Mark Nicholls takes a ski break in Gstaad and pauses for a city break in Geneva on the way home
The train journey from Gstaad to Montreux passes through unforgettable mountain scenery as the line winds its way down to the north-east shore of Lake Geneva.
If it fits with your schedule, take the Golden Pass Belle Epoque departure from any of the stations in the region – Zweisimmen, Gstaad, Saanen, or Rougemont – and sit in timeless wood-panelled coaches and jade green seats to admire the stunning views through large carriage windows.
Inspired by the Golden Mountain Pullman Express of the 1930s, it was a perfect way to end my visit to Gstaad-Saanen and embark on the next stage of my journey in Switzerland, which was to take me to Geneva.
I had spent a few days in the luxury, high-end, resort with expensive restaurants and designer shops. And yes, all that is true. The rich and famous do live here or visit for skiing – Madonna and former F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone are regular visitors, and Julie Andrews has long since taken up residence.
While it may be a place to be seen in, don’t underestimate the breadth of winter activities: from downhill skiing over some 200km of piste, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, walks through the beautiful frosty landscape, and a magical horse-drawn sleigh-ride up to Lake Lauenen.
I had flown into Zurich and taken the train, checking in to the HUUS-Gstaad hotel in Saanen, which is the administrative centre of this part of the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps.
The hotel, with 136 rooms and most offering views of the valley, has a fabulous pool and spa, restaurant and a high-ceilinged lobby that instantly attracts attention with a bar and countless bottles stacked in a design to reflect the surrounding mountain landscape. Try one of the signature cocktails as you relax in the lobby and admire the scenery – I went for Tokio Rose (CHF24), with Hanami Gin, St Germain elderflower liqueur, Cherry Bitter and Rose Syrup.
Alongside the high-end dining, Gstaad-Saanen also has restaurants offering traditional Swiss cuisine. The La Vue restaurant at HUUS finds a balance of the two, with à la carte menus, but also the opportunity to savour fondue (28CHF) or raclette in a heated see-through igloo too.
It specialises in Italian-influenced cuisine with head chef Giuseppe Collela: I had the crustacean ravioli as a starter one night, followed by the rack of lamb and a selection of local cheeses. The wine list, as you’d expect, is comprehensive but there is a strong Swiss element to it. There’s also a sushi bar too.
Extensive ski area
From the hotel, the slopes are a short drive, or public bus link, away.
While the area pivots on Gstaad as a recognised brand, the extensive ski area is accessed via a string of base lifts spread along the villages of the valley, from Zweisimmen to Saanenmoser, Schonried, Gstaad, Saanen (Eggli) and Rougemont.
It covers wide, varied, and challenging terrain with a balance of black runs, reds and blues, plus fabulous off-piste opportunities.
I took the Eggli lift up from 1050m to slopes which offer sunny relaxed skiing and tree-lined runs, to the high point at La Videmanette at 2151m.
For those seeking a specific challenge, the Tiger Run, located on the Wasserngrat, is the Saanenland region’s steepest slope. Black and with an average gradient of 45 degrees, it starts at 1940m, down to 1280m.
The season generally runs from mid-December to mid-March or early April, though Glacier 3000 is not far away with a longer season from October to May.
There are several restaurants on the mountain, but this being Gstaad, some also have private members clubs attached.
After exploring the mountain with ski instructor Gabriel von Bueren, we took lunch at the Eggliberg Restaurant. I settled for the Eggli Beef Burger with chips and BBQ sauce at CHF32 (£25) from a menu where you can also order 100g of caviar for CHF530. But the food was tasty, wholesome and from a choice that include pastas and salads or, interestingly, spaghetti with vodka (CHF22), Dover Sole at CHF64 and Beef Goulash, which will set you back CHD39 (£30).
Over lunch, Gabriel explained the numerous attractions about skiing in the Gstaad area. “One of the things that is different to other resorts is that there is a lot of room to ski in,” he said. “It is open terrain with wonderful views and the altitude is not that high, meaning we can be among the trees. I would describe it as relaxing skiing.”
And I wouldn’t argue with that as we spent a morning covering the area above Eggli lift, but there are many other ski areas, and if you do eventually want altitude, Glacier 3000 is not far away.
