Gstaad has had an allure for me far longer than I knew where it was or what you could do there. It’s Hollywood’s go-to reference for Swiss chic; Dan Ackroyd’s watch that he tries to hock to Bo Diddley in Trading Places tells the time “simultaneously in Monte Carlo, Beverley Hills, London, Rome, Paris and Gstaad”. In Scent of a Woman, Gstaad is referenced as the rich kids’ winter playground and, of course, Clouseau famously wrestles a revolving door and asks for a rheum checking into his hotel in The Return of the Pink Panther. Gstaad is, undoubtedly, desirous, almost mystical in its attraction, and, as I look out from the stripped pine balcony of my hotel suite over the village’s rooftops to the valley and mountains beyond, the iconic Palace hotel giving it the look of a matte painting from Disney’s Frozen, I now get what the fuss is about.
But there is more than Hollywood lore to raise the enigmatic profile of this fabled place. Word fails to recognise it, auto-correcting it to Gusto as I write. iPhone calls it Grassed and there’s even the matter of how it’s pronounced. Is the G dropped? Only if you’re a phoney according to Scent of a Woman. More’s the point, if it’s so stunning why is it not sprawling and over-run, killed by commercialisation? Well, this is where its residents – and the Swiss – are clever at preserving their assets.
For one, it’s spectacularly expensive. Not for nothing is the boutique in the hotel a DeBeers outpost. And the corner shop on the Promenade presided over by Louis Vuitton. Of the 25 Bugatti Veyrons in Switzerland fifteen of them live in Gstaad. Pricey, then, and rightly so. Its residents, many multi-generational, want the price tag for property that’s more expensive than Manhattan. It makes it unattainable, hence desirable, more than anything. And it makes building more and spoiling the view bloody difficult. It’s so expensive it’s out-priced any bling, any vulgarity, any ostentation. Gstaad doesn’t shout about itself, it doesn’t have to. So, no bling, no crowds, no chains, no cliches…sounds like my kind of place.
There is a reason for this pre-amble, it’s important to set the scene for somewhere that is, essentially, the pinnacle of everything I’ve just described. The snow train from Zweisimmen ambles its way past every wintry mountainous pastoral scene you can imagine until, 30 minutes, later it draws into Gstaad. For a place whose reputation far precedes it, it’s a simple introduction. It’s as if the station underplays its position, telling us there’s nothing much to see here, and waving us on. But disembark and five minutes later, ascending from the village the lure of the Palace ahead might be temptation enough, but we shoot past it, turning left and into a tunnel. It’s a tunnel straight out of Blofeld’s lair, complete with a waterfall coursing down its walls (intentionally, of course), only this has a more inviting purpose, we arrive at The Alpina Gstaad, quite possibly Switzerland’s finest hotel. And that’s saying something.
I enter, fortunately, without the comedic flourishes of Clouseau – neither trapping my suitcase, nor my head, in the revolving door – and walk into great hall on the Titanic. For a moment, I take it all in. It’s ‘Alpine tradition meets Swiss chic’, and all the materials – from the beautifully-cut stone fire surrounds to the prolific amounts wood panelling – are sourced from the region. The contemporary touches come from many of the artworks liberally dotted about, but tradition-contemporary blend works here, too, as the likes of Tracey Emin complement the ‘decoupage’ pieces from the region.
There’s some considerable care given to the design, and clearly without sparing the CHF300m expense. The reason for the subterranean entrance is to prevent the gardens and views being spoiled by the continual churn of arriving and departing traffic. The lifts, too, are tucked behind the central stairs, again, to remove any sense of modernity. To make it, indeed, less like a hotel.
Instead, it sits into its pine forest mountainside like a grand chalet, deceptively large but housing a mere 56 rooms, and, when you see the size of the suites, you’ll see why. Some are themed; the ‘living art’ room, for example, is literally a blank canvas; the walls designed to be daubed, and the ‘love suite’, equipped with flourishes such as a polaroid camera and a cabinet of accessories from Kiki de Montparnasse, give it a sense of fun. Ours, however, is about home comforts; natural hues throughout, locally-sourced antique furniture, heated floors (and mirrors), Acqua di Parma toiletries and a TV above the bathtub.
