ZURICH, Switzerland - Back in 1844, the Baur family opened a newly built grand hotel on the shores of Lake Zurich. It was criticized at the time by local burghers because it was far from the center of the city - today's Old Town - and because it faced the lake; they couldn't figure out why a hotel would turn its back on the city just to provide views of some water.
Today, the Baur au Lac Hotel is 166 years old, still on the lake and still operated by the same family - now in the sixth generation. But what is most notable about the venerable Swiss property is not its longevity but its quality. The Baur au Lac, renovated in 2009 and featuring amenities like WiFi and a 24-hour business center, is unlike some heritage hotels in that it still has a palpable sense of history without looking or feeling worn. The multilingual staff is first rate, the hotel is lovely - especially inside - it has a great location near the shopping-mad Bahnhofstrasse and a classical concert hall, and the green expanse in front of the hotel is beautifully landscaped and manicured. There has been no shortage of celebrity guests at this Zurich landmark, from King Ludwig I of Bavaria, to Richard Wagner, Thomas Mann, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn. Actors Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere and Daniel Craig are regulars. I didn't spy any stars, but I am not an enthusiastic celebrity-spotter, so I wasn't disappointed.
Oh, and the hotel serves up awfully good food, too, both in its canalside Rive Gauche restaurant and bar, and in the fine-dining Pavillon, with its beautiful, circular main room. The restaurant lays out a sumptuous breakfast buffet from 6:30 a.m. and pours light, fruity Swiss and international wines at dinner. Pavillon also features toothsome menu creations such as a slightly sweet-fleshed monkfish entree that I dined on the first night of my two-night stay. There are no fewer than 700,000 bottles of wine stored off-site for use by the hotel, which distributes vintages from 60 producers throughout Switzerland and Liechtenstein. There is no wine - but there is good beer - in the guest room minibars. And in an unusual twist, the minibars are free; that may be unique in my hotel experience.
One of the best things in this upmarket, tradition-rich hotel is also free - namely, walking around the sumptuous public spaces and just looking at things. Hotel stairwells feature lovely stained glass windows, public rooms are graced with period furnishings, and a majestic black Rolls Royce owned by the hotel sits outdoors by the compact, well-appointed main lobby. The top-floor fitness center has an outdoor terrace with views of Zurich and the lake.
Just before I checked out to head for ultra-modern, spotless Zurich International Airport and my return flight, I heard peppy brass band music emanating from a vestpocket park across the street and saw a bandshell and people sitting in rows of chairs, listening to the music in the June warmth. It was a sunny morning in Switzerland, and a more serene scene would be hard to find.
The Baur au Lac Hotel is located at 1 Talstrasse, 8001 Zurich, Switzerland, tel. 41 (0)44 220 50 20, fax 41 (0)44 220 50 44, Web: http://www.bauraulac.ch/.