With five restaurants, a nightclub with a swimming pool and the ghosts of Frank Sinatra and Bridgette Bardot, Venetia van Kuffeler is awed by the enclave of relaxation and luxury that is the historic Gstaad Palace hotel.
‘The old money goes to Gstaad. The new money goes to St Moritz,’ a guest told me shortly after my arrival this summer at the Gstaad Palace hotel. I was intrigued to learn more.
Opening in 1913, the Gstaad Palace has survived turbulent times including the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression. Renowned for its authenticity and unspoilt Swiss Alpine surroundings, it has attracted guests as diverse and glamorous as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Margaret Thatcher and Michael Jackson, not to mention royalty from around the world.
Found in the Swiss Alps in southwest Switzerland, Gstaad is a picturesque mountain village that holds an irresistible fascination in all seasons, offering 250km of ski slopes in winter, plus a wide variety of outdoor activities and renowned music festivals, gourmet and sport events in summer.
The Scherz family have owned and managed the Palace for three generations since 1938. The grandfather – whom the grandchildren lovingly called Papino – knew the benefits that star appearances had on his staff. When Louis Armstrong sang on the stage of the former ballroom, Papino wanted to share this moment with his staff so he called the technicians from Berne to install loudspeakers in the kitchens so that the whole concert could be enjoyed by everyone at the Palace – guests and staff alike.
Over the years, the Gstaad Palace has been regularly refurbished and modernised. In 1970, for example, important additions included a fabulous indoor pool, with artificial sunlight and underwater music, and a nightclub called GreenGo which went on to become internationally famous. (Today the two are connected – it’s not often a nightclub has a pool attached!) 1986 marked the opening of Le Grand Restaurant and La Grande Terrasse, the latter covered by the largest electric canopy in Switzerland. In 2000, the spectacular Penthouse Suite on the roof of the hotel – three bedrooms, kitchen, wrap-around terrace plus a spa and sauna in the turret – opened.
A testament to a good hotel is usually its staff, and Gstaad Palace is run like a well-oiled machine. In the hotel’s restaurants, waiters weave between each other and greet guests like old friends, which in many cases they actually are. Gildo Bocchini has been Maitre d’Hotel since 1968, orchestrating the excellent dining room team with dedication and expertise. Something of an attraction himself, he was selected as The Sunday Times’s Best Restaurant Manager in October 2010, and even appeared in the film The Pink Panther! ‘Working here’, he says, ‘I have learnt more about people than any university could teach me. Our guests are cultivated and civilised; many of them are also important voices on our planet.’ As for snobs, ‘you could count them on one hand.’ The Executive Chef, Peter, has been with the hotel since 1972, while the chauffeur, Manolo, has been making hotel guests’ journeys through the mountains unforgettable since 1973.
The hotel’s five restaurants offer everything from delicious Swiss – La Fromagerie offers Switzerland’s finest selection of fondues – to barbeques by the pool. Gourmet international cuisine is served on La Grande Terrasse, a wonderful spot to sit and enjoy the sunshine and breathtaking views.
My deluxe room was beautifully furnished and just the right size, with a sofa, desk and small terrace balcony looking out onto the mountains. I spent hours just sitting, reading and soaking in the view, enjoying the sounds of tennis balls going back and forth on the busy courts. The only interruption was the odd millionaire being dropped in town by helicopter!
The Gstaad Palace’s 1,800-square-metre spa and health club re-opened its doors in early 2008, following a renovation worth around £11 million. The results are spectacular, including a granite wall made of 50 tonnes of rock from the Blausee region, wooden walkways surrounded by water and an open fire pit. Facilities include eight treatment rooms, a private spa suite, saunas and steam baths, a state-of-the-art Pilates studio and an experience with seven rooms. The spa incorporates products by the prestigious brand Sisley, well known for its use of the finest essential oils and natural plant extracts. Up in the mountains the sun is particularly strong, and Sisley’s sunscreen is particularly effective.
