Switzerland is a country comfortable with its status as a high-end, high-glamor, high-price ski destination. Its preposterously beautiful landscapes take in snowbound Alpine peaks, velvet-grassed valleys, chocolate-box villages and ski resorts long established as the places to see and be seen. Davos, Klosters, Zermatt, Verbier… the list is long and expensive.
But for several years I’ve been getting my Swiss snow fix from a different, lesser-known location at the foot of a different, lesser-known mountain (two, actually) – the twelfth century exclave of Engelberg. Built around the 800-year-old Kloster Engelberg monastery, the village has enjoyed consistent popularity with tourists over the years without ever quite achieving the notoriety of its more famous Swiss neighbors.
In the 1850s it caught the attention of the world as an international health resort with its mineral water, milk serum and fresh air cures provided by that awesome Alpine setting. Plush hotels were opened by local families, pioneering tourism in the region and encouraging technological development—a funicular railway connecting villages in 1913, Switzerland’s second ever cable car in 1927, and in 1967, the higher reaches of Mount Titlis became accessible via the world’s first ever rotating cable car that connected skiers with the mountaintop glacier, extending the ski season well into May each year. It remains a tourist attraction in its own right today.
Over time many of those grand resorts faded as its fashion waned, although tourism remained its primary source of income. But in recent years Engelberg has seen an influx of new blood to become more of a focussed adventure destination. It has attracted a loyal core of year-round mountain enthusiasts skiing, snowboarding, freeriding, climbing, mountain biking, paragliding, and hiking their way to adrenaline-fuelled nirvana. The result is a village that has a real buzz about it—an atmosphere of adventure and kinship unspoiled by the sometimes over-the-top ostentation of more deluxe resorts. But that’s not to say there isn’t luxury on offer for those seeking it out.
Stay at the Kempinski Palace Engelberg
Fresh from a five-year renovation of the historic Grandhotel Winterhaus, the new Kempinski Palace Engelberg opened last year as the only five-star accommodation in town and in doing so created a gorgeous celebration of the building’s Belle Époque grandeur married to the highest modern hotel standards.
A renovation and expansion of the original building, the new incarnation is as grand and fitting to the central-village location as you could imagine. Inside, 129 rooms and suites are spread over five floors all offering mountain views, sumptuous fittings and deluxe bathrooms. The picks of each are the Belle Époque rooms and suites located in the original circular tower, each a unique design served by spectacular balconies looking out over the village towards Titlis. It’s a theme that extends into the rooftop spa and staggering pool, framed into the eaves by walls of glass showcasing snow-capped peaks wherever you look. It’s an awesome, closeting and intimidating arena in which to float away your aches after a long day on the slopes.
Strolling through corridors lined with vintage posters celebrating the region and down into the hotel’s communal areas is to step back into a grander time. The century-old Palace Bar and Wintergarden serve complex cocktails and indulgent afternoon cream teas in splendid period surroundings while the Cattani Restaurant puts its culinary focus firmly on the Alpine surrounds with its regional farm-to-table ethos.
Start off with the Swiss Alpine salmon Escabeche with pickled vegetables and then if you can see your way past the 72-hour slow cooked pork belly, go for the duck breast from Appenzell glazed with forest honey, chokeberry sauce and potatoes smoked on pine cones. A decision no one ever regrets.
The restaurant is named for Eduard Cattani, the architect of Engelberg’s early fortunes. It was he who built the Hotel Titlis, the Kuranstalt and the Grandhotel Winterhaus, which today conspire to form the current Kempinski Palace Engelberg. Mayor, governor and chief justice in one, he is credited with putting the village on the map, framing it as a luxury spa resort without ever compromising its spirit and traditions and his legacy lives on proudly.
There are of course practical elements, too. There’s a large equipment room accessible directly from the street to save you traipsing gear and all through the hotel. An Activity Concierge will take care of whatever you need, from ski rental to personal guided e-bike tours of the area.
Eat and drink at the Ski Lodge Engelberg
A minute’s walk from the Kempinski, the Ski Lodge Engelberg sits on the fringe of the village looking across the flat valley and up to its towering Alpine crown with a huge garden complete with sauna and hot tub ready to handle seasonal crowds.
An excellent hotel in its own right, but it is the bar and brasserie where the action happens. It is rightly the go-to place for the village’s adventure loving locals, the bar putting on regular events from live music to ski movie screenings, while the Konrad Brasserie serves the most creative, tasty dishes in the region, whether it’s heart-warming classics like burgers done right or novel interpretations of salad and fish dishes.
After a day on the mountain, the Ski Lodge is Engelberg’s main hub for storytelling, celebrating and reliving the best stories with friends over one drink or several.
Get your adventure (and culture) fix on Mount Titlis
But the main reason for most people’s visit are the mountains. While the “sunny” mountain, Brunni, with its gentle slopes, quick access and lovely alpine lodges is perfect for an easy day and long lunch—don’t miss the Brunnihütte for its Swiss classics and giant views—it’s the north-facing Titlis, the region’s highest summit topping out at 10,623 feet above sea level, that draws the crowds. For two very different reasons.
A fearsome mountain that offers some of the best freeriding anywhere in the Alps alongside a tangle of excellent piste runs serving intermediate skiers and above, Mount Titlis is a playground for board riders. Fifty miles of piste runs guide you all over the mountain from its very top to the lower slopes of Klein Titlis, ready for the gondola right back up. But to explore its real majesty, hire a local ski tour coach and hit the back country—where the magic lies.
Titlis also has another, more surreal fame. Take the long ride to the top, step from the gondola and navigate past the glacial ice cave and out onto the mountain and you’ll be confronted by the Bollywood cafe and by it, amid snow laden slopes, the lifesize cutouts of Kajol and Shahrukh Khan, Bollywood stars of the hit film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (commonly called DDLJ for brevity).
As often as not, both cafe and cutouts will be teeming with Indian families and tourists, many dressed entirely inappropriately for the harsh mountaintop conditions, marveling at the magic of Titlis. On my last visit to the area I shared the gondola up with a young Indian family who’d made the long pilgrimage and whose pre-teen son spent the entire ride transfixed by the views around him, eyes on stalks, never having seen snow before.
It’s a surprising juxtaposition should you not be ready for it. The obvious question then, is why is this towering Swiss mountain a hotspot on the Bollywood tourist trail?
Well, it seems Bollywood and the Swiss Alps are in fact long linked, with more than 200 Bollywood films having been shot there creating a dedicated tourist attraction known affectionately as the Bollywood Trail. None however has been as popular as DDLJ with its scenes set atop Titlis and even 20 years after its cinematic release (it ran for 1,000 weeks straight in one Mumbai movie theater), it’s still drawing crowds to see it for themselves. And as you clip on your skis and ready for another run down, it’s likely the thing you weren’t expecting to see at the top of a mountain in Switzerland.