Gstaad, one of Switzerland’s glitziest ski resorts, is buzzing with excitement over the opening of the first newly built five-star hotel for 100 years, the Alpina Gstaad. The world’s media have flown in to see if it lives up to the buzz while the town’s residents have been milling in the foyer, propping up the bar, testing out the spa and trying its restaurants.
The project took 15 years to come to fruition but the early signs are that this is a splendid addition to the resort’s ranks of starry establishments. One of the local residents, for instance, is already so enamoured of Megu, the Japanese restaurant that is an outpost of the New York flagship of the same name, that he arrives every day for lunch, ordering sushi and a SFr2,000 (£1,350) bottle of wine. Gstaad residents, you see, are like that: for most of them the wine they order is the wine they want. Price is not the issue.
The hotel, built at a cost of $337m, is a joint enterprise between Marcel Bach, a local farmer’s boy made good, and Jean-Claude Mimran, a French-Algerian businessman who has a home in Gstaad as well as ones in Geneva and Monte Carlo. It is built on a slight hill above the town, so every room has a balcony and views of the town or the mountains. There are 25 rooms and 31 suites, all larger and more interesting than its five-star competition. Many rooms have wood fires that come on at the flick of a switch and state-of-the-art lighting (new to me – and a great addition – is the shadowy light that comes on automatically in the bathroom as you enter in the dead of night, enough to show you the way but not enough to wake anybody else). But there are also old Swiss antiques and other Alpine touches (cowbells on some of the lights, goat-hair throws, weathered timber from old farmhouses in Saanenland and stone from the surrounding alps).
There are three restaurants, under the direction of Marcus Lindner who used to run the Michelin two-star restaurant Mesa in Zurich. There is Sommet, which has an elegant seven-course tasting menu, the aforementioned Megu (do not miss out on its crusted asparagus spears or its Kobe beef carpaccio), and the slightly kitschy Stübli, which serves local specialities such as rosti, fondues and raclettes. Every guest gets SFr150 credit a day (non-refundable) to spend in any of the restaurants.
The show-stopper, though, is the 21,000 sq ft Six Senses Spa. Speaking personally I don’t go to ski hotels for spas – I’m much too keen to spend every minute on the slopes – but it is spectacular. There is a 25m pool and a range of luxurious treatments, as well as detox and weight-loss programmes.
As for Gstaad itself, like most Swiss ski resorts it has ferociously guarded its alpine character. I used to ski here regularly in the late 1980s and 1990s and, going back, it is clear how it has been built up since, but without damaging the character of the place. It just looks like a more crowded version of what it used to be. The town and surrounding villages are filled with privately owned chalets, all in the local vernacular with alpine-style roofs – only inside have the international decorators been allowed to let rip.
Even today there are farmers and carpenters who won’t sell their land to the rich skiers, no matter what they’re offered. Take Peter, the ski instructor who took us up to the Diablerets glacier. He teaches skiing in the winter and farms in the summer, and is determined that the land passed to him by his ancestors will go to his own five children. “Once you’ve sold it, you never get it back,” he says. All this gives Gstaad, in spite of its glitziness, a still tangible charm. The rich folk in the chalets feel there is something authentic going on somewhere.
There are some 200 farmers still working in the area, living mostly on the edge of town, and they still walk through the village with their cows. There’s the church, some 800 years old and still a focal point where farmers and visitors worship together. There are also still old classic places to eat (such as Café Charlie by the ice rink, where everybody comes to drink coffee and have a cholesterol-packed patisserie), and the oldest hotel in Gstaad, the Posthotel Rössli, built in 1823, which almost alone survived the great fire of 1899.
The ski slopes are in open terrain surrounded by tree-lined mountains, which, though comparatively low, offer wonderful slopes for intermediate skiers.
As I left, the Alpina Gstaad seemed to be flying. It was fully booked over Christmas and new year, and already getting a table at some restaurants is tricky. A week’s stay this month in a deluxe double room (the lowest level of accommodation but still fantastic) would be about £4,000, though, like all grand hotels, it’s the extras that are the killer. Tea for one with (the seemingly obligatory) biscuits is SFr11. But then a stay at a grand hotel in the Swiss Alps is rather like owning a yacht – if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford to stay there.
This piece was amended to remove a reference to three chalets in the hotel garden; rather than being for rent as originally stated, these are privately owned