As well as the usual hiking, golf, climbing, mountain biking and even hang gliding, the months of July and August in Gstaad also include a SWATCH FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour tournament, the Crédit Agricole Suisse Open Gstaad (tennis), the Menuhin Festival of classical music, the Hublot Polo Gold Cup Gstaad and Switzerland’s highest Swiss wrestling festival, Rellerli Alp Schwinget. Each summer, Gstaad Palace arranges a tennis camp with one of the most successful tennis players in history, Roy Emerson, who boasts a record of 28 Grand Slam titles including 12 Grand Slam singles crowns.
Those looking for something a little different and authentic should visit Gstaad Palace’s refurbished Walig Hut. Built in 1786 and originally used by farmers when bringing their cows to pasture, the Walig Hut is nestled 5,000 feet high and can only be accessed on foot or by horse-drawn carriage. There are very few of these huts left, and out of respect for tradition the Walig Hut only underwent a mild renovation, so that its simplicity has been maintained. Arrestingly beautiful and calm, it can accommodate up to 80 people for lunch and 14 for dinner – catered by hotel staff – or two adults and two children for an overnight stay. A night or two up there is sure to rid you of all the cobwebs associated with city living. But be warned, despite the cosy surroundings – fur on the beds, Gstaad Palace dressing gowns and slippers – the floors are bare wood and there’s only a ‘long drop’ loo, while a solar shower has recently been installed.
For those keen on further mountain adventures, Gstaad Palace can organise a trip to Glacier 3000, the ski area between Gstaad and Les Diablerets that was taken over in 2005 by Marcel Bach, Bernie Ecclestone and Jean-Claude Mimran. Architect Mario Botta designed the main buildings of the cable cars and the mountain-top restaurant; the scenery is quite spectacular. There is too little snow for skiing in the summer months; but as I discovered, the glacier can be experienced in other ways as well. I took a private tour on a ‘snow bus,’ or alternatively, visitors can enjoy the landscape on an open-air sledge pulled by a team of huskies.
Today, Gstaad Palace is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group, and indeed, after a short stay there was no doubt in my mind that this hotel really is a historic institution still at the top of its game. I left feeling pampered and refreshed. And compared to smoggy London, the mountain air really is something else. It is no wonder that Gstaad Palace continues to astound guests with its comfortable rooms, quality service and spectacular surroundings. I’m not sure about St Moritz, but after this experience, Gstaad Palace is surely on my travel list for winter too…
The Gstaad Palace is approximately 2 hours by train or car from Zurich. However,
flights go direct with SkyWork Airlines from London City Airport to Bern Airport
(one hour and 15 minutes’ drive away), making the journey even easier.
Gstaad Palace Hotel CH-3780 Gstaad T: +41 337 485 000 E: email@example.com www.palace.ch
Do visit: Jardin Des Monts
Amongst the foothills of the Pays-d’Enhaut valley and surrounded by spruce forest, nestles the small terraces of the Jardin des Monts. Accessible only by foot and a winegrowers’ monorail, the mid-eighteenth century chalet and its pastures have, since 2006, been occupied by professional horticulturalists and trained herbalists Charlotte Landolt and Laetitia Jacot. Assisted by Geraldine Provost, the team have created a terrace garden, and produce a diverse and fascinating array of herbal teas, syrups and skin care products.
The team used their observation of the local flora and ethnobotanical research to cultivate a catalogue of 30 plant species, including edelweiss, elderberry, horseradish, lavender, and marjoram. The variety is stunning and the results are aromatic, medicinal and luxurious.
The products which are concocted from this selection (Apres-Repas herbal tea; Wild Thyme syrup; Sapin Blanc body scrub) are formulated with simplicity in mind. They are classic and contemporary, and strike one as the natural fulfilment of the company’s philosophy, ethics, and the mode and environment of production. What’s more, each stage of production observes strict organic standards. The team use biodynamic preparation to create balanced ecosystems, encourage the presence of natural predators, and even practise companion planting of insect repellent plants.
Jardin Des Monts is a glorious mountainside idyll that promotes organic production. For both their products and their spectacular location, Jardin des Monts is well worth the walk up the mountain.