The opening of a new Campbell Gray hotel always causes a stir. Led by the visionary Scottish hotelier, Gordon Campbell Gray, the group – which both owns and manages hotels – has a reputation for creating hotels that neither follow or set trends but somehow nail a modern sense of luxury.
Take One Aldwych, which opened in London in the late 1990s, or Carlisle Bay which opened in 2002 in Antigua; both were luxurious and cocooning but in an indefinable way – like a James Bond smile - whether in their art collection, sleek bedrooms or genuinely warm service.
Both are no longer part of the group, but Campbell Gray has been busy elsewhere, opening The Machrie in Islay last year, The Merchant House in Bahrain earlier this year followed, in July, by the latest, Hotel Alex, in Zurich, Switzerland. The latter is their first mainland European hotel which is a bit puzzling. Given the group’s high-design, arty profile, why safe-and-steady Zurich and not Milan, say, or Paris? Technically, the hotel isn’t even in Zurich but five miles south on the lakeshore at a rather dull, self-effacing town called Thalwil. “We’re extremely selective in our brand, so that gives us a lot of constraints,” explains Alan O’Dea, the group’s Managing Director. “We see nice properties in Paris, Milan, London but,” he pauses tactfully, “… they’re not quite nice enough.”
What piqued their interest with Alex – which sits on the site of the former 1950s-built Hotel Alexander, and explains the rather unsexy name – was the potential of a lakeside location. Very few downtown Zurich hotels have a waterside position, points out O’Dea. “Alex has unspoiled views across the lake to the Gold Coast.” The latter is the seriously moneyed, east side of the lake; ask nicely, and someone may point out to you which is Tina Turner’s house.
The lake plays centre-stage in the design and feel of the hotel. Certainly, the best – and most fun – way to arrive is the 20-minute spin across the lake from the city centre in the hotel’s motorboat. Admittedly, first impressions of the hotel are muted: a flat-roof, modernist, rather functional-looking, low-rise building. It’s not until you get closer that you notice the huge lakeside terrace invitingly set with smart tables, the pearly light-reflecting stone (travertine), the big balconies, the big windows. Especially, the big windows.
All rooms – bedrooms as well as public rooms – have floor-to-ceiling windows while the restaurant sits like a glass box jutting out over the lake. (The trick is to get down early for breakfast to bag a window-side table although, rather cleverly, the room is built on three levels to ensure everyone has a chance of a view.)
While it’s not quite correct to say the lake is viewable from every part of the hotel – in some of the entry-level bedrooms, you need to squint sideways – it’s pretty accurate. The semi-open-plan ground-floor segues from reception through the bar and a couple of semi-enclosed sitting areas, with lake views increasing from glimpses to full-on, and finally tips you out in the full-on lake glare of the Boat House restaurant and its terrace.
In the distinctive Campbell Gray style – perhaps more accentuated here, so as not to distract from the lake – the luxury is low-key but high quality with pale-oak flooring in subtle patterns, chic white-marble tables and Scandi-style furnishings. Colours are pale or nautical-blue, walls lightly textured, curtains gauzy and decorations minimal: fat arty books, a carefully placed bowl of orchids or a ceramic vase on a plinth drawing the eye to the end of a light-flooded corridor. Nothing is over-dressed.
The 44 bedrooms, all exuberantly large, follow a similar pared-down style with oak floors, thick splashy grey and blue rugs, white walls, a squiggle of abstract art and expensively simple furniture - a white marble table, glossy leather stool or blue velvet bench. There's no bling, no gimmicks (lights aside: a digital touch-screen affair that’s maddeningly contrary), no ostentation; the extravagance is the space, the light and the views. Plus, the subtle attention to detail. There are well-lit dressing tables, for example, so one of you can do your hair and make-up while the other is in the bathroom. The latter are sleek affairs in white and nautical blue with brass taps and trims that give a jaunty nautical feel.
Curiously, all rooms have a kitchenette (a proportion of guests is expected to be long-stay) though these are subtle, classy affairs in a sexy dark blue with minimal cooking equipment but a nice set of glasses and a large cocktail shaker.
While downtown Zurich is around 20 to 30 minutes away – there are trains from Thalwil station, a 10-minute walk away, as well as the hotel's boat – many guests, predicts the hotel’s manager, Olivier Gerber, will take advantage of what he calls ‘lakeside living’. “We can arrange water-skiing, wakeboarding and stand-up paddle-boarding with nearby watersports places. And we have a good relationship with the next-door rowing club.” You can dive straight into the lake from the hotel’s mooring jetty; in the summer, it’s a pleasant 22 or 24 degrees Celsius and, being Switzerland, the water is squeaky-clean. Or you can just stroll along the lakeshore and pick up one of the lake cruisers from Thalwil landing stage. Come winter, it’s a 40-minute train-ride from the nearest ski-slopes at Hoch-Ybrig – there are ski-hire shops in Thalwil – and, assures Gerber, you can return to glühwein around the hotel’s (real) fire.
The so-called ‘health club and spa’ is slightly over-egging it; there’s a tiny gym plus sauna, vitality pool (more like a plunge pool) and one treatment room (with the shortest spa menu I’ve ever seen), all in a semi-subterranean area of the hotel. But I’m guessing this is more of a rainy-day extra than a draw for guests.
On the other hand, the restaurant is proving a magnet for both hotel and non-hotel guests. No Zurich restaurant can match its flamboyant location plus the option of glass-walled interior or extensive terrace. It’s a classy menu of Mediterranean dishes with a leaning towards fish and seafood: local salmon trout with mustard seeds, bouillabaisse, spaghetti with lobster. Dishes are well-crafted and well-presented and if the waiting staff, with their jaunty striped neckerchiefs, were not as on the ball as they should have been, I’ll put that down to teething troubles.
This is a place that grows on you. Your bedroom slowly changes from minimalist to soothing; the lack of on-the-doorstep buzz and shops, you realise, removes the pressure to be up and doing things. Even when the weather turned wet and windy on the last day of my visit, the lake views – with their choppy white horses, and lake cruisers carving foamy wakes – were both intoxicating and calming. I (almost) forgave the wretched light system.
Double rooms from 353 CHF (£297), including breakfast.
Read the full review: Hotel Alex