerning visitors expecting higher-end amenities and exacting service." To a certain extent, that’s already happening with the 51 Degree project which promises 30 residential suites, many of them with their own in-room spas. But no matter where you’re staying in the village, you can enjoy this hotel’s regal experience by dining in the on site Restaurant La Malvoisie specializing in French Fusion dishes although the chef’s talents particularly shine through in spur of the moment creativity like arranging a drink mixed table side from scratch.
Surrounded by all this high altitude terrain, prime opportunities for skiing and hiking simply can’t be missed. The Torrent Ski area alone boasts over 50 km of trails reaching as high as 8563 feet with the most challenging descent of 3035 feet. An added bonus is spectacular views of the surrounding Valais peaks towering over 13123 feet. At times it can be difficult to focus on the terrain underfoot without gaping into the distance.
Towering 7710 feet over Leukerbad, the Gemmi Pass offers a wide range of excitement from high alpine ski tours, 11 miles of cross country ski trails, groomed winter hiking trails, toboggan runs, and extensive snowshoe trails. Other activities include whizzing down the mountain on monster scooters and paragliding.
A steep (almost vertical at times) gondola ride wisks you from the village of Leukerbad to the Gemmi Pass where you’ll have ample mountain views from the Wildstrubel restaurant’s sun terrace before hiking along the shores of Lake Dauben to Kandersteg. The terrace was recently extended with a dizzying new viewing platform. The steel construction juts out 32 feet over the edge while its open grid flooring and diagonal glass walls afford incredible views of the valley below. And for the more adventurous, the steepest via ferrata (steep mountain path equipped with fixed cables, ladders, and bridges) in Switzerland awaits.