I’m not kidding when I titled this story Heidiland. This is the sign you see on the way to Hotel Therme Vals, an alpine getaway high up in the Swiss Alps. I think of skiing, cold, snow and treacherous routes, whether by car or by skis, when I think Swiss Alps. It’s where I learned to ski. (The kiddy hill was the parking lot) I had no idea that nestled in this skiers paradise is a thermal bath spa that takes your breath away, literally.
The adventure begins the moment you see in the distance, mountains, peaks, rock formations and snow, lots and lots of snow. The autobahn shrinks to a 2-way road that winds and winds ever upward through a valley and then like a goat herded by Goat Peter (yes, this neighborhood was his, along with Heidi and Grandfather) The car hugs the side of the mountain with a guard rail-less passenger side that drops down hundreds of meters. That part was tough to look at. Once in the tiny town we checked into a hotel that was a mid-century modern dream, complete with a 4 star restaurant. Our room looked out over the town below and up to the mountains that rose at a 90-degree angle.
As it was early evening, we put away our bags and went down for dinner that lasted 3 hours and included 6 courses, each more delicious than the other. Dessert was fantastic but not as amazing as the midnight bathing program that started when dinner ended.
Stone, concrete, slate and bronze are the ingredients to this fantasy experience. The hot water springing up from the earth fills several different pools. Some are large and others small, and all in different temperatures from ice cold to 110 degrees. The rules of the spa for the midnight session is SILENCE, so all was hushed with only ambient music playing in different areas. The water is loaded with nutrients that we all drank and bathed in. (that water one drinks goes to work on your digestive track...big time.) Sleek, spare, dramatic and elegant only begins to describe this jewel.
The most mysterious pool was the largest that sat outside under the stars that filled the sky. It was warm with a cloud of steam drifting above with jets under the surface. Inside we found a warren of saunas that started warm and progressively got warmer as you pass through. With large slabs of black granite like sarcophagi, we tested each until I could feel my bones begin to turn to liquid. This was all just in the first night.
My experience in the past with European sauna/baths is the unsettling co-ed rule. Every man, woman and child crowds together naked in the same room to sweat it out. That alone is a bit too close for my taste but being the only black man in a sea of sweating pinkies is equally unsettling. Everyone stares. They're all staring at me and I'm as naked as they are but for some unknown reason I'm the target of a whole steam filled room's roving glance. It's enough to make all of ones confidence and attributes dissolve in the haze. Fortunately, Vals was a bathing suit, bathrobe-clad crowd. My Speedo was a touch outre' compared to the surf jam wearing guys and dads, but hey...I was just feeling free to be me.
Early the next day after a breakfast that we didn’t want to stop refilling our plates we took a hike up the mountain road above the hotel for 2 hours. It was a relentless climb but the view and scenery was breathtaking. Once at the top of the route we found a tiny café nestled on the side of the abyss and had a lunch that was perfect. For the descent, we rented little one-man toboggans and skidded our way down the way we’d come. I was terrified of rocketing off the side of the road, but fortunately that didn’t happen. Before heading back to the spa for a late afternoon “cure” we wandered through the town with its ancient chalets, church and square. I’ll let these pictures speak for me.
I’m writing this from my room looking at the lights of the village, like
candles, still in my robe and slippers from the spa. Early tomorrow
morning we’ll have head to toe massages, breakfast and then wind our way
down the mountain and back to Zurich and the airport, that is if I don’t decide
to stay. I found a sweet herd of goats that I could tend and float in
these miraculous steaming pools for the rest of my days. Happy New Year
all. Make this year one that not only excites and satisfies, but
also one that restores!