The largest thermal spa in the Alps is in the small Swiss town of Leukerbad. Each day 3.9 million litres of naturally heated water gushes from the ground to fill 30 pools and baths. With typical Swiss understatement, Leukerbad has downplayed this claim to fame but a new five-star development selling the world's first apartments with thermal water pumped directly into private bathrooms should alert more buyers to the town's quiet charms.
Leukerbad - which has a population of just 1,500 - provides a modest 30 miles of winter ski pistes up to 9,500 feet, but the German-speaking town, two and a half hours east of Geneva, pulls in visitors all year round thanks to its 65 hot springs.
There are two large public spas - the family-friendly Burgerbad with 10 pools and the more elegant Alpentherme. Both have outdoor pools where swimmers are pummelled with hot-water jets surrounded by the steep, sheer mountains that encircle Leukerbad. The waters have attracted visitors since Roman times but recently 75 per cent of visitors have come from Switzerland - and the tourist office is spearheading a drive to entice a wider audience.
"Visitor numbers to Leukerbad are rising each year and are spread evenly between summer and winter thanks to the thermal waters," says David Kestens from Leukerbad Tourist Office. "October is the busiest month, when the mountainside turns red and yellow and the weather is still mild."
There are small resale apartments in older Alpine-style chalets from £194,100 and new two-bedroom apartments from £527,000. Florian Moreillon, of Dala Immobilier, says most accommodation comprises flats with a few larger chalets, and the quality and size of what's on offer has improved since 2000. His most expensive property is a four-bedroom chalet on the favoured higher slopes at £1.1 million.
'The thermal waters will be the main attraction for our buyers, along with the full concierge services'
It is the top end of the market that Swiss Development Group hopes to exploit with 51° Spa Residences. Named after the highest temperature of Leukerbad's thermal springs, this is a £186.6 million development that by 2015 aims to provide a 50-room Ritz Carlton Hotel, 21 serviced apartments rented through the hotel and 10 freehold apartments.
A top-drawer project
Phase One sees the release of the freehold flats priced from £2 million, due for completion by winter 2013. The one-to four-bedroom units averaging 2,475sq ft will be in a stone and wood building in the centre of Leukerbad.
Stylish interiors will feature wood-panelled rooms, retractable glass walls and magnificent showers, but pride of place goes to the two-sided stone fireplaces that face into the bathrooms and on to the wide wraparound balconies. Both the outdoor whirlpool spas and indoor baths will have unlimited access to Leukerbad's thermal water. The serviced flats are expected to start from £746,500 when released next year.
With a 9,500sq ft spa, restaurants, boutiques, children's club and private wine cave, as well as a residents club, this is an unashamedly top-drawer project, somewhat at odds with Leukerbad's current predominantly modest image.
The town is no St Moritz or Verbier but that's just how clients like it, says Lois Vitry-Trapman of 51° Spa Residences.
"The thermal waters will be the main draw for our buyers along with the full concierge services," says Vitry-Trapman. "Leukerbad is a peaceful Swiss mountain resort for visitors who want to escape the hectic social scene of resorts like Verbier."
The company has experience of developing high-end products. In 2009 it launched Du Parc Residences above Vevey on Lake Geneva priced from £3.5 million to £17.4 million. To date, 11 of the 24 flats are sold to foreign buyers.
Contacts and factfile
* 51° Spa Residences + 41 22 799 44 16; 51degrees.ch
* Dala Immobilier leukerbadimmobilien.ch
* Annual maintenance at 51° Spa Residences is one per cent of the purchase price
* Allow 2.5 per cent for buying costs
* British owners in Leukerbad need to obtain a permit to buy property there, a process that can take up to a year
* There is no inheritance tax in the Valais region of Switzerland
'Leukerbad offers really good value for money'
Andrew Robinson, a City-based accountant from Hackney, bought a four-bedroom chalet in Leukerbad in 2008 after looking in better known Swiss and French resorts. "I bought with a friend and we discovered that Leukerbad offered really good value for money and had year-round attractions," says Mr Robinson, 34.
The year-round appeal means that he, his wife Jayne and their son Alfie, two, can use the property in summer and winter and also maximise their rental return.
"There is high demand for chalets as there are so few in Leukerbad and ours is one of only a couple of high-end homes," he adds. "We found there were massive benefits to buying in Switzerland. They have high regulations on build quality and the process was easier even than in the UK. The property took two years to build, is on the ski slopes and 10 minutes from restaurants, and rents from £2,600 a week."
The Robinsons' chalet is for rent through skichaletswitzerland.com