I learned long ago that the harder it is to arrive at one’s destination, the better the resort. Gstaad is one of the few ultra-chic winter playgrounds where big jets cannot land. Which means that vulgar Russian crooks, horribly mannered sons of the desert and other such riff-raff need to make their way up in cars from Berne or Geneva. The spirit of rugged capitalist individualism that says that the common good is advanced through the struggle of selfish individuals is a theory that finds many disciples among the Gstaad residents. It wasn’t always like this. Fifty-five years ago I made my way up there during a snowstorm just before Christmas. Upon detraining, I thought I had interrupted a movie being filmed. There were horse-driven taxis, men in lederhosen smoking pipes, and the village was permeated by silence and stillness. High up on a hill lay the large chocolate cake of a castle-hotel, favoured by mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. This was and is the Palace hotel, a place I have spent most of my youth, middle and old age in. Even higher up, unseen at night, lies the Eagle Club, a private club which is very inclusive — too inclusive for my taste — and which was started in 1957 by the Earl of Warwick and some friends. The Eagle, it is said, lies on top of the Wassengrat mountain because its members have reached the top of society.
If you’re looking for danger and adventure in the slopes, Gstaad is not the place for you. It has some very good runs but also a lot of easy ones. Its strength is its architecture, the wooden chalets that all houses must adhere to, with no high risers, glass or cement permitted. Gstaad’s other attraction is that the village has grown enormously, but still remains under 4,000 people during the high season. Its main street is car-free, its nightlife centred around the Palace, and the greatest threat to its way of life are the ghastly nouveau riche who are slowly but surely discovering the place.
Once upon a time the shops that lined the streets of Gstaad were butchers, cheese-makers, fruit markets, hardware stores and peasant cafés and restaurants. No longer. Only luxury goods are sold and every shop is top of the line. Jewellery stores lead the way. I predict that one day soon there will only be shops selling gold and silver trinkets and that we’ll have to travel to Berne or Geneva to find food. Russian and Arab women, however, will love it.