As the sound of tinkling cowbells and smell of fresh Alpine air flooded through the open windows of our train, the stresses and strains of deadlines and a delayed flight quickly dissolved into peace and calm. On our itinerary, the three-hour train journey had seemed daunting. But the Swiss – second only to the Japanese in the number of train journeys they take per capita – have one of the best public transport systems in the world, so why not use it? And indeed, travelling through the beautiful landscape, past Lake Geneva, mountain ridges and vibrant green fields, actually turned out to be the ultimate ‘wind-down’.
We were on our way to a rejuvenating alpine break in the Swiss village of Gstaad, in the Bernese Highlands, having been promised both the ultimate action-packed long weekend and an opportunity to experience the beauty of summer in the Alps, when the sun shines for almost 10 hours a day and the mountains are covered in a blanket of vibrant colours. As the region’s only certified ‘Wellness Destination’, Gstaad promises an array of facilities and activities dedicated to lovers of the outdoors. We were booked to stay at the luxurious, five-star Wellness and Spa Hotel Ermitage-Golf in Schönried, just 10 minutes outside Gstaad. Although a seemingly traditional-looking chalet on the outside, the hotel offers an indoor/outdoor saltwater pool, jacuzzi, ‘Sauna Park’ and fitness and beauty centre, as well as an excellent treatment menu with a focus on alpine wellness, beauty and massages.
Given Gstaad’s international reputation as a playground for the rich and famous (for whom there is a small airport in nearby Saanen), I was surprised to find a car-free, friendly and charming village with an emphasis on peace and quiet. Despite a tourism industry dating back 100 years, a genuine Alpine lifestyle still prevails throughout the Saanen municipality of which Gstaad is a part.
It was with this in mind that we took a spectacular hillside hike through fields laden with wild flowers and around the cobalt-blue Lake Sarnen. An encounter with local ‘cow whisperer’ Emmanuelle Raaflaub proved eye-opening: ‘These cows weigh 700 kilograms – 10 times the size of human. If you get in a fight, they will win.’
We stopped at a hillside chalet to watch traditional Alpine cheese being produced. There, we met Uili Haldi, a 62-year-old farmer (he began aged just 10) who explained that he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The life of a farmer in the Alps is closely connected with the course of nature: when the snow melts in the valleys at the end of April, the cows, wearing traditional large cowbells around their necks, ascend the mountains to graze on fresh, young grass. Various Alpine cheeses, including the world-famous Berner Hobelkäse, a distinctive unpasteurised hard cheese, are then made from these cows’ milk. We witnessed Farmer Haldi and his wife working skillfully at a huge copper pot, turning 800 litres of fresh milk into six huge wheels of cheese – the following day, the newly made cheese would be put in salted water for 24 hours and then stored in the cellar. To make Hobelkäse, known as ‘the gold of the Alps’, this young cheese is washed, rubbed with oil and then stored for two-to-three years. We tasted the products at various stages of maturity: delicious.
The mountains surrounding Gstaad boast some 150 kilometres of signposted mountain biking trails; so, in a bid to work off some of that cheese, we set out on mountain bikes, accompanied by two very experienced guides. Although they offered a great way to see the region, the guides’ fearless approach to the steep downhill trails was, quite frankly, terrifying. Later, we struck upon electric ‘FLYER’ bikes as a rather more civlised way to travel; electric power-assisted, these give you that extra push you need to get yourself up the hill while still allowing for a work-out.
For the seriously active, there are many other pursuits to be enjoyed in the region, including tennis, mountain climbing, Nordic walking, skateboarding, riding, paragliding and golf. An excellent place for family holidays, Gstaad also has plenty of easy walking and biking trails, and children aged nine and under can travel for free on all the mountain lifts.
After all that Alpine exercise, we felt entitled to an afternoon spent exploring the wellness facilities of our hotel. A relaxing sports massage was the ideal way to ease away the strains of the morning. The hotel’s other spa facilities were excellent, but a word of caution: nudity is a lot more prevalent on the Continent than we are used to in the UK!
For gourmet enthusiasts, the region, which is home to more than 100 restaurants, promises to tickle the taste buds. Whether by way of a rich fondue at a local mountainside tavern, a more sophisticated dinner at one of the local fine dining restaurants or an al fresco lunch overlooking the sprawling scenery, Gstaad is sure to offer you a meal to remember. The Restaurant Sonnehhof, is certainly worth the visit, offering views as spectacular as the food.
The holiday destination of Gstaad impresses relaxed and adventurous holidaymakers alike with its extensive range of activities. Young or old, whether you’re looking for well-being, sport or culture, you’ll find it here – all amid some of Europe’s most captivating scenery.