This underrated gem in Switzerland might be an enclave for the rich and famous, but look beyond the surface and Gstaad serves up a smorgasbord of authentic alpine experiences that go beyond the shiny world of glamour.
By ARZOO DINA
Picturesque vistas of the swiss countryside whiz by, punctuated by turquoise-hued lakes and fairy-tale villages. I’m on the panoramic GoldenPass Express train, ensconced in a plush seat, nibbling on a cheese platter, and sipping a sparkling drink, as I journey towards the ski resort town of Gstaad in the Bernese Alps. It’s almost the end of the summer, and the prospect of enjoying the last few sunshine-filled days is enticing, to say the least, and I’m eager to explore the untouched, rustic beauty of this region.
An alpine jewel, Gstaad has long been a lavish escape of the rich and the famous. The world’s wealthiest descend here during winter, especially during Christmas, and numbers in the town can swell from 3,000 to nearly 30,000 people! From British and European royals to celebrities from around the world—Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan vacation here with their family regularly—this chic resort town draws visitors for its old-school mountainous charm, discreet luxury, and bucolic views. Bollywood movie buffs will be delighted to know that parts of the iconic Hindi movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, were shot here, and the bridge (seen in the film) in the adjoining town of Saanen even has a poster showcasing this. Moreover, this enclave is known for its exceptional ski trails, making it a veritable paradise during winter.
However, I’m here to explore Gstaad’s summertime pleasures. And they certainly didn’t disappoint.
My tour group is in the capable and friendly hands of our Swiss guide, Mike, who tells us that veteran actor Julie Andrews once described Gstaad as the “last paradise in a crazy world.” And paradise it is! As I reach Saanenmöser, one of the villages making up the Gstaad Saanenland region, the scene in front of me is almost straight out of a storybook— gurgling streams and lush meadows dotted with chalets tucked into the hillside, punctuated with picture-perfect flower beds filled with vibrant hues of pinks, reds, and purple. It’s hard not to stand awe-struck and marvel at this vision for hours on end. But I have so much more to see, and something tells me I’ll be greeted by more magnificence the further I go. And so, I set off on my explorations, hoping the rain clouds looming in the distance don’t play spoilsport. My first stop is the quaint shopping mile or promenade, in the heart of the town. A bona fide hotspot for shopaholics, it’s lined with luxury boutiques and high-end designer stores, as well as local chocolate delis and art galleries! Almost all the shops are housed in Swiss chalets with bright flowers tumbling out of the windows. Plus, the entire stretch is peppered with stylish cafés and restaurants, packed with people sipping coffee, savouring ice cream, or just ambling about. It’s also car-free and cobblestoned, making it the perfect introduction to Gstaad’s high charm quotient.
Walking away from the promenade, I spot elegant horse-drawn carriages, trotting past the majestic Gstaad Palace hotel located on a hilltop, a legendary institution dating back over 100 years. It has played host to a roster of high-profile celebrities, from Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor to Princess Diana and Michael Jackson, among others. Just another day in Gstaad’s historically elite list of visitors!
Eating like a local
I’ve worked up quite an appetite with all the wandering, and up here in the mountains, there’s nothing quite like traditional Swiss cheese fondue to satiate those hunger pangs. My group makes its way towards the village of Lauenen, home to a nature reserve and a picturesque lake. We find a lovely table at Restaurant Lauenensee, and its homely interiors offer the perfect ambience for me to enjoy a leisurely lunch of fondue and a local dish, käseschnitte (toasted bread and cheese, with meat and vegetables). The Swiss beverage of choice almost everywhere is Rivella, a popular soft drink made of milk whey with fruity undertones. I find myself enjoying not just the meal but also views of the lake from the comfort of my seat. A slight drizzle amps up the cosiness of this setting. Quite simply, I’m entranced.
Of nature trails and alpine lakes
The sun is out again by the time we finish our meal. And we set off for a hike around Lauenen Lake, where forest ranger, Larissa, talks us through the local flora and fauna. For the next hour and a half, I’m enveloped in solitude and the sounds of nature as we traverse muddy paths, brooks, and expanses of green. Butterflies flitter past me and, in the far distance, I can hear calls of the coot, a water bird commonly found here. The hike leads to well-deserved views as we stop to soak in the scenery. The placid lake reflects the surrounding mountains and forest, while waterfalls frame the backdrop. The reserve is a popular hiking and trekking trail with both tourists and locals. You can even find a few dedicated campfire sites—perfect for an outdoorsy family adventure. In fact, Gstaad has over 300 kilometres of summer hiking and trekking trails!
The next day, I’m ready to discover more of the region’s magical appeal as we head to Molkerei Gstaad—an old cheese grotto that stores what the locals describe as ‘alpine gold’, or more technically, traditional Bernese Oberland cheese. Made by a collective of farmers, the speciality here is the Berner Alpkäse, a hard Swiss cheese made into thin rolls owing to its brittle texture.
Located 25 metres underground, this grotto was once a water reservoir and dates back to 1931, before World War II. We descend a steep flight of steps to get to the underground cellar and it seems fitting as this is a true treasure of the gourmet kind! There’s a distinct chill in the air and I can’t help but gape at the sight before me. Rows upon rows of cheese are piled high up to the ceiling, surrounded by candles flickering in the dim light. Nearly 3,000 wheels of cheese are stored here, each weighing about 10 kilograms. Talk about a cheese overload. Not that I’m complaining!
The highlight of my experience here, however, is the large fondue caquelon (an almost life-sized fondue pot) located outdoors. A traditional cheese tasting follows with platters of local varieties laid out for us. While dipping pieces of bread into the simmering pot of fondue, I look out over the countryside from my vantage point. The sun gently warms my face and the lush countryside beckons to be photographed. I’m happy to bask in this indulgent life while I can.
Catching last glimpses
I wrap up my day with dinner at a traditional mountain restaurant, Hornfluh, up in the mountains. The scenic farmhouse-style eatery serves rustic alpine classics. Checked tablecloths create an inviting, rustic aura, while quaint bric-a-bracs lay scattered around the space and the ceiling is adorned with large cow bells. My last meal in Gstaad is a rich dish called Älplermagronen or alpine macaroni featuring pasta, potatoes, and cheese, served with a side of apple sauce. A unique combination but one that is well worth trying. As I bid adieu to this heavenly haven, I completely understand why visitors from all around the world find Gstaad so appealing. For the wealthy, it may be the glamorous winter escape, but once the snowy landscapes give way to lush meadows, you see it for its alpine authenticity. Gstaad is meant to be enjoyed at a glacial pace—after all, this kind of old-world charm and pastoral living are hard to come by in today’s fast-paced life.