Gstaad: It’s hard to imagine Satan in bowling shoes. But whoever named the stony pinnacle atop Glacier 3000 the “Quille du Diable” (The Devil’s Tenpin) must have managed it. Maybe he was affected by the thin air here in the Swiss Alps, 3,000 meters high in the sky–or perhaps he had imbibed too much gluhwein.
Drinking in the views atop this icy moonscape, I find it puts me more in mind of heaven than hell. Fog fills the valleys below, while snow-capped mountains serrate the blue sky in every direction.
The openness of the landscape—from the glacial expanse where I stand now to the wide vales that stretch out like fingers at its base—set Gstaad and the surrounding Saanenland apart from other popular resorts in the Alps.
“If you compare it to St. Moritz or Zermatt, they’re more narrow, and in Grindelwald, the Eiger is like a big wall,” explains ski instructor Bernhard Hauswirth. “When you come to the glacier, you can see so far, even to the Lake of Geneva and the top of the Matterhorn.”
The winter sports season also continues longer here than in many areas—right up through early May on the glacier, after the snow has melted away on the lower peaks. Snowshoeing, snowboarding and skiing, both downhill and cross-country, are the key wintertime attractions in Gstaad, which offers 155 miles of slopes.
Crucial for a snow bunny like me—a certified lowlander more familiar with the icy faux-snow of the Appalachians than the posh powder of the Alps—many of the mountains (including Eggli, my favorite) offer kinder, gentler descents, making it more family-friendly.
Beyond the temptations of the slopes, visitors are drawn to Gstaad for “the scene”–a quizzical combination of celebrities (ranging back to Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor to modern-day luminaries like Madonna and Anne Hathaway) and hard-working locals. Ski instructors often labour as carpenters in the off-season, keeping the centuries-old tradition of woodworking alive, and farmers lead their cows, draped in bells and festooned with blossoms, through Gstaad’s streets in September.
“Visitors like the authenticity of being with local people,” explains Karen Bach, a tour guide who also runs a diary farm with her husband, as we jostle through the valleys one morning in a horse-drawn sleigh.
Along the Promenade, Gstaad’s main shopping street, this synthesis is evident. Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and Hermes flank the road.
But within the wood-paneled walls of the Posthotel Rossli, wizened men with the weathered faces of farmers and shepherds still gather around the stammtisch—a designated “drinking” table, where you’re required to chat with those around you. (No eyes glued to iPhones here).
Ferraris and Range Rovers fill the parking lots, but nothing is too precious to be put to practical use, as I discover when I spy the world’s dirtiest white Porsche being loaded up with groceries. Sure, there are plenty of women in fur coats—as much a necessity as a fashion statement in these cold climes—but they’re paired with sturdy hiking boots as often as platform toe-pinchers.
If you do happen to spy a famous face peering over a fur collar, the policy is to leave them alone. “We don’t ask for a picture, and if someone asks where they are staying, I say I don’t know,” says Marianne Lupe, another guide who leads me through Gstaad. “We protect them, so they can make a holiday and have a normal life.”
Gstaad maintains its chocolate-box village charm through its unerring devotion to traditional architecture. Building codes prevent anyone, no matter how wealthy or well known, from building more than three stories high, and all homes must be clad in wood in chalet style. Inside, it can be as modern as you like, and you’re welcome to build as far below ground as possible without hitting the water table, resulting in countless subterranean cinemas, parking garages, pools and discos. Imagine the dream home of a hobbit-cum-billionaire, and you can just about picture the labyrinthine luxury that lurks underground.
The latest five-star hotel to open here is The Alpina Gstaad. Presiding over five acres on a hilltop perch, The Alpina Gstaad appears like a large chalet from the outside, with a peaked tower at each corner.
Once inside, however, you can ditch those Hansel and Gretel illusions. The hotel boasts an impressive modern art collection and is as contemporary and high-tech as a lair from a Bond film.
21st Century features include night lights that turn on when your feet hit the floor and Bang & Olufsen televisions that turn to “follow” you as you move about your suite. Local stone, combined with centuries-old reclaimed wood and a smattering of hand-painted Swiss antiques, lend it charm and warmth. Crackling fires burn in the reception hall and the lounge, where an Italian DJ spins tunes in the evenings as the glitterati recline in custom-made sofas.
The Alpina Gstaad has three restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Restaurant Sommet, headed by Marcus Lindner, the first European outpost of MEGU, offering Japanese cuisine, and Stubli, serving traditional Swiss fare. There’s also a wine-tasting room, a cigar lounge, a cinema and a ski shop on-site. The 2,000-square-meter Six Senses Spa, equipped with an indoor swimming pool and a colour-therapy relaxation room with a fleet of waterbeds, offers everything from Shiatsu to Swedish and bamboo massages, holistic Ayurveda treatments, and colonic hydrotherapy.
The only hydrotherapy I’m after, though, is a dip in the heated outdoor swimming pool, where I can take in mountain views while floating in balmy bliss. It’s enough to make me revise my vision of heaven once more.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly into either Geneva or Zurich. From there, you can take the trains into Gstaad.
Stay: The Alpina Gstaad, www.thealpinagstaad.ch. The newest and one of the chicest hotels, set in Gstaad’s most exclusive area.
Grand Hotel Park Gstaad,
www.grandhotelpark.ch/uk/index.php. Comfort, warmth and hospitality are the guiding forces at this hotel, which features its own ice-skating rink in the winter.
The Gstaad Palace, www.palace.ch. Perched on a hilltop, this historic hotel presides like a castle over the village below.
Posthotel Rossli, www.posthotelroessli.ch/english. Conveniently located on The Promenade, this is a good bet for travelers on a budget.
Dine: Refuge l’Espace, atop Glacier3000, has a spacious terrace with breathtaking views, as well as a cozy indoor restaurant serving Swiss dishes. www.refugelespace.ch.
Snoasis is THE see-and-be-seen eatery on Eggli, where chic skiers sip champagne and nosh on French fries lavished with truffles on the patio. http://snoasis.ch.
Restaurant Mattestubli in Lauenensee Valley is open in winter and run by the Brand family, who live upstairs in this Swiss chalet. Try the cheese fondue, but save room for a slice of Veronika Brand’s homemade chocolate cake. There’s no glitz—just homespun hospitality. Reservations: +41 (0)33 765-3337. To get there, take a horse-drawn sleigh hired through Kutscherei Reichenbach. The ride through the mountain passes is ethereal, especially on a moonlit night. www.kutscherei-reichenbach.ch.
Schlittenfahrten Gstaad-Saanenland also offers horse-drawn sleigh rides through Gstaad and its environs. www.gstaadschlittenfahrten.ch.