By Bob Bestor
A business and tourist-friendly little country that offers quiet pastoral villages, good skiing, Michelin-starred restaurants, gorgeous mountains and a real prince and princess.
Liechtenstein seems more like a club than a country, though its members are happy to have you visit as often as you like.
Actually, this little slice of Alpine nirvana is a principality; like Monaco but without the flash and opulence. Definitely without the opulence. Only the "Princely Castle" and one hotel, the Sonnenhof, come anywhere near splendor, and even these are pretty low-key when compared to their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.
So if it's cutting edge culture, grand palaces, and hotels with uniformed doormen you seek, scratch Liechtenstein. For a principality, it's pretty down-home. Even Hans Adam II and Marie, the Prince and Princess, are occasionally seen shopping (sans bodyguards) in downtown Vaduz and once a year, on August 15, they throw a lawn party for the entire country at which they personally help pour the beer and serve the sausages.
Don't get the wrong idea, Liechtenstein isn't hurting, they just don't flaunt it. This is a tax haven made prosperous by laws favorable to businesses, many of which exist there only on paper. It is thus a country of lawyers and bankers, as well as farmers and princes. Unemployment is counted in dozens rather than thousands or millions.
Liechtensteiners seem to have made a number of smart decisions. If you were running a small European country, and wanted to "out-source" a few services, whom would you choose? Of course. Thus the telephones, the bus system, and the money are all Swiss, even though the country's ties with Austria go back hundreds of years and the current Prince is Austrian. But you'll want to keep the postage stamp rights because, coming from such a tiny country, they'll become valuable and be a tourist attraction. So Swiss postage stamps don't work in Liechtenstein.
As a travel destination, two words spring to mind when contemplating Liechtenstein: restful and intriguing. Intriguing simply because itty bitty countries that call themselves principalities are by definition that way; and restful because you're in the country. And a beautiful country it is, with pretty villages, vineyards, green rolling farmland, and a few backroads, all backdropped by breathtaking mountains.
Give yourself two or three full days to see it. There is no rail system so your options are car or bus. For the ultimate in flexibility, we prefer the former. If you arrive by train, as we did, the closest you can get is Feldkirch in Austria or Buchs or Sargans in Switzerland. From these you can catch one of the frequent postal buses to Vaduz.
Those who want to ski at Malbun - in the mountains about 30 minutes above Vaduz - may want to stay longer. There are four lifts and 12 miles of slopes with a vertical drop of 1270 feet. At Steg, near Malbun, cross country skiers glide over 11 miles of groomed tracks through the Valna valley. One-week packages including seven nights hotel, breakfast, dinner, and six-day lift pass are offered at about $400 to $1,000 per person. Contact the Liechtenstein Tourist Office (see box this page).
Liechtenstein is, of course, full of walking trails and paths. The free Tourist Guide 1999, available at tourist offices throughout the country, outlines 19 different walking/hiking routes, from simple, one-hour walks to hard mountain treks.
The de rigueur Vaduz tourist stops include the Liechtenstein Museum of Art (Liechtensteinische Kunstsammmlungen), where the Prince's Art Collection is housed; the National Museum (Liechtensteinisches Landesmuseum), which highlights the history of the principality; and the Postage Stamp Museum (Briefmarkenmuseum). The castle is also in Vaduz but, being the residence of the princely family, it is not open to the public.
But don't stop there; rent a car for a day or two and see this charming little country from stem to stern (see Dear Subscriber). After a while you'll want to know how to become a member of the "club."
Pleasantly situated on lush grounds in a posh residential neighborhood on a forested hill above Vaduz.
Inside, the feeling is of being in a discreetly luxurious private residence. Decor and furnishings are underrated but top quality.
The most desirable rooms are the 12 like Number 32, a spacious double with separate seating area and private balcony. The hotel calls these junior suites and prices them starting at 390 Sfr. ($264). In addition there are eight smaller, but equally well-equipped and furnished, doubles and nine singles.
There is an indoor pool, sauna and all around the hotel, both inside and out, are agreeable little niches inviting guests to sit for a quiet hour or two.
The Real family (son of Restaurant-Hotel Real in Vaduz) and their capable managers extend a welcome of genuine warmth. A stay at the Sonnenhof will be a memorable experience.
Daily Rates: Singles 190 to 280 Sfr. ($128-$189), doubles 320 to 450 Sfr. ($216-$331).
Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 14/20
Seven gloriously refurbished guest rooms with period furnishings and gleaming state-of-the-art bathrooms are featured at the 600-year-old Löwen, a rustic gem of a hotel set in the vineyards of Vaduz.
The four best rooms, with multiple windows and huge, antique, carved wooden beds, rent for - gulp -300 Sfr. ($203).
In summer, the hotel's restaurant moves outdoors to the edge of the vineyard where it becomes a Vaduz focal point. It is, in fact, the country's most sought-after dinner reservation for viewing the annual fireworks on "National Day," August 15.
The Löwen has a load of charm but the price is a little steep.
Daily Rates: Singles 180 to 230 Sfr ($122-$155), doubles 220 to 300 Sfr ($149-$203).
