Why Gstaad is still Switzerland’s best ski resort

Why Gstaad is still Switzerland’s best ski resort

am convinced that the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the ‘ski’-ing season,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, having discovered the joys of the winter sport in Davos in 1893.

One resort that earned a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous in the century that followed, having hosted the likes of Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1960s and 70s, was the picturesque village of Gstaad.

“Gstaad is the last paradise in a crazy world,” claimed Dame Julie Andrews, who has had a chalet in the Bernese resort for more than 40 years. In 2014, the English actress was awarded honorary citizenship of Saanen, the municipality to which Gstaad belongs, for contributions to the local community. At one end of town, there’s a bronze statue of a duck sitting in front of water fountain by Andrews’ late husband, the sculptor Blake Edwards.

Unlike Switzerland’s other famous pleasure resorts – Verbier, Zermatt and St Moritz – Gstaad has retained a relatively low profile. While larger neighbouring towns have succumbed to over-development, Gstaad has managed to retain its old-world charm.

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), is mostly a collection of low-rise wooden chalets dotted around a pretty, partly-pedestrianised main street. Agriculture is still a major industry, with 200 operating farms and 80 working alpine pastures. Only carefully-curated businesses are allowed to operate here, including a smattering of designer boutiques and a pub located in a former cowshed. A fire engulfed the village in 1898, destroying almost half of Gstaad’s town centre. Fortunately, historic buildings, including the Posthotel Rössli (1845), the town’s oldest hotel, and the ancient area around Chesery Square, were spared.

In 1957, American-born violin protégé Yehudi Menuhin founded the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, which has been held here for the previous 64 years. In the 60s and 70s, it attracted notable names including Maurice Chevalier, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Marlene Dietrich.

The ski season in Gstaad, as with other Swiss ski resorts , has to wait until the cows come home. Yes, Swiss cows do come home – at the end of summer, to be exact, after having spent months grazing on vertiginous pastures. Their annual descent, or Alpabzug, is a much-awaited spectacle celebrated every September. It’s hard to miss, when an army of cows can be heard miles away, huge bells around their necks ringing in discordance. The parade draws a crowd of locals as it eventually makes its way through the village promenade.

The Gstaad ski season

Early-bird skiers begin hitting the slopes at the end of October and the season lasts until the beginning of May. The ski areas of Wispile and Rinderberg are connected by 61 cable cars, providing access to 250km pistes and cross-country trails, sledge runs, snow parks and winter hiking. The famous Glacier 3,000 is easily accessible and extends the ski season into mid-summer for those willing to make the journey.

Non-skiers need not feel left out. There is 162km of snow hiking terrain, 10 winter biking trails and 70km of snow-shoeing trails. Families have access to six toboggan runs spanning almost 30km, and an ice rink in the middle of the village.

Where to stay: Ultima Gstaad

A two-minute drive from the village centre is Ultima Gstaad, the first property in the Ultima Collection – an anthology of ultra-luxury homes and hotels that teams up with the One Tree Planted initiative to plant one tree, per night, for each of its guests. Co-founded by entrepreneurs Byron Baciocchi and Max-Hervé George, the Collection now boasts chalets in Megève and Courchevel, as well as properties in Corfu and Cannes – yet it is the company’s original lodgings in Gstaad, opened in 2016, that remain its halo residences.

The hotel is split between three wooden chalets, which contain 11 spacious suites, six private residences with open-plan kitchens and balconies, two bars and a new-for-winter-2021/22 restaurant.

In keeping with architectural restrictions, Ultima Gstaad looks much like your typical wooden Swiss chalet. Traditional and unpretentious from the outside, it’s another story entirely on the inside. A Baccarat chandelier dangles from the lobby’s mirrored ceiling, while specially-curated artworks, which change each season, line the walls.

“Our mission is to surprise our guests at every turn, especially the most loyal of them,” says Baciocchi. In the past, a Richard Orlinski gorilla stood at the property’s entrance. During my visit, a Baby Grand piano made of glass took pride of place 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 made exclusively for the property. There are bronze mantelpieces, Italian nubuck leather on the walls, and Albanian granite in the bathrooms. I was lucky enough to stay in a spacious master bedroom in a three-bedroom residence, where soft textures of velvet and silk furnishings contrast with bold glass-and-chrome fixtures. And, while Gstaad has no shortage of fine restaurants, if you’re staying in one of Ultima’s residences, the hotel will happily arrange for a chef to prepare dinner in your own open-plan kitchen.

The Ultima’s 800 sqm spa and pool area is something from tomorrow’s world; its black-marble walls and floating metallic spheres make swimming a surreal experience. There’s a large outdoor whirlpool, a snow shower and various cosy lounge areas into which to collapse. The spa has partnered with premium Swiss skincare brand Swiss Perfection to provide 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 valuable currency. If this Swiss village is the last paradise in a crazy world, then Ultima will rejuvenate you in time for your return to the mad house.

From CHF 550 (£434) per night for a junior suite; residences from CHF 1,300 (£1,026) per night, ultimacollection.com