At Geneva Airport, my taxi is waiting and the driver, a battered Vuitton bag on the seat next to him, heads out into the foggy December night. For a while we follow the highway that skirts the lake. Then, past Lausanne, we start up into the mountains, where the perfect villages seem secreted among the valleys, hidden away like Christmas gifts. Perfect villages like the one that I'm headed for: Gstaad. I hear the name, and I think of movie stars and money. Of Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews, and Roger Moore, longtime regulars in the village. Of Audrey Hepburn in the opening scene of Charade, which was shot in Megève but, with its glamour and her chic, should have been in Gstaad.
Switzerland has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, so the anticipation as we climb into the Alps is intense. To me, it all smells of childhood and chocolates. I know about the isolationist politics, the obsession with money, the oppressive domesticity—citizens so tidy, it's said, that in some cantons they braid the manure. But touch down in Switzerland, and I'm back in my childhood, on vacation with my parents in what seems a magic country—the chalets, the mountains, the snow. Sneaking out with my father from some hotel in Zurich or Lucerne to buy chocolate. As an American child, chocolate meant Hershey bars or Baby Ruths (this was the pre-Godiva era), but in Switzerland there were entire shops of the stuff. You could choose it a piece at a time: a truffle, one with a nut in the center, another filled with something gooey. They became my Proustian madeleines, those bags of chocolates my mother never knew we ate.
As we drive to the Saanenland (the region around the river Saane), we pass the town of Gruyère, where the locals have long been making milk into cheese and cheese into money. Suddenly the fog lifts, and the sky offers up a billion in stars—after taxes. Strings of lights outline the chalets all over the valley, and Christmas trees decorate village squares. At last a brightly glowing castle appears on the horizon, turrets, crenellations, and all, part Monty Python medieval, part Disney. It's the Palace Hotel. I've arrived in Gstaad.
Sniff the air: It's good enough to eat. There's snow on the eaves of the gingerbread-brown chalets, jingle bells on the horse-drawn sleighs, and apple-cheeked kids on their way home for supper. With its delectably domestic prettiness, its frosted Swissness, the village is all chocolates and Gemütlichkeit, all cocoa and pastries at Charly's and crêpes at the Apple Pie Tea Room.
Gstaad is a fairy-tale honeypot, a cluster of Swiss chalets tucked into a gentle fold in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland. Except that this confection is, under the frosting, about money. Part of the fun for me is in the contrasts. On the main street, called the Promenade, the Saudi prince wears a yellow ski suit with a velvet Sound of Music jacket over it.
This is where the rich come to ski and shop, to yak about real-estate prices and wash down tagliatelle and white truffles at the Chesery with magnums of Cristal. It's where Le Rosey, maybe the world's fanciest boarding school, moves from its Lake Geneva campus in winter so the students can ski every day. The Roséens can be seen everywhere, the girls with their Dior saddlebags and their mobile phones, wearing Chanel, Gucci, or Prada Sport with the red plastic label. The label is very important.
Gstaad is an alpine hamlet like St.-Tropez is a fishing village. I try not to eavesdrop too obviously, but the gossip is irresistible: The Middle Eastern gent who bought two chalets for 35 mil, knocked them down, rebuilt them in exactly the same style but with an underground passage, an indoor pool, and a kitchen that can serve up dinner for 60 on the spot. The pampered pooch that lives with its owners at the Palace for 50 bucks a day, meals included. The Turkish aristocrat who sends his Roséen daughter a personal trainer for fear that, after a year of slurping up spaghetti at the Rialto, her girth might affect her marital prospects.
The visitors with big money who own chalets or bunk in a suite at the Palace love playing peasant. They eat hearty Swiss fare like raclette and fondue at the Fromagerie, the Palace Hotel's "informal" restaurant, though, in spite of the red-and-white-checked tablecloths, everyone shows up in embroidered Gucci jeans and silk tops. Informal in Gstaad is a little like Marie Antoinette got up as a milkmaid.
I'm ambivalent about it all, but also seduced by the opulence, the sunshine, the air. Andrew Grima, the great British jeweler (and a friend), lives and works here, and he loves it. In his shop just off the Promenade there's a roaring fire and fresh coffee brewed by his daughter, Francesca. You might see a rich European art collector here, trying on the audacious jewels and wondering whether she can have both the peridot earrings and the opal ring.
More artist than businessman, Grima says Gstaad has provided him with a place to work that's safe and congenial, a small town where he knows everyone, a glorious climate where he can often go outdoors in a sweater even in winter. I know what he means. It's like a good dream up here, where you feel hidden away, protected from the real world, where no one mentions war or even bad weather unless it affects the skiing, and you can hear Mozart all year round.
