Posted by: Jerry Garrett | August 12, 2010

Sleeping with Dragons: Switzerland’s Pilatus-Kulm Hotel

An unforgettable sunrise on the dragon’s mountain – Switzerland’s Mount Pilatus (Shannon Garrett Photo)

LUCERNE, Switzerland

What would it be like to live among the clouds?

This thought came to me, as I looked down from the summit of Switzerland’s Mount Pilatus, a massive, solitary Alp that towers over the city of Lucerne. This must be what life is like on Mount Olympus.

Unlike Olympus, where only the gods of mythology may dwell, mere mortals can spend a night, or more, atop Mount Pilatus – in a swank, newly remodeled hotel.

Pilatus-Kulm opened in 1890 (Jerry Garrett Photos)

The historic Pilatus-Kulm hotel was built more than 120 years ago, at the mountain’s summit. The 23-room stone-and-brick hotel has recently undergone a brilliant and tasteful refurbishing (turning it from a rustic 23-room backpackers hotel with group shower/WC facilities, to a luxury all “en suite” hotel now) and strengthening that should take it well into its next century. (The adjacent 28-room Hotel Bellevue, in a newer, circular building, is currently being refurbished.) The ravages of high alpine weather can take their toll.

Most days, Pilatus broods; it storms, it hides in the clouds. It does not give up its charms easily. Though Pilatus can be effortlessly scaled by train or tram – or climbed, with considerably more effort – ice, snow, wind and rain often thwart would-be visitors. (Precip falls 163 days yearly, on average.) In fact, it took me four tries, before Pilatus finally cooperated and provided a clear day. But the reward was – in decades of traveling the world, staying in thousands of hotels, – one of my most unforgettable nights on the road.

Looking from one of Mt. Pilatus' twin summits to the other.

During daylight hours, day-trippers swarm Pilatus’ twin summits like bees on a hive. But with the approach of sunset they must leave, and take their noise back down to town with them. Then, the mountain becomes this private aerie for the night’s lucky few guests of this uniquely located hotel. The music of the mountain can finally be heard: Cawing ravens, the lowing of cattle and the clanging of their bells; it’s a cacophonous but captivating symphony.

With sunset, the lights of Lucerne come up.

The lights come up in the valley below, the stars paint the indigo sky. Even the gods would be envious of this scene.

It would be tempting spend the evening outside, savoring the magic. But the sun takes with it the last bit of warmth it provides Pilatus, and the thermometer plunges. Even in summer, it can dip below freezing up here. The wind, which can delight parasailors during the day, becomes an icy reminder of Pilatus’ almost year-round acquaintance with the cruelties of winter. This, too, is life on Olympus.

As Alps go, Pilatus is not that high – an altitude of about 7,000 feet. But it rises dramatically from an elevation near sea level. The locals have been fascinated with Pilatus for centuries. Since it stands between Lucerne and the sunset, the mountain often has red skies behind it.

The red glow around Pilatus is dragon's breath?

To some, this looks like the glow from dragon’s breath; so fanciful stories have endured about dragons living atop Pilatus.

The summit is honeycombed with man-made caves – fun to navigate, in search of imagined dragons of long ago, and perhaps a cache of unhatched dragon’s eggs. The caves provide vistas of the sunset, sunrise and various twinkling towns below.

This dragon’s eye view from Pilatus’ summit comprises not only Lucerne, but also hundreds of miles of surrounding Swiss countryside. Hikers can scale the mountain from innumerable angles, and in good weather many do.

World's Steepest Railroad

Enterprising engineers decided in the 1880s to build a cog railway up the mountain. The resulting railroad, a marvel of mechanical ingenuity, has the distinction now being the world’s steepest railway, with grades of up to 48 percent.

A gondola also serves the summit, from a point about halfway up, on the other side of the mountain from the cog railroad. A ski lift connects with the cable car. The ride back down via cable car provides a breathtaking view to the north. At the way station, there is a toboggan run, a climbing park and hiking trails.

A popular journey is called the Golden Roundtrip (“Goldene Rundfahrt”, in Swiss-German). For about $100, tourists depart from the docks adjacent to the Lucerne train station, on a historic paddle steamer that travels for about an hour around the aquamarine waters of Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad. The train (available May to November) leaves from that small, quaint village. The 40-minute journey to the top looks mostly south, as it climbs past the tree line. A line of peaks including Titlis, the Eiger and Jungfrau mark the horizon. The final descent via cable car and ski lift (which operate year-round) ends in Kriens, where a city bus completes the last few miles of the loop, back to Lucerne’s main station.

Daytime activities: How about parasailing over Pilatus-Kulm?

Atop Mt. Pilatus, there are several options for spending a day: Eating in one of several good restaurants, lounging in red deck chairs, negotiating steep trails to the twin summits. But if it is a clear day, much of it will be spent just mesmerized by the 360-degree view. Sailboats dot the lakes below. Is that Germany in the distance? A glimpse of Austria, too, perhaps? Lonely little Klimsenhorn Chapel, on a saddle a thousand feet below the summit, is intriguing; it provides one of several popular launching points for parasailors.

But it is the purity of the night – the air, the sky, the wind, the stars – that I will remember most about Pilatus. It was with sadness the night on the dragon’s mountain ended. The real world below – the haze, the cars, the tension, the noise – seemed so terrestrial. The summit was life celestial.

For one night, it was possible to live among the clouds.

Life among the clouds: Eye level with Monck, Eiger, Jungfrau.

[Postscript: Pilatus-Kulm’s 2010 nightly rate of about $400 can seem a bit pricey, but the rate is for two people and includes not only the room but also transportation up and down the mountain, a three-course gourmet dinner, drinks and a bounteous breakfast. If you are lucky enough to catch Pilatus on a night with a clear view of the sunset and/or sunrise, the value becomes nothing short of priceless.]

Jerry Garrett

August 5, 2010

[For more to see in and around this beautiful area, check out My 36 Hours in Lucerne]

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