GSTAAD, in the German-speaking canton of Berne, is about as ritzy a resort as you can get. It’s got the prices and celebrity factor of Verbier, but it’s smaller. Much smaller. And therefore, much classier – like a rare tiny diamond instead of a bling-tastic shop window.
Not that there aren’t bling-tastic shop windows in Gstaad – pretty much the only shops, aside from those selling fine French salami and Swiss wine at astronomical prices, sell designer-wear. Prada and Hermes (large ones at that) sit on the main street, alongside other shops catering to the super-affluent of Europe.
Apres-ski here is reputedly a thing of low-key luxury – Champagne, fondue, then bed. Unless, of course, you’re young and beautiful and blasé about sleep – then you head to the GreenGo in the Gstaad Palace hotel, a retro-style club that’s all chandeliers, banquettes, P-Diddy and Grey Goose.
As a matter of fact, we had occasion to stop in at the GreenGo as we were staying at the Gstaad Palace, so one evening after dinner we tripped down and had a look. It was quieter than normal as it was low-season, but still pretty busy. Having spent an early evening gaping at the beautiful patchwork green valley from our balcony, though, the Snoop Dog meets Euro-royalty vibe didn’t particularly appeal.
The Gstaad Palace looks just like a toy castle, with turrets and verandas and flags waving cheerily. It’s one of the most iconic of Gstaad’s luxury hotels – and it feels like it, perched on a hill above the town, all beautiful lawns, tennis courts, swimming pools (heated indoor-outdoor and near-Olympic size) and gorgeous spa. There are lots of antlers decking the walls and the furnishing – much of it thickly embroidered armchairs – is reminiscent of a Medieval king’s. Opened in 1913, the Palace was a celebrity hotspot and embodied all the glamour of the 1920s and then some. Two world wars nearly drove it into the ground but in the end it was always pulled back from the brink by investors. It’s in pretty good shape now; around 90m swiss francs has been spent redoing it since 1940.
But we weren’t in Gstaad to simply lounge in outdoor jacuzzis gazing at cows with bells round their necks, or to gobble sausages and potato rosti. As classical music lovers, we were drawn by the world-class Menuhin Festival, one of the best (if not the best) such festival in Europe. With a programme of superstars – this year’s includes Julia Fischer, Anne Sophie Von Otter, Maurice Steger and Angela Hewitt – it’s one reason to seek Gstaad out in summer. Certainly, the Brahms violin concerto and singing recital we saw were glorious. The crowd is super-glamorous, too: this is the Proms on five-star steroids. The Palace offers shuttles to the concerts, which is handy.
There are other reasons to visit Gstaad in summer, as we discovered. The region, called Saanen, is a Swiss postcard of tinkling cowbells and quaint chalets (the prices aren’t quaint – even the smaller ones cost €1m – so the locals who grew up in such houses are rather smiley). And if it’s great to ski here in winter, in summer, the hiking is excellent. We, however, shunned the hikes and did the lazy alternative: air biking (where the bike speeds along with something that feels like a motor, but isn’t, so going uphill is easy) and taking a chair lift up to a peak for a fondue lunch before scootering down. It was hair-raising flying down after local guide Ruth, a golden-haired elk-shooter’s wife in her 60s, and my friend fell off his scooter once or twice. But we made it down, scrapes and all, feeling jubilant from our tour of the great Swiss outdoors.
In Gstaad, prices are steep, but you can drive a short way away to the village of Saanen and find something more reasonable – certainly, something very delicious. We had a picturesque lunch outdoors, sun beating down on us as more rosti, platters of meat and cheese, a Toblerone fondue (yup) and Bernese red wine was brought out. Go to Gstaad in summer for the music alone – or go for the fresh air and hikes, or the luxurious Gstaad Palace. My recommendation is to go for all three.
The Menuhin Festival runs from 20 July-8 September 2012. For full details and booking, go to www.menuhinfestivalgstaad.ch. Staying at Gstaad Palace during the summer season (until 23 September) in a double standard room, starts from 650 CHF (£478), per room per night. Price includes half board (lunch or dinner), all taxes and service. Children 0-3 years go for free. For more information on activities, events, accommodation and restaurants in Gstaad, visit www.gstaad.ch