Budget skiers on glitzy Gstaad’s guest list
With its five-star hotels, Prada-lined coat racks and dauntingly expensive wine basements, Gstaad is known worldwide as the alpine getaway for the rich and famous. However, like much of its celebrity clientele, the region has recently undergone a substantial facelift.
While the area will always maintain its pedigree image – in the week before I visited, Madonna and Elton John were among its renowned guests – Gstaad is working hard to open itself up as an affordable, family-friendly resort, and so it should. Having stayed for just three nights, my eyes were opened to a culture, history and beauty that can often lie hidden beneath its diamond-crusted slopes.
We landed early morning in Geneva. Travelling to your accommodation is usually a necessary chore, but here it was an immediate highlight. Boarding a charmingly rustic train carriage, we were treated to a breathtaking trip around Lake Geneva, where mist hung in halos above the still, fresh water and the mountainous backdrop reflected perfectly on its surface. Once we reached the other side, a connecting train proved equally worthwhile as we were whisked into the Alps to witness our first glimpse of its spectacular glaciers.
Eventually we arrived in Saanen, which lies just minutes away from Gstaad. Here, our home for the night was the Hotel Spitzhorn – one of these new, affordable accommodations that comes with the tagline of ‘three star prices, four star infrastructure and five star surroundings’. With its warm, wooden architecture and sizeable, well-furnished bedrooms, it’s hard to argue with their logic and the inclusion of an in-house ski-shop avoided the usual scrum that comes with equipment rental.
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The town of Saanen has an interesting history that stretches back to the Bronze Age, when it was used as a base for hill forts by Gallo-Romans. In recent times, it has paled in significance to its glamorous neighbour, but oddly it is actually the capital of the district which incorporates Gstaad. Throughout this district, every building must be designed in Swiss chalet-style by law and the oldest incredibly date back to the 16th century.
Saanen’s strength over usual ski-resorts is its tight-knit community and traditional lifestyle. Our enthusiastic tour guide Marianne was born and bred in Saanen’s mountains as a ‘hunter-girl’ and the labyrinth of local cloth-sellers and quaint, family-run eateries she led us through seemed a mile away from the glitzy high-end boutiques of Gstaad.
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For any traveller, chances are you’ll be eating out before donning a pair of skis. As you would expect in Switzerland, cheese is the order of the day and you’ll be hard pressed to find any establishment that doesn’t come with the option of fondue. On our first night, however, we opted for a finer dining experience at the Sonnenhof restaurant, which sits above the skyline of Staanen and Gstaad and provides views to match its excellent cuisine.
Venture into Gstaad itself and it’s immediately apparent that, for all its glamorous shops, the village has maintained its identity. Cow farming is a huge business in these parts and one of its most amusing tourist spots is a café that shares a glass wall with an adjoining cattle house. Even its famous holidaymakers have been integrated into its heritage – visit the Olden hotel and you’ll find a beautiful selection of beer glasses painted by its old matron for past regulars such as Frank Sinatra and Liz Taylor.
There’s plenty to explore round every corner and, in the summer, Gstaad continues to bustle with a host of music festivals – which often draw some of the world’s most famous country artists – and sporting activities including the world’s highest ATP tennis tournament. The main attraction, however, will always be its winter activities and Gstaad’s seven surrounding mountains offer countless stunning slopes, featuring everything from easy beginner runs to high-octane glacier challenges.
Cable cars are accessible minutes from Gstaad station and, even from Saanen, it’s only a short drive to ascend its nearest and most accessible mountain, Eggli. In the week we went, the snow wasn’t as thick as you might hope, thanks to a freak bout of sunshine, but it was more than ski-able and a good guide will help you navigate a landscape which is surely too large to discover alone.
The trip provided many highpoints but there was one which stood shoulders above the rest. On paper, being carted to one restaurant by a horse-drawn sleigh sounded a tad cheesy, but it was undoubtedly one of the most moving and magical experiences of my life.
Wrapped up warm to fend off the 8pm alpine chill, we were pulled into the heart of the Lauenen mountains by two giant horses, who both sported an atmospheric pair of sleigh-bells throughout. The route was along no clear road and suddenly we were being towed through forest pathways with not another soul in sight. Walled in by glaciers that could swallow the tallest skyscrapers, the moon illuminated every snowy peak and more than one person admitted to feeling overwhelmingly insignificant in their midst.
Eventually we broke through to a clearing - the frozen lake of Lauenen - and there among the mountains was a solitary wood cabin restaurant, Mattestübli, looking homely with its amber-lit windows. Upon entering, we were immediately greeted with plates of thinly-sliced dried beef before the fondue finally had its moment.
Local to the canton, the cheese of choice was a delicious melted Gruyère. Intriguingly, we were given chunks of cubed bread to dip but were first encouraged to soak them in schnapps. Because of the undeniably gluttonous amount of cheese you eat – the simple meal is moreish to the point of addiction – water actually hinders digestion, so alcohol is biologically the best choice. Naturally as Brits, we were glad to finally have an excuse.
Wherever you go in Gstaad, for whatever meal, cheese is bound to feature and the logic is that you quickly burn it off skiing. Some of the runs really do stretch on and it’s amazing how quickly you regain your appetite. Halfway down the Saanenmöser mountain pass, there are two good places to catch a meal, have a coffee or even stay the night.
Saanewald Lodge reopened last year after being converted from a mid-mountain youth hostel and provides basic, but very affordable accommodation perfect for younger tourist groups. Even though we just stayed for lunch, it proved a great afternoon pit-stop – partly because nearby lies a long ski jump where even novices can launch themselves in the air and onto a huge bouncy castle-style landing bay. It proved heaps of fun.
For a more-prolonged stay on the mountain, it’s worth slipping down just a short while to the Hamilton Lodge. As with nearly all of these new, budget-friendly hotels, this too only opened last year. With a roaring fire and its own endearing range of crockery, this was certainly the cosiest accommodation we visited and its rooms are a step up from the already impressive Spitzhorn. Its only downside is that cable car is the only way to access it, so the Hamilton Lodge is not for those wishing to explore the towns below most evenings – you really have to shack up for the night.
Around any of these mountains, you won’t have to go far to find a new building popping up and there’s clear evidence that the area is opening its doors to the wider public. For some, I’m sure the attraction lies in Gstaad’s exclusive image and there are still more five-star hotels and private lodges than you could shake a ski-pole at. On a broader scale, however, its increased affordability can only be a good thing. Its rich history and local culture are selling-points that even the most tight-walletted traveller can enjoy and, besides, when you’re both standing at the foot of a starlit mountain, you and Madonna won’t seem that different in grandeur anyway.