The first thing to admit is that before I visited Gstaad, most of what I knew of the Swisss village was information I had gleaned from reading Taki’s High Life column. So I knew that it has been home to the likes of Sir Roger Moore, Elizabeth Taylor, Prince Rainier and Julie Andrews, who as far as I’m concerned is the real Queen of the Alps. I knew that Bernie Ecclestone owned a mountain here. (Of course he does). And what I suspected is that Gstaad is not the kind of ski resort where you make your own cling-film wrapped sandwiches for lunch.
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After flying to Geneva airport, we took the train to Montreux. So far, fairly normal. But there we changed onto something far more exciting: the GoldenPass Panoramic Express. The name might not be that catchy, but the reality is fairly spectacular. The train line heads up into the mountains, climbing through the vineyards of Montreux and into an alpine region dotted with wooden farmhouses and chalets. It’s a beautiful journey, and one that’s only improved by the fact that the ‘panoramic’ train carriages have floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as an enormous glass window at the front.
Arriving into Gstaad only fuelled my preconceptions about the village. There on the platform, was the smartest vending machine I’ve ever seen. No KitKats languishing unloved on the bottom row here. Oh no. This one was chock-a-block full of regional produce such as local honey and cheeses galore – including one pre-prepared for fondue-ing.
From here, we headed to the Park Gstaad; a grand dame of a hotel that opened in 1910, when it was the first five-star hotel in town. It was completely renovated in 2010 and now boasts four restaurants and the largest penthouse suite in the Swiss Alps. There’s no need to worry about stepping in a chilly puddle of melted snow as soon as you’ve changed into warm socks here; at ‘the Park’ your skis and boots are safely stored in the hotel’s basement ski shop. There’s a chalet serving raclette in the hotel garden, an indoor swimming pool and golf simulator – and it’s only a few minutes’ walk from town.
But perhaps one of the best things about Gstaad as a ski resort is that even when there’s very little snow you can still get some skiing in. This year it’s too much snow, rather than too little, that’s caused problems. But last December, when I visited, the snow situation in the Alps was simply rubbish. Not to worry, however. The cable car to the Glacier 3000 ski area (the aforementioned mountain partly owned by Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone) is just down the road, and due to the glacier’s altitude, its 25km of runs are rarely snow-free. When the winters are as good snow-wise as they have been this year, you’re laughing. The Gstaad lift pass covers an enormous 250km of piste in 12 separate ski areas; some accessible by free bus, while others require a quick train ride.
To a certain extent, my preconceived idea of Gstaad was right. Yes, it does have the high-profile names, the gourmet food and flashy boutiques. But hiding beneath Gstaad’s shiny exterior lies an old-fashioned Swiss farming village. While there can be up to 20 thousand people in town in peak season, the permanent population of Gstaad is around 7,000, with a similar number of cows calling it home, too. Our ski guide turned out to be a dairy farmer who moonlights as a ski instructor who informed us that, legally, cows have to be outside at least 10 days per month, even in winter. Just don’t be surprised if you hear cow bells clinking as you browse the wares in Cartier.
There’s more to Gstaad than skiing…
Despite being known as a ski resort, Gstaad is far from just a one-trick pony; there’s plenty else to keep you occupied…
- Take the cable car up to Glacier 3000 and test your head for heights on Peak Walk – the only suspension bridge in the world that connects two mountain peaks. It’s free to visit, and there are stunning panoramic views of surrounding mountains, including Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and the Eiger. While you’re here, have a quick ride on the Alpine Coaster – the world’s highest toboggan run.
- Back in the valley, wander along the twinkling promenade of Gstaad, which was the first traffic-free village in Switzerland. The shops tend to be high-end boutiques, but you’ll also find ones selling regional produce. The promenade is also the perfect place to sit back and do a bit of people watching. Grab a table at Charly’s café, and watch the world go by.
- Many hotels have their own spas, gyms, swimming pools and more besides. If you do happen to visit in summer, then golf is a popular choice, with the Gstaad-Saanenland golf course just 15 minutes away. But if you find do yourself there in winter and golf’s your game, then not to worry. The Gstaad Indoor Golf Club at the Park Gstaad has both a state-of-the-art simulator and a full-time golf pro, Frédéric Dauchez, on hand to help you perfect your swing.
- Even when it’s not winter, there’s plenty going on. Every summer, the alpine village plays host to the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, started by the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, which consists of more than 50 classical music concerts over seven or so weeks. Somewhat strangely for an alpine resort, Gstaad also hosts an annual beach volleyball tournament, which always draws in the crowds, as well as the Swiss Open tennis championships and an annual polo tournament.