EDITOR’S NOTE: We know now is not the time for travel, but we offer this as inspiration at a future date, when the time is right.
I arrived in Gstaad, Switzerland, playground of old Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, jetlagged and sporting a huge red wine stain across the front of my white sweater, the aftermath of a mealtime mishap during the overseas flight to get here.
The staff behind the desk at the Park Gstaad, ever the consummate professionals, didn’t notice. Or, rather, they politely ignored it. They welcomed me cheerfully and led me to my room, where I nibbled kumquats and lychee from the fruit plate as they swung open the balcony doors to a breathtaking view of the snow-capped mountains.
Me, in Gstaad? You’d as likely find someone on the red carpet at the Oscars wearing a pair of zip-off hiking pants. But as Julie Andrews once quipped about this lovely alpine village, where tiny white lights twinkle on the rooftops and cows reportedly outnumber humans, "Gstaad is the last paradise in a crazy world."
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I changed shirts, splashed enough cold water on my face to revive myself from the travel, and dashed down to meet a horse-drawn carriage for a tour. Gstaad looks like the European village of your dreams: gorgeous slant-roofed chalets, a cheese shop within walking distance, cobblestone streets, and a glowing palace perched at the top of a hill.
Our tour ended at that very palace — the Gstaad Palace, another 5-star hotel, where we were whisked down into the old bank vault, now a traditional Swiss restaurant called La Fromagerie. There we twirled crusty bits of bread in a simmering pot of cheese melted with a dash of booze.
"Switzerland really is about cheese, chocolate, beautiful nature and respecting life," said Stefan Ludwig, a representative of the Gstaad Palace. "Also, there is one thing you need to know — the perception is of the rich and famous, chalets and beautiful hotels, but this does not mean the rest of the world is not welcome."
That fondue dinner was just the introduction to four glamorous days in Gstaad, where I tasted my first caviar, sipped real champagne from France and walked down streets alongside designer shops I’d never step foot in. Through it all, though, Gstaad held on to a remarkably down-to-earth vibe that made even me feel comfortable. That’s because Gstaad, as it turns out, is as much about the outdoors and nature as it is about fine dining and luxe accommodations.
Here are the highlights:
A day of skiing at Eggli, the local ski mountain
We rode a panoramic gondola designed by Porsche up to the top of Eggli, took a few runs and paused for a gourmet lunch inside a cozy wooden cabin. When the rest of our group decided to head back down for spa treatments, I kept skiing.
I’d never skied in Europe before, and it’s different than skiing in the United States. The resorts around Gstaad are smaller — more of a network of ski lifts connecting multiple towns than one bustling base area. It’s possible to ski to six different villages from here, pausing in each one to sip white wine and eat fondue.
A funny thing about Switzerland — some parts are German speaking while other parts are French speaking. We started on the German side and ended up in the French part, in the span of just a few miles. Another difference? Instead of swift-moving four-pack or five-pack chairlifts, we rode mostly one- or two-person T-bars and Poma lifts. It’s a slower pace, yes, but civilized, nonetheless.
Also, the views are stupendous. You can see for miles, and a jagged peak called the Gummfluh draws the eye. As I swooped to the bottom of the last slope, I glided right off the mountain to the back of a van, where a driver helped me load my gear before driving me back to Gstaad.
Head to Gstaad Mirage, an installation by American artist Doug Aitken, for an ever-changing view of the Alps. The Mirage, a one-story house with every surface but the floor clad in mirrors, reflects its surroundings, whether they’re glistening in snow, flashing in a lightning storm or popping in fresh green grass.
The installation opened here last year and will remain until January 2021.
According to the artist, it’s designed as a "reflection of the dreams and aspirations projected onto the American West."
Time your visit for a Friday, and you might meet Stefan Welton, who is in charge of washing the mirrored walls. "It's all about the fingerprints," he told me as he made the walls and ceiling shine.
The house is open 24 hours a day and entry is free.
With the week’s cheese, butter and chocolate consumption off the charts, I needed to hike. Fortunately, that’s easy to do in Switzerland, where you can explore the countryside via a spaghetti bowl of well-marked gravel pathways.
I squeezed in two hikes my last full day in Gstaad, starting with a chilly walk along a twisting river in Lauenen, where an overnight snowfall had put a delicate crust of diamonds on every twig and blade of grass. When the sun broke over the mountains, the entire forest shimmered.
Later in the day, I caught a ride to Schonried, a 20-minute drive from Gstaad. From there, I followed the "wanderweg" signs (I love the Swiss term for hiking) back to Gstaad on foot. Even though it had snowed a day earlier, the trails had been cleared, another indication of that perpetual Swiss tidiness. I clomped past farmhouses and the occasional bed and breakfast, inspected some pumpkin-sized cowbells hanging from a barn, admired fields frosted in white, and followed the trail as it led me across a ridge with views of old chalets and hillside villages. At one spot, I discovered a wooden cabinet holding an array of milk and cheeses for sale. What a concept — just pop your money in the cash box, using the honor system instead of a credit card, and help yourself to a snack.