When thinking of venturing through southwest Germany by car, I looked no further than a group of luxury hotels strategically positioned in that region. My road trip began in Freiburg at the Colombi Hotel, a classic local institution placed in the heart of the city: close to the train station, steps from the old town and a 15-minute walk from Freiburg’s hiking trailheads.
Close to France and Switzerland as well, the Colombi is a family-run hotel where original owners still visit the site every day. While their high-end Mercedes car service whisked me from the local station—pickups in Basel, Stuttgart, Zurich or Frankfurt are also available.
I check into my junior suite, one of five categories for their 112 non-smoking spaces ranging in size and luxury from the Classic room to the Colombi apartment suite (the latter is perfect for the family that vacations with children), where picture windows offer a scenic view of the town’s landmark: the 500-year-old Freiburg Cathedral, or Freiburger Münster.
In my short time here, I understand why visitors and residents love Germany’s southernmost population center. Its warm, predictable climate provides year-round enjoyment of the natural and man-made outdoors.
Inside the hotel, while the spa charges for nail treatments and massages, use of their steam room, sauna, swimming pool and gym are free to guests. Forgoing the spa for now, I opt to head down for lunch in the hotel’s cafe, famous for their hand made cream cakes, pastries and sweets. My server tells me their chocolate is brought in from France and is transformed into some of the café’s signature creations.
After lunch, I test the public transport system. The bus drops me at the bottom of a gondola that runs up Schauinsland Mountain. Public transport and eco-friendly existence is very important in this region of Germany where mass transit, bicycling, solar power, clean energy and preserving the natural environment aren’t simply fads—they’re beliefs and practices. I appreciate this mindset from atop the mountain as I overlook the region, imagining just how much has changed and how much has remained the same across the centuries.
After returning to ground level, I freshen up in my suite and head down two floors to the Zirbelstube gourmet restaurant that has been delighting diners for 30 years with its warmth. Akin to the interior of a hunting lodge, the space’s dim lights and brown pine walls set a relaxing tone for dinner. The atmosphere only adds to the further enjoyment of my meal where folks at the Michelin Guide have recognized Chef Christoph Fischer with a star. And while closed on Sundays, guests may dine daily at the hotel’s other restaurant, Café Graf Anton.
The kitchen sends out a surprise pate and herring sampler, in addition to the warm starter of fried goose liver, potato foam, boudin noir, green apple and cider glace. For my main course, I enjoyed the entrecote of dry-aged Black Forest beef, fried with mustard and shallots, beans pizzaiola, creamy polenta and baked Béarnaise sauce. I finish with dessert, a caramelized orange chiboust with Grand Marnier, strawberries “Romanoff” and white chocolate cream.
The restaurant’s sommelier, Gerhard Mauerha, is an expert on the Baden region wines. This curator of their 30,000 bottles encompasses about 600 different wines that date back to1934 and spans the globe with selections from both the classic European regions, recently adding New Zealand to the collection.
We began the next day in the shadow of Freiburg’s cathedral for a walking tour of old town. Freiburg’s network of miniature waterways, running along many of this city’s stone streets, are an homage to the vital importance rivers played to settlements that became large population centers. In this case, the nearby Rhine provided a source of drinking water, a means of transport to and from the town and a way to remove sewage and waste products from the city center.
I depart Freiburg and spend nearly 90 minutes driving passed modern windmills and the perennial hills and valleys of the Black Forest Highlands, taking me east through this land of food, wine, heritage and romance.
I arrive in Constance, a city nestled between the Black Forest and the Alps. Constance the lake, known as Bodensee to the Germans, was already here, but what would become Constance the city was founded by the Romans and eventually named for a Roman Emperor roughly translated to Constantine.
I pull up to a wonderfully understated building nestled among trees and quiet streets in a largely residential section of Constance. By planning, building and setting up the Hotel Riva, Birgit and Peter Kolb purchased an existing property in 2004, knocked down the old hotel and incorporated a villa into this final structure as their gourmet restaurant.
The Kolb’s commitment to service and excellence is exemplified in this building. The Riva balances nature, modern convenience and an understated elegance with an eco-friendly design that uses thermal efficiency to keep the hotel’s interior warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Although the front desk tells me where the elevator to my suite is, I take the nearby spiral staircase up two flights. I admire the construction, a duet of wood and stone where material and design style present simple sophistication. Riva’s architecture invites you to explore, and the private spaces lend themselves to a sense of adventure. Unable to resist looking over its railing, I see the structure is rooted ironically enough in a basement water feature. On the other end of this aesthetically compelling structure I find the hotel’s roof terrace, the water, trees and grass sweeping the sky. Though I consider lingering longer, I head down to my suite to change so I can return for a dip at the spa.