Gstaad is in love with good music, in part because of the world-class Menuhin Fes-tival, held here each summer since the violinist founded it in 1956. Now there is a new winter festival, too, Les Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad, which has fiery violin star Anne-Sophie Mutter and mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, among others, lined up for February 2002. Once upon a time William and Pat Buckley, winter residents for decades, held musical soirées at the 16th-century château in the neighboring village of Rougemont; young musicians would play the harpsichord, and sometimes so would their host.
Very soon I realize just how much I have missed Switzerland. I have missed these mountains that are always here, over your shoulder, out of the window, snowcapped and ravishing, maybe, but capable of sudden storms and avalanches that kill. You really feel the region's age, with its timeless mountains, its ancient glaciers, and its rural valleys where some chalets date back to the 1750s. But most of all, you feel, every day you're here, the old-fashioned, gee-whiz, take-your-breath-away beauty of the place.
Even after I grew up, I came to Switzerland often, for work, on vacation. I once came on an ice-skating holiday. I have been to the lovely cobblestoned city of Bern, an hour and a half from Gstaad, and to the 200-foot-high Reichenbach Falls, where Professor Moriarty finally got Sherlock Holmes. It is an odd country—seven million people in a place you can drive across in only a few hours—but it's much more complicated than its image.
Sure, you'll find the clichés—the Heidi-isms, the edelweiss, cherry jam and cheese, the men who play those Alpine horns you see in cough-drop commercials. And for a while, Zurich had the worst drug scene in Europe. But Switzerland has also produced Rousseau, Giacometti, and Dada. It gave the world a subject for some of its greatest literature: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Wordsworth's Preludes in the 19th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night and Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain in the 20th, and books by Graham Greene, John Le Carré, and Anita Brookner, who set the exquisite Hôtel du Lac here.
You will also find in Switzerland an extremely sophisticated culture of money—like it or not—and a democratic system more ubiquitous than anywhere else. There are the great hotels, the big pharmaceutical companies, and the international organizations. Montreux—at the east end of Lake Geneva—has major jazz, and Lausanne a vital nightlife. In Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Tanner, the country has a couple of great filmmakers.
In the dead center of Europe, Switzerland resists Europe: It didn't fight in World War I or II, in keeping with its over 300-year-old tradition of neutrality; it maintains strictly controlled borders; it refuses to join the European Union, United Nations, and NATO. Still, this is the country where modern tourism was born, in 1863, when Thomas Cook brought a group of Victorian Brits to ogle the landscape and wallow in the romance of the Alps. (The English Romantics, of course, had discovered it long before—Alpine walking trips were de rigueur for poets in search of the sublime since Wordsworth's initial visit in 1790.) And by the early 20th century, the British had taken up skiing in Switzerland with a passion. One of the first resorts on the circuit was Gstaad.
The Palace Hotel opened in 1913 and was a vital part of Gstaad's rise as a resort. It's not for everyone, maybe—this is no designer boutique hotel, and there are plenty of other hotels, too, grand or cozy. But the Palace is at the very heart of Gstaad's high life, an old-fashioned, palatial Swiss hostelry. Some rooms are done up in Swiss Rustique, with exposed wood beams, while others have been refurbished in a more conventionally luxurious style. All are deeply comfortable, though, and there are some stunning suites on the higher floors with amenities like bathrooms with windows on two sides, so you can sit back in the tub, wineglass in hand, and gaze at the mountains. Everyone gathers in the lounge for drinks and gossip. In high season, this is where the big balls and parties take place.
I fall asleep my first night there to the faint thump-thump from the disco downstairs, the famous GreenGo. There is carpet on the walls, green marble stands for drinks. Best of all is the lighted dance floor on top of an indoor swimming pool featuring artificial sunlight and underwater music. It's all exactly as it has been for three decades, and you expect James Bond—or Roger Moore—to dash in at any moment and order his martini.
Babes in skinny leather pants they picked up at Lorenz Bach down in the village are wrapped around shorter guys, also in leather. The younger set—the Roséens and their guests—boogie onto the dance floor, drink tequila shots and whiskey and Coke, then jump into Daddy's Ferrari.
In the morning I step through the French windows onto my balcony overlooking the village and take in the great sweep of hard, bright sky, a blue glass bowl upended, the sun shining through it. Then, after retreating to my warm bed for a breakfast of buttery croissants, I get ready to explore Gstaad.
I don't ski, though. I tried it once when I was a kid. I fell down, the skis got tangled up, and I sat in the snow, crying. I know they make better skis now, but while I love the idea of schussing along, I think you have to be nuts to actually hurl yourself down a mountain. Except for trips up one, for long lunches on the terrace of the Sonnenhof or the Alp-top Berghaus Eggli, I'm happy enough on the skating rink, right in the middle of town. There, sun shining beneficently down on me, my blades skim the surface, I feel a triple Lutz coming on, and there is nothing, I imagine, that separates Kristi Yamaguchi and me. Bliss.
