Very few hotels in Switzerland and perhaps even in Europe have as impressive history and as many original and unusual features as the Waldhaus in Sils. That is why it has attracted writers, musicians and scientists since it opened in 1908. Theodor Adorno, David Bowie, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, for example, or Juliette Binoche, Gerhard Richter and Vicco von Bülow – the guest list is long and rather unconventional. Hermann Hesse spent a total of 370 days and nights at the Waldhaus. What distinguishes it from other hotels? Why have famous and less famous guests come to the Waldhaus and why do they continue to come? There are countless good reasons, ten of which are listed below.
‘Unique location’: if any hotel can really make that overused claim, it surely is the Waldhaus Sils. It sits majestically high above the village of Sils Maria like an earthbound ocean liner. While other hotels often have their back to a mountain, the Waldhaus provides its guests with a 360° view: to the east to Lake Silvaplana, to the west to Lake Sils, to the north to the plain of Sils and to the south to the Fex Valley. Just a lucky chance? Definitely not! In 1905, Josef Giger had a wooden scaffold put up on the otherworldly spot where the Waldhaus now stands to test the view and decide on the best position. The dedicated hotelier even measured the winds. Convinced that he had found the perfect location, he engaged the well-known architect Karl Koller to design the hotel. The location was also a statement: by the beginning of the 20th century, a hotel situated off the beaten track was considered the epitome of luxury.
Architecture and Rooms
The name house in the woods (Waldhaus) is a bit of a misnomer. The building with its tower and crenellations looks more like a castle or fairy-tale palace than a house. The interior, though, is in line with Josef Giger’s instructions to architect Karl Koller: it should be “beautiful, practical and sturdy”. Karl Koller (1873–1946) was the hotel architect of his time. He laid out the public rooms at the Waldhaus with restrained elegance and a splendid disregard for economizing space.
Much remains of the original furnishings. In the music room, for example, the wallpaper, the furniture and the mahogany panelling with corner mirror are unchanged. The bar has been carefully renovated, the wainscoting refurbished and the windows returned to their original state; modern light fixtures hang from the meter-high ceiling. And for ‘social smokers’ a smokers’ lounge with fireplace and club chairs was added in 2012.
As you climb the stairs to your room, a surprising view awaits: white marble steps, diagonally laid black and white marble on the landings and an art nouveau chandelier suspended on heavy chains make this one of the most valuable belle époque staircases in a Swiss hotel.
The Dietrich family invests three to four million Swiss francs in hotel renovations every year – always keeping in mind the hotel’s history. Rather than offering uniform hotel rooms, some of the 140 rooms and suites have been furnished with historic furniture and returned to their original state. At the Waldhaus no two rooms are alike.
Managed by the same family since 1908
The Waldhaus is committed to the spirit and values of its founders, Josef and Amalie Giger. Since it opened in 1908, the hotel has remained in the same family. It is now managed by the fifth generation – by the brothers Claudio and Patrick Dietrich. Just as used to be the case in all first-class hotels, they personally greet you upon arrival and say good-bye when you leave. A sincere gesture, not simply a marketing ploy. All arrivées are still noted in chalk on a blackboard in front of the cashier’s. And the two brothers still take turns going through the impressive restaurants in the evening. How was the lamb? Did you have a good walk to the Fex Valley? The employees at the Waldhaus appreciate this sincere and principled hospitality, which is why many of them have been here for years or even decades and have become part of the Waldhaus family.
When you talk to Dennis Brunner, the 34-year-old Executive Chef from Austria, you notice his strong ties to nature and home. You feel it, as he talks about the nutty flavour of alpine potatoes which he first cooks with rosemary and caraway before peeling. An organic farmer from Filisur in the Albula Valley grows them for him. You also feel it as he praises the freshness of the char which a fisherman caught in Lake Sils that very morning, and which he later serves with a light foam.
And, you also start to feel hungry as you listen to Brunner’s stories. That is true of the entire round of the evening’s guests who cannot wait to take their place and enjoy the food at the long chef’s table in the Waldhaus kitchen. But before dinner, a tour of the wine cellar is de rigueur, for how else could you select the wines for the meal? About 25,000 bottles from a wide variety of wine producers are stored in the Waldhaus cellar, many of them from Swiss vineyards. “The best Swiss wines never even leave the country,” says Oscar Comalli – the sommelier who has worked at the Waldhaus for more than 20 years.
Executive Chef Dennis Brunner has played a key role in our kitchen for 11 years, assuming his current position in 2016. He joined the team as a young man and quickly became Kurt Röösli’s second in command. His professional experience includes positions at the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore and at star chef Gert de Mangeleer’s Herto Jan Restaurant in Bruges. Brunner is seconded by Fabian Marolf as Sous-Chef and by Executive Pastry Chef Renato Pellegrinelli.
They all promote regional cuisine, cooperating closely with local producers. Brunner’s motto is: “Use local products to cook globally.” You learn all of this and more at the chef’s table in the Waldhaus kitchen with its huge windows and high ceiling. The chef’s table takes place once a week. Guests are encouraged to reserve in advance. Of course, all other Waldhaus guests can also enjoy Brunner and his team’s cooking. In high season, they serve around 300 meals per evening. Most people who reserve a room at the hotel also book dinner. At the Waldhaus, this is still referred to by the wonderfully old-fashioned term ‘half-pension’. There is also an à-la-carte restaurant, the Arvenstube – an alternative for hotel guests and a good way for external guests to get to know the Waldhaus.
