Glorious Gstaad

STORY BY Patrick Thorne 9th September 2013

There’s something special about skiing, or indeed snowboarding, in Gstaad.  It’s not so much the 250 kilometres of piste that stretch right up to the snow sure Glacier 3000 slopes on the road over to neighbouring Les Diablerets, although that’s very impressive.  It’s not even the pedestrianized village centre, lined with designer shops and welcoming bars and restaurants, although very nice too.  It’s something about the ambience of the place, you can feel the ski history oozing out of it.

One of the world’s most famous ski resorts for almost a century, Gstaad really got on the map from 1917 when the exclusive school, ‘Le Rosey’, decided to open an annual winter campus for the children of royalty, politicians, show business stars and leading figures of business and industry, with the Palace Hotel  catering for the parents of these illustrious offspring.  As the children who had become attached to the resort returned as adults the resort thrived in the post war decades.

To do Gstaad right you need to arrive by train.  Only two hours from Geneva this is one of the easiest Swiss resorts to get to and as you come up the valley you’ll pass several of the smaller ski areas above Château-d’Oex (where the famous actor David Niven set up home and also the starting point of the successful circumnavigation of the globe in 1999 by the Breitling Orbiter balloon) and Rougemont.  Pass these and you also leave French speaking Switzerland and you’re in the destination Gstaad in the German speaking Bernese Oberland.

The railway continues on along the valley floor passing more ski areas – all now inter-linked together by lifts and runs on the slopes too to create Gstaad’s largest skiing sector above Schönried, Saanenmöser and Zweisimmen and although there are bus services this is really the way to ski Gstaad each day – jump on the train, included on your lift pass, travel to whichever sector you fancy, jump off and it’s a short walk to the ski lifts at each station.

The local Wispile area has some village level nursery slopes, and an easy run at the top of the mountain accessed by a two stage gondola.  There’s a long intermediate and a long black run from the top station back to the valley.  Most of the rest of the terrain at all the other ski areas is graded either easy (60%) or intermediate (30%) and most of it takes place on wide open trails cut through thin woodland on north facing slopes and meadows on the lower slopes.

The advanced ski runs are dotted around the area with most of the individual areas having at least one good long black to try.  There’s good off piste opportunities to tackle with a guide and heliskiing is also available.

From Glacier3000, the only skiable glacier in Bernese Oberland, there’s a wonderfully long run down to the valley, with one short chasirlift link en route down to make the full 1650m (5414feet) vertical, it’s a must ski during your.

Although mountain tourism took hold more than a century ago now with the coming of the Montreux-Oberland (MOB) railway in 1905, the Saanenland still has an active agricultural life and, alongside the fur coats, 7000 cows – one for every local – and 90 Alpcheese farms.

Although there are plenty of excellent hotels in Gstaad, for the full experience it has to be the Palace, which is 100 years old this year.  It’s one of the world’s classic ski hotels since the early years of winter sports travel.  Let’s face it, if the visitor’s book includes Joan Crawford, Henry Ford III, Danny de Vito, Jimmy Carter, William Shatner and Bob Hope it has to be good.

It’s not hard to see why.  The snow services are seamless with a shuttle to slopes, lift pass printed in the hotel, latest gear supplied by the Silver Sport shop on site and all adventures, including spectacular heliski experiences if you like.

There is a phenomenal 20,000 square foot spa beneath the hotel cand half a dozen bars and restaurants to peruse, the best, in terms of its 16 Gault Millau gourmet guide points, the intimate Le Grill Rôtisserie, seating 35, where chefs cook meals to order in an open show kitchen.

To end the day the hotel’s GreenGo nightclub is not ashamed of its retro feel and indeed revels in the flavour of the ‘70’s, taking you straight back to the classic Euro-cinema stylized flicks of 40 years ago.  In this case that ambience in the real thing, not a retro recreation.  Resident DJ “Jim LeBlanc” (no relation to Matt) spins the disks (or at least, flips the switches) for the GreenGo’s illustrious clientele.

If you have a few thousand francs in spare change then the legendary Penthouse Suite, located on the roof of the hotel, is widely regarded as the best in the Alps.  Accessed by a personal lift the suite’s sprawls luxuriantly across more than 2,500 square feet and then there’s the huge private terrace provides 270 degree views of the spectacular majesty that is the Swiss Alps.  Along with three bedrooms with bathrooms and steam baths, dining and living rooms and a real fireplace you’ll find a Jacuzzi and a sauna inside the tower.

“What makes the Palace special?” asks Mr Andrea Scherz, the hotel’s General Manager since 2001 and also its owner, “Well, you see our hotel from very far off. The Gstaad Palace provides a relaxing atmosphere and its spirit is influenced both by our guests from all over the world and our long-standing employees. We try to be different from other luxury hotels in the world by deliberately being a bit resistant to trends. Instead, we adapt to our environment and this beautiful vacation region.”

Gstaad Information

Piste: 250km / 100 runs / 62 Lifts

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