Sarah Alder of Siegriswil near Thun has been living in Gstaad since autumn 2010 where she works as a sales assistant in a sports shop. She enjoys spending her free time in the natural surroundings of Gstaad. The colourful paragliders above the ski slope fascinated her from the start, and this gave her the idea to end a day’s skiing with an eventful tandem flight offered by a local paragliding company.
‘It is a terrific feeling to fly over the snow-covered winter wonderland of the holiday region of Gstaad. In the winter time, such a flight is usually so quiet that you can enjoy a Prosecco while you are up there. You subsequently get a DVD to take home with you as a reminder of this great experience.’
Frau Lupi, a charming ski instructor of a certain age, is a scion of a family that has lived in Gstaad for centuries. She is, therefore, the ideal guide for a walking tour of the village.
As luminous strains of a classical concert waft from the tiny village chapel, Frau Lupi and I stroll through the car-free, living Alpine museum that is Gstaad. Prettily painted doors are lined with lace curtains. Ancient weatherworn pine chalets stand solid and proud. Boutiques are filled with glittering prizes. Yet not a speck, gram nor whiff of dirt is to be spied – not bad for a farming community surrounded by fat cows and thoroughbred horses.
In genteel Gstaad, skiing is more of a pastime than sport. With a menu of pleasant diversions from sleigh rides to ballooning to internationally renowned music festivals, skiing is another way to top up the tan between cocktails and multicourse dinners. And, if you want a decent underground pool in your chalet, Gstaad is the place. Since 1957, a law has enforced a three-storey limit on chalets, so instead, they build below decks. “The deepest chalets we hear of,” Frau Lupi shares, “are ones that go five levels down.”
OK, so when you have an eight-floor chalet, going outside may not be a priority.
But first things first. Gstaad skiing is divided into five separate zones across 220km of pistes. To maximise your time on the slopes (or make it down in time for your spa appointment) it’s best to choose one for the day. The largest, sector one, includes Schönried, Saanenmöser, Zweisimmen and St Stephan, with 105km of flattering pistes speckled with inns and snow bars. But Frau Lupi and I head instead to the zone closest to town – Gstaad-Saanen-Rougemont –where we practically have the place to ourselves.
We schuss along the Röstigraben – the border between German- and French-speaking Switzerland running through the heart of the ski area. Aided at the bottom onto the Chalberhöni chairlift with a “Danke”, we rise from fried potatoes to fondue in one short sweep. By the time we reach the top, its name has changed to Les Gouilles and off we slide with a “Merci et bon ski”.
This bijou resort boasts undulating, intermediate terrain with gentle runs that tilt pleasantly this way and that. But being a resort of low, safe pistes comes at a price. Most of the runs top out around 2,000m, vulnerable territory when only 60 per cent are covered with snow cannons. But a 10-year investment programme that began in 2008 promises to spend £113m on lifts and snow making. The ace in the hole is the snow-sure Glacier 3000, a 20-minute drive away. It guarantees spectacular views and one of the longest downhills in the region. Not to be missed is one of the loveliest – and scariest – mountain restaurants in the Alps, Refuge L’Espace: a tiny cabin nailed to the rock at 2,890m. Who knows who your fellow diners might be?
Nearby, you can dance the night away in the louche basement cave at the Olden, and the yodelling club still meets every week at the stammtisch of the Posthotel Rössli. But Frau Lupi assures me that Gstaad is understated, reserved, Swisser than Swiss. If new money never sleeps, old money never talks: when Roman Polanski lived in exile in Gstaad, I’m told that not one resident blabbed to the press about his whereabouts.
Visit the Palace Hotel today and the management are equally discreet about their celebrity guests (although they do confirm that Maurice Chevalier, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were here in the past).
This landmark hotel is a Sleeping Beauty confection of turrets, towers and dedicated lift attendants. “The social crossroads of Gstaad” is how third-generation proprietor Andrea Scherz describes it. “Our guests want the snow, but they don’t necessarily ski,” he admits. “It is like going to the sea and not swimming but?” He waves his hand about the scented air to indicate countless competing amusements.
To see Gstaad in all its dimensions though, you need to meet a parapente pilot such as Thomas, and persuade him to take you to the peak of Wispile. Together we ran off the side of the mountain, sailing silently over a valley full of handsome rooftops. The only sound was the gentle flap of our sail and a reassuring pop as he poured me a mid-air flute of champagne. Forget the shopping trip where Roman Abramovich tried to buy up all the property in Corchevel from the confines of a helicopter thundering above it, my aerial tour of billionaire- clad Gstaad was unbeatable.
Thomas executed a jaunty swing to zoom in on Johnny Hallyday’s house, followed by a swift-angled slide to glimpse Chez Ecclestone. Risking a slosh of champagne across my fur collar (my small effort to blend in – a girl’s gotta try), I asked “What about that one?” as we whooshed over a shingled hideaway. That, revealed Thomas, was the hideaway of Gstaad’s most elusive resident, Polanski.
As I waited at the station to leave this playground of the rich and farmland of the blessed, I recalled a story about another Gstaad devotee, Field Marshal Montgomery.
On the day when Monty was called to war, he took one last run, unstrapped his skis, and propped them in a rack at the station. A few years later returning victorious from battle at El Alamein, he picked up the skis from the rack and hit the slopes. I bet he skied straight to lunch.
The nearest airport to Gstaad is Bern, which is served from London City by SkyWork (00 413 1960 2194; flyskywork.com).
Many more flights are available to Geneva, which is about two hours away by train. The main airline is easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), although flights are also available on Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Bmibaby (0844 2450055; bmibaby.com) and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com).
The writer stayed at Gstaad Palace Hotel (00 413 3748 5000; palace.ch), where doubles start from Sfr720 (£509) half board. It opens for the winter season on 16 December 2011 until 13 March 2012.
Time To Fly Paragliding (00 417 6470 1010; timetofly.ch). Guided parapente flights costs Sfr170 (£120).