GRAND HOTEL GIESSBACH
Recently restored to former glory by a wealthy Swiss foundation, the Grand Hotel Giessbach is a wonderful, turreted Victorian building in a magnificent forested location on Switzerland's Brienzersee. Amazingly it offers double rooms this summer for slightly less than $100.
Few country hotels in Switzerland are without at least some sort of mountain or lake view and an attractive setting. Surely among the best in this "view-setting" category is the Grandhotel Giessbach, perched in the forest about 200 feet above the Brienzersee and reached in only five minutes from Brienz via a narrow road that runs above the south shore of the lake.
Vistas from the hotel's terraces and guestrooms include snow-covered peaks, villages and towns (including Interlaken) on the opposite shore, and the lake itself, upon whose great, green expanse chug the elegant lake steamers that carry passengers from town to town.
Then, looming above, are the thundering Giessbach Falls, a visual and audible presence almost everywhere in and around the hotel. One sees and hears them from the terraces, from the restaurant and from many guestrooms.
Add the wonderful, turreted Victorian building and the result is a romantic setting with few equals.
And here's the best part: from Sunday through Friday all summer long you can rent a double room with breakfast for under $100. Doubles with lake or falls views are 240 Sfr. ($148), but the same room facing the forest is 160 Sfr. ($99). Frankly, view is not that important. This is a Victorian building and the windows do not invite sitting and gazing and there are no balconies.
Under $100 for a night at this stately old grand dame is one of the better bargains around. Built in 1870, the hotel sat unused for many years then reopened in 1987 after a massive and costly four-year restoration financed by a wealthy foundation called "Giessbach to the Swiss People." The high-ceilinged public rooms are adorned with donated antiques, statuary, fine art, gold and crystal chandeliers, and trompe l'oeil. In the style of all the great hotels built at this time, staircases and corridors are wide and graceful.
Decor and furnishings in the guest-chambers also reflect the period but are equipped with the modern appliances of a 21st century four-star hotel.
In the winter, the waterfall is a big chunk of ice, so the hotel is open only from late April to late October. Thus employee turnover is fairly high and for a kitchen that strives for excellence this is a particular problem. Our meals at the Giessbach reflected that difficulty. In fairness, it was very early in the season and the hotel had been open only a few days.
Service and table settings were quite formal, though the uniform of the day for diners was fairly relaxed; mostly open necked shirts for men and a few women in slacks.
When your meal begins with one of those tiny "gift of the house" courses, you can be assured you're in a restaurant that takes itself seriously and that the menu will be priced accordingly.
While the food was acceptable it did not measure up to the prices; our four main dishes ranged from 36 Sfr. ($22) for traditional Geschnetzeltes mit Rösti (chopped veal sautéed in a cream sauce with fried potatoes) to 43 Sfr. ($27) for Lammkoteletten (lamb chops).
Such dishes are found in the simplest Swiss country restaurants where they are better prepared at about half to two-thirds the price.
Service was friendly but a little ham-handed; the hostess who cleared our table scraped leftovers from one plate to another, a job best done in the scullery, not at the table.
Dinner for four without beverages was 231 Sfr. ($143). A bottle of Valasian red wine cost 54 Sfr. ($33).
Too bad the restaurant is not as good as the rest of the hotel
Daily Rates: Singles 140 to 170 Sfr. ($86-$105), doubles 160 to 340 Sfr. ($99-$210), suites 400 to 450 Sfr. ($247-$278)
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 16/20
Things to Do
Grandhotel Giessbach is accessible to both auto and rail travelers (the hotel will pick you up at the Brienz rail station). The guest with a rail pass will find it convenient and enjoyable to start excursions from the hotel via lake steamer. The dock can be reached by funicular or by downhill trail in about 10 minutes.
Boats call at Giessbach several times each day and make stops at several villages and towns including Brienz, Iseltwald and Interlaken. At Interlaken passengers can change to boats that sail the Thunersee and service such towns as Thun and Spiez.
From the Brienz boat dock it is only a short walk to the rail station where, by rack-railway, you can take the approximately three-hour round trip to the Brienzer Rothorn at just under 8,000 feet.
Or you might, as we recently did, combine the two modes of transport; steamer and train. Take the boat to Brienz and Interlaken, stopping at each to explore, and at the end return by rail from Interlaken's east station. Those with more time can ride the boat to Interlaken and then take the train to Bern, the capital city, returning in the late afternoon. The last boat from Interlaken to Giessbach departs at 4:30pm. Trains run from Interlaken to Brienz frequently but from there your choices are a long walk, a taxi or phone for the hotel's van.
Auto travelers will find they are 15-minutes from Ballenberg Open-Air Museum and easy day trips from Giessbach are also possible to Bern, Thun, Spiez, and even Grindelwald with its view of the Eiger.