When the GoldenPass train, all brass and wood, pulled in to the tiny station of Gstaad, I half expected to run into a gaggle of celebrities right there on the platform, so much had I read about the rich-and-famous patrons of this Swiss town.
Instead, there was a crystalline silence at the station, which itself looked like a posh Swiss chalet, with its boxes of daffodils and red geraniums and, all around it, mountain pastures, pine trees and gently undulating Alpine slopes covered in snow.
Gstaad has been an elite holiday destination since the early 1900s, when the railways turned this quiet, picturesque village into a must-be-seen-there holiday destination for everyone from the king of Spain to Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor.
Even F Scott Fitzgerald vacationed here, and Ernest Hemingway retreated here for the winter one year in the early 1920s, while writing A Farewell to Arms. Today, a walk in the town square takes you past frighteningly expensive boutiques dealing mainly in jewellery and furs. On the Hauptstrasse, the main shopping street, standing in a little row, were Cartier, Rolex and Patek Philippe stores, flanked by a Hermès outlet.
Yet, despite the growing demand for space and skyrocketing real-estate prices, construction has been restricted to chalet-type structures, protecting the town’s old-world charm.
It is said that the influx of high-fliers began after the elite Le Rosey School, known as the school of kings, shifted to Gstaad in the early 1930s. Among its young students were the future king of Egypt, shah of Iran, prince of Monaco and duke of Kent.
Soon, everyone who was anyone felt they had to spend the winter here, and luxurious chalets began to be bought or built by princes and movie stars, complete with bowling alleys, private gyms and heated, indoor swimming pools — all extreme extravagances in those days.
For those not super-rich enough to own their own Gstaad retreat, the Palace Hotel has been offering shelter since 1906. Here, Russian heiresses mingle with dowagers, and jackets are still mandatory at dinner.
Designer wardrobes can be augmented at the showrooms in the lobby, the bit of shopping followed by lunch at one of the most expensive restaurants in the world, The Eagle Ski Club, a chalet perched atop a privately owned mountain featuring its own ski lift.
Since we could afford neither to shop in the boutiques nor dine at the Eagle, we decided to head to Glacier 3000, the picturesque ski region in the heart of the Vaud Alps. From the base station, a cable car whisked us to the top in minutes and suddenly we were standing 3,000 metres above sea level, surrounded by a panorama of sun-kissed Alps.
Ensconced in the warmth of the Bergrestaurant Botta, a cosy mountaintop restaurant designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, we dug into local delicacies with a sigh of contentment. Ah, this was the life…