The word understated would not usually apply to a place awash with five-star hotels of extraordinary opulence and a main street lined with Prada, Chopard, Rolex, Hermés, Dolce e Gabbani, Moncler and Bugatti emporia – to name a few.
But Gstaad somehow manages to justify that description. For this small Swiss ski resort with a very big name is also surrounded by 200 working farms and there is a cow for every one of the permanent population – about 7,000 of them, give or take a horned head. The cows’ horned heads that is.
To many of the locals the seasons are still marked not by whether it’s time to ski or to mountain bike, but by when to take the cattle up to the high summer pastures or cowherd them down when the snows come.
They make their own cheese and milk their own cows and split their own logs for the fire just as their families have done for centuries.
But while all this timeless way of life has been going on, Gstaad has also quietly become one of the most desirable, affluent and poshest places on the planet – thanks in part to the patronage of a galaxy of stars from Charlie Chaplin and fashion guru Valentino to Roger Moore, Julie Andrews, George Clooney and Madonna as well as prestigious international boarding schools.
The remarkable thing is that these two strands of life – in many ways polar opposites – have co-existed in seemingly perfect harmony for decades and continue to do so. Not only co-exist but intertwine.
For a village underpinned by wealth on a stunning scale there is no brashness and little overt smugness (I think I’d be very smug indeed if I were a local – a state of affairs that has now become a firm ambition) – and instead there is a welcoming warmth and intimate discretion.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the perfectly splendid Le Grand Bellevue hotel, which I’ve been fortunate enough to call my base while I’ve embedded myself into the daily life of Gstaad.
I think it only goes to confirm the impression that you’re in a very high-end, cosmopolitan sort of place when you discover the owner and managing director of your hotel used to captain Eton at rugby.
Daniel Koetser is the proud possessor of this impressive CV – and now his passion is this elegant, stately 57-guestroom hotel standing rather like a guardian at the entrance to the village. The lovely building is 100 years old but had a total renovation six years ago and now presents a persona of calm luxury and, like the whole village, understated class.
Daniel’s philosophy on hotel-keeping is straightforward: ‘I believe luxury is time, space and uncompromised pampering.’
These are all attributes to be found at Le Grand Bellevue… characteristics copied on the slopes, an expanse of uncrowded, sometimes virtually empty runs. And, like Le Grand Bellevue’s guests, perfectly-groomed.
Yes, the skiing! It’s a little fragmented but we had glorious days up at the Saanenmoser-Schonfried area where our guide Claude Frautschi showed us that the slopes here are much more expansive and varied than many visitors expect. And it often feels you’re skiing your own private mountain because many of Gstaad’s guests either don’t ski much or at least not until they’ve enjoyed a very good, very late breakfast.
The skiing, with access vastly improved by the new Saanersloch gondola, is in a wonderfully scenic setting – and there was more off-piste than I was expecting too, because in good snow you can ski virtually everything you can see.
And we still had the delights of Gstaad’s more local mountain, the Eggli, to come – where our guide there, Claudia von Siebenthal, took us cross-border skiing. In this case cross-border meant from the canton of Bern to that of Vaud, involving a language change from German to French at the village of Rougemont.
And there’s also the interesting Wasserngrat area to ski, both the smallest and steepest in the area, as well as Gstaad’s Glacier 3000, the only skiable glacier in the Bernese Oberland. And then back to Le Grand Bellevue, where one of Gstaad’s most impressive spas as well as one of the most renowned restaurants is waiting.
Le Grand Bellevue:, +41 33 748 0000.
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