A highlight is taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride across the snow up to Lake Lauenen. The scenery is fabulous: snowy, with icicles hanging from branches, glistening in the sunshine against the blue sky.
The sleigh pauses at Bochtehus Beizli for lunch, where you can get a simple serving of meats and cheeses or a warming soup. I’d recommend the home-made tomato soup – thick, hot, creamy, and with a spicy kick to keep you on your toes for under 10CHF – before the horses draw you away for another hour to the frozen lake, passing walkers and cross-country skiers on the way and back to the village (CHF180 for four people).
“People come to here for skiing, wellness, hiking and the food, but mainly for enjoyment and to relax,” said Thomas Schetty from the Gstaad ski region.
That explains the resort slogan: “come up, slow down.”
Posh restaurants (such as the Olden owned by Bernie Ecclestone) and luxury hotels (the Palace Hotel dominates the skyline above Gstaad) are all around, while shopping includes Prada, Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Ralph Lauren.
But if you want traditional Swiss cuisine, I recommend Hotel Kernen in Schoenried-Gstaad, run by former downhill ski champion Bruno Kernen, the fourth generation of his family to do so.
You’ll meet Bruno, who won the downhill at Kitzbuhel in January 1983, walking around, chatting to guests and offering suggestions from the menu. He won the race wearing bib 29, and now his house red and house white wines carry the label Kitzbuhel29.
On my way back to the UK, via the Belle Epoque service to Montreux, I changed for Geneva and spent the next day wandering around the city and enjoying a sunny winter’s day by the water.
Geneva airport is a common transit point for skiers, either taking to the slopes in France or Switzerland, but how many of us think about stopping over for a day?
It immediately struck me as a great place for watch enthusiasts – with numerous shops plus the Patek Philippe watch museum – but also a city that is a lure for chocaholics, especially with the new Choco Pass, which is one of those tourist attractions that sounds almost too good to be true.
At CHF25 (child CHF5), the pass allows you to visit a range of chocolatier shops and sample the different confectionary on offer.
While there are several on the list – too many to wisely go round in a day – I took in a couple, purely for research purposes, of course. But while there is only one visit per shop per pass, it is valid for a year, so if you’re returning, you can pick more of them off.
Make sure you visit Zeller on Place Longemalle, where the assistant talked through the ornate and delicious chocolate – an edible shell with chocolate mousse and nougat; pralines; tangy orange chocolate; or a mixture of cocoa butter and chocolate. They were within the to take away as part of the pass.
Elsewhere, you will get to taste the famous Geneva pavé at Stettler’s while Sweetzerland will offer delicious truffles.
With museums and grand buildings set on the River Rhone and Lake Geneva, the city is steeped in history with the cathedral, art galleries, museums and places to eat too, though if you’ve filled up on chocolate that might not be so high on your list.
Cross the river, look out over the lake, admire the water spout, or sit for a sunny half hour in the English Garden and then walk up through the cobbled streets of the old town to St Peter’s Cathedral, where you can put your mountain legs to the test to ascend the towers via the spiral steps for magnificent views across Geneva and the lake with the mountains beyond. There are also boat tours on Lake Geneva but check sailing times.
The Geneva City Pass is an investment if you are staying longer and covers 52 attractions (including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum) and is valid for 24/48/72 hours. So, after enjoying the slopes, ambience and cuisine of Gstaad, take a new perspective on Switzerland and pause to explore Geneva before you fly home.
Ski passes: The Gstaad region adopts ‘dynamic’ ski pass pricing, but a day pass ranges from 49-77CHF. For more information visit www.gstaad.ch
Switzerland Tourism: Visit www.MySwitzerland.com
Flights: SWISS fly from London, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh to Zurich or Geneva. One-way fares start from £76 to Zurich and £54 to Geneva including luggage, with free transport of ski or snowboard equipment and boots.
Transport within Switzerland: The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel by train, bus and boat and admission to more than 500 museums. For details, visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk
Geneva City Pass: Costs 29.60CHF (48 hours) www.geneve.com
Choco Pass Geneva: www.geneve.com
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls