The Hotel Restaurant Bären in Gsteig, just a 15-minute drive from the glittering resort of Gstaad – synonymous with the likes of Roger Moore and Brigitte Bardot – is like a picture postcard of mountain paradise brought down to earth.
A quiet village that nestles in a valley, it’s an archetypal Swiss cliché but without the stereotype. You won’t find any Heidi costumes or Alpenhorns here, or at least not as a deliberate gimmick.
But you will find ordinary local people wearing traditional clothes, just because that’s the way they dress, and occasionally a local male voice choir and oompah band drop in, providing free entertainment in the bar and restaurant.
The classic vista of this hotel next to the village church, is idyllic: it’s even been featured on various old posters promoting Switzerland as a tourist destination. So, the joy of the Bären, where I retreated to get away from the world over New Year, is that it’s a quaintly typical institution that has been there since time immemorial – but without being overtly marketed as such. Those who know, know.
Gsteig couldn’t present a starker contrast to its glitzy playboy neighbour. There are some surrounding villas hidden down snowy pathways that obviously belong to people for whom finance is not an issue, and a new hotel has also just been built. In some ways Gsteig might be on the cusp of commercialisation. Not that you really notice. The Hotel Bären’s fundamental appeal lies in the fact that it’s still seemingly stuck in a time that the modern age forgot, like the ancient black and white photos of the building with vintage cars outside and gentlemen wearing plus fours that you find everywhere on the walls. It’s a homely hotel, that invites you to linger and absorb the unique historic atmosphere.
Even the local butcher is of a different era. Most of the time he’s not actually there. You just go to the shop, take what you want (I recommend the local sausage – cervelat) and put the money in an honesty box that’s left out on the counter. Can you imagine that system working anywhere other than Switzerland? This is no doubt what Gstaad would have been like too, before the jet set discovered it and filled it with Louis Vuitton shops.
The actual hotel has a small selection of quite basic rooms, but they are all spotless and the Bären has brilliant eating facilities, with one restaurant as well as a Stubli – a more informal place – that doubles up as a bar. Like the rest of the hotel, the service is solid and traditional: speaking English won’t get you very far.
The food is exceptional but stick to the classic Swiss favourites: you won’t find much else anyway. The fondue is incredible, the cheese and meat board not to be missed, and the raclette is simply the best I’ve ever had. For Switzerland, it’s all pretty good value too. Breakfast is simple: there’s a not a huge choice, but it’s all very tasty and there’s not the quasi-military schedule in place that many Swiss hotels impose in the mornings. One of the best things about the Bären is that it’s genuinely laid-back: which isn’t normally a stereotypically Swiss virtue.
Perhaps this is because, while being in the German part of the country, it’s only just across the invisible frontier from the French bit (Gsteig was formerly known by the French name of Chatelet). So, it combines the best of both worlds: German cosiness and French rustic attitude.
Sure, this is essentially a basic hotel and there are no real luxuries – go to Gstaad if you want those – but they over deliver on most of those basics. You’re also in the heart of skiing and hiking territory, and it’s very convenient for the Glacier 3000 complex (largely owned by a certain Bernie Ecclestone, and also the home of the world’s highest watch shop as well as the ski domain of Les Diablerets. Once you get back to the welcoming fug of the Bären in the evening, suitably exhausted, you can take advantage of the free car park – actually a big deal in Switzerland – and trot the short distance to the friendly bar, for beer, wine and fondue.
What’s there not to like? This place is probably the best-kept secret in the canton of Bern.
Hotel Restaurant Bären, Gsteigstrasse 1, 3785 Gsteig, Switzerland.
Tel: 033 755 10 33
Type of Hotel: Traditional Swiss Hotel
Number of Rooms: 20 rooms
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: Eat in the traditional ’stube’ downstairs. It’s more fun and largely the same food as the restaurant upstairs.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photograph by Anthony Peacock