Contact: Löwen Herrengasse 35, FL-9490 Vaduz, tel. +41/075 232 00 66, fax 232 04 58. Prop: F & A Gantenbein
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 7/20
In a 60s-style building in the center of Vaduz's shopping district, the Real is famed for its restaurant - one Michelin star - but also has a dozen rooms for rent. There are two suites and 10 clean, comfortable, well-equipped, slightly undersized singles or doubles.
The simplicity of these rooms is somewhat in contrast to the elegance of the hotel's dining rooms.
Other than the restaurants, and a small but pleasant lounge adjacent to the first floor (our second) reception, there are no public rooms or other facilities.
Daily Rates: Singles 170 Sfr. ($115), doubles 175 to 270 Sfr. ($118-$182), Jr. suites 310 to 395 Sfr. ($209-$267)
Contact: Real Hotel Restaurant, Städtle 21, FL-9490 Vaduz, Fürstenstein,
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 10/20
On the edge of Vaduz, on the main road from the north, Mühle is the best value we saw in Liechtenstein. It is a Landgasthof, an official Swiss Hotel Association designation for restaurants with guestrooms. Qualifying establishments must meet certain standards of service and cuisine.
The first impression here is of having entered a rather major hotel and restaurant operation. However, the restaurant accounts for most of the activity as the Mühle has only seven rooms to rent. But excepting the Sonnenhof, the Löwen and the Schlosswald, these accommodations are the equal of any of the other hotels reviewed here.
Daily Rates: Singles 90 Sfr ( $61), doubles 140 Sfr ($95)
Contact: Mühle Vaduz FL -9490, tel. +41/075 232 41 41, fax 232 14 58. Prop: Martin Jehle
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 15/20
Hotels Schlosswald & Meierhof
Two large, modern, business-style hotels on the hillside above the main north-south highway overlooking the Rhine valley and sharing the same property and ownership.
The well-equipped guestrooms are above average in size and quite appealing though somewhat sterile.
The Schlosswald is preferred.
Contact: Hotel Schlosswald Meierhofstrasse FL-9495 Triesen, tel. +41/075/392 24 88, fax 392 24 36. Prop: August Kindle
Daily Rates: Singles 125 to 140 Sfr. ($84-$95), doubles 175 to 200 Sfr. ($118-$135)
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 11/20
Daily Rates: Singles 114 to 160 Sfr.($77-$108), doubles 162 to 450 Sfr. ($109-$304).
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 8/20
Conveniently located on Triesenberg's main square, about halfway up the side of the mountain toward Malbun, this rustic, country hotel offers some rooms with outstanding views but is otherwise undistinguished.
The Kulm's restaurant, however, offers good daily specials for under 20 Sfr. ($14).
Daily Rates: Singles 90 Sfr. ($61), doubles 112 to 152 Sfr ($76-$103).
Contact: Hotel Kulm FL-9497 Triesenberg, tel. +41/075/262 87 77, fax 268 28 61.
Rating: Quality 9/20, Value 10/10
Michelin does not throw its restaurant stars about willy nilly. The city of Zürich, for example, has not even one; not the Kronenhalle, not Baur au Lac, not the Savoy, not the Dolder Grand. Thus our expectations for the Real were high.
There are two dining rooms; a bright, elegant one on the first floor with chandeliers and starched linen, and the one we chose, the less formal, clubbier one at street level.
The look is red cloths and napkins, wine glasses engraved with an "R," and rich wood walls and ceiling.
The wine list is extensive and pricey. A 1991 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Reserve is 170 Sfr. ($115), a 67 Chateaux Mouton-Rothschild (which we recently had the opportunity to taste and found to be way, way, way over the hill) was 300 Sfr. ($203) and a 1996 Petrus was marked 1,500 Sfr. ($1,014). We chose one of the cheapest on the list, a 1997 Vaduzer Blau Burgunder from Harry Zech Weinbau, at 55 Sfr. ($37). It was light and "spritzig" on the tongue, better suited for light meals or as an aperitif.
The four-course dinner menu at 149 Sfr. ($100) per person seemed formidable both in price and quantity so we went a simpler route and ordered a salad, main courses and dessert. Without beverages, the total for two persons was 121 Sfr. ($82).
The salad was served from a cart - a kind of movable salad bar - and cost 11 Sfr. ($7.43). We simply indicated what we wanted and the server put it on the plate. Very fresh ingredients and tasty.
The main courses - Wiener Backhendl (a large leg of fried chicken) and Saucisson (a thick, curling sausage) - were ample and satisfying but hardly the stuff of Michelin stars. Each was priced at 29 Sfr. ($20).
We divided a dessert (17.5 Sfr./$12) of vanilla ice cream ladled with passion fruit sauce and surrounded by slices of fig, strawberry, kiwi, banana and apple. It was delicious but not especially creative.
And there were a couple of missteps. The kitchen was out of Tafelspitz (boiled beef, a house speciality), something we didn't find out until we tried to order it. A glass of 1977 Dow port (23 Sfr./$16), one of the great port vintages of the century, was such a disappointment one wonders if someone accidentally grabbed the wrong bottle. (It is customary in many restaurants, when a rare wine is purchased by the glass, for it to be poured from the bottle at the table. In this case, the wine was poured elsewhere and delivered to us.)