Including the Standard room and Riva Suite, the hotel has six dwelling categories. The 1,292-square-foot suite’s commanding view of the lake has living and dining rooms, two bedrooms—each with its own bathroom, a dressing room and balcony. In all spaces, a complimentary minibar and a great Wifi connection are lovely touches.
After a swim, I rent one of Riva’s bicycles. Though I’ve arrived with a plan for human powered, landside transport, the hotel’s variety of optional activity packages also include yachts, convertible Porsches, gourmet dinners and theater outings.
Fortunately, transnational affiliation and amorphous town growth made it impossible for the Allies to determine which part of this area was Swiss and which part was German. Not wanting to violate Swiss neutrality, Allied air forces left the town alone. As I stroll the oldest section of Constance, I walk a path described from a city plan made up in the 15th Century. During 42 months of meetings, the Council of Constance, rapidly solved the Great Papal Schism. You might wonder how I consider a three-and-a-half year meeting a rapid solution, I offer that the Council solved a problem that ran from 1378-1417. The very building where church representatives met to essentially reduce the number of Roman Catholic Popes from three to one, still stands by the city’s ferry terminal, and is available for rent as a wedding venue, banquet hall or meeting place.
And from that terminal, such is the region’s geography, division and history, that in a 24-mile stretch, I can sail to Austria or other parts of Germany. It’s walking distance, but I bicycle to Switzerland, just because I can. In a bygone era, this convenient location prompted linen commerce with what would become Italian cities, making this place a wealthy, Old World center of trade.
In more recent times, this Rhine-fed body of water is more than a lovely sight to behold and a means of transport between three nations, there is a practical advantage to the lake as it provides Stuttgart, 85 miles away with its drinking water. By land, the Swiss stream to Germany because except for gasoline, prices for similar items are doubled in their country.
With an international afternoon of cycling, and the surprise of apples and a few bottles of water the front desk placed unbidden in the bicycle’s travel pouch behind me, I lock the bike at the ferry terminal and board my boat to Mainau, an island in size but as large as a continent when the volume and variety of flora is considered. Though they’ve been open since dawn and won’t close until sunset, we dock at 3 p.m. at this 112-acre oval of land just off the German coast. I spend a couple hours wandering among things great and small, old and young—the tulips and the sequoias are equally impressive. I consider when the castle was completed in 1746 the sequoia was probably taking root, making the arboretum which opened in 1865, a relative newcomer.
Back at the Riva, I I arrived without a plan and wanted to simply indulge my physical self without leaving the building. I took advantage of the Riva’s spa, gym and the services of their personal trainer. I could also use the plunge pool to snap out of either a steam or sauna, or just chill with a massage and have a tech work on any number of oils and lotions from their St. Barth, Thalgo or Ella Baché products.
After a workout, I went downstairs to the restaurant Ophelia, where its Head Chef Dirk Hoberg’s has received two Michelin stars, as validation of his belief to draw inspiration from the Constance region. Hoberg’s Prussian upbringing placed him in a structured, traditional German environment and he uses that background as a counterpoint to the relatively free-wheeling attitude here in Baden-Wurttemburg
Charcoal from nearby Reichnau Island heats the oil that deep-fried my whitefish caught in the lake just 50 yards away. The pulled pork is local and the beef tartare with beetroot is delicious.
The Riva Hotel opened in 2005 hotel and its villa housing in 2007. They have been serving guests since 2008 in both structures, and though the focus has been on bringing guests from the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, they became members of Small Luxury Hotels in September 2015, and are confident once the United States sees what the hotel and the area have to offer, Americans will be a regular guests as well.
Guests can fly to Stuttgart, visit Black Forest and then come to the lake. Or, travelers may first go to Zurich then come by train or car to the lake for a rural getaway. If you prefer Mount Sentis, you can take the gondola up and either ski down in winter or bicycle down when there’s no snow, then make the hour drive to Constance. In any event, Constance’s blend of relaxation and water-based activities should be either its own destination, or an excellent supplement to a bigger vacation.
Sipping an orange juice on my balcony, a low flying airplane reminds me of the statue I saw near the ferry terminal, a memorial to famed aviator, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who was born here. Though he’s famous for his aerial accomplishments, I will remain on the ground and water today as I head off on an 18-mile bicycle ride to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site on Reichenau Island. The monastery and 10th century art combine with nearby 14th century timber-framed structures, which are among the oldest such buildings in southern Germany, making it a natural selection for the World Heritage committee.
My time in Constance has come to an end and now that I have hiked, biked and boated myself about the region. It’s now time to head deep into the countryside for a few days of serious withdrawal. Fifty four of Germany’s 237 Michelin starred restaurants are in southwest Germany, and as I head through the countryside, I look forward to the promise of my next destination.
