Catherine Weakley, The Daily Telegraph, March 26, 2014
A horse-drawn carriage clip-clops up a driveway. Snow is spiralling gently through the spotlights illuminating fairytale tall green pines and the windows and turrets of the Gstaad Palace hotel. The scene is instantly uplifting, and marks my arrival into a world that combines understated, old-world sophistication, style and service with modern convenience and glamour.
Inside, whether viewed from a deep armchair in the clubby Lobby Bar with its frescos, chandeliers and huge fireplace, or from the bath in a turret in my sixth floor room, the illuminated snow falling outside gives the feeling of being inside a snowglobe, cocooned in a place where nothing is too much trouble, and almost everything has been thought of.
The Palace, which celebrated its centenary last December, dominates chalet-style Gstaad, its 104 room castle-like presence visible from afar. Swiss building rules would never allow anything like it now – everything must be low-storied, leading to much restoration of old buildings in the resort, many with deeply excavated basements. See a two-storey chalet, imagine the iceberg underneath.
One of several high-end hotels originally built in Gstaad to accommodate the parents of children attending private schools, the Palace has been owned by the Scherz family for 75 years, and its management has a deep knowledge of what its many regular visitors want – little change – but combines this with continuous refinement. Photos on its walls of visitors including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton bear testament to its enduring appeal to the rich famous and as well as the discreet and monied.
For 2013/14, interior designer Marina Nickels focused on the sixth floor suites, and their combination of soothing colours, multiple textures and just the right level of lighting, along with airy bathrooms, exudes the trademark luxurious understatement. The shower doubles as a hammam, there are warming infrared lights over that bath. And there are touches such as toothbrush, floss, a natural sponge and lip balm as well as the usual array of toiletries.
But modernisation doesn't go too far. When fire doors were installed on the rooms, the proper locks with their tasselled keys were kept; while satellite tv and free films are in place there are traditional remotes not ipad control; and while you could do all the resort research you need via free wifi, the concierge desk with real people to talk to is a fixture unlikely to be superseded.
The spa, renovated for 2007/08, is an oasis of calm that includes separate men's and women's sauna and hammam area, with a private spa suite available too. While treatments include an innovative oxygen-based selection from Clinica Yvo Pitanguy, whose founder is friend of the family, as well as the more traditional, they never tip over into the clinical. At night the indoor swimming pool merges with the GreenGo nightclub as a dancefloor lowers over it, so that guests can seamlessly segue from classic Seventies décor in the bar area to sway over the glittering water.
When asked to dress for dinner at Le Grill, it was the first time I've ever brought a frock and heels to a ski resort. There's even a discreet notice in the bathroom, aimed at men, saying that wearing t-shirts or caps will not be tolerated there. But my fear that would mean a formal atmosphere was unfounded, leaving us free to enjoy the beautifully prepared sea bass and ravioli with truffle and, to finish, a giant chocolate cocoa bean, ceremoniously smashed with a hammer to reveal sweet treats inside. The other restaurants have no dress code, but never fear looking too rich or too thin (or in my case, looking at those who do).
Many of the Palace guests don't prioritise visiting the slopes, which are split between five different mainly intermediate level areas all a (hotel chauffeured) drive away. But those who do are rewarded with good grooming, pleasant cruising on very quiet slopes and plenty of pit stops. The lift system could do with some of the same subtle modernisation as the hotel – which recently closed its doors for the winter season – but its likely you'll be so chilled by the 'Come up, slow down' atmosphere (the resort's favoured tag line) you'll barely notice.
If you fancy a sojourn in the Palace's three-bedroom penthouse (9900CHF a night minimum half board) next winter, you'll be out of luck – it's already taken by a single booking for the 2014/15 season; there's also a two-year waiting list for rooms over the festive period – despite an obligatory 10-day stay. Still, dropping in at the Lobby Bar costs no more than a (ok, rather pricey) drink, and a horse-drawn approach, bookable at the tourist office or by flagging down the driver, is highly recommended.
A standard double room at the Gstaad Palace (palace.ch) costs from 720CHF a night half-board, including taxes and service. The spa is open to day visitor 60CHF. Visit gstaad.ch for more information on the resort