From the outset, this blog has been concerned with various forms of budget travel. Over the years, however, I've drifted. Mostly this shift has had to do with my own personal situation. I have more money for travel now than I did in 2007, when I worked at EuroCheapo and was laser-focused on how to make travel as inexpensive as possible.
My heart remains attached to independent budget travel in all of its creative, dirty, and enmeshed groundedness. I believe that budget travel is where the really important experiences happen, where there are actual exchanges between people of different backgrounds, and where ingenuity generates magic.
All this might be relevant background material for the advice that follows. (And maybe not, but it's fun to reflect on one's professional development in published form, so you're stuck with it.)
Last month Matt and I spent two days at Therme Vals, the hotel and spa facility located in Vals, Switzerland. We'd wanted to visit long before we moved to London in early 2011 but work schedules, travel schedules, and the sheer expense kept us from committing to a visit. Finally we found the right time for a Vals trip and we made plans.
Vals is located in Graubünden, an officially trilingual canton in the southeast of Switzerland. The spa itself was constructed in 1996 under the direction of architect Peter Zumthor. It has been featured all over the place ever since. In 2009, Zumthor won the Pritzker Prize for Therme Vals. Without hyperbole, it is an architectural marvel. From the hillside into which it is nestled the spa facility looks like a giant undifferentiated block; inside, various constituent parts are linked to one another gently, organically. Though the material out of which the facility is built – a dark locally quarried quartzite – is terribly stark, the bathing pools and various small rooms feel warm and intimate.
Add up all the components of this facility (Switzerland, spa, remote location, star architect) and your conclusion might be that this is one pricey excursion. For most visitors it surely is. But it needn't be extremely expensive.
Here is my advice to save money at Therme Vals.
First of all, stay at the hotel. I've come across travel advice urging people not to stay at Hotel Terme Vals but rather to stay at a smaller hotel in town. I strongly disagree with this advice. To fully experience the pools in all of their extraordinary elemental beauty, it's essential to bathe during hours when the spa is more or less empty, that is, when it is restricted to hotel guests only. Don't freak out. This isn't about an aversion to the masses. It's about the space itself.
When we arrived on Saturday afternoon and made our way to the pools they were full. Towels and bathrobes hung on railings. It was impossible to perch along the edges of the outdoor pool because every spot was taken. It was exciting to be in the space but it wasn't magical, and it was impossible to appreciate the beauty of the space itself.
But the next morning, circling between the outdoor pool, the "firebath" and the "icebath," I was able to feel the space I was in, appreciate its stillness and vastness. That hour was easily the most rewarding period of the stay. Note also that access to the pools between 7 am and 11 am is reserved for hotel guests; on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights hotel guests also have access to the pools between 11 pm and 12:30 am.
Book the least expensive rooms in the hotel, located in the ancillary buidlings. These start at 107 CHF per person in a double and at 127 CHF in a single. The rate includes a wonderful breakfast buffet.
If you're a late riser, scratch this advice and book a midweek stay at Hotel Schnyder down the hill on a Wednesday night. On Wednesday nights Therme Vals baths are open to Hotel Schnyder's guests. Rooms start at 68 CHF for a single and 116 CHF for a double (58 CHF per person). The cheapest group rate is 248 CHF for four (62 CHF per person.)
My second piece of advice is not to book half-board, and this despite the kitchen's strong standard. Make your way down the hill to Hotel Schnyder and order the capuns, a regional dish that should stick to your ribs. Dinner for two can easily be had here for 50 CHF, which is far less than you'll spend for dinner at Hotel Therme Vals.
Note that Therme Vals will be closed from the end of March through the end of July. Here's hoping rates won't balloon after its reopening.