It’s hard not to imagine yourself on the set of a James Bond film as you approach the Alpina Gstaad for the first time. Winding high above the Swiss town, the road narrows before entering a tunnel that takes us inside the mountain and eventually to the subterranean entrance of one of the most exclusive hotels in the Alps.
In the run-up to Christmas, the population of Gstaad swells from 7,500 to 30,000 as the uber-wealthy rock up for the winter season in top-end SUVs, helicopters and private jets. The likes of Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Roger Moore and Brigitte Bardot helped galvanise the resort’s cachet and regular A-listers today include Sir Elton John and Anne Hathaway. Even Julie Andrews, Maria von Trapp herself, who knows a thing or two about these parts, chooses Gstaad as her Alpine getaway.
This is real Heidi country, a picture-postcard Alpine ideal at which most visitors arrive on the scenic Golden Pass railway line. Stringent regulations in place since the 1950s mean that all new buildings must adhere to the chalet style, and it can be difficult to tell whether a building is 20 years old or 200. And within five years of opening, the Alpina Gstaad has established itself as the place to stay.
The original Grand Hotel Alpina was demolished in 1995, a moment captured in a pop art video on display in the new building. Owners Jean Claude Mimran and Marcel Bach then spent 13 years overcoming local objections and strict Bernese planning regulations before the new premises with 56 rooms and suites opened in 2012, costing $336 million. The building paid for itself before a single guest had checked in with the sale of three chalets and 11 apartments on the site.
The building is so sympathetic it is difficult to believe it is new. All the stone, slate and timber has been locally sourced. Quartz mined from Alpine crevasses has been transformed into bases for lamps, decanters and beer taps. The region’s traditional découpage art features prominently, rugs and throws are fashioned from Saanenland goat hair, and columns are sheathed in saddle leather. The stunning wooden ceiling above the main staircase was brought in 32 pieces and has been painstakingly restored. Its origin is unknown but it is most likely late baroque. Yet somehow it feels as though the entire building has been designed around this 18th century work, despite the extensive collection of modern art surrounding it by artists including Tracey Emin.
The suites and rooms are every bit as sumptuous as you would expect, with Bang and Olufsen entertainment systems and Acqua di Parma toiletries. But the views from the balconies to the mountains beyond – uncluttered by the comings and goings of vehicles below – are priceless. One night from our suite we saw a doe and her two fawns make heavy progress through thick snow in the hotel grounds, unaware of the steady procession of luxury 4x4s.
For other-level opulence there is the Panorama Suite. Madonna and her daughter Lourdes were among the first to stay here. It is on two storeys and has its own spa with a steam room, sauna and Jacuzzi on the terrace, and its own kitchen as guests in this suite tend to bring private chefs.
For the rest of us, there are three restaurants to choose from and two of them are Michelin-starred. In Sommet, executive chef Martin Göschel describes his cuisine as Francophile, but influenced by both the character of the region and his trips to Asia and South America. Megu, which has the other Michelin star, is contemporary Japanese. Only open during the winter season, the Swiss Stübli is the embodiment of cosy Alpine dining, ideal after a day of hiking or skiing and the perfect place to enjoy traditional Swiss fare such as raclette or fondue.
After a hearty breakfast at which everything you could possibly want was laid on, we set off on an unforgettable snow hike while the hotel’s child minder looked after our 18-month-old daughter in the children’s Treehouse Club. There was heavy snowfall during and before our stay, and high in the mountains it was waist deep. Venturing into the pristine, silent wilderness was a magical and unforgettable privilege. We hiked high into the mountains, to the end of frozen Lake Lauenen. As we took in the spectacular scenery, the silence was broken by the distant rumble of a minor avalanche high in the mountains.
Ski hire is available from a shop at the hotel so the next day I took to the slopes. There is a vast array of activities year-round, with skiing and snowboarding the most popular, and there is an abundance of options for both the novice and advanced skier. Visitors can ski the entire Gstaad “Super Ski Region”, which comprises of six sectors, over 70 lifts and 150 miles of trails. The snow was perfect and I have never enjoyed a day’s skiing more.
The village itself is known for its luxury shopping, with various designer stores populating the pretty high street. And of course, there is no shortage of bars and restaurants for an après ski beer and fondue. A few miles to the west of German-speaking Gstaad is Gruyère, famous for its cheese.
Before dinner there could be no better place to unwind than the Six Senses Spa, which has treatments inspired by Asian traditions. In addition to an indoor pool there is an outdoor pool, two Jacuzzis, a salt room, a yoga studio, a gym and a juice bar. The experience was truly restorative and holistic. The equanimity and friendliness of all the staff suggests they make good use of the spa too.
Wellbeing and sustainability are at the heart of the hotel’s ethos, managing director Eric Favre tells me. And clearly it works, as the vast majority of guests have stayed here before. In fact, around Christmas time pretty much all of them have. I ask him which season he prefers and he says summer. “In the winter we have the skiing, which is wonderful of course. But if you do not ski your options are obviously limited. In the summer, there is so much to choose from.”
Yes, this place is eye-wateringly expensive, though many of those who stay here may not notice whether they have spent £500 or £5,000 on a bottle of Cristal. But you don’t have to book the Panorama Suite and you don’t have to order a dram of exceptionally rare Glenfiddich for 750 Swiss francs. There are less expensive rooms, deals are available and Swiss lager is on tap for a comparatively modest nine francs a pop. So although it is pricey it is not necessarily beyond reach. And everyone deserves a treat once in a while.
Starting rates at the Alpina Gstaad are £674 per room in double use occupancy including breakfast, daily credit of £80 per person for food and drink in Sommet, Megu & Swiss Stübli restaurants, free access to pools, saunas, steam-baths and relaxation areas at the Six Senses Spa, parking, service charges and all taxes.