Most people do come to Gstaad for the skiing, of course. "If you take the whole region, it has the full range, glacier to modest piste in Gstaad itself," says Hugh Faulkner, a Canadian who lives ten minutes away in Rougemont. Once Pierre Trudeau's secretary of state, Faulkner and his wife, Jane, now make wine in the South of France but spend as much of the winter on skis in Switzerland as possible. "For the expert powder skier," Faulkner adds, "Davos, Verbier, and Klosters off-piste are fantastic. But for the average skier, this valley is very good."
Around Gstaad, three mountains (the Eggli, the Wispile, and the Wasserngrat) provide slopes and trails, mountaintop restaurants, and dozens of lifts, plus snowboarding, heli-skiing, and good cross-country trails. British pop stars like Robbie Williams and the odd Spice Girl have been spotted here. So have American grandees like the Buckleys and John Kenneth Galbraith, who has also wintered here for decades. Old Euros come, like fashion designer Valentino and German industrialist Gunther Sachs, who was once married to Brigitte Bardot and practically defined the term "playboy" back when playboys were very, very tan and had loads of white teeth. The locals ski, too, along with the just plain idle rich. Overheard on the slopes one day: "I'm just burning my inheritance, man."
There's a feverish social life in the valley during the season, much of it in private chalets. One night I attend a dinner party in Rougemont, where the quiet money lives, they say, and where people actually read books as well as the financial pages. A fire roars, the Champagne sparkles, and the tiny blini are seriously slathered with caviar and sour cream. The conversation is in English, though the guests are German, Canadian, Lebanese, British, South African. I ask someone how the local social hierarchy works, and he answers, "From the big money down."
"Most nationalities stay together," another guest notes. "Except for the Eagle Club. Up there people mix . . . except for the Russians." Old Russians (the kind with names out of Tolstoy) may be acceptable, if they have a title and money; "new Russians" are not. This is one of Gstaad's hilarious snobberies: If you're a new Russian, you are almost certainly "not one of us," and besides, you wear everything matching and almost certainly have, by way of shoes, dead alligators on your feet.
It costs about $12,000 to join the Eagle Club, and you need money and another residence besides your house in Gstaad. You get to the clubhouse in a cable car. To some this is the ne plus ultra of Gstaad life; others insist it's just where the Euro-trash hang out. In any case, it seems that notable members include Taki Theodoracopulos, the Greek gossip columnist and shipping-fortune heir, and Saudi oilman Adnan Kashoggi.
Down in the village a few days before Christmas, the Promenade—a 10-minute walk from end to end (no cars allowed, mostly)—is full of people shopping. A couple of kids tumble over each other while their mom picks up caviar and Cheerios at the grocery store, then loads them into the Mercedes parked nearby.
Visitors amble aimlessly up and down the street, popping into shops to buy Chanel, Jil Sander, Escada, Cartier, Hermès, Gucci. Francesca Grima, a former Roséen, has a keen eye for Gstaad's fashion vagaries. She says with a grin, "Around February 14, adolescent boys sporting spots and a gold card queue up outside the jewelers', waiting to acquire a love token for their girlfriends—from Chopard for the tiny glass-heart pendant with moving diamonds or Cartier for the traditional 'screw bracelet.' "
"The shopkeepers—the people who run the town—have distinguished who they'd like to see on their streets, and they've targeted their market brilliantly," says one local observer. "Fifty years ago Château d'Oex was the most fashionable village up here, but it never did much with it. David Niven did have a house in Château d'Oex, but he's dead, and so is the town."
After a while, feeling a bit glutted, I flee for the other end of the street, where a band plays. People hold up babies to watch. A choir is singing, and "Silent Night" floats through the cold, clear air. The first fat flakes of a new snowfall drift down from the sky. For a few minutes I stop and listen, then I wander over to the Christmas Market.
There, among the tony shops and chalets, sturdy Swiss locals have set out stalls selling mulled wine and cheese, wood carvings, woolly mittens, and slightly lumpy ski sweaters. I buy some Christmas presents—two little carvings of birds, a sweater with knitted snowflakes, and a piece of cheese so big I'll never get it home—then head for the confiserie.
In the sweets shop, I cruise the glass cases jammed with marzipan Santas, gingerbread houses with candy roofs, nonpareils. I've never seen nonpareils like these before, in mauve and pink and yellow. Very, very slowly, I select my candies one piece at a time: chocolate-covered orange peel and ginger, chocolate truffles and toffees. Then I take the paper bag and stroll back into the street, where, guiltily, I eat them all.
ORIENTATION Gstaad is in the west of Switzerland's Bernese Oberland. Running north-south through the village is the Promenade—a baby Madison Avenue without the traffic but with the same shops, well-dressed women, and little dogs.
