Pride, as they say, often precedes a fall. As the Swiss boasted in the exclusive but low-lying resort of Gstaad: “Every guest is a king, but kings are only guests.” In this case, the fall was a snowfall that did not materialize, leaving most of the rolling pastures above the village an embarrassing shade of green around Christmas time and even into early January.
The village fathers, backed by the seemingly bottomless pockets of the club of incredibly wealthy international residents, called in nine helicopter flights to haul the snow to key broken links on the slope map between the village of Zweisimmen and Saanenmöser.
A King Canute-style effort to battle crazy December temperatures of up to 20ºC was inevitably doomed to failure. The resort, which uses its eco-friendly reputation as a bastion of sustainable skiing, has been left with an egg on its face. In this really choppy start to the ski season, this egg could last all the way to Easter and beyond.
Still, in the midst of it all, Gstaad managed to conjure up enough white material for Ace Ecclestone, aged two, to take his first skiing lesson just a few lifts from his parents’ £23million cottage.
He was watched adoringly by his father, 92-year-old former Formula 1 mogul Bernie, and his 46-year-old mother Fabiana. In this climatic corner of the Bernese Oberland, celebrity is the main asset, which is actually more important than the snow cover.
A Herculean Christmas helicopter effort, mounted amid soaring temperatures across Europe, has shed light on a once exclusive ski resort that has almost completely fallen off the ski podium in the last few decades.
Frankly, Gstaad lost its appeal as a serious international winter contender at least a generation ago. This was partly due to the low altitude of 1,050 meters above sea level, which limits the snowy holiday skiing season to mid-January to mid-March – a loss of eight weeks.
However, the stark reality is that its small local and admittedly wider area of 250km, which includes the 3,000m-high Les Diablerets glacier, is made up of at least 50 percent low-slope slopes that are too little of a challenge for the average the modern intermediate skier.
Sure, given the snow cover, you can have fun here. But you can also enjoy a lot more elsewhere, with a safer chance of reliable insurance, and at a much lesser gold price. You will not find Gstaad in the recognized ski guides as a demanding destination for committed skiers. He’s just too tame.
And yet, in 2023, it looks like sparkling Gstaad will flourish, but not just because of the skiing ethos. Over the decades, it has very sensibly developed into a year-round destination with a major summer tennis competition and music festival. And let’s not forget about people watching.
The resort grew thanks to the narrow-gauge railway that was built in the early 20th century from Montreux on the northern shore of Lake Geneva, and Thomas Cook offered a 10-day winter sports holiday for 10 guineas.
As an international destination, its true fame was established more than half a century later when this quaint village of ancient wooden cottages became the winter home of a host of celebrities seeking solace in the mountains in the company of like-minded others.
In the post-war years, the guest and host of the shelter was Field Marshal Lord Montgomery, who during the day wore his iconic beret on a one-person cable car. After dinner, he sent his guests home at 10:00 p.m. sharp with the words: “Gentlemen, the night was made for sleeping.”
Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, Shah of Iran, Lady Julie Andrews, Sir Roger Moore, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy, David Niven, Yehudi Menuhin, Henry Mancini – the list goes on – flocked to this improbable rural setting away from the meat pots in St. Moritz.
At the center of it all is the five-star Palace Hotel, a Disney confection of turrets just above the village that was – and remains – its social center. Johnny Halliday, Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Charles Aznavour, Mireille Mathieu and Dionne Warwick have performed here.
Peter Sellers, another cottage owner, put the Palace on the world map when he made his famous entrance here in the 1975 film Return of the Pink Panther. After getting stuck in the revolving door, he asked the receptionist for “rhume”. The hotel is still going high, booked for the season.
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Equally important is The Eagle Club, located high above the resort. This is arguably the world’s most exclusive lunch club, where being the reigning monarch of a country or industry gives you some edge on the ladder of potential membership, but not much. You’re not applying to join, you’re being asked.
On a good day in the middle of winter, at least a few kings or heads of state are present lapping up the signature vin chaud on the terrace before enjoying a delicious dinner inside. The joining fee is reportedly £35,000. I was invited there for dinner once. You can only be a guest three times a year. As I was skiing home that afternoon, I felt a warm glow that I wasn’t paying the bill.
The late Sir Roger Moore was one of its most enthusiastic members. He lived for several years in Gstaad before changing wives and emigrating to Crans-Montana. He once told me, “I had a lot of fun – on and off skis, day and night – in Gstaad than anywhere else in the world. A large part of my heart is forever buried in the Eagle Club and the Palace. Gstaad is one of the few places where I can really relax with my friends.”
Where else can you go in Gstaad? Well, if you like après-ski, look elsewhere. Most of the stars who live or stay here either play in their lavish cottages or watch Netflix at home. For limited night action, try the Greengo nightclub at the Palace.
The Olden Hotel has traditionally been the restaurant and watering hole of choice for glitterati from a bygone era and much loved by Julie Andrews and Roger Moore. It is now owned by Bernie Ecclestone. Judging from his delight at his first ski lesson, I imagine Ace will one day be behind the bar, sipping pints of Bollinger for the next generation of Gstaad celebrities. But if he’s a big duster, and given these uncertain winters, he might want to look for something else, a little higher up.