Love skiing? No, me neither.
For me, going on holiday means kicking back, getting up as late for possible for breakfast as the hotel will tolerate. Perhaps a wander around a local medieval walled town, a leisurely lunch, a siesta. A beach, if I am feeling adventurous. A splash in the pool, all that palaver. Then time for dinner.
Not getting up at 6am and putting on an astronaut’s suit to deal with horrendously cold temperatures, and lots of snow and ice that is going to be as hard as concrete when I inevitably hit it at speed in front of Olympic-standard French five-year-olds who giggle at my elephant-like poise.
But even I know that Gstaad is up with there with Klosters and Courchevel as being among the handful of ultra-exclusive ski resorts, host each season to the super-rich and what used to be called the ‘Jet Set’. (With Ryanair and easyJet in town now, that phrase seems somewhat quaint…)
So when the travel editor asked me if I would head out there in hot, shvitzing July last year (remember that?) I was a little confused.
(In point of fact, I was even more confused as she initially mistakenly told me it was Gdansk, which set off even more misunderstandings with the poor PR girl as I bombarded her with questions about the Jewish Quarter and the synagogues. Anyone who has actually been to Gstaad will feel her pain…)
As it happens, there are Jewish links in Gstaad, though in a town approximately the size of Totteridge high street, a synagogue is expecting a little too much. The Yehudi Menuin Festival has taken place here every year since 1957, and music-lovers flock here for seven weeks each summer for more than 50 concerts, featuring soloists and ensembles.
For the moment, though, I was trying to work out why I would be going to a ski resort in the height of summer. I needn’t have wondered for too long…
Switzerland, and especially the Swiss Alps, are one of the most delightful places you can be in the summer months.
We pitched up at Geneva Airport and took le Panoramique to Montreux, a beautiful, vista-filled train ride that hugs the northern shores of Lake Geneva. But it is from Montreux that the real treat happens — the mountain train up into the Alps, a wooden affair with desk lamps on the table, for all the world a Swiss Orient Express that belongs to the golden age of rail. Up we climber, with pine-clad mountains stretching as far as the eye can see, except where the fells had been shorn to create high upland summer pasture for the famous Swiss dairy cows. The hills were alive…
Some 90 minutes or so later, we pulled up at Saanenmöser, a little station — more of a halt, really — in the Saanen valley and just a few minutes past the station at Gstaad as the whole valley is generally — if incorrectly — known.
Outside, the wooden chalets all seemed shuttered, and the one shop was closed. Where had we come? Then the crisp tranquillity of the Alpine air was shattered by a cheerful hoot from a 4X4 — Urs, from Saanewald Lodge had arrived to take us up to our stop for the next couple of nights.
The Lodge is a curious place, but wholly enchanting. It was once a fairly basic ski hotel built in the 1960s, something like a student hall of residence at one of the more modern universities, or polytechnics as they were called when I was a lad. But once inside it is full of character and personality — much like the owners, fiftysomething brothers Paul and Jean.
We dropped our bags in our rooms — like me, they were small but perfectly formed. As the original hotel was rather basic with communal bathrooms, the brothers had cunningly got round the problem and found a way to make them all en-suite. This they did by the simple but delightful expedient of building a frosted glass cube in each room to house a power shower and bathroom suite. Pretty, pretty cool. And still enough space for a supremely comfortable king-sized bed and flatscreen TV. (Not that I watched any TV — on my bed was a complimentary copy of Carl Honoré’s In Priase of Slowness… And this pocket of the Alps has dedicated itself to ‘The Slow Life’ — Gstaad Tourism’s slogan is, appropriately, ‘Come Up — Slow Down’.
Not that things seemed especially slow that night, if truth be told. After what might just be the best steak-hâché et frites (burger is far too prosaic for this marvellous creation) I have tasted, we made our way to the funky bar, where we found it packed with La Belle Monde from Geneva, friends of owners Paul and Jean who were up for the weekend for a Jean-organised golfing weekend at the glorious Golf Club Gstaad-Saanewald, a perfectly maintained hilly course no more than a five-iron from the Lodge.
Teeing off and driving your ball into what appears a mountain-fronded infinity is ineffably rewarding for them as do. But if whacking balls around is not why you are here, fear not — in this group, drinking and socialising seemed to be the main event this evening.
