Somehow the days just keep getting better. This morning I opened the windows to find a spectacular sunshine-filled view of Lake Lucerne, a welcome surprise after a few stormy days, and the perfect weather for an ascent up Mount Rigi, a must-see highlight to any trip through Switzerland. The peak of Mt. Rigi is visible from Lucerne’s city center on a clear day, easily recognizable by its pointed control tower antennae in the distance.
Sailing to the Mountains
Departing from the city center, the journey began with a gorgeous boat ride on Lake Lucerne, past several quaint lakeside towns with views of the Alps. Soon the buildings and marinas gave way to green hills at the foot of the mountains, dotted with wooden houses and sheep. Although the nearby coastline was clear, views the other way of the lake were blanketed in a thick sunny haze.
Train to the Clouds
At the town of Vitznau, we debarked and walked straight ahead and right onto a cogwheel train. This steep mountain railway (with a middle rail fitted with a rack that engages a pinion on the locomotive to provide traction) ascends at an incredibly steep incline that presses you into your seat as you click past snow-covered houses and sweeping lake vistas.
Immediately the landscape became a white winter wonderland with thick pine trees weighed down by snow and wooden cabins puffing smoke from their chimneys. The lake seemed to rise up from below at impossible angles, all around creating a feast for the eyes. Add to that the panorama of snow covered peaks encircling the train from all angles and simply put—it looked like we were traveling up to heaven.
Mountain Mineral Baths
Half way up Mt. Rigi we stopped off at Rigi Kaltbad, the mountain mineral springs. Rigi Kaltbad is among a small group of Swiss spas designed by architect Mario Botta that reflect classical Greek, Roman, and Arabian bathing traditions while recreating the luxurious concept of public bath spaces.
The mountain spa on Mt. Rigi had breathtaking alpine views, with a unique location where you can bask in the sunshine among a sea of clouds and mountain panoramas, surrounded by blankets of bright white snow. The complex looked stunning in the snow, with people swimming in the open air submerged in warm blue baths, surrounded by a winter landscape. Rising from the snow were glass panels extending skyward, providing natural light to the mineral springs below, reached by an elevator down into the mountain side.
Inside, the saunas and baths were lined with stone and glass, with views opening onto the Swiss Alps. What I loved the most was swimming from the indoor pool through an opening in the wall right outside into the crisp mountain air, surrounded by snow-covered Alps.
Higher into the Clouds
After a refreshing soak, we continued on our way up the mountain in the red cogwheel train. As we rose, the snow on the ground grew even thicker. At the top of the mountain we found ourselves soaring over a whole set of snow-covered peaks that looked so perfect they could have been a fake postcard backdrop. Truly. This is exactly what I imagined Switzerland might be like in my mind of pre-trip fantasies.
The day was crystal clear, which just brought out the blues of the sky and the shadows in the white snow even more. It was blissfully quiet this high up and there wasn’t much at the top, just a carved wooden tree-man sculpture, the giant antennae tower that can be seen from Lucerne, and Hotel Rigi Klum.
A Panoramic Lunch in the Swiss Alps
Hotel Rigi Klum is the perfect (and only) place at the top of Mt. Rigi to enjoy a classic Swiss lunch at cloud level. From their restaurant you can soak in some serious Swiss Alp panoramas, and on a clear day the snowy vistas stretch beyond Switzerland to Germany. We started with a foam soup, followed by a hearty plate of pork with veggies and pasta, washed down with a couple glasses of Swiss wine and Rivella, a traditional Swiss apple drink. Dessert was a classic: thick fresh creme accented with apples and jam applied in fancy patterns.
Finding a Way Back to Lucerne
You have to time the train ride back down the mountain perfectly or you’ll end up needing to kill an hour at the peak, which is what happened to us. When we missed the train it was like a switch was flipped on—the clouds rolled in on cue, the wind picked up to a howling level, and the temperature plummeted. Switzerland is unpredictable that way.
By the time we did catch our train down (the last of the day), the sky was so full of storm clouds it was nearly black, and what’s worse, the boat back was running on a reduced holiday schedule so it was going to be a couple more hours before the final boat of the day was coming by. By now it was raining, the train conductor had locked the trains up for the night and gone home, and the one cafe in the neighborhood was closing. Not feeling much like waiting outside in the rain, we meandered up to the street where a bus was idling. After a jumbled conversation in broken German, it seemed that we would possibly be able to hop on the bus and theoretically take that to the nearest train station, where we might, if my poor German served me right, connect to a local train back to Lucerne. We gave it a try, and it turned out to be the right move—we met some chatty Americans on board and got back to Lucerne in time for dinner!
Cheese and Chocolate Fondue
Although I had already tried fondue, I was in Switzerland after all, so I thought it would be a good idea to try it again to see if it would be any different. Lucerne’s Fondue House seemed the apt place to go. It turned out to be a funny place, filled with a plethora of Asian decor ranging from Maneki-nekos (lucky beckoning cat figurines) to bamboo fountains adorned with yin-yangs, set in wooden chalet-style rooms filled with classic wooden chairs with hearts carved into their backs.
We started out with a salad course, which was eerily similar to the salads I used to eat in Japan (where I lived for several years teaching on the JET program). Next up was the fondue course, with its staple bread and potatoes. For dessert? Chocolate fondue—the real reason I felt I needed to try more fondue. I suspect chocolate fondue is just for the tourists, but who would want to miss melted chocolate on fruit anyway?
After dinner we were so stuffed we had to walk around to make ourselves feel better about consuming such large amounts of cheese and chocolate. Luckily Lucerne is a great strolling city, made even more pedestrian friendly because of all the old wooden bridges criss-crossing the water, providing an extremely atmospheric and romantic way to see the city. The city lights reflected in the water gave the entire city a glowing aura of light, accented by dripping icicles dangling from the covered bridge roofs and a backdrop of moonlit snowy peaks in the distance.