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At Gstaad station, a car is waiting. Not a taxi, but a 1962 Bentley sent by the hotel, its black panels and chrome grill buffed until gleaming. Halfway through the one-minute journey, the liveried driver turns round and smiles conspiratorially. “You know, this used to belong to Roger Moore.”
The former James Bond, and one-time Gstaad resident, still holds this most affluent Swiss town in thrall. There’s an interview with him alongside the adverts for Graff diamonds and Rolex watches in one of the local lifestyle magazines waiting in my room at the Grand Bellevue. And at the Gstaad Palace, the turreted hotel that rises above the town, the suave secret agent grins from a photo on the wall, alongside a host of other stars and former guests: Julie Andrews, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
It was the Palace that brought Gstaad to international fame. Louis Armstrong performed here, as did Dionne Warwick. Peter Sellers got stuck in the revolving door in a famous scene from the Return of the Pink Panther. The start of this winter season saw the hotel celebrate its centenary, and a sense of glamorous history pervades the corridors. The bar has leather sofas, deep carpets, a dress code and a cocktail list that runs to 56 pages.
Today, though, the partying royals and celebrities have mostly moved on – to Verbier, Courchevel and Aspen. Gstaad has become more grande dame than It Girl, its association with the swinging stars of the 1960s and 1970s now something of a mixed blessing, ensuring global name recognition but also a sense of being stuck in the past. On Gstaad’s designer boutique-lined main street – known as the “promenade” – fur coats, fur hats and high heels are still de rigueur but one woman I pass is wearing all three while pushing a Zimmer frame.
For skiers, this is a boon. On weekdays, the slopes are not just quiet but deserted. Many of the guests at the grand five-stars come to shop and promenade but barely ski at all. During my visit last weekend, we were lucky with fresh snow but, unlike in Verbier, Chamonix and Val d’Isère, there was no mad rush to reach it before others. My guide, Charlie Toogood, a 33-year-old Briton who co-founded new tour operator Camel Snow, pointed out a tempting powder run and suggested that we ski it at the end of the afternoon – “Don’t worry, no one else will touch it.”
But with 53 lifts, 220km of pistes and hardly any skiers, there is an obvious snag. Bergbahnen Destination Gstaad, the lift company, is in trouble. It lost SFr2.8m (£1.9m) in the year to May 2013 – the accounts refer to “the notoriously low usage” of the lifts – and this winter was forced to impose a series of austerity measures, a phrase that sits uneasily alongside the name Gstaad. Administration costs are being slashed; some lifts have been mothballed for the season; some pistes will not be groomed. Days before the huge fireworks display lit up the sky for the Palace’s centenary party, more than 1,000 locals gathered in the tennis hall to hear plans for saving the lift company. “Bankruptcy is not an option,” Aldo Kropf, council president of neighbouring Saanen, told Gstaad Life magazine. “The damage to Gstaad’s image would be disastrous.”
There are signs of change, though, and fresh beginnings. While the Palace remains glorious in its pomp, the other hotels I visit suggest a new era is stirring in Gstaad – and one likely to attract a younger clientele, who will use the lifts all day, every day.
Opened in 1912, the Grand Bellevue is one of Gstaad’s landmark five-stars but it has been taken over and relaunched for this winter by Daniel and Davia Koetser, a Swiss couple in their early thirties. They met and honeymooned at the hotel but their long connection hasn’t stopped them completely reimagining it. The interior now feels more Soho House than Swiss chalet. The large lounge is wallpapered with a bold print from hip east London brand House of Hackney, and features seats hanging from the ceiling by chains. The bar has a 17m-long Chesterfield and serves strawberry and passionfruit cocktails in balls of ice. The restaurant next door has a Michelin star but espouses the “casual luxury” theme, offering burgers as well as foie gras. Upstairs, the polished floors have been replaced by bare pine boards, deliciously soft and warm. And though there are just 57 rooms, there is a vast spa covering 2,500 sq m, a nightclub, cinema, sushi bar and cigar lounge, not to mention a life-size plaid camel in the lobby.
Equally unusual is Saanewald Lodge, which opened last winter on the slopes above Saanenmöser (one of a dozen villages that make up the ski area). It was built in 1964 as a holiday camp for civil servants from Basel and its new owners have restored it as a funky retro retreat. We arrive in late afternoon, skiing right up to the big terrace, where we are served micro-brewed beer while friendly staff distribute heavy blankets and cloaks to keep out the cold. (Luggage is brought up by Ski-Doo.) Later, we move on to the wood-fired hot tub, smoke puffing from the chimney, which looks out over snowy fields to dark forests and above, the rugged peak of Le Rubli, warmed by the alpenglow.
The 30 bedrooms are tiny but stylish; the open plan bar, restaurant and lounges have huge windows, ski posters from the 1960s and vintage G-Plan chairs. Downstairs, an entire room is given over to a Scalextric track. Guests shuffle around in the felt slippers provided, mingling happily.
Also new and also beside the piste (this time above Zweisimmen), is Hamilton Lodge, an old chalet that has been radically extended to create 24 bedrooms in what the owners call “hip Heidi” style. Corridors are bare concrete, bedrooms are wood-panelled; a sauna has sensational views of the valley. Even further from the Gstaad stereotype is 2014’s big summer opening – not another five-star but a slick youth hostel with 158 beds.
At the meeting in December, the lift company unveiled proposals for a major upgrade and modernisation of its network but, for now, what makes Gstaad special is that guests can stay at these buzzing new hotels, then head out each morning to enjoy wonderfully old-fashioned skiing, the very opposite of that offered by the French “ski factories”.
The slopes are spread over several valleys; skiers move between them on a little blue and white train. The empty pistes mostly run over alpine pastures, winding through forests and past chalets that smell of wood-smoke and livestock, pails and paddles for cheesemaking hanging outside. On one run, I find myself following a bounding chamois through the trees.
Some of the farmhouses double as part-time restaurants. Stop for a glass of Glühwein and a rösti, served at an ancient wooden table, and you may start to wonder if being stuck in the past isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Tom Robbins was a guest of Camel Snow, which offers four nights half-board at Le Grand Bellevue and two at Saanewald Lodge from £1,160 per person