Gstaad, in south-west Switzerland, is a celebrity-ridden ski resort but it also has a budget-friendly side … and plenty of cows
It’s easy to forget that Gstaad is just a village. The locals – and there are fewer of them than there are cows – still work to the seasons, taking cattle to pasture in summer and gathering them in when the weather gets cold. They smoke pipes and make their own cheese. By rights, it should be no better known to the outside world than, say, Little Gidding.
But the patronage of Madonna, Valentino, George Clooney and a host of other more secretive high-net-worthers makes Gstaad a dorf with a difference. (A quick note on pronunciation for those exclusive chalet parties: calling it Guh-staad rather than Staad will mark you out as a parvenu, even though in Swiss-German it is actually more like Kshtaat.)
So why does the global elite love this place so much? There’s the skiing, of course. The village is in a valley at the heart of the Bernese Oberland, surrounded by smooth, sheer slopes. And Switzerland’s banking and tax regimes help. But locals point to the foundation of exclusive boarding school Le Rosey, followed by the John F Kennedy and Gstaad International schools, as the tipping point. These are a magnet for wealthy parents, whose offspring can be seen speeding past ordinary mortals on the pistes, resplendent in shiny salopettes and Ray-Bans. Which is nice for the people who run exclusive hotels and Prada boutiques, but what about the rest of the population?
Gstaad’s image as an enclave for the super-rich means ordinary tourism has been slow to get going. But given that the infrastructure is so heavily skewed towards luxury, is it even possible to have an affordable holiday there?
“They’re all mad at me,” says Michel Wichman, who runs the Hotel Spitzhorn in Saanen, just outside Gstaad, which we reach after a picturesque railway journey up the valleys from Lake Geneva. He’s talking about the five-star hoteliers down the road, who are horrified at the idea of a new three-star enticing the wrong sort of guest.
I don’t think they need worry. Spitzhorn’s stripped-wood minimalism isn’t likely to draw hordes of drunken backpackers (a double room in high season costs CHF240/£163). The rooms are unfussy and bright, and there is a spa and ski-hire centre in the basement.
Next morning, after a breakfast of birchermüesli, we’re ready to hit the slopes. But first we drive the short distance to the centre of Gstaad. Most of the road is buried underground in an effort to pretend nasty things like cars don’t exist. This – and the edict that new buildings must be “chalet style” and none can be more than three storeys high – suits the conservative tastes of billionaires but makes for a monotonous architectural experience. A chalet is a chalet, after all, and it’s not hard to get bored looking at them.
One building that has escaped the restrictions is the grand old Gstaad Palace, a luxury alpine fantasy that looms over the village. We admire it but, slightly intimidated, turn to the pretty row of shops on the promenade. We spy a hotdog stall, which certainly ticks the affordability box. Maybe this whole playground-of-the-rich thing is exaggerated? But the Rialto, a cafe-bar that is a favourite with the Le Rosey kids, has margherita pizzas for £13.
And then we enter Pernet Comestibles, the local grocer, otherwise known as the-place-with-the-£6,676-bottle-of-champagne; and the walk-in cigar humidor; and the caviar counter. So far, so conforming to stereotypes. But those are then blown away at Michel’s Stallbeizli, a farmer-run cafe where you can sip a cappuccino separated from the large herd of cows only by pane of glass. It’s not enough to keep out a distinctly bovine odour, but it’s certainly a unique selling point.
Gstaad, we find, is a peculiar mixture of the down-to-earth and the detached-from-reality, the homespun and the Hollywood. Local ladies weave rugs from scraps of cast-off clothing, selling their a handiwork as souvenirs, while next door diamond-encrusted Chopard watches catch the alpine sun from behind bulletproof glass.
From the cow cafe it’s a short walk to the cable car, at the top of which sits Bergrestaurant Eggli (eggli-appenzell.ch), an upmarket pitstop for skiers, where the clean air complements a hearty menu of rösti and fondue, with main courses pricey but worth it, at around £18.50. Gliding out on full stomachs, we find the slopes surprisingly empty. And though the snow isn’t fresh (it has been freakishly warm), it’s neither icy nor slushy. We spend the afternoon free from the menace of piste-brats, flying across deserted expanses of white, amid jaggedly beautiful scenery.
The experience isn’t replicated the following day, though, when we venture 10 miles to Zweisimmen, with its more extensive slope network. Yes, it’s the weekend, but it’s more crowded and the lack of fresh snow is beginning to tell. Still, a hearty welcome awaits at the Hamilton Lodge, a moutainside chalet which offers plumped-up duvets and wonderful views (if you have £180 to splash). For those on tighter budgets, nearby Saanewald Lodge is also “ski-in, ski-out” and has cabin-like rooms from £89 and a Scalextric suite. The feeling of seclusion here is marvellous: you are at 1,500m, perched between the snow and the stars.
If this seems a bit Magic Mountain – clean and healthful but a little bewitched – that’s because Switzerland does retain an other-worldly quality. A final experience captures this perfectly. We take a horse-drawn sleigh, in the freezing but crystal-clear night, to an otherwise snow-bound farmhouse near Lauenen. Tucked under blankets, we glide along for a good 30 minutes, the ground glowing a faint violet and small clouds hanging in the sky above like ghosts on Walpurgis night.
At our destination – the family-run Mattestübli restaurant – Mrs Brand, a woman so proud of her cows that she has a photo album of them, plies us with fondue and kirsch before sending us on our way again. If the spirit of this place is anywhere, it’s here, among ordinary folk who are bemused to find their little home town in the pages of Vanity Fair or Tatler, and prefer the joys of animal husbandry to celebrity-spotting. That’s the kind of Gstaad it would be nice to see more of.
• The trip was provided by the Gstaad Tourism Board (gstaad.ch). Flights were provided by SWISS (swiss.com), which has flights to Geneva from £107 return. Rail tickets were provided by Switzerland Travel System (swisstravelsystem.co.uk); a Swiss Transfer Ticket covering a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination costs from £92