For a summer holiday destination, there’s a lot more to the quaint village of Gstaad than meets the eye, as Alison Root discovered.
Gstaad is home to one of the largest ski areas in the Alps and over the years has built a reputation as being one of the most upscale towns in Switzerland, if not in Europe, with famous visitors including Roger Moore, Madonna, Prince Charles and Lady Diana, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and various members of the House of Cavendish.
Of course, Gstaad still is a popular playground amongst high society and the international jet set, but there are no airs and graces here, so whatever your status, you’ll feel most welcome, and it isn’t as expensive as you might think to holiday in this beautiful part of the world.
From the UK, it’s a short hop to Geneva Airport and from here, you have two options for the final leg of the journey to Gstaad, either to hire a car that takes approximately an hour and a half, or to take a train from the station that’s conveniently located next to the airport terminal building. The most pleasurable option is the train because although it takes longer, roughly an extra hour, it’s worth it as the views of Lake Geneva and the mountain ranges are stunning.
There’s a change at Montreux, a town that nestles in a sheltered bay, and if time permits, a stroll along the flower-bordered lakefront promenade sampling a traditional Movenpick ice cream is the perfect pit stop.
On arrival in Gstaad, on route by taxi to the Grand Park Hotel, I caught my first glimpse of the pedestrianised high street with its designer boutiques including brands such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, Cartier, Hermes etc - there’s definitely no shop resembling Primark in this village! The Grand Park Hotel sits high on a hillside and lives up to its name by offering guests incredible views of the surrounding park and mountains. It’s a view that anyone would be thrilled to wake up to each morning and if by some remote chance you forget where you are after such an influx of fresh air and a good night’s sleep, the traditional alpine interior of the luxuriously decorated bedrooms will remind you.
The hotel has a choice of restaurants, but it was the Chubut with its ‘food and fire’ concept based on Swiss and Argentine meats that set the stage for what was going to be not just a golf trip but also an exceptional culinary experience. The Grand Park Hotel is five-star, but there are hotels and B&Bs in Gstaad to suit all budgets. Only recently an association was set up to promote three-star hotels in Switzerland that offer a four-star infrastructure in a 5-star setting. I can vouch for the hotel Spitzhorn which has a laid-back and friendly atmosphere, good food, and with facilities that you would usually only come to expect in a hotel with a higher rating, like an indoor swimming pool, sauna and steam bath.
Golf Club Gstaad-Saanenland is approximately a 15-minute drive from the heart of the village unless there is a cow jam! Visiting in early September, the rhythmic clang of several cowbells signalled the approach of a farmer and his herd on their descent from the pastures to the farms. I was lucky to witness this age-old tradition because it’s not a tourist event and the farmers never bring the Simmental cattle down from the mountains until the timing is absolutely right. Fortunately it was only a dozen or so, as there are roughly 7,000 cows in the region - quite a sum as the population is only 9,200.
The golf season in Gstaad begins in mid-May and ends in October subject to the severity of winter weather. The course, located at 1,419 metres above sea level, is still relatively young as it was established as a nine-hole course in 1962 and extended to 18 holes in 1999.
Before you even step onto the 1st tee, you’re sold, as the natural setting is spectacular. Needless to say golfers encounter an abundance of sloping lies on this tight course that’s surrounded by towering firs and pines and numerous streams meandering through the course that are essentially a feature rather than a hazard, although my tee shot did find a watery grave on the par-3 11th. Accuracy is far more important than length and any misjudged shot is severely penalised as the ball is automatically declared lost if it lands in one of the many protected areas.
It was a pleasure to play with Anita Roth, the first female golf club captain, who is halfway through her second two-year term, and I couldn’t agree more with her comment, “I enjoy this course because there is a mountain to aim at on every hole.” I also wouldn’t disagree that the women that play regularly at Gstaad are incredibly fit. Surprisingly, for a course that is integrated into hilly countryside, the front 9 holes are pretty flat with more room to manoeuvre the ball, but just wait until the closing stretch as there’s a steep incline to the 16th green, followed by another hike up to the par-3 17th hole.
Gstaad Golf Club also owns the bragging rights to a restaurant run by Michelin star chef Robert Speth (not Spieth!), the most famous chef in Gstaad. Therefore it was no surprise that the large covered terrace of the alpine-style clubhouse was not only teeming with golfers, but also with visitors enjoying lunch. I don’t blame them, as Speth’s creations were wonderful, with different courses featuring fresh produce including mushrooms and tiny blueberries picked straight from the woods, and Brie stuffed with truffles was a dreamy cheese. Visitors can play 18 holes followed by a fourcourse lunch including coffee and water for CHF 140 per person, which based on the current exchange rate is approximately £110, so is excellent value.
Most Brits think of Gstaad as just a winter holiday destination, but for those that relish an outdoor life, during summer months there’s plenty to keep you entertained in Gstaad and neighbouring villages including hiking, biking, paragliding, or you can simply relax and take a swim in a spring water lake.
Glacier 3000 is open all year round and is accessed by taking two separate cable cars. From the top, the views across 24 summits over 4,000 metres, including Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and the Bernese Alps, are breathtaking. It was here two years ago that the world’s first suspension bridge to connect two mountain peaks opened at 9,800 ft high, 351ft long and 31 inches wide. After my initial wobble (literally) and not wanting to believe I was acrophobic, to my relief I did make it across the bridge and back again. There are all sorts of other activities going on at the top of the glacier like the Alpine Coaster. This is a bobsleigh track where you sit in a seat and off you go and I was curving and jumping all over the place. Sadly it was too warm for the huskies to be out for a dog sled ride.
Gstaad can only be described as a free spirit and a place that is welcoming to everyone. As soon as I returned home I was missing the views and fresh air...and also the sound of cow bells!
For further information visit: www.gstaad.ch
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