Paul, a Geneva-based commodities broker (though his Instagram account describes him as “a potato chips addict and accidental hotelier”, and the younger of the two brothers, explained that they liked to put on events, usually revolving around Jean’s love of golf or the brothers’ shared passion for vintage sports cars — they regularly host car rallies up here, and tootling around the twisting, serpentine tracks of these upper valleys in the Alpine sunshine must be one of life’s most life-affirming experiences.
Why an accidental hotelier? Well, Paul explained to me over a drink, they had never intended to own or run a hotel. They bought the Lodge with the idea of developing it into super-luxe ski condominiums that they would then offer to the market on a lucrative fractional ownership basis. Sadly, before they had so much as lifted a shovel, a new local law came into effect that stipulated that no more than 22 per cent of buildings in the district could be used for non-residential purposes, in an effort to stop Gsaad becoming solely a second-home enclave for the jet-set. Oops.
But, being jolly and cheerful Swiss types, rather than wailing, gnashing their teeth and being cast out into the darkness, they decided to make a fist of running a funky and retro boutique-style hotel. Which is what they have delivered. In shovels. I mean, spades…
Older bother Jean — “a veg-oil trader and keen hunter” — nods affably as Paul talks, clutching a drink. It turns out that his English is about as good as my Swiss-German. That they are “accidental hoteliers” proves no surprise at the end of the night when I approach the barman to settle my (somewhat hefty) bar tab.
“Oh, no,” he says, “Jean has taken care of it. In fact, he has taken care of everyone’s bar bill tonight…”
As the enormous bar and lounge area, the width of one whole floor of the hotel, had been thronged with guests, I couldn’t help asking how much that had set him back. He grimaced, and said, “About 4,000 euros.” Crikey! That’s my kind of hotelier…
After a few games of Scrabble up on the hip mezzanine games room (pool table, fussball, board games, cards, bean bags — it was like The Brady Bunch but reimagined in Shoreditch), it was time to turn in. We had challenges ahead the next day…
The first challenge was the most straightforward one. A 20-minute drive up the mountain, through the sort of villages you might recall from illustrations in your childhood copy of Heidi, all wooden chalets, sloping pasture lands, mountains — lots of mountains — a carpet of edelweiss (might have made that bit up), all that sort of palaver — and we were at a cable car station.
We were tackling — or, rather, we were letting the cable car take the strain — to head 3,000 metres or so up the Quille du Diable, one of the higher peaks in this neck of the woods, with fantastic views to Mont Blanc in the distance. Once at the top, after climbing to the viewing deck, there is a treat ahead. The futuristically named Glacier 3000, which sounds like an art installation but is a sheet of ice across which you can traverse. (After being a complete kid and risking life and limb on a contraption that is a sort of cross between a luge and a roller-coaster. Terrifying. But in a good way.)
The air is thin up here and it is a tough 40-minute trek to the other side. (Or you can cheat and take the Snow Bus for a few euros — a glorified Caterpillar digger with snow chains.) And on the far side, you can treat yourself to one of the most memorable lunches you’ll ever have. Not because of the food, necessarily — though that is a superb array of local soups, sausage, salami, risotto, cheeses and pasties — but because of the eye-watering location. Refuge l’Espace, designed by wünderkind architect Mario Botta, perches on the edge of a huge overhang — the detritus of numerous avalanches and landslides over the centuries — and if you can conquer your vertigo, peering over the edge of the sun terrace, all decking and sheepskins, will give you an unforgettable vista thousands of metres down over the Vallée Derborance, with villages and towns the size of a toddler’s plaything.
This is a memory of the Alps that, along with the unrivalled welcome of the hip Saanewald Lodge, explains why I met so many tourists who eschew the region during the winter season; the cognoscenti come in the summer, when they have the place — more or less — to themselves…
With thanks to Gstaad Saanenland Tourismus. Visit www.gstaad.ch, call +41 33 748 81 81 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for enquiries. Doubles at Hamilton Lodge start from CHF 95 per person per night on a B&B basis (approx £65) http://www.hamiltonlodge.ch/ and doubles at Saanewald Lodge start from CHF 80 per person per night on B&B basis (approx £55) http://www.saanewald-lodge.ch/. SWISS International Airlines offers flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to either Zurich, Geneva or Basel and fares start from £110* return, including all airport taxes. Visit: www.swiss.com. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers round-trip train travel between the airport border and your destination – more information onwww.swisstravelsystem.ch. Prices are £92 in second class and £147 in first class. For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call 00800 100 200 30.