Gstaad is a rare breed of ski resort that prizes intimacy, and stakes its reputation on a friendly atmosphere where the locals dominate village life.
Typical wooden chalets are clustered along the hillsides of the Saanenland valley, and agriculture is still the main occupation for the valley's 10,000 inhabitants.
But in winter, Gstaad and the surrounding towns play host to around 100,000 visitors. The compact resort refuses to bow to the demands of mass tourism and claims that along with its modern ski facilities, there are rarely any queues at the ski lifts. The resort is the playground of the fabulously wealthy, who prefer discreet comfort and wish to enjoy an unpretentious and authentic taste of alpine life. The upmarket resort in the German-speaking Bernese Oberland lies at 1,050 metres above sea level.
As with life in the village, skiing in Gstaad is relaxed and far from the frenzy of the bigger resorts. The wide and varied slopes are geared toward beginners and intermediate skiers, and those with families. There are 250 kilometres of ski pistes in Gstaad and the neighbouring towns, offering magnificent views of the valley. The 67 ski lifts deliberately operate below capacity to ensure stress-free skiing. Those wanting to try glacier skiing take the 15-minute bus ride to Les Diablerets. Heli skiing is on offer for the more intrepid skier. Gstaad is also fast becoming a snowboarder's paradise. Palmer Park at Saanerslochgrat is the all-new area with an assortment of jumps and obstacles. The jet set have their own exclusive piste as well - the Tiger Run at the Eagle Club. The run is strictly reserved for members. But the rich and famous do occasionally descend to the slopes of mere mortals, so it's possible to find yourself sharing a chair lift with the likes of Valentino or George Soros.
Gstaad has several sledge runs and 300 kilometres of winter walking trails, including the Philosophy Path. It follows the river Saane from Gstaad to Saanen where the late celebrated musician, Yehudi Menuhin, gave several concerts. There are also 70 kilometres of cross-country ski trails winding through the valley, and a short but scenic circuit in Lauenen passing through a nature reserve. Taking to the air is another popular non-skiing activity in Gstaad. The valley is home to the world famous Chateau d'Oex hot air balloon festival. A balloon ride is the best way to enjoy stunning alpine views stretching all the way to Lake Geneva. The Gstaad tourist office provides information on where to book trips. Thrill seekers can also try hang gliding and paragliding.
Just for kids
Families are welcome in Gstaad. Ski schools are conveniently located on or near the major slopes. Parents often leave their children at the top of the Wispile slopes with a grandparent to go off skiing by themselves. The summit has appropriately been dubbed "mother-in-law mountain". The adults enjoy a bite to eat and the scenery from the restaurant's terrace while the children amuse themselves at the snow playground. Many hotels offer childrens' activities such as painting classes, walks and storytelling. The tourist office gives information about babysitting services and ski schools. However, there's no holiday kindergarten in the resort.
Off the pistes, visitors to Gstaad take time to amble down the main street which is fondly known as the Promenade. The centre of the village was recently turned into a car-free zone, making the experience of browsing the boutiques and jewellery stores all the more pleasant. Weary shoppers stop to refuel in any number of charming restaurants serving both Swiss and other continental specialities. Given the resort's image, most are reasonably priced. The "Apple Pie" tea room is the place many head for immediately after returning from the slopes. It's known for its thick and creamy hot chocolate served in a large bowl with a straw and spoon. This is where Elizabeth Taylor often spent the après ski hours. The "Rösti Factory" in the town of Lauenen is one of the best places to get to know the locals. The restaurant specialises in the fried potato dish, rösti. On Saturday evenings, the town folk get out their instruments to entertain guests with traditional music. Uniquely, there's a feeling that the villagers in any of the valley's towns allow the holidaymakers to eavesdrop on their lives, lending the resort a very unpretentious and authentic tone. Yet Gstaad's fashionable side is hard to overlook. The discotheques and casino are crammed with members of the jet set showing off their designer clothing.