Families are welcome at the The Wald & Schlosshotel Friedrichsruhe, a 5-star spa hotel whose family-friendly atmosphere blends with the sophistication of Michelin-star cuisine. Luxury, tradition and friendliness are the mantra throughout the hotel’s four acres and their four major buildings whose architecture reaches back three centuries, to a time when the Hohenlohe Family owned the earliest structures, a hunting lodge that opened in 1716 and was used for hunters who came for a variety of game, especially deer. The structure became the architectural hub from which the other design elements radiate.
The establishment opened as a hotel in 1953, and as my bags are handled, I walk into the check-in area: the lodge’s converted farmhouse. After a friendly, thorough briefing from the front desk at check-in, I am shown to my superior room, with park view in the complex’s newest phase, The Spa Building, a contemporary analog to the 18th century lodge. My WiFi-enabled, flat screen equipped room’s contemporary design blends wonderfully with the garden view presented by my picture window.
I rap the window glass and recall the room door’s thickness then realize even though we’re out in the country, mine is one of 66 spacious dwellings, all with serious sound-deadening design. But enough looking through glass, it’s time to head out and explore some of the things the front desk told me about, and because it’s just down the hall, I start with the spa.
Outside this building, guests enjoy a reduced rate at the golf club where 27 holes allow rotation that keeps the course both fresh and challenging. Inside, the saunas, gym, indoor and outdoor pools and tennis court are all free of charge for guests. There are, of course, costs associated with the Spa and Wellness area where each technician must have enough familiarity with the facility’s 60 treatments so they can evaluate each guest, make the appropriate recommendation and perform the treatment on either individuals or couples via their regionally sourced SanVino products and treatments, all made from the skins of red grapes.
The atmosphere, products and customer service at the spa makes it the only such facility to have been rewarded by the Relax Guide with its highest rating for five successive years. I notice a single elevator door in a fairly nondescript section of the spa and ask where that goes. I am told it’s a direct access to the two-bedroom presidential suite.
The main building’s rooms are in the fashion of an English country manor, and Laura Ashley is perfectly suited for those of the Gate and Garden House. The latter’s walls are particularly thick, adorned with large oil paintings, the self-portraits of the day. Thick walled is how they made things way back when, and I marvel at the restoration work done on this incredibly ornate and exotic structure that was used part time as a hunting lodge. Since this is the lodge, I need to see this palace.
There is a banquet space on the second floor for weddings and other events, with oversized spaces used for bridal preparation and breakout sessions if necessary. Only some of the rooms in this historic structure are air conditioned because not all the spaces could accommodate the ductwork or unit space and wiring those units need.
I’ve done enough exploring for the afternoon, so it’s back to my room for a quick change and shower before heading to my 8 p.m. dinner reservation at the hotel’s restaurant. Lucky for me, it’s open tonight. If you plan on dining there, be sure to make a reservation when you book your room.
When I arrive, I’m taken to my outdoor table and my waiter, Nico, shares his dining philosophy. “Your stomach is like an engine, it must be warned up,” he says and he recommends the chicken appetizer.
Chef Boris Rommel’s philosophy is to combine local and French cuisine, and his enthusiastic refusal to serve lobster or foie gras is proof of the unique and exclusive feeling they embrace here. My marinated fillet of veal and tuna with lemon and seaweed starter followed by foam of asparagus morels with sweetbread and chives bookend the locally sourced boef de Hohenlohe with ox marrow Hollandaise with fried spring leeks and creamed potatoes are complemented by a wonderful pickled rhubarb dessert.
The evening’s temperature is perfect, the food’s arrival, two server preparation and presentation is an elegant yet dramatic crescendo, building then culminating, forkful after forkful, the meal enhancing the region’s and the restaurant’s culinary reputation. The food and service were as fantastic as the outdoor dining environment looked and felt.
And in speaking with Nico, he ends my meal with more culinary philosophy “We want another Michelin Star.” And with food, service and attention to detail like theirs, they seem to be well on their way.
Although my time at The Wald & Schlosshotel gave no hint of a nearby population center, I decide to make a morning trip to nearby Öhringen and have a look at the flower show where the plants spread their petals by day in competition with gardens’ modern art installations that contrast with the centuries-old stone walls of nearby structures, but at night a variety of musicians perform to close each day of this temporary family-oriented exhibition. About 10 minutes down the road I stop off at the Weingut Fürst Hohenlohe Oehringen, a winery that’s been in business since 1256. Today, their 70 acres of vineyards produce about 200,000 bottles a year from organic vineyards. They applied for membership in the prestigious VDP winery association and once their German and international history was reviewed, they became one of 200 members and the only vintner in the southwestern Germany’s district of Hohenlohe.
And with these stops, I head back to The Wald & Schlosshotel, thoroughly relaxed by this wonderful walled city and its gardens against my return trip to the hustle and bustle of my American hometown.