Gstaad is synonymous with celebrity but it’s also a destination for outdoor pursuits like hiking and mountain biking and, surprisingly, it even has a country music festival. Rupert Parker investigates.
Getting to Gstaad is relatively easy – a flight to Geneva and then a train ride along the length of Lake Geneva before changing at Montreux. It’s then a climb in a restored Belle Époque carriage on the GoldenPass Classic Line, up to Gstaad. The town lies in the centre of a valley, surrounded by mountains, and its one main street contains strange bedfellows – designer stores next to outdoor equipment outfitters. As you’d expect, the terrain attracts hikers and mountain bikers, but it’s long been known as a winter destination for major celebrities.
Madonna is rumoured to spend her winters here, Johnny Hallyday has a house and wannabes come for their shopping. The town has a reputation for respecting their privacy but, as someone pointed out, in ski gear with helmet and mask it’s difficult to identify anyone with any certainty. I’m here for the natural scenery, keen to explore the mountains and take the air.
Gondel Night Dinner
I arrive in the late afternoon and am told that there’s the last opportunity of the season to take dinner in a gondola, climbing the Rinderberg, with different courses served at each station. We gather at the base and are served drinks and snacks before climbing into our dining gondola. Each is kitted out with tablecloth and cutlery and we’re already armed with bottles of wine. We get our starter of salmon roulade and salad to eat as we go, then, at the next stop, it’s Angus steak, with truffle sauce, celeriac moose, mushrooms and rosti. The sun is just setting and, as we climb, we’re serenaded by accordions. At the top we’re greeted by alpine horns and cowbells.
The food is surprisingly good and dining on the move is an unforgettable experience. On the way down we stop at Hamilton Lodge, leave the gondola and gather round the fire for our dessert of strawberry Pavlova. There’s the obligatory nightcap and singers wander the room leading us in their repertoire of traditional songs. Finally, it’s back in the gondola for the last leg of our culinary journey.
Glacier 3000 experience
Next day dawns misty but the forecast is good so I set off to the Col du Pillon for the Glacier 3000 experience. This is a new attraction and the cable car climbs up the side of the mountain to the top of Scex Rouge at 2971m, home to Gstaad’s glacier. In theory you can see 24 summits over 4,000m high although it’s cloudy at this altitude today. I take the marked glacier trail, steering clear of the deep crevasses on either side. After an hour of chilly walking, I reach the Refuge l’Espace, a restaurant perched on the edge of a cliff with excellent views of the Derborance Valley and the Valais.
It’s known for its excellent home cooked food and doesn’t disappoint. Of course cheese features heavily but I start with hot tea with schnapps and a warming barley soup. Next is a wonderful baked melted Rougement Tomme, with truffle oil and roast potatoes and I can’t resist sampling the local Schüblig sausage. Finally they produce a freshly baked tarte tatin from their wood oven and everyone tucks in.
I’m almost too full to walk, but fortunately a huge Snow Bus is waiting, ready to lurch across the glacier back to the cable car station. Here there’s the world’s highest bobsleigh run, the Alpine Coaster, twisting for a kilometre down the mountain and it’s not for the fainthearted. More manageable is the Peak Walk which is the first and only suspension bridge in the world to connect two peaks. You climb up metal stairs then steel yourself to take the 107m bridge, hanging in mid-air between the small peak and the main Scex Rouge . The cloud swirls as I walk and there are momentary glimpses of the higher mountains in the distance.
Bike & Fondue experience
Next day we pick up a mountain bikes and cycle uphill to follow one of the many trails on the side of the valley. Weather is warm and sunny and finally the clouds have cleared We pass Madonna’s chalet, and also Johnny Hallyday’s, before reaching the cable car station which whisks us up Mt. Wispile. At the mountain lodge, we pick up a takeaway fondue kit and hike to the Fondue Caquelon, a wooden structure, resembling an upturned barrel.
We climb inside, sit down and heat up our cheese mixture on the supplied stove. I’ve never been a real fan of fondue but, sitting in the open air surrounded by the mountains, to the sound of cow bells, I begin to get a taste for it. Of course it helps that I’m starving, having worked up an appetite during my morning’s biking, and the cheese is some of the best there is.
For 27 years, Gstaad has been hosting a country music festival, apparently the brainchild of a local businessman who’s a big fan. He books the best American acts, as well as local musicians and the event takes place over two days. It’s slightly surreal to see hordes of Swiss wandering around town in their ten gallon hats and cowboy boots, making their way to the giant tent which is the concert venue. It’s a popular event and all its 3000 tickets are sold out. As you’d expect, organisation is impeccable and I particularly enjoy Patty Loveless before stumbling back to my hotel.
The Gstaad Palace is the place to stay in the town if you want ultimate luxury. If you prefer something more modest, the Gässlihof is a farmhouse with a few rooms, in the countryside.
There are over 60 weekly flights to Geneva from the UK and Ireland with Swiss International Air Lines. Fares start from £34 one-way.
GoldenPass connects Montreux and Gstaad by a scenic railway line.
Gstaad Tourism has information about the town.
My Switzerland has information about the country.