Gstaad. The very name drips with glamour. Visions of elegant women dressed head to toe in vintage fur and chic gentlemen in cashmere rollnecks spring to mind. Slim Aarons loved to photograph the comings and goings of the glitterati in this quiet alpine village high in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. And you can easily see why. Not a snowflake is out of place on the eaves and rafters of the centuries-old chalets. Luxury boutiques – from Louis Vuitton to Loro Piana – line the pedestrianised high street, and horse-drawn carriages carry residents and visitors alike from restaurants and bars up to the hotels that Gstaad is so famous for.
Julie Andrews, a long-time resident of Gstaad, once said that the village is ‘the last paradise in a crazy world’. Certainly the social set seem to agree. Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco had a chalet here, as did Yehudi Menuhin and Peter Sellers. Gunter Sachs and Brigitte Bardot and Gianni Agnelli and Porfirio Rubirosa were louche regulars. In the town centre, a cattle trough (with a tap offering fresh water for human – as well as bovine – passers-by) features a bronze sculpture of a cow by Liza Todd-Tivey, and the sponsor plaque reads like a who’s who of high society: Vivien Duffield, Bernie Ecclestone and Liza’s own mother, the late Elizabeth Taylor.
Of course, whilst you can easily come to Gstaad simply for the hotels, food, shopping and people-watching (and many people do), you’d be foolish not to at least try donning your skis and carving up the slopes at the top of Eggli or channelling your inner Roger Moore whilst slaloming down the Wasserngrat’s Tiger Run. The beauty of Gstaad’s pistes (there are 200km of them) is that they are relatively quiet even in peak season, with many visitors preferring to enjoy everything else the village has to offer. Furthermore, unlike many French resorts, the Swiss have strict rules to ensure the mountains remain relatively undeveloped. Trees are everywhere, with the occasional summer mountain refuge buried in snow offering excellent selfie material. You might even persuade Madonna to join you.
But Gstaad is far from just a playboys’ playground. It is a working farming community with over 200 farms, 7,000 cows and a population of more than 9,000 people. Karin Bach-Fleuti, who offers guided tours of the village and surrounding countryside, is married to a farmer whose family have farmed the land in Gstaad since the 13th century. And her brother in-law is co-owner of Gstaad’s newest – and arguably finest – hotel: The Alpina Gstaad, which opened in late 2012, and is the first luxury hotel to land in the village in a century.
Le Rosey, the famous alma mater of the Aga Khan and the King of Belgium, has its winter campus in Gstaad, and during the ski season the parents of pupils descend en-masse, renting suites at The Palace, the Alpina and the Bellevue, and leasing chalets in Saanen and Lauenen. And it is in these private spaces, behind closed doors and timber-clad stone walls, that the real magic happens. From multi-billion-pound business deals to fantastically indulgent parties, the pretty alpine architecture gives nothing away. Many chalets are like London townhouses – icebergs with vast spas and underground garages for classic car collections.
Gentleman’s Journal contributor Taki Theodoracopulos is known for his cutting wit and sharp tongue, and it is in his High Life column for the Spectator that he offers a glimpse into the secretive lives of Gstaad’s super-elite. Apart from being a grandson of the former Prime Minister of Greece and the oldest life-member of the exclusive Eagle Ski Club (he joined in 1958), Taki is also known for his frank-talking. He can’t stand new money, and perhaps this is where the first cracks in Gstaad’s glossy façade begin to show. For there is a quiet war going on in Gstaad between the new crowd and the old. Between those who have holidayed here for generations and those who are new to the show.
A few years ago, Taki told a local Gstaad journalist “I liked Gstaad in the 1950’s and 60’s so much. It was so tiny in those days. Then, when we were in Switzerland, we acted Swiss. We played by the rules. We didn’t drive fast, or fight, or show off, or break the law. It made Gstaad unique. These pigs that come here now…Europe has given in to money. Once we let it in, there’s no going back.” Taki recently moved to a new chalet high up on the Wispile, in an isolated area away from the crowds. Living in his old chalet — on the Oberbort (Gstaad’s answer to Kensington Palace Gardens) — became untenable due to overdevelopment of surrounding chalets: “I couldn’t live up there anymore; I couldn’t stand to hear Ferraris zoom by and a knock at my door every two minutes.”
