When my thoughts turn to the Val d’Hérens in Switzerland’s central Rhône Valley, they usually revolve around its famously feisty black cows, which fight it out for supremacy in summer in the lush alpine meadows high above Sion. But now there’s another, more compelling reason to visit this high-altitude valley dotted with slate-roofed wooden chalets and farmhouses.
The Maya Boutique Hotel (first picture), set on a sunny balcony in the small village of Nax, was built by Lisa (from Lausanne) and Louis (originally from Greece via Germany) Papadopoulos in 2012.
The frame, as with all the traditional architecture in the valley, is timber. But there the similarity ends. The walls are made from compressed straw-bale modules sandwiched between plaster and clay, the balcony railings double up as solar panels and the huge wood-fired oven in the dining room serves for both heating and cooking. If all this eco-friendliness and energy efficiency sounds a bit daunting, it isn’t. There are no hair shirts up here, just a grand (green) design and great comfort (they recently took the Boutique Hotel Award for Europe’s Best Sustainable Boutique Hotel, and the Worldwide Hospitality Award for the Best Innovation in Hotelier Concept).
The seven rooms all look out across the valley to Crans Montana and the jagged Alps beyond, snow-capped even in summer. A spa has recently been added to the mix, with a massage room and a cute two-berth sauna (second picture), housed in a sort of giant cylinder with one side glassed in, so you can soak up the alpine views as you bask, lizard-like, on the wooden benches. Best of all is the hot tub out on the lawn, which comes into its own in winter when the snow lies deep and crisp and even.
Meals at the Maya follow the table d’hôte model. Louis does the cooking, and the focus is local and sustainable, always with an element of surprise. A hay soup (a Swiss speciality that is indeed made from dried grass) is cradled inside the shell of a crusty country bread from a legendary baker down in Sion; a fillet of veal comes wrapped inside a loin of pork, like a giant paupiette. The standout dish, however, is the fillet of beef roasted to a turn in the wood-fired oven. The meat comes from a local farmer who raises the famous Hérens fighting cows - “the ones that didn’t win the fight”, grins Louis.