Olivier Assayas’ film “Clouds of Sils Maria”, starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, opened in the US and UK in spring 2015. Assayas and his crew filmed key scenes on location in and around the hotel.
For as long as Thomas Mann and other writers have been vacationing at the Waldhaus, the Waldhaus has regularly been the focus of films, literature and theatre. Theatre director Christoph Marthaler dedicated a play to the Waldhaus on its 100th birthday (2008), Claude Chabrol filmed extensive parts of “Rien ne va plus” (1997) at the Waldhaus and ARTE TV broadcast a documentary about the Waldhaus (2009). An anthology, “Wie gross ist die Welt, und wie still ist es hier – Geschichten ums Waldhaus in Sils”, was published by weissbooks.w in 2014. In it, Donna Leon writes: “(The Waldhaus) remains a place where I have the sense that the hosts desire nothing more than to make me feel entirely at home and where every request is treated as though it were the one thing they had most wanted to do that day.”
The Waldhaus Trio
The Waldhaus is pleased to continue the grand-hotel tradition of fielding its own little orchestra. Our trio, in its various guises, plays in the great lounge daily for afternoon tea or on fine summer days at lunchtime and in the early afternoon outdoors. In the evening it plays in the lounge or bar. For variety, there are other musical attractions such as jazz.
Library and Reading Room
Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and many others have sat at the reading desks with their scrolled wooden legs and little pigeonholes. The reading room (1929) was originally located directly behind the bar but was relocated and rebuilt exactly as before during renovations in 1999. The large windows bring the outdoors in and the indoors out. Almost all the bookcases, the furnishings are original.
Author’s readings are applauded and successful books celebrated at the Waldhaus. With polite understatement, the family refers to its modest library. In fact, it is quite substantial and unusual for a hotel. Many publishers and authors are regular Waldhaus guests and often donate copies of their books to the hotel, including some major reference works. The reading room is no longer big enough for all of the books. Further bookshelves line the bar, the Sunny Corner and the corridor on the way to the swimming pool.
Vintage cars parking in the back of an oven and skiers racing down a bathtub? Yes, there they are in the hotel’s own museum. The Swiss artist Giuseppe Reichmuth has wittily staged ‘yesterday’ in the former Waldhaus bakery. Items from the hotel are displayed, ‘dust collectors’ from days gone by, writing implements, a gramophone and strange signs. One of them shows a meticulous list of all of the water valves in the hotel with their functions. At first glance, some of the objects seem unidentifiable. What looks like a surgical instrument turns out to be a cooking utensil. This journey to the past does more than just document Waldhaus history. It also evinces the history of tourism in Graubünden. One gallery of black and white photos shows travellers in the snow. The wooden skis with their old bindings look as if they had just been left. And the vehicles in the oven are probably models of the first automobiles which brought the British here in the 1920s. To the locals’ horror: due to the noise and pollution, they initially fought their arrival (the cars’ and not the Britons’) with laws and even with rocks!
Some things at the Waldhaus are truly one of a kind. For example, the ‘Magenta’ clock system. When the master clock in front of the executive offices is reset for the start or end of daylight saving time, an electric impulse resets all of the other built-in wall clocks (no satellite necessary). Another very special, a genuine original is the Welte-Mignon piano in mahogany with Empire bronze touches, which the family bought in 1910. The paper rolls on which the pieces have been recorded are still sitting in the wooden cabinet in the music room, and the piano with its extremely complicated mechanism still functions. Even the electric sonnerie (bell system) can still be seen in the corridors, although it is no longer in operation.
Although futuristic and naturalistic, the re-mastered spa gives the impression that it has always been there. With a surface area of 1400 square meters, the new spa at the Waldhaus provides hotel guests space for relaxation and promotes a sense of well-being. Along with a generous sauna and two steam baths, there is also a cembra pine pool and a larch pool. Each of these relaxation pools takes up an entire room. Besides a gym and the existing indoor swimming pool (8×20 meters), there are now seven treatment rooms and an outdoor whirlpool. The new spa was designed by Basel architects Miller & Maranta, who had already been responsible for the splendid renovation of the bar, the kitchen and the addition of the Smokers’ Lounge at the Waldhaus Sils. Prominent Austrian spa specialist Susanne Kaufmann was also closely involved in the planning. She created new treatments for the Waldhaus, using her own line of products, which are all produced from the alpine plant world. “Nature and naturalness were key to the design of the new spa. Its architecture fits harmoniously into the overall design of the hotel and its surroundings. Our spa offers a perfect opportunity for guests to relax and rejuvenate after a day of hiking or skiing,” says Patrick Dietrich, who manages the legendary hotel with his brother Claudio Dietrich – the fifth generation of the founding family. Their sister Carla Lehner-Dietrich will now head its newest, sparkling highlight, the spa. A family affair, as ever.