"I couldn't stand to hear Ferraris zoom by and a knock at my door every two minutes..."
The high point of Gstaad’s calendar is New Year. This is when the jet-set descend and the Krug seriously flows. And with the Palace’s GreenGo nightclub closed during the pandemic, there has recently been space in the market that The Alpina quickly jumped into. The loading bay in the basement of the hotel became a night club and the great and the good of Gstaad (and indeed the world) soon filled the room. However, the real parties take place away from prying eyes and the paparazzi — a few years ago, Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev reportedly bought two chalets in the ground of The Alpina for $130m each (with a pool complex linking the two), and rumour has it that at last year he flew in David Guetta to entertain his guests by the pool for New Year’s Eve.
There may be billions sloshing around in the slush at the foot of the Wasserngrat (the black run where Le Rosey students practice the slalom), but compared to other alpine rivieras, Gstaad does maintain some degree of sophistication and discretion. It’s virtually impossible to develop land in Gstaad, and when you do the regulations are tight. It took over a decade to build the Alpina, and every rule was adhered to – no more than six storeys in the alpine vernacular with local reclaimed stone and wood. The Palace is the only building that sticks out like a sore thumb, but has become so iconic we’ll forgive its pastiche and gaudy exterior. Unlike Courcheval or St Moritz, where it’s tempting to flash the cash with magnums of Cristal complete with sparklers, Gstaad prides itself on its refinement. You’re much more likely to spot a quiet couple in the corner discretely enjoying a 1986 Chateau Lafite, than garish displays of ostentation.
Gstaad’s motto is ‘Come up, Slow down’ and there is no better way to sum up a week in this tranquil alpine hideaway. As your train (or hotel Tesla) zig-zags up the mountain, you feel the tensions and stresses of life fall away. There is no doubt that Gstaad remains a glitzy and expensive destination for socialites and celebrities, but the slow pace of life, established local community and quality skiing make it well-worth a visit for anyone who enjoys mountains, fresh air, good food and wine and the great outdoors.
Gstaad: The Inside Line
How to get there
In the UK we expect trains to run late and cancellations are commonplace. But in Switzerland they unsurprisingly run like clockwork. After a direct connection from Geneva Airport to Montreux, grab yourself a seat on the magnificent Belle Epoque GoldenPass mountain train which will wind up the mountain to central Gstaad, offering fabulous views down to Lake Geneva and the mountains beyond.
Swiss Air is unbeatable both for its impeccable timings and service, and its generous baggage allowance that includes snow sports equipment and even bikes.
Where to stay
The Alpina Gstaad is the first luxury hotel to be built in Gstaad in a century. The Alpina is flush with facilities, including a cinema, ball room and daily fitness classes in the gym. From the Six Senses Spa (the first to open Switzerland) with its indoor and outdoor pools and ‘healing grotto’ built with chunky bricks of dusty-pink Himalayan rock salt, to the embossed leather walls and subtle alpine motifs in the bedrooms (the bedside lamps are fashioned from oversized Swiss cow bells), the Alpina treads the fine line between being a grand dame and a boutique hotel. Rooms are exquisitely furnished with centuries-old Swiss farm cabinets and lovely textures of leather, stone, wood and fabric. The range of food on offer at the hotel’s three restaurants is excellent (from the Michelin starred Sommet to the famous Megu, a Japanese restaurant that attracts diners from all over Switzerland), and the service is confident and efficient, albeit a little stiff and formal.
Rooms at The Alpina Gstaad from CHF 980 per night (about £855), based on single occupancy. Breakfast and access to spa included.
What to do
Apart from the obvious skiing and shopping, there are plenty of other things to do in Gstaad. From snow-shoeing and skinning to cheese-making, whether you ski or not there’s plenty to keep you busy. If you’re a bit of a daredevil, try your hand at paragliding from the top of the Wasserngrat for a true birds-eye view of the village below.
Tandem flights with Paragliding Gstaad cost from CHF190 (about £150)