Where in Central America can you board a train to reach a revolving hilltop restaurant where you can enjoy delicious international and Swiss cuisine while overlooking an 80-square-kilometer, manmade lake and catch sight of the 1,633-meter cone of one of the most active volcanoes in the world?
The answer is north-central Costa Rica, where a volcano and lake of the same name, Arenal, provide the stunning scenery for Rondorama, the brand-new attraction at La Pequeña Helvecia (Little Helvetia, or Little Switzerland), on the east side of the lake. The Swiss mastermind behind the project is Franz Ulrich, 65, who bought the 190-hectare property in 1987. Two years later, the multitalented hotelier built a dairy barn, followed by Los Héroes hotel and restaurant.
The chalet-style hotel has 13 comfortable rooms, two apartments and a new pool and Jacuzzi area, while its cozy restaurant is well known for excellent international and Swiss specialties. Little Switzerland also includes a chapel and a railway station, which links the hotel area with the 360-degree-view restaurant near the highest point of the property.
“Rondorama is unique in Central America,” Ulrich says. “And some globetrotters tell us it’s the first and only revolving restaurant in the world to overlook pure, untamed nature.”
To get to the restaurant, Ulrich takes you on a picturesque train ride, meandering through evergreen farm pastures. The 28-horsepower diesel engine puffs its way along three and a half kilometers of railroad, passing through three tunnels and traversing a viaduct.
Little Switzerland lives up to its name –from the train and its tracks to the peacefully grazing cattle, everything is imported from the small, mountainous country in the middle of Europe. The view here is Costa Rican, but for a split second you might ignore the bromeliad-laden trees and croaks of the toucans to enjoy the sensation that you are somewhere above an idyllic lake in Switzerland.
The 30-minute train ride ends at the underground mountain station, at an altitude of 800 meters above sea level. Passengers get out to enter Rondorama via two staircases and an impressive entrance hall dedicated to the original inhabitants of the area.
Art and history are two topics important to Ulrich’s Costa Rican spouse, Silena Moncada. In collaboration with archeologists and historians, she transformed the hall into a gallery featuring indigenous artifacts and information panels about the first traces of human population in Costa Rica, dating back 10,000 years. The eye-catcher here is an idyllic pre-Columbian scene in blues and greens, an enormous mural painted by acclaimed Costa Rican artist José Monge.
“Numerous adventure tours are offered around us while culture is underrepresented,” Moncada says. “Inside this building, I want to introduce visitors to ancient and contemporary human creativity, exhibiting paintings by Costa Rican artists in the restaurant.”
In 22 months, Ulrich and two of his workers built Rondorama atop the entrance hall and mountain station. Fluent in English, Spanish, French and German, the hotelier is also an architect, engineer and foreman. Be it the railway, hotel or new revolving restaurant, Ulrich is always looking for new frontiers.
“Rondorama is my own idea,” he says, not without pride. “In Switzerland, there are eight revolving restaurants, and I feel like one of those pioneers who opened up the Alps to the public, constructing mountain railroads, hotels and eateries.”
The first floor of the orange and yellow building consists of a large, open-air terrace and an inviting cafeteria with a state-of-theart kitchen, where cold and hot snacks are available. The 15-meter-diameter second floor has a maximum capacity of 115 guests, Ulrich says. Its movable floor rotates imperceptibly, making one full rotation in 45 minutes.Diners can savor the unique combination of European-style food while effortlessly taking in one of the most stunning views in the country. Behind Rondorama is primary forest, where oropendolas, toucans and guans are frequent visitors. Howler monkeys, coatis, armadillos and even shy deer can also be observed.
When I visited in early April, the restaurant was open only upon request. After busily working to install the final touches, Ulrich says Rondorama is now open regularly for groups, Friday to Monday. The minimum is five people, and reservations must be made in advance.
On its movable second floor, the menu features a selection of dishes from the hotel’s restaurant. The chef de cuisine, another Swiss import, ensures the high quality and authentic flavor of the food. Bread, for instance, an indispensable staple, is a homemade delicacy here. Appetizers such as salads, soups and pastas are $3.50-7.50.
A must-try is the plato variado featuring Swiss cheeses, air-cured ham and salami. Among the mouthwatering main courses are pepper steak flambé ($11) and Zürcher Geschnetzeltes ($10), which consists of small pieces of veal and mushrooms in a white sherry sauce. All dishes are complemented by appetizing vegetables, and can be ordered with a choice of rice, mashed potatoes or Rösti – roasted potato cakes, Swiss style, prepared with pieces of crisp bacon. To indulge in another classic Swiss culinary experience, you can impress your partner at dinner by ordering beef or cheese fondues for $15-16 per person. Desserts range from apple pie to irresistible Coup Melba – ice cream topped with peach halves, syrup and whipped cream ($3-5). The international wine list offers Chilean, Spanish, Italian and German varieties; a glass of house wine is $3.60.
All prices include service and taxes. Admission to Rondorama, including the round-trip train ride, costs $10 per person.
After dinner, Ulrich and his spouse walk from table to table to greet their international clientele.
“Many tourists from central Europe say they feel like they’re in Switzerland here,” Ulrich says. “To me, as a host, the guests are the best – their joy, their smiling faces.”
The boundless activities offered in the lake area might entice you to extend your stay. You can experience the jungle at Arenal Hanging Bridge, 15 minutes from Little Switzerland, walking along comfortable trails and suspension bridges. Drive five minutes more to take in Arenal Volcano from the lake’s dam, or relax at the hot springs, 25 minutes away. The mystic cloud forests of Monteverde are accessible in about two and a half hours by water taxi and bus. Hiking, fishing and wind surfing can be organized with the help of the hotel’s attentive staff.
Little Switzerland offers rooms from $55, including breakfast and taxes. For more information on the rooms, fully equipped apartments, special offers and rates, call 692-8012 or 692-8013, or visit www.pequenahelvecia.com. The property is on the scenic lakeside road from La Fortuna to Tilarán, 11 kilometers from the dam, on the right-hand side.