I am convinced that the time will come when hundreds of English people will come to Switzerland for the ‘ski’ season, “writes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, having discovered the joys of winter sports in Davos in 1893.
The picturesque village of Gstaad is a seaside resort which gained a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous over the next century, having hosted such figures as Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 60s and 70s.
“Gstaad is the last paradise in a mad world,” said Dame Julie Andrews, who has owned a chalet in the Bernese resort for over 40 years. In 2014, the English actress received honorary citizenship of Saanen, the municipality to which Gstaad belongs, for her contributions to the local community. At one end of town, there is a bronze statue of a duck sitting in front of a water fountain by Andrews’ late husband, sculptor Blake Edwards.
Unlike other famous resorts – Verbier, Zermatt and St Moritz – Gstaad has maintained a relatively low profile. While the large neighboring towns have succumbed to over-development, Gstaad has managed to retain its charm of yesteryear.
A brief history of Gstaad
The village has a permanent population of less than 10,000 and, apart from the turreted Gstaad Palace (built in 1913), it is mainly a set of low-rise wooden chalets spread around a pretty main street partly pedestrian. Agriculture remains an important industry, with 200 farms and 80 alpine pastures in activity. Only carefully curated businesses are allowed to operate here, including a handful of designer boutiques and a pub located in an old barn. A fire ravaged the village in 1898, destroying almost half of Gstaad city center. Fortunately, historic buildings, including the Posthotel Rössli (1845), the city’s oldest hotel, and the old quarter around Chesery Square, have been spared.
In 1957, the American-born violinist Yehudi Menuhin founded the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, which has been held here for 64 years. In the 60s and 70s, it attracted notable names such as Maurice Chevalier, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Marlene Dietrich.
the ski season in Gstaad, as in other Swiss Ski stations, must wait for the cows to come home. Yes, Swiss cows are coming home – at the end of summer, to be exact, after spending months grazing in dizzying pastures. Their annual descent, or Alpabzug, is a highly anticipated spectacle celebrated each year in September. It’s hard to miss, when an army of cows can be heard miles away, huge bells around their necks ringing out of harmony. The parade draws a crowd of locals as it winds its way through the village promenade.
Gstaad ski season
Early bird skiers start hitting the slopes at the end of October and the season lasts until early May. The Wispile and Rinderberg ski areas are connected by 61 cable cars, providing access to 250 km of cross-country ski runs and runs, toboggan runs, snow parks and winter hikes. The famous Glacier 3000 is easily accessible and extends the ski season until mid-summer for those who wish to make the trip.
Non-skiers should not feel excluded. There are 162 km of snow hiking trails, 10 winter cycling trails and 70 km of snowshoe trails. Families have access to six toboggan runs over almost 30 km and an ice rink in the middle of the village.
Where to stay: Ultima Gstaad
A two-minute drive from the village center is Ultima Gstaad, the first property in the Ultima collection – an anthology of ultra-luxurious homes and hotels that partner with the One Tree Planted initiative to plant a tree, for example night, for each of his guests. Co-founded by entrepreneurs Byron Baciocchi and Max-Hervé George, the Collection now has chalets in Megève and Courchevel, as well as properties in Corfu and Cannes – but these are the company’s original accommodations in Gstaad, open in 2016, which remain its residences halo.
The hotel is divided into three wooden chalets, which contain 11 spacious suites, six private residences with open kitchens and balconies, two bars and a new restaurant for winter 2021/22.
With due regard for architectural restrictions, Ultima Gstaad looks a lot like your typical Swiss wooden chalet. Traditional and unpretentious on the outside, it’s a different story entirely on the inside. A Baccarat chandelier hangs from the hall’s mirrored ceiling, while specially selected works of art, which change each season, line the walls.
“Our mission is to surprise our guests at all times, especially the most loyal of them,” explains Baciocchi. In the past, a Richard Orlinski gorilla stood at the entrance to the property. During my visit, a Baby Grand piano in glass was in the spotlight in the lobby.
Much of the furniture inside Ultima, which was named Switzerland’s best ‘luxury boutique retreat’ at the 2019 World Luxury Hotel Awards, was designed exclusively for the property. There are bronze fireplaces, Italian nubuck leather on the walls, and Albanian granite in the bathrooms. I was fortunate enough to stay in a spacious master bedroom in a three-bedroom residence, where the soft textures of the velvet and silk furnishings contrast with the bold glass and chrome fixtures. And while Gstaad has no shortage of good restaurants, if you are staying in one of Ultima’s residences the hotel will be happy to have a chef prepare dinner in your own American kitchen.
Ultima’s 800 m² spa and swimming pool are part of the world of tomorrow; its black marble walls and floating metallic spheres make swimming a surreal experience. There is a large outdoor hot tub, snow shower, and various comfortable lounges to collapse into. The spa has partnered with Swiss premium skin care brand Swiss Perfection to offer a range of treatments. I can personally recommend the cryotherapy facial, which leaves your face invigorated and restored.
Privacy is a luxury these days, and Gstaad is a sanctuary where anonymity, not fame, is a precious currency. If this Swiss village is the last paradise in a mad world, then Ultima will rejuvenate you in time for your return to the madhouse.
Read more: The best new ski resorts opening this season