If you’ve got that ‘stop the world, I need to get off’ feeling but not the time to go long-haul, then head to Gstaad, Switzerland. Its lesser-known summer season combines mountain tranquillity with just enough activity to allow you to truly unwind
I love summer in London, how the pace slows a little, the alfresco eating, the smiles, even the puzzled tourists. But last summer I needed to escape. However, with it being my partner’s busiest time of year – and not quiet for us in magazine publishing – I had a three- to four-day window. Not enough time for long-haul, nor to unwind on a Med beach. I needed to go somewhere that would reinvigorate me – in 72 hours.
A friend had mentioned Gstaad in the summer. Renowned as the ski resort to the rich and famous, in winter the Swiss mountain town plays host to Europe’s royalty, oligarchs and hedge fund managers who come to party, network, luxuriate – and ski a little. But in its short summer season, Gstaad is very different – gentler, slower and prettier. The Alpine landscape is verdant and majestic, cloaking you in serenity the moment you arrive.
Gstaad has many wonderful hotels but the grand dame is still the 104-room Gstaad Palace. First impressions are breathtaking – the Palace is perched on a hill above the town and looks like a fairytale castle. Opened in 1913, it became a celebrity hotspot in the 1920s and still attracts the rich and famous. Hanging on the main staircase are photographs of past guests including David Niven, Grace Kelly and, of course, Taylor and Burton.
The Palace, owned since 1938 by the Scherz family, achieves the difficult balance of understated, old world-style glamour and service and modern convenience. Everything has been thought of, nothing is too much trouble.
Our room was gorgeous – warm, comfortable and calm. The furniture was pale, natural unvarnished wood and the furnishings light turquoise. We wandered down to the Lobby Bar for lunch. With its wood fire and comfy sofas, it acts as a social hub for locals as well as guests. After a delicious light lunch – my melon and mozzarella ball salad with rocket was perfect, my partner’s caesar salad “the best ever” – we went exploring.
There’s plenty to do in the hotel – it has a spa, a huge outdoor pool and four tennis courts set against the astonishing backdrop of the Swiss Alps. And the Australian tennis legend Roy Emerson (winner of 28 Grand Slam titles, including five Wimbledons) hosts week-long courses.
There’s also the Hublot Polo Gold Cup in August and, from mid-July, the classical Menuhin Festival. But if that sounds too social, there are plenty of solitary activities. Gstaad itself is a great little town for a stroll. The shops are a fashionista’s dream – Hermès, Prada and others all encased in chalet buildings – and they are interspersed with great cafés where you can read, imbibe and gaze at the Alps.
But the ultimate rejuvenation comes from hiking. The mountain air invigorates, the scenery is breathtaking and tinkling cowbells provide background music. The Palace can guide you, or set you off with your own map and picnic. At 10am a guide, Fiona, picked us up and drove us to Schönried, where we collected our backpack fondue set from the milk shop.
Fiona carried the backpack and all we had to do on the three-hour hike was marvel at the mountains and breathe in the clean air. She assembled the fondue table, lit the Primus stove, poured in the cheese and wine mix and let it heat until bubbling. We dipped our bread cubes, washed it down with white wine and sat staring across the valley.
If being on top of a mountain appeals, then take it a step further and book a night at the Walig Hut – a wooden cabin perched on a wildflower hillside 20 minutes’ drive from Gstaad.
Named by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the Best Wilderness Hotels in the World in 2013, it was built in 1786 for farmers to sleep in while tending the herd of cows they had brought up for summer pasture.
Now owned by Gstaad Palace, it’s been restored to a cosy and comfortable state, but purposely left unmodernised. There’s running water (cold only), a sink and solar-powered electric lighting. It is spacious, with a kitchen/diner, separate dining area and a bedroom with large double bed. The log fire keeps it warm and there’s a thick duvet if the mountain breeze nips a little.
It can be hired for private meals and overnight for up to two adults and two children (sumptuous three-course meal with wine and champagne included!). It’s a stunning place to watch the sun go down – and to wake up to the next morning.
Gstaad Palace general manager, Andrea Scherz, is understandably proud of the Walig Hut and sums up just why three days in his hotel’s care – whether in luxury at the Palace or in the simplicity of the hut – is just so restorative. “It opens your eyes to the beauty of the world,” he says. “To wake up to that extraordinary view from your bedroom window is something very special.”
Getting to Gstaad
Gstaad is easily reached from Geneva or Zürich. Airlines which serve these cities include easyJet, Swissair and BA. From Geneva, try the GoldenPass train ride, taking you on a beautiful journey
Accommodation in Gstaad
The Gstaad Palace and the Walig Hut can be booked online. For prices and offers call the hotel directly on +41 (0) 33 748 5000.
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