By Barbara Kingstone

In a cloudless, sizzling, hot mid afternoon with temperatures abnormally high, I arrived in Gstaad Switzerland, the epitome of grand living.  Snow caps were still seen on the highest peaks at this 1050 meter high alpine paradise. And with this being one of the world’s most famous luxury ski areas known for its splendid slopes, swanky après ski, the charming town, grand homes and everything that goes with affluent lifestyle, it’s now become a terrific summer destination.

When I was last in Gstaad over a decade ago , again in the summer, I chose to spend the weekend in this  mountainous city instead of Zurich where I was working during that week. At that time on Sundays, Zurich was  closed as tight as the back of a Swiss watch. There was little to do.  Suicide Sunday was the name I had called this day. On an impulse, I decided to visit Gstaad . The train ride was wonderful with the great scenery changes and in two hours I was settled into a quaint hotel.  I quickly discovered the haute hotels had closed for the summer months either for renos or just because occupancy was low leaving only a few small inn-style accommodations opened. But luckily, the Swiss love their food so I was referred to a very fine restaurant. I had a great traditional Swiss meal of Zurcher Geschnetzeltes and Roesti ( veal in sauce)  and a local white wine recommended by an American couple who sat beside me at the next elbow -touching table. The bonus was he was an author and authority on Cervantes and his wife was his researcher. The evening passed quickly but what would I do the next day?  My nervous energy got the best and early the next morning I was on the rails back to Zurich.

Little did I know that I’d have the opportunity to revisit this luxurious winter resort in the summer again, where now the grandest of the grand hotels, restaurants and shops were ready and waiting for the many tourists in the now bustling off-season.

Sitting on the terrace of my room in Gstaad’s regaled and renowned 5 plus star, 104 room Gstaad Palace Hotel, built in 1913 and still unrivalled, I had the perfect panoramic view of the town at the bottom of the hill, the mountains beyond and the exquisite pool and gardens below.   My first thought was this had to be one of the world’s most perfect romantic, honeymoon destinations.

Gstaad Palace, had everything going for it.  An indoor and outdoor swimming pool,  health club, squash and tennis courts, golf, spanking new spa, bikes, tours for hiking, 5 wonderful restaurants and 2 always busy bars with light entertainment and a few thoughtfully located on -premises jewellery shops.  The floral arrangements in the public areas looked so perfect and plastic, that only after I touched them was I convinced they were genuine. My search for any small imperfections from service to amenities was for naught.  Everything  ran like Swiss clockwork.  The staff was so helpful, the rooms, of course, Swiss spotless, each room having state –of-the- art high speed wireless internet access.  And without doubt, certainly a stunning destination wedding and honeymooner’s  paradise.

I hadn’t realized that there was so much to do in this romantic aerie but when I discovered that I could book a hot air balloon ride, my name was down for next early morning ‘flight’, this being a perfect time to see the sunrise. A shuttle arrived unusually late, (this being Switzerland one doesn’t expect or understand ‘late’), but nevertheless,  we were quickly taken to the nearby grounds of the  Grand Hotel Park, now in the midst of a $500,000 million renovation when a small van drove us to the site of our ‘take off’.  Although not long enough, only about 15 minutes up about 300 feet, it was an exhilarating ride for an exquisite overview of the Swiss  Alps. The vista below, included a clear sight of Yehudi Menuhin’s white plastic -looking four peaked musical venue where the annual  summer music festival takes place, and locating various hotels including the Gstaad Palace, also many of the typical farm buildings and chalets.

A few 5 star hotels had negotiated by sponsoring about 40 travel scribes from around the world, maximum three from each country and more usual, only one.  Representatives from Russia, Thailand, China, Singapore, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Poland, France, UK, US and Canada. Cleverly and without a hitch for the 2 days in Gstaad, they produced an educational program which was both fun and diverse.  For instance, Beyer, the famous jewelers and watch makers, hosted a champagne pre dinner cocktail party on the gloriously decorated outdoor grounds of the Grand Hotel Park. At the bottom of every champagne flute brimming with Veuve Clicquot Carte Jaune, was a small shiny look alike stone. One lucky drinker would find the only genuine diamond worth approximately $3,000.  An expert with his loupe at his eye, sat at a nearby table, gave every stone a close inspection, then placed the shiny fake into a box, straight faced so that everyone thought there’s was the one. However, the one genuine diamond  went to a young delighted woman from Japan.  After a short drive, we arrived for dinner at the Grand Hotel Bellevue’s Yacht Club, an intimate members- only club. Strange name for an area where there isn’t a sighting of a marina anywhere .  The décor was typically nautical in this otherwise grand Swiss hotel, with awards in the shape of ships, beams and wood walls surrounded the grandly set tables.   The menu included pike perch from Lake Thun and the Swiss wine was Champagne Grand