I’m walking along, sniffing the air – there’s an undoubted scent of 1970s playboy here. I’ve just walked past Gunter Sachs’s old chalet, now an art gallery. There’s the local chapel where you’ll find Roman Polanski occasionally creeping in for mass, and the quaint chalet-style Hotel Olden owned by Bernie Ecclestone. The ghosts of these and other famous Gstaad residents – David Niven, Richard Burton and Peter Sellers – haunt these streets.
Sitting high up in the Swiss Alps, Gstaad is known as a retreat for the glitzy and glamorous. The village was built up with the advent of the train line in 1905 and rapidly became a winter stop for high society, drawn to its creamy mountains. And they have come in their numbers over the years – playboys, royalty, writers, actors and others.
The village is dominated by the Palace Hotel, a fairytale construction sitting on a hill, four baroque turrets on each corner with flags flapping boldly in the breeze. As I’m shuffling through the revolving door I’m reminded of a scene from The Return of the Pink Panther where Inspector Clouseau gets himself trapped inside this very entrance in one of the most amusing and ridiculous bits of cinema history. It’s a strangely apt introduction to the place. Because while it is a location that’s fit for a king there is a minor hint of slapstick about the Palace.
Class and wealth ooze from every crevice. The restaurants are all premier cru. The lobby area is grand with a huge fire and champagne bottles propped up on little lounge tables waiting for folk to come and sip.
But there’s also this distinct feeling of the seventies. It’s the touches from a different era – the tasselled brass key instead of the electronic key-card; the sand-coloured carpets and mauve walls of the bedrooms; the tartan lift; the fondue restaurant located in an ex-bunker in the basement. Most of all the Green Go nightclub where Peter Sellers and co partied, still done up as it was in the 1970s, with a swimming pool which has a retractable dancefloor hovering over it. It’s tat and kitsch and the drinks are a minimum of 35 Swiss francs. I love it.
Gazing out over the mountains, which look like triangular bits of Toblerone sprinkled with sugar, I see the boutiques in the village get ready to up shutters as farmers stir cows in sheds ready to perform agriculture. It’s a picturesque scene. There’s just one thing missing – snow. Gstaad has had its driest December since 1864.
Last night in the lobby people weren’t overly concerned by the lack of white stuff outside. In amongst the bottles of champagne and the tinkling of the piano the world seemed quite at ease. The thing is that only half the people at the Palace will come here to ski. Most of them come to chinwag, rubberneck and relax in the general atmosphere of wellbeing. I, however, am nonplussed. I want to ski.
Gstaad has got some amazing slopes – 220km of them to be precise. There’s even a ski-able glacier – the Glacier 3000 owned by Bernie Ecclestone which gives you views of 24 of the highest Alpine peaks. But what to do without any snow? The Alps in general are suffering a bit of a drought at the moment as global warming takes its toll here. It’s certainly pushing back the ski season and has had an impact on the visitor numbers, I’m told. Fortunately, there are options. Saanenmöser, situated 15 minutes up the road from Gstaad village, has artificial snow shot out of a cannon and is open, so that is where I go.
The green and blue slopes aren’t overly busy today. It’s mainly kids. Many of them will be practised from a toddling age. Some come from the nearby boarding school, Le Rosey, which has its ‘winter campus’ in Gstaad. Some – though I doubt it – may even be from the Eagle ski club restaurant set high up on the private Wasserngrat mountain which charges £25,000 for membership, as well as having a three year waiting list that you need to be invited to which might retard things.
though the super-rich have been bringing their superbly eccentric ways to Gstaad for many years, things are changing.
No doubt about it this is an extremely exclusive set. But the thing about Gstaad is that despite the wealth around, it is all secreted behind this old-world air of discretion. A kind of understated bashfulness.
Having slipped around Clouseau-like on the slopes, I head back and take a walk through the village. I notice it there again. There are the rows of boutiques – Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chopard – stuffed full of stingray leather wallets, jewelled jeans, tortoise hats and so on. But all the buildings here – except for the Palace – are in the traditional chalet style and you won’t get a sense of their luxury from outside. The high-end shops are where the old greengrocers or butchers used to be. The locals, you see, place greater emphasis on the Swiss mountain life. The deluxe is transitory. It’s the cows and the mountains that are real. For every Dolce & Gabbana there’s the smell of kuhmist (cow shit) in the air. If you want to show off you should go to St Moritz.
The classic, understated sensibility is reflected in the newest five-star hotel, the Alpina, which is located opposite the Palace, and opened in 2012. While it’s on the same high ground as the Palace it’s hard to see from the outside. You enter through a discreet underground access somewhat like a James Bond villain’s lair. Inside it opens up spectacularly. Though the place was built out of local limestone and timber from nearby reservoirs and barns, it’s done to such a high-tech, swish standard that it really takes the breath away.
From the pristine oak and white modernity of the rooms to the ayurvedic food and Tibetan treatments, the heated outdoor pool and mega spa in the basement, everything is modern wellbeing perfection. I eat at the Japanese restaurant, MEGU, where I get my head addled by the sake tasting course, then go and stare at the heap of modern art decorating the walls by the likes of Tracey Emin and Roy Nachum, including the rather inventively titled ‘Fuck You Goethe’, by Jana Euler. After it all I tumble down downstairs to the spa complex and sweat out in the beautiful wellness area.
Feeling a little discombobulated by this washing machine rejuvenation experience I retire back to the Palace. Despite its mauve contrast to the Alpina’s James Bond cream aesthetic, I can’t help but feel a bit more homely here. I think it’s time to rebalance my own way.
That evening I visit La Fromagerie, the Palace’s fondue restaurant located in an underground bunker in the basement which, they say, stored UBS’s gold in the second world war. The fare is simple and laid back, as Swiss as you like, and there’s no dress code here unlike the requirement for a jacket in the hotel’s other restaurants. There is still that gilded edge, however: in this case the champagne truffles mixed into the melting cheese which eventually coagulates into a heart attack-threatening crusted pancake at the bottom.
Tony the gregarious Italian maitre d’ who has been here for 17 years warns of his own struggles with melted cheese though I don’t believe him – he looks like he has the constitution of an ox.
While at dinner I get tales of the people who come here, like the family staying in the penthouse whose claustrophobic dog required its own grass lawn installed so it could do its business; or the guest who ordered 25 litres of Evian water each day so she could wash her hair and brush teeth; or the short-statured man who had his entire suite raised by 60cm so that he could view the valley from his window a little better.
But though the super-rich have been bringing their superbly eccentric ways to Gstaad for many years, things are changing. There’s less inclination to spend €1,000 per night on a hotel these days. For those seeking less expensive digs, there are other options like the charming three-star Hotel Spitzhorn located down the valley in Saanen, or the traditional Hamilton Lodge, up the valley in Zweisimmen. Both are fine Dutch-run institutions, quirky and neat additions to the Gstaad set-up. There’s even a youth hostel here now. It won’t really cater for a bunk-bed vacation – the food and drink prices will see to that – but it’s not all billionaire prices.
Walking in the village again, seeing the faded ghosts of the past, I wonder if something of Gstaad’s old spiritus mundi has disappeared. Roger Moore, for one, has left. Peter Sellers with tache and sideburns will never be seen getting trapped in the front door again. It’s a new crowd. I can’t imagine Madonna ever getting trapped in the revolving doors – for a joke, you know.
Yet Gstaad will always have a place in history for those who come and have a reverence for the good old days where champagne bubbles wink and extravagance rules (albeit they won’t talk about it). Come and wrap up in its warm bubble as life, pitiless, continues turning elsewhere.
For more info on the Gstaad Palace, see palace.ch