By Heather Burke, Boston.com Correspondent
Gstaad Switzerland has a glitzy glamorous rep in the ski world. But does anyone go to Gstaad to ski? Or do you just go to see and be seen in the chic alpine village?
Do you just wear furry boots and a shiny jacket to browse the high end boutiques? After all, Gstaad has more five star hotels and designer shops than it does quad chairlifts…and no one really talks about the skiing. Well, we came to ski and get the ski pulse at this long revered Swiss ski resort – beautiful Gstaad. First you must pronounce the posh ski resort name with sophistication: hardly voicing the “g."
We arrived by Swiss train in Saanemoser, one of Gstaad’s 14 ski villages, switched in to our ski clothes at Golfhotel Les Hauts and walked to the slopes. Snow Paradise 2000 is the largest of Gstaad’s nine separate ski regions. A mix of vintage gondolas, T-bars and chairs brought us to the 2000 meter summit, where we skied red, blue, and black runs with unimaginative trail names such as #25-29.
Most of the Swiss and German families stick to the prepared (groomed) pistes (trails), leaving untracked stashes of snow just a few yards from the marked runs. After exploring a few dozen trails, especially the fresh untouched pow in between, we stopped at Chemi Stube -- a delightful wooden chalet where skis were lined up outside.
Our cozy table inside was soon heaped with beer steins and a feast of rosti potatoes, hearty homemade sausage, crusty bread, and cheese. The Swiss setting was priceless, but cash only. That's right, no credit cards are accepted at this centuries-old family operated chalet.
The next day we skied Gstaad’s highest elevation, Glacier 3000. A 15-minute drive up from Gstaad village, followed by two very long trams, and we were above the clouds atop Les Diablerets Glacier at 10,000’. Seeing the iconic Devil’s Thumb was our thumbs-up.The sun was shining, fresh snow had fallen and we skied run after run of perfect powder, riding three T-bars on the summit plateau with views of The Jungfrau, Matterhorn, and Mont Blanc. There is nothing steep or challenging up on the Glacier, but it's incredibly scenic, with a few intermediate runs mid-mountain served by a chair.
Lunch at Botta, a super modern building at Scex Rouge summit, provided more stunning vistas and haute cuisine. We watched crazy kite skiers launch toward the valley as we ate.
We were soon ready for our own adventure. Skiing back to the base is for experts only, with a guide at Glacier 3000 -- everyone else should download the trams. Our guide led us down a gorgeous snow loaded steep bowl that funneled to a ski-width traverse.
“Don’t look down and don’t fall,” he instructed.
After a long tricky crossing, we skied several tight shots through trees past a few cliffs. I looked up to see our tracks and our guide’s area of concern. Phew. How bizarre that Gstaad’s glacier skiing goes from mellow on top to wild mountain adventure near the base. Since our visit, Gstaad has opened the Peak Walk at Glacier 3000. It is the world’s first suspension bridge between two peaks and the 350’ walkway is only 30 inches wide at 9,800.’It looks pretty scary but offers amazing views and verifies the bold engineering they dare in Europe.
Back in the ski village, we were ready to explore Gstaad’s grand Promenade. Après ski consists of strolling the stone streets and browsing the trendy boutiques set in historic chalets. It’s very chic, like Milan in the mountains. And most of the swell people don’t look like they ski much.
The five-star hotels like Grand Park Hotel, Alpina Gstaad, and Gstaad Palace resemble castles perched above the village. Our lodging at Grand Park Hotel was super posh, alpine elegance with top shelf appointments -- Bang and Olufsen stereo, a black slate bath, and a mountain-view balcony. Spa treatments or ice skating are afternoon affairs, as is sipping cocktails in the swank lobby watching the beautiful people pass by.
Our final days at Gstaad we stayed up on mountain at The Hamilton Lodge, reached only by gondola (or skis) from Zweissimen. This beautiful chalet right in the center of the ski slopes offered a cozy room with a fluffy down duvet, a big claw foot bath tub, and a balcony overlooking the ski trails.
Staying up on the mountain as other skiers depart at 4 p.m. is so cool because the outdoor Swedish wood-fired hot tubs are warm and enjoying farm-raised chef-prepared dinner as the groomers' lights dance out on the snow is the bomb. After high-alpine dreams and a hearty breakfast of muesli, fruit, and fresh baked goods, we had no excuse not to make first tracks from our prime location.
Gstaad’s ski terrain is incredibly historic – dating back to 1905. It's also incredibly spread out. We stayed at three hotels to ski them all: Sannenmoser and Hornberg, to Eggli and the Glacier, to Rinderberg. While the famous Gstaad village is the centerpiece, it is not slopeside. Therefore, you need to drive to the skiing. Staying at Gstaad’s Grand Park Hotel with its complimentary guest shuttle is gorgeous and offers more of that sublime 5 star ski service.
Gstaad’s lodging is posh, so is the shopping and dining. Meanwhile Gstaad's lifts are a mix of old-school T-Bars and chairs, plus newer trams and gondolas. Gstaad’s 250 kilometers of ski terrain is sprawling amid a dozen villages with six separate ski tickets.
Bring a strong sense of direction, stamina, and plenty of Swiss francs, to Gstaad.
By Heather Burke, Photos by Greg Burke