The newly opened Waldhotel, a 160-room hotel and medical spa, is part of the Bürgenstock resort complex, a mini-village in the Swiss Alps.
Courtesy of Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort

At the Waldhotel Bürgenstock, a new destination spa high in the Swiss Alps, healing comes with an advanced degree.

Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
June 22, 2018

“You’ll be hungry,” my Swiss friends warned when I told them I was heading to Waldhotel, a hybrid five-star hotel and medical facility at the Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort (three-night Basic Med program and accommodations from $4,690) on Lake Lucerne. I’d just spent 10 days fueling ski runs in Verbier with fondue, chocolate, and vin chaud, and had decided to remedy indulging in those less healthy habits at one of Switzerland’s newest wellness destinations. The 160-room Waldhotel has a 17,000-square-foot spa that competes with any in the world, along with a staff of internists, cardiologists, and orthopedists.

As a working mother of two, doctor’s appointments take low priority. In the American medical system, my physician is frequently as rushed as I am. This is why some travelers are supplementing their annual GP visits with thorough checkups at medical spas, where they can be pampered as they would be on a vacation. I had signed up for the Waldhotel’s three-day Basic Med program, which includes a full physical, skin screening for cancer, and tests that measure metabolism, lung capacity, and body composition.

The medical wing is as sumptuous as it is functional, with blond-wood floors, marble bathrooms, and ambient music to take the edge off the anxiety that often comes with signs signaling X-rays and ultrasounds. The all-white examining rooms have sweeping views of forest and farmland. Should the diagnostic machines reveal bad news, this is the place to get it.

My first appointment, with the founding medical director, Michael Brabetz, M.D., was similar to an annual exam. Next came a body check from Ahmad Jalili, M.D., a dermatologist who is fluent in Farsi, English, Polish, German, and Arabic—an advantage given the hotel’s international clientele. I then had a scan to measure my bone density, muscle mass, and fat mass, followed by a lung test to see how much air I could hold. This required sitting in a glass box for 30 minutes, biting down on a mouthpiece and breathing at different rates while a technologist occasionally cut off my oxygen. Feeling as if I’d smoked a pack of cigarettes, I recovered in the spa’s wet and dry saunas before falling asleep on a nearby platform waterbed.

Recovery—physical and mental—is the emphasis. During the next several days, I went on hikes and runs, enjoyed a 90-minute massage, and received a facial worth the entire trip. And my Swiss friends turned out to be wrong about the food. At the hotel’s Verbena restaurant, I dined with other guests on roasted sea bass and lamb shoulder.

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The only fasting required was for a morning blood test and the calculation of my sedentary caloric output, which required wearing what looked like a gas mask. Any hesitation I had was overcome by the technician’s promise of espresso as a reward. He also performed an ultrasound examination of my liver, kidneys, stomach, and intestines, followed by an electrocardiogram.

My last challenge was a cryotherapy session, something I was curious to try. This is the practice of briefly exposing the naked body to air hypercooled with liquid nitrogen; believers swear it soothes sore muscles and promotes weight loss. Cryotherapy commonly takes place in a tank, but at Waldhotel it involves walking through three rooms that look like meat lockers, each progressively colder. After I stripped to my underwear, the technician showed me the emergency exit while handing me gloves, an ear cover, and a mask to protect the nose and mouth. I stepped into the first room (14 degrees Fahrenheit) for the allotted 30 seconds before spending 30 seconds shivering in the second room (–76 degrees). I was then sent into the third room (–166 degrees), where one ideally remains for three minutes. I stayed for one before signaling for the exit, shaking and numb.

Happily, that was the only test I failed. On my final day, Brabetz spent an hour going over my results, assuring me that I was in excellent shape. I nearly wept with happiness: maybe chocolate and wine are the keys to anti-aging? I headed home with a clean bill of health and a glowing complexion, looking forward to my next annual checkup—Swiss style.

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