It isn't fair to judge a restaurant based on these admittedly simple dishes, so perhaps if we had chosen the more expensive four-course menu we would have a different opinion, but with that Michelin star fixed in our minds, we felt let down.
Hotel-Restaurant Real, Städtle 21, FL-9490 Vaduz, tel. +41/075 232 22 22, fax 232 08 91
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 9/20
Wirthschaft zum Löwen
The old wooden building is protected as an historic monument and located on a quiet country road just before the Austrian border in Schellenberg. The Löwen has been in the same family for generations and Liechtensteiners consider it almost a national treasure. The clientèle is decidedly local, not many tourists get this far off the beaten track.
Come here to try traditional Liechtensteiner farm recipes that go back hundreds of years such as Schwartenmagen hausgemacht mit Senfsauce (house-made head cheese with mustard, 6 Sfr./$4 as an appetizer) or a Liechtenstein version of macaroni and cheese, Käseknöpfle mit Apfelmus (tiny dumplings in cheese with applesauce, 18 Sfr./$12, as a main course including salad). Both were excellent.
This is one of those down-home places where time-tested dishes are perfectly prepared with the best ingredients and the portions are huge (to avoid the dreaded "second serving" specify Teller Gericht).
One tradition that many Americans may not find appealing as an after dinner activity is the house snuff machine. We dined with a local resident who insisted we try it. Here's how it works. The machine is actually a board about eight inches square with a sort of clothespin/mousetrap device on it. A little snuff - in this case a brand called Löwen-Prise from Germany - is placed strategically at two spots on the board about half an inch apart. The board is then lifted to the nose and the "snufee" inhales slowly but deeply while at the same time tripping the clothespin/mousetrap device with his or her index finger. The snuff is propelled straight up into both nostrils and the result is quite startling and not at all, at least to this writer, unpleasant. There is a sense of menthol and the nasal passages suddenly feel as though they have been expanded to size of the Gotthard tunnel.
As we looked around the restaurant we saw other patrons using the machine and our companion told us snuff use has somewhat of a following in Liechtenstein but can be habit-forming.
We finished the meal with another Liechtenstein tradition, a shot of Marc, the local firewater. Some of the best is made from Pinot Noir grapes by the Hopfkellerei des Fürsten von Liechtenstein, the Prince's winery. Local legend has it that a shot of this first thing in the morning and another before bed is a healthy practice.
Whether or not you're game for the snuff machine, the Wirthschaft zum Löwen is not to be missed.
Wirthschaft zum Löwen, FL-9488 Schellenberg, tel. +41/075/31162
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Panorama Restaurant Rizlina
Beside the road, hanging off the steep hillside on the way up to Malbun, is the very plain Rizlina. The view is spectacular and the food excellent, including owner Ursula Schädlers mayonnaise and oil-based herb salad dressing which is as good as any we've ever had.
A bowl of soup, such as a fabulous Gerstensuppe (barley and white beans), or an almost as good Leberknödelsuppe, is 7.5 Sfr. ($5). Wurstsalat Garniert (13 Sfr./$9) was enough for two and included slices of Wurst with the freshest butter lettuce, diced beets, radish strips, shredded carrot, and curried corn, all bathed in that wonderful dressing.
Nussgipfel, a house dessert speciality consisting of walnut and hazelnut filling rolled into a jelly roll-like pastry, was a little dry.
Restaurant Rizlina, FL-9497 Triesenberg, tel. +41/075/262 0224
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 15/20
Capital: Vaduz (pop. 4,977)
Altitude: 468 meters/1,536 ft. (Vaduz)
Area: 61.8 square miles
Städtle 37, FL 9490 Vaduz, tel. +41/075/232 1443, fax 392 1618. Web: tourismus.li/en/
* Frankfurt 550 Km/342 miles
* Geneva 400 Km/250 miles
* Milan 300 Km/186 miles
* Munich 250 Km/155 miles
* Vienna 670 Km/416 miles
* Zürich 110 Km/68 miles
Arriving by Train: There are frequent bus connections from rail stations at Sargans (CH) (17 km/11 miles from Vaduz), Buchs (CH) (7 km/4 miles from Vaduz) and Feldkirch/Austria (15 km/9 miles from Vaduz) to all Liechtenstein communities.
Liechtenstein by Bus: Buses run often to all villages in the country. A weekly pass costs 10 Sfr. ($7) and can be purchased at post offices as well as at bus stations in Buchs, Trübbach and Sargans.
Liechtenstein Postage Stamps: The principality issues postage stamps four times a year at the beginning of March, June, September and December. This is usually a total of about 25 stamps with a face value of approx. 35 Sfr. ($24).
Stamps can be purchased at all post offices and collectors of Liechtenstein stamps can place a standing order for new issues. A brochure about this is available from: Postwertzeichenstelle der Regierung, FL-9490 Vaduz, tel. +41/075/236 64 44, fax 236 66 55.