‘Sustainable’ and ‘luxurious’ are often perceived as words coming from two different continents. One saves resources while the other throws away tons of food and destroys luscious habitats. Switzerland is a small country and yet it is a place where four cultures collide. The German, French, Italian and Romanish speaking nation seems to know how to balance between work, life, tradition, sustainability and high-end hospitality.
I pick up my 1st class Swiss Travel Pass, courtesy of Swiss Travel System, when I arrive at Zurich Airport. The pass covers most of Switzerland, including public transportation and museum entrances in the largest cities and towns. Swiss trains are an eco-friendly way to explore the country in style. Every rail station has access to free Wi-Fi, and I am impressed to find I can plug in my laptop or phone and work as I travel. I know I am in a place where my time is valued and where trains aren’t late for more than 30 seconds. Here, public transportation is much like Swiss chocolate – premium quality and pure delight for the senses. Eating Swiss chocolate on a Swiss train doubles the pleasure.
A healthy lifestyle
My first stop is at the historic castle hotel, Schloss Wartegg. It is past midnight when I arrive in the calm, herb-scented Rorschacherberg municipality. My basic contemporary instincts are telling me to search for a Wi-Fi network before I even unpack. But there is none. I panic and try to connect with my laptop. Still nothing. My hands start to shake. What will I do with no Internet? I decide to explore the room I am in. One brochure I find tells me that the wooden furniture is made of regional materials. The mattress is all natural and the cosmetics in my bathroom are organic.
I sit on the soft bed for a moment to enjoy the silence. Coming from a big city, I’ve never paid attention to the sounds my clothes make when I move. As I won’t be able to notify my social media friends that I have arrived, I decide to look at the view outside. Lake Constance reflects the moon that seems to be somewhere between Germany and Austria.
Of course, the castle management can afford to buy a powerful router but it is their decision to create an atmosphere where guests can do a digital detox. Those of us who live in large urban areas are constantly exposed to electromagnetic radiation and pollution that has plenty of proven negative health effects. To complement this type of detox, the hotel’s restaurant also serves food that is organic and/or regionally produced. In summer, half of its products come from its own garden. Vegetables and herbs are more than organic, they are demeter. The gardener does everything according to the moon cycles, considering the garden’s ecosystem. It is an autonomous and self-sustaining organism that has individuality, rhythm, and character.
If something can’t be grown, it is bought from selected farmers from the area. Building a network of local partners is a common way to do business in Switzerland. This practice saves resources for transportation while supporting the regional and national economy.
A car-free present
I take the slowest and probably the cleanest express train in the world, The Glacier Express, that will take me to Zermatt. As I travel, the train’s huge observation windows reveal gorges, valleys, passes and the eye-blinding Rhone Glacier in the Central Swiss Alps. Traveling through the glacier is as if the train has invaded someone else’s dream space. Forgetting my sunglasses is a mistake I regret.
After a 6-hour journey, I arrive in Zermatt, home of the famous Matterhorn landmark. The village is also a great example of sustainable luxury. It all started in 1947, when the first electric car came to replace horse-drawn carriages. Ever since, motorized vehicles were never a means of transportation. Everyone who arrives in Zermatt by car has to leave it in the nearby town Tasch and board the train. It is just a 12-minute ride.
Electric vehicles maneuver around as pedestrians walk on the car-free streets. I never intended to hitchhike, but a Swiss couple stops and tells me it is not a good idea to walk to my hotel with so much luggage and orders me to jump inside their electric car. The vehicle’s back is open and I have to hold onto a metal bar, clenching my bag between my legs, as we go uphill. I fear I will fall out.
Zermatt’s residents put lots of efforts to manage wastewater, recycle, save energy and use resource-saving technologies. The benefits of doing this are quiet movement, clean air and efficient buildings that preserve the environment. When I arrive at the Matterhorn-Focus hotel, I feel a little intimidated by its designer luxury, creation of the famous local architect Heinz Julen. But the owner Chris offers me a drink and tells me that the atmosphere is relaxed and informal.
The hotel’s beautiful building is made of natural materials like wood, glass, and metal. Part of it is built into the ground which makes the movement of heat economic and efficient. Matterhorn-Focus’ interior reminds me of the Herbert Wells’ ‘Time Machine’ story. For a second, I wonder if I have accidentally traveled through time.
The next morning, I get up before sunrise to enjoy the view from my balcony with a cup of coffee. I don’t have to wait for the breakfast buffet as there is a Nespresso machine in my room. The soaring sun illuminates half of the Matterhorn as the village below it is still asleep under the shadows of the morning darkness. Zermatt seems like the future when nature doesn’t need to be saved from humans. And yet, this is present. I wish for the rest of the world to wake up in this ‘now’.
‘Zuri’ and its water
Zurich sounds like a dirty, boring and gray place but I decide to check it out anyway. I listen to the radio when the train approaches the station when I hear the word ‘Zuri’ several times. A city that has a short name just can’t be boring. The stereotype I had in my mind is gone when I arrive in this cute, artsy, modern and yet traditional ‘Zuri’.
It is also called ‘the water city’. In the summertime, it turns into an aquatic park with bathing facilities aside River Limmat and Lake Zurich. No other European city has such a high concentration of bathing facilities. Floating in the lake with a chilled beer in hand is a super refreshing and relaxing activity for locals and visitors. After dusk, these bathing spaces transform into bars, inviting visitors to concerts, movie projections or culinary evening cocktails.
I spare a lot of plastic bottles here, as the city has thousands of public fountains and water taps from where I can drink clean water. I am also told that River Limmat’s water is drinking quality and I almost pull a glass to dip and test this theory. ‘Well, it is not like you should drink it, but nothing will happen to you if you swim in the river and the water gets inside your mouth,’ a friend of mine who lives in the city says as she stops me.
From food waste to biogas
Banking on the River Limmat, Storchen Zurich is the oldest and one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. Walking through their shiny entrance doors, a regular guest would never expect that sustainability is of great importance here. The 4-star hotel offers food that is cooked with ingredients from local farmers and fishermen.
I am greeted by the sales manager, Regula, who tells me that there is a special board of 6 members who come from different departments and who are responsible for finding innovative sustainable solutions. Storchen uses environmentally-friendly cleaning agents, uses recycled paper for most of its documentation and offers an electric charge for guests who come with electric cars and much more. Its tabs save 30% more water, a solution that doesn’t affect guest’s experience. But what impresses me the most is that the hotel has a system to turn food leftovers into biogas. It is called BioTrans, a giant metal blender that turns food waste into a mixture that ferments in several massive plastic drums in the basement. When I ask her how they benefit from this technology, she replies that they don’t. ‘We don’t gain anything from this system. We actually pay a company to come and take the mixture’. This company doesn’t even have to enter the hotel. Its employees use a small hole outside the hotel’s building. All done with comfort in mind.
Luxury can be sustainable
Genuine luxury is not just about great service, expensive furniture, comfortable beds, gourmet food and endless exclusive fun. We are all guests of this planet. Transitory beings, who are just passing through, leaving our marks. Hospitality businesses that realize this simple truth disprove that luxury can’t be sustainable. Giving back to our host called nature is the only way for us to keep living in abundance.