Basking in the Lap of Luxury at the Retreat Where the G7 Met
By SHERRY SPISNAUGLE
Set high in the Bavarian Alps, with a stunning view of Germany’s tallest peak, the Zugspitze, Schloss Elmau Luxury Spa Retreat & Cultural Hideaway sits a 20-minute drive from the border of Austria.
In November, I was a guest at this elegant hotel. where the G7 summit met in 2015 and will meet again on June 26 of this year. “If it’s good enough for world leaders…” Well, you know the rest.
“Anything is possible at Schloss Elmau,” my server said, smiling, when I asked if I could order a variation to a dish from the pre-fixe dinner menu. With six lavish spas, five restaurants (including Luce d’Oro, which boasts two Michelin stars) and a majestic mountain setting, Schloss Elmau ranks as one of Germany’s most luxurious hotels.
Here, the discerning guest can recognize 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets or a fork set askew.
Service is warm and friendly, but meticulous. This is Germany, after all.
The word “schloss” means castle or palace in German, and Dietmar Mueller-Elmau owns the hotel. Shortly after I arrived, I asked if there was any chance I could meet Mueller-Elmau. A staff member said, “I’m sure that can be arranged. Dietmar always has time for a visit.”
Dressed in a casual fleece, Dietmar — which he prefers to be called — flashed an easy grin, introduced himself and shook my hand. We chatted over a lunch of tomato bisque, and I began to understand why the vibe is so relaxed, even though the hotel is known for its world-class sophistication. “We want our guests to feel comfortable, and we can’t do that unless staff members feel comfortable,” he explained, adding, “No one really wears a uniform. Staff can basically wear what they choose.” He added, laughing, “And I’m generous with titles, if someone wants one. But I tell staff, the higher the title, the worse the tips!” he said, laughing.
Dietmar studied business administration and philosophy in Munich as well as hotel management and computer science at Cornell. He has an impressive list of credentials, awards and degrees, not to mention family history: His grandfather built the castle in 1916. Yet he carries neither a business card nor the slightest hint of self-importance.
His philosophy is to listen to those who are dealing with guests and performing day-to-day operations. Dietmar says he takes cues from his team. “I trust the staff. When they tell me they need something, I rarely say no,” he said. “They know better than I do. As long as the money is in the bank, the answer is usually ‘yes’.”
The investment in design, details and décor at Schloss Elmau is evident, with soft, velvety lighting in the restaurants, guestrooms and library. Fires crackle in fireplaces in dining areas and lounges, and fresh flowers adorn ornate pieces of furniture.
A subtle East Asian influence dictates the colors, patterns and style throughout the property, with sensuous reds, golden hues and elephant-print fabrics.
My guestroom felt inviting, with floor to ceiling windows, the aroma of essential oils and lush pillows and comforters. My favorite touch was the bathrobes, which are not the traditional white, but fun colors such as rose, jade or amethyst. I also appreciated the handsome red tote bags containing slippers and towels to take to the spa.
In his book, “Schloss Elmau, a German History,” Dietmar writes, “As I am not a spa aficionado myself, I tried to build a spa that might tempt even me to use it. Above all, I wanted to avoid an atmosphere reminiscent of a rehab center. Hence, I decided to offer a choice of different-colored robes, which allows each guest to choose his or her preferred color and symbolize my appreciation of nonconformist individuality.”
Just as important as the design is impeccable service. On my first morning, as I made my way to the dining room, I noticed a guest reading the New York Times and assumed they had brought their own copy with them. I asked at the front desk if there was any possibility of getting one for myself, and a staff member politely explained they would check on this and get back to me.
Ten minutes later, as I lingered over an Americano, muesli with fresh strawberries, and a warm, soft, homemade pretzel, a staff member named Lukas found me in the dining room and presented a crisp copy of the day’s New York Times International Edition. He even apologized for the delay.
The history of Schloss Elmau is a fascinating and complex story going back to 1914-1916, when it was constructed. Highlights include the U.S. Army’s requisition of it for use as a military hospital in 1945, a fire in 2005 that destroyed the installations, and its grand reopening in 2007. Construction began on a second structure in 2013, and three months after the last nail was in place, world leaders arrived.
Dietmar recalled the thrill of having world leaders onsite, a lifelong dream. When I asked what it was like to have the G7 Summit at Schloss Elmau, he lit up and said, “It was spectacular!” Hosting global leaders as they deliberated key issues of the day was fresh in his memory even after several years. Hosting the G7 was a vision come true.
Dietmar writes in his book that his mother, who had encouraged him to follow his dreams, passed away in November 2013 and did not get to see his dream come to life. “The Retreat would have been her favorite at Schloss Elmau. She inspired me with her independent mind, curiosity and generosity.”
Today, guests may attend a yoga class in the light-filled pavilion where the leaders met. Schloss Elmau is basically two hotels in one – the Luxury Spa Retreat and the Culture Hideaway, which are an easy three-minute walk apart. Each has its own amenities.
The Hideaway offers a tea lounge, jazz bar, library and concert hall, where renowned artists regularly perform. The Retreat features three of the five restaurants, a family spa, an adult spa, an infinity pool and a fitness gym.
Guests may choose eBiking, hiking, working out or blissfully doing nothing. I strolled the grounds and explored the yoga pavilion, library and well-stocked bookstore, which I later learned is the largest bookstore at any hotel in Germany.
Kids have it good, too, with choices like a chess academy, swimming lessons, snowtubing or tobogganing. For bookworms, there’s an excellent children’s section in the bookstore. Adults can also select packages such as a yoga retreat, photo workshop, alpine ski safari or BMW experience, where they can test drive the latest models.
Dinner at Fidelio, featuring Asian cuisine, was my favorite experience at Schloss Elmau. With swaths of fabric draped from ceiling to floor throughout the restaurant, low lighting and soft taupe and reddish-orange colors, I felt transported from the mountains of Bavaria.
The repast began with sashimi and edamame in red chili sauce. After that, the server presented a beautiful miso salmon, followed by Wagyu gyoza. Every dish balanced sweet and spicy, hot and cold, soft and crunchy.
On my final morning at Schloss Elmau, I awoke to overcast, gloomy skies. To my delight, I found a copy of the day’s New York Times in a cloth bag hanging on my door.
My mission for the day was to find the bench where then-U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were photographed. A separate photo shows the president from behind, sitting on the bench alone and gazing at the mountain view.
A staff member guided me to the bench where former White House photographer Pete Souza shot the iconic images in 2015. Gray skies obscured the view, but I was determined to have my photo taken in the historic setting.
Then, like magic, the haze broke, and the sun revealed a dazzling view of the mountains. I recalled what my server said that first night: “Anything is possible at Schloss Elmau.”