It is indulgent, of course, but to become the finest one has to equip oneself accordingly. The spa is a Six Senses outpost, itself an architectural marvel. Not a sharp corner to be seen among its labyrinthine corridors, with a ‘salt room’, ‘colour’ therapy and colonic cleansing rooms setting it apart from even the staunchest competitor, not to mention a swimming pool the size of a cenote and, much like one, feeling like it had been hewn from the mountain and given a pine ceiling and an oculus to the sky.
But what of the skiing? Well, that’s precisely why it rates as a winter destination for me. When it comes to skiing this is where Clouseau and I meet our match. Gstaad’s gentle pistes and blue runs may not challenge but it more than suits my sensibilities, with several other options from the neighbouring villages, not to mention the recently-invested Glacier 3000 facility.
But if you’re a real skier, you don’t come to Gstaad. I’m told that 40% of people who come to Gstaad don’t even ski. Here, it’s about the lifestyle. And that’s where the Alpina has found its form. Above the lobby, up those grand stairs, the expansive open plan bar and lounge make for a conducive and convivial social area, given a kitsch spin with live lounge music almost evoking a ‘70s heyday. Dining, too, is a sociable affair, each restaurant almost over-lapping another, discretion a glimpse away through yet more wood-panelled screens. And the dining, wow. The Michelin-starred and 18 Gault-Millau-winning Marcus Lindner dazzled us in Sommet, the signature restaurant, and the hotel’s acquisition of the finest assets extended to its personnel; to open Megu, the Japanese restaurant, the hotel brought in the finest sushi chef from its namesake in New York. But there’s more to the dining than the menu; proceedings are presided over by the inimitable Franco, the hotel’s maitre d’, a man who greets you like an old friend the first time you enter and single-handedly makes you feel like you belong. Which, in Gstaad, is no mean feat.
It might not be renowned for its skiing but Gstaad more than makes up for it with extra-curricular options; most notably, snow-biking, one of the newer crazes to have hit the winter adrenaline scene.
A snow bike, or ‘fat bike’ to use its hipster vernacular, is, essentially, a mountain bike but with tyres wider than a monster truck’s and it illicits looks as if you’d just stepped off another planet. On a typical 3-hour tour, much of it a climb for the first part – we are in the mountains after all – but it’s more than worth the descent. It begins on a piste – yep, the very same skiers go down – but where the skiers have to stop, we continue and go off-road across fields, winding through woods, along streams and taking courses that would hitherto be unattainable were we not on foot. As good a work-out as it is a means of exploring the area, it’s a terrific counterpoint to a holiday that might otherwise be exclusively about skiing. Assuming you wanted to leave your hotel.
It is said that when God created the earth, and rested on the seventh day, he laid his hand over Gstaad and the Saanen valley; his five fingers forging the valleys and the lines and grooves of his palm making up the villages and streams. And if you’re looking for heaven, as I look out from my balcony, taking in the view, I can’t help thinking that Gusto might just be it.
Rates at The Alpina Gstaad start from £395 per room per night based on two people sharing a Deluxe Room Schönreid. Prices include breakfast, access to Six Senses Spa facilities, parking, services charges, taxes and VAT. For more information, including details of wellness programmes, dining and some of the wonderful flourishes available to guests, visit www.thealpinagstaad.ch.
The Gstaad Snow-Bike Festival takes place from 22nd-24th January. For more information, visit www.snowbikefestival.com.
SWISS operates more than 180 flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, London Gatwick (seasonal during winter), Birmingham, Manchester and Dublin, including all-inclusive fares from £54 one-way, which cover all airport taxes, one piece hold luggage and free ski carriage. For reservations call 0345 990 9161 or visit: www.swiss.com.
For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call our Switzerland Travel Centre on the International freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail, for information firstname.lastname@example.org.