Gstaad is renowned as one of Switzerland’s rock star & royalty type ski resorts. But this haven for the elite also has plenty for everyone as Bronwen Gora reports.
Gstaad for the A-Listers
The list of Gstaad’s rich and famous clientele reads like a who’s who of Hollywood. Past and present visitors and residents include Julie Andrews and Roger Moore. Elizabeth Taylor once owned a Gstaad chalet she often shared with her good friend Michael Jackson, and earlier frequented local hotels with then husband Richard Burton. Tina Turner has patronised the Palace Hotel’s nightclub, as has Madonna, who holidays in Gstaad for at least a week most winters. She stays at the chalet of her close friend, designer Valentino, and takes lessons with the same instructor she has hired for years. Motor racing king Bernie Ecclestone owns one of the Gstaad’s most revered and historic hotels, The Olden. Ecclestone and co. will most likely be in town straight after attending the festivities at Kitzbuhel’s annual Hahnenkamm downhill race in January.
Ferraris are commonplace in the narrow streets, while shops on the central pedestrian promenade include fashion’s biggest names such as Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Versace.
Then there is the world’s most expensive private school, La Rosey, where fees are around $A100,000 a year, another big drawcard for the salubrious clientele who frequent the resort. To top it off, Gstaad has some of the best restaurants in Switzerland, as well as several five star deluxe hotels, including the superb Grand Park.
Gstaad for the people
At heart though Gstaad is still a town with its roots firmly entrenched in dairy farming and village life. There are said to be more cows than people, and they can definitely be seen, heard and smelt. Medieval buildings and traditional homes are everywhere, beautifully detailed with ornate carvings and artwork. At the novel Stallbeizli, a café built right next to a barn and milking shed, a glass pane separates patrons from the bovines producing the milk, cream and cheese they consume.
Gstaad Ski Options
Gstaad has much to offer skiers, with vast ski slopes spanning five regions. The majority of runs are long and easy, terrific for cruising. They tend to be much wider than those found in many European resorts, making for a pleasant change.
Saanenmoser is the largest of Gstaad’s five local areas with 85km of runs. I had the privilege of being shown around by one of Gstaad’s long time ski instructors, Christine Welten, a born and bred local who once lived in Australia but could not resist returning to her home town.
We cruise seemingly endless kilometres of long, smooth undulating intermediate runs around Saanerslochgrat, before stopping for a drink at an ice bar carved in the snow. It is right by Gstaad’s Igloo Hotel, one of several perched in the peaks of ski resorts around Switzerland. We can’t help but wander inside for a look, and it’s fascinating. As far as igloos go this must definitely rate five star. Everything down to the flush toilets is carved from snow – the reception desk, the restaurant, and the network of rooms which run off a network of icy white corridors. Animal skins and furs cover the ‘mattresses’, and the walls of every guest room are carved with animals from sea creatures to, yes, even koalas sitting in eucalyptus trees.
We keep skiing, or more accurately cruising, Saanenmoser’s lengthy slopes and choose the 1800m high Hotel Hornfluh for lunch, taking our seats on the enormous sun-drenched balcony to enjoy traditional fare before an unbroken mountain panorama. Bliss.
Hotel Hornfluh is your classic beautiful alpine Swiss lodge: carved wooden everything, cow bells and red and white chequered tablecloths inside, skiers decked out in colourful suits soaking up rays and drinking beer outside. We feast on Kaseschnitte – a delicious and most traditional Swiss dish of bread soaked in wine and topped with cheese and various additions from ham to onions and more cheese – bratwurst, and a freshly prepared dessert of cream-filled pastry that is light as a feather. Afterwards we wonder out loud if we will ever feel hungry again.
Gstaad’s other ski areas are Eggli and Wispile, accessible from town with lifts running right to the street, while further afield are Wasserngrat and Rellerli. These are all connected by free ski bus, while the local buses access the nearby Chatau d’Oex and Glacier 3000.
Glacier 3000 is the highest, and if you don’t feel like waiting for the bus a ski plane will whisk you up to the glacier there instead.
All regions are covered by the one lift pass that can be bought and also topped up online or at the ticket offices. Night skiing is possible at Rinderberg and Wispile.
One of the three-star hotels in the new crop appearing here is Saanewald, a ski-in ski-out lodge perched around 1500m on the slopes at Saanenmoser. Saanewald was originally built in the mid 1960s and reopened in 2012 still sporting a 60s feel and serving hamburgers with local Simmentaler beef at its restaurant. Another ski-in ski-out property that is a little more expensive, yet not in the $1000-a-night league, is the Hamilton Lodge, while in the valley at Saanen a recent addition to the choice of affordable lodging is Hotel Spitzhorn.
Saanen, a small town a few minutes away from Gstaad, is undergoing a chic transformation from medieval farming village into stylish spot with sparkling new stores, delis groaning with cheese and elegant little cafes popping up in the carefully renovated historic buildings.
Gstaad Snow Bike Festival
While skiers hit Gstaad’s slopes in late January dozens of athletes gather far below in town for the annual Snow Bike Festival’s main event, a race for the fat-tyre bikes especially designed for snow and ice that are fast gaining popularity worldwide.
The 4-day festival is a sign of changing times for Gstaad. Tourism bodies are aiming to make the elite enclave more attractive to regular skiers and snowboarders, hence the emerging trend for more affordable hotels, as well as the Snow Bike Festival during which all things fat-bike are celebrated.
Gstaad has been a favourite of the well-heeled since the early 1900s, after gaining a reputation among celebrities for its understated charm. It helped too that Gstaad had, and has, a Palace Hotel. Now just over 100 years old, it is still as popular as ever despite $1000-a-night rooms nestled within a castle-like façade, complete with flags fluttering from the turrets.
Getting to Gstaad
Geneva is 2 hours 40 mins by rail, 2 hours by car; Zurich 3:15 by rail & 2:50 hours by road.
travel info www.myswitzerland.com
Resort info here
packages www.travelplan.com.au www.mogulski.com.au
private instructor bookings To book instructor Christine Welten, or other private instructors, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Snow Bike Festival www.snowbikefestival.com