As I drift in and out of a jet-lagged haze during our drive from Frankfurt airport to Baiersbronn, a small town in Germany, I'm confused by the scenery that whirrs past my window: Is it real or is it part of my dreamlike daze? Lush, verdant hills undulate on either side of the winding road blanketed with tiny yellow flowers that look like they've been painted by a Disney cartoonist. At the base of the hills sits a cluster of quaint wood-clad homes, each with window boxes overflowing with blooms and hand-painted and chalet-style pitched roofs. It's a far cry from the eerie, fog-filled Hansel and Gretel image of the Black Forest—the first of many times Baden-Württemberg would surprise me during the four-day trip.
Nestled in Southwestern Germany, moments from the French border, the picturesque state boasts more than the fairytale-like Black Forest and quaint German villages: It's also home to Baiersbronn, a town with no less than eight Michelin stars. For context, The Economist points out that Paris has one star for every 16,000 people, and London has one for every 100,000. This tiny town has one star for every 2000 people.
Welcome to Baiersbronn, Germany, the unofficial foodie capital of Europe. Here's why you should plan a trip to dine, drink, and spa your way through the Black Forest locale (before everyone else does).
While a monkey in the Black Forest might seem like a bizarre fairytale narrative, the German countryside has become an unlikely home to one. Monkey 47, an indie gin with a cult European following and a fast-growing U.S. fanbase, is distilled in a converted farmstead in Schaberhof. For the first time ever, the iconic gin brand will open its doors to visitors with distillery tours, which can be booked in advance from October 2018. It's an unexpected gem and the perfect start to a foodie tour of the Black Forest.
Founder Alexander Stein likens designing Monkey 47 HQ to "building a cathedral for distilling." The ornate rose-tinted metal arches were a labor of love for Stein, who worked closely with a local coppersmith to create the intricate machinery.
The well-designed, detailed-oriented distillery is a clear representation of the product itself. Made from 47 botanicals, including acacia blooms and blackberry leaves sourced from the region, Stein's focus was to create a complex gin, not just another high-proof drink. "I didn't inherit a lot of money or have access to an insane amount of capital, so the gin simply had to be something good," he candidly says.
It's also a chance for him to channel his inner alchemist, which results in the Monkey 47 distiller's cut, an annual limited-edition gin that contains an exclusive 48th ingredient. The 2017 "species rara" contains Iva (Achillea moschata), a rare plant that Stein sourced during a hiking trip in Switzerland. The coveted drop isn't available in the U.S., so it's another reason to book a trip to the Black Forest region.
Baiersbronn might seem like an under-the-radar foodie destination to the uninitiated, but the German town has a long culinary history. Schwarzwaldstube leads the breakthrough, putting Baiersbronn on the map when it opened in 1977 as the gourmet restaurant of the 200-year-old Hotel Traube Tonbach. Its high standard hasn't wavered—former legendary head chef Harald Wohlfahrt defended the restaurant's three Michelin stars for about 25 years and protégé Torsten Michel has risen to the challenge.
Though described as a French restaurant, Michel's menu is a poetic ode to the mythic forest and its European neighbors. Gently cooked Bretonnian lobster with coriander and Creolic escabeche is a riot of unexpected flavor, while the rhubarb sorbet with rhubarb sand, yogurt mousse, and raspberry pearls offer a tart, textural kick.
The food alone is enough to attract visitors from neighboring France and Switzerland, and indeed, across the Atlantic from the United States. There's such demand that Traube Tonbach offers a specially curated itinerary called The Culinary Quartet. Described as "an homage to Traube's culinary diversity," the epic 926-Euro package includes four nights of accommodation, a 5-course dinner at Silberberg restaurant, a 3-course Swabian dinner at Bauernstube, a 5-course dinner at Köhlerstube restaurant, and a 7-course tasting lunch at Schwarzwaldstube.
You'd better pace yourself, though. Beyond Traube Tonbach, there's Schlossberg, the town's latest Michelin two-star restaurant that focuses on the nuances of aroma. Then, only a few miles away is Bareiss, a Michelin three-star restaurant helmed by Peter-Claus Lumpp, which serves artistic dishes made from foraged and farm-grown regional ingredients to just eight tables.
In perhaps a wicked joke, the Baden-Württemberg state is known for its spa towns, as well as world-class dining. Take a break from the stellar restaurants in Baiersbronn—or alter your itinerary to spa-hop before you indulge—and head to Baden-Baden. The impossibly beautiful spa town near the French border is famous for its thermal baths, which made it a popular 19th-century resort.
Take your pick from two local spas: Friedrichsbad or Caracalla. The former is a Roman-Irish bath with a strictly enforced no-clothes-allowed policy, so you can leave your inhibitions in the locker room along with your swimsuit. Next door at Caracalla, guests can use the downstairs facilities in their bathing suits, and then head upstairs to enjoy the private area sans clothes.
Caracalla is a maze-like facility of hidden rooms, so be sure to check the map during your visit. Don't skip the brine inhalation room, an anti-inflammatory steam room that utilizes the natural benefits of brine and blackthorn twigs, and the aroma steam room, which spikes at 110-degrees Farenheight with 100% humidity. If you're game, head upstairs, ditch your clothing, and visit the Forest Sauna, which is located in an outdoor log cabin made of Finnish polar pine trees.
If you plan on dining your way through the region, make Traube Tonbach your home base. The esteemed hotel dates back to 1789 and offers far more than exceptional restaurants. The complex is surprisingly vast given Baiersbronn's size. Spanning two large buildings on the hillside, there are so many hidden vantage points, spas, saunas, cafes, and bars to discover during your stay.
It's well worth spending three nights in the area to fully explore the hotel and its scenic surrounds. The extensive breakfast is legendary and certainly worth waking up for; think local honey served on a wedge of honeycomb, row upon row of imported teas, enough homemade German bread to make any carb-dieter bend the rules, and an impressive selection of granola and muesli using locally sourced seeds and berries.
Venture to the lower building at Traube Tonbach for the Spa Lounge. It mightn't have flashy amenities to rival the main spa's igloo and floral steam room, but the smaller lounge has one major draw: the glass-wall sauna. The recently renovated serene space has a floor-to-ceiling window, so sauna guests can relax with sweeping views of the brilliant green hills.
We hear you: With a solid string of Michelin-starred restaurants, a unique distillery, and world-class spas, why don't more Americans visit this gem? Let's just keep it between us.
Poised to plan a trip? Here's what our editor packed in her carry-on
Next up: This is the airport outfit our editor wears every time she travels.
This trip was hosted by Monkey 47. Editors' opinions are their own.