When you arrive in Zermatt, it’s hard not to notice the Omnia. The hotel is high above everything, not just on a hillside but perched—improbably—on top of a rock. And when you arrive at the hotel, it’s hard not to be impressed as the driver of the electric trolley (the only vehicle permitted in the Swiss Alpine village) turns off the road and pulls straight into a narrow tunnel in the side of the mountain. An elevator completes the journey.
I was disappointed to learn that managing director Christian Eckert had not been there during construction, as the engineering nerd in me had some questions.
I was also surprised to learn that he hadn’t been there, as the hotel struck me as being new, with its free-floating front desk and contemporary vibe. But in fact it’s been around since 2006. “It’s a timeless design that always looks new” says Eckert.
The owners would know about design. They’re also the founders of USM Haller furniture company. That furniture is used throughout the hotel, which was designed by New York architect Ari Tayar, along with pieces from notable European-born designers who heavily influenced the scene in the United States. Mies van der Rohe, Vladimir Kagen and Eero Saarinen are among them. It’s the kind of thing you find in the permanent collection at MoMA.
The idea was to make “an American mountain lodge combined with European elements,” says Eckert, who also admits that he has never been to an American mountain lodge. (In my experience, the US ones have far more trophy heads, antlers and vintage firearms than the Omnia, whose designers had the good sense to include none.) He clarified that the comparison had to do with the community spirit, something that’s not so common in Switzerland.
There are several lounges, some with fireplaces, that encourage guests to gather. In the restaurant, there are several long tables where new friends sometimes dine together. The design also has a connection with nature—gray granite and white oak being the common elements—and some parts of it can fairly be called cozy.
Other parts are less so. The 30 guest rooms have an abundance of space, and clean-lined furniture, with good doses of locally fabricated leather and felt. The best rooms have up-close views of the Matterhorn, both from indoors and from the terraces. The pool is sleek and gorgeous.
“It’s a niche product for design lovers,” says Eckert. “It’s not overloaded like a grand palace hotel. It’s understated.”
It has also set out to be unusual. The 26 rooms have letters rather than numbers—“because our guests are not just numbers to us,” said the front desk attendant who showed me to my room, “and a way to stand out.” While I’m not sure that presenting myself at breakfast as “V” rather than “22” made much difference, it’s a memorable detail.
So was the large, old-school metal room key—a bit of nostalgia that the hotel nerd in me loves. The idea is that guests people leave them at reception desk when they leave the hotel, leading to conversations about where they’re going and how their day was when they return. Eckert, who makes a point of personally greeting and saying farewell to every guest, says that visitors arrive as clients and leave as friends.
It helps that many staff members, including the managers, have been here a long time. The operation is the picture of Swiss hotel precision, but with a human touch. Eckert says, “The hotel business isn’t a profession. It’s a passion.” It shows.
The hotel also wins points for unusualness with its recent reinvention of its restaurant, which had previously been on the path of Michelin aspirations. Now in the hands of executive chef Tony Rudolph and sous-chef Martin Zuber, it’s more relaxed, and more creative. While it is not a vegetarian restaurant, every appetizer and main course on the new “Alpine excellence” menu is a fully realized composition of plant-based ingredients.
Each dish, such as smoked bell pepper with salted lemon, pine and red onion, or pea gnocchi with sautéed chanterelles, sugar peas, tarragon and apricot, stands on its own. Meat and fish are available as side dishes for whoever wants them. It’s a daring move—and one that’s hard to imagine in an American mountain lodge—but a successful one, and I’d like to see it catch on.