TELEPHONE NUMBERS Country code: 41; Gstaad area code: 33.
LOCAL TIME Six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
TAXES Goods and services at 7.6 percent; hotel bills at 3.6 percent.
TIPPING A service charge is included in all Gstaad restaurant, bar, and hotel bills.
CURRENT EXCHANGE RATE US$1=SwF1.62.
GETTING THERE Swissair (800-221-4750) and American Airlines (800-433-7300) fly direct from New York's JFK to Geneva, and from Los Angeles to Zurich. The airport at Saanen (744-4025), ten minutes from Gstaad, is heavily trafficked by private jets (at times more ubiquitous than cars).
GETTING AROUND Gstaad is a two-hour drive from Geneva, three hours from Zurich. Rental cars are available from Hertz (744-4400), which has an agent in Gstaad. For chauffeured vehicles, call Ryter (748-6666). For helicopter connections (worth it for the bird's-eye view of the mountains), call TAG Aviation (744-4025); the flight from Geneva to Gstaad takes 20 minutes.
WHEN TO VISIT The best snow falls from December to mid-February, but there's skiing through late March. Christmas to New Year's is the social apogee.
WINTER SPORTS Gstaad shares its valley, mountains, and 150 miles of ski trails with the villages of Saanen, Château d'Oex, and Rougemont. Wasserngrat is the most difficult slope to ski, Eggli the easiest. The ski school is at Wispile. When the snow is bad, head to the glacier Les Diablerets, a 20-minute drive from Gstaad. Contact Hermenjat Sports (Promenade; 744-1547) for ski rental (there is an outpost at the Palace Hotel). Pure (Promenade; 744-7570) is a newly opened mecca for snowboarders, providing equipment and lessons. Ski passes are available directly on the slopes or from the concierge at the Palace. Daily piste reports: 748-8280; www.skigstaad.ch.
Palace Hotel Gstaad (748-5401; fax 748-5005; www.palace.ch) has 100 rooms, including the best penthouse in Europe, with a sauna in the Disney-esque turret overlooking the village. The service here, especially in a town where it can be arrogant, is impeccable (use the concierge as often as possible). Unfortunately, devotees make reservations hard to come by, especially over the Christmas holidays. Don't be put off or seduced by the competition. Reschedule, understanding that the point of Gstaad is the Palace. In winter, rooms from $310 to $7,515.
CHALETS Private chalets are, for Gstaad society, the only acceptable alternative to the Palace Hotel. For rentals, some with staff, contact Gstaad-based brokers Agence C. & E. Matti (744-2625) or Gerax S.A. (748-4550). Prices on request.
La Cave (Promenade; 744-3444) at Hotel Olden for mostly Mediterranean cuisine in an atmospheric setting. A gourmet fixture, but the service is snooty.
Chesery (Lauenenstrasse; 744-2451) serves French cuisine. Regulars salute the sublime veal.
Charly's Tea-Room and Confiserie (Promenade; 744-1544), where the contessas gossip over après-ski hot chocolate. Expect homey comfort food.
Rialto (Promenade; 744-3474) serves Italian cuisine, with a prime position on the main drag for people-spotting (reserve a coveted outside table).
Berghaus Eggli (Eggli Mountain; 748-9612) is the best mountaintop restaurant (rösti, fondue, pasta). It's popular with nonskiers for the outside sunbeds.
The Cerf (Rougemont; 26-925-8123) for fondue and raclette—small and charming, a place where diamonds aren't worn quite so conspicuously.
Restaurant Sonnenhof (Saanen; 744-1023). The high-quality fare (fresh fish, pasta, French dishes) is nothing to the Alpine views.
SHOPPING In Gstaad, diamonds are the main draw: Chopard (Promenade; 744-9044), new last December, for jewelry watches, and Cartier (Promenade; 744-6644). For fashion—all the labels are here—visit Lorenz Bach (Promenade; 744-6878), featuring Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Cutler & Gross. Sister shop Bach's Bazaar (Promenade; 744-6888) stocks Gucci, Voyage, and Prada après-ski and skiwear. Optik (Würsten; 744-8420) has a comprehensive range of sunglasses, including the latest Dior wraparounds. H.A. Fuhrer (Promenade; 744-4700) stocks more than 160 different Cuban cigars. Pernet (Promenade; 744-1577) is the best small-town food store you've ever seen, stocking everything from maple syrup to yellowfin tuna, kumquats and mini-aubergines. For headier expenditures, make an appointment at Lovers of Fine Arts (Hauptstrasse; 744-0044), Gstaad's best gallery, featuring, among others, Giacometti and Balthus—a familiar face in the valley before his recent death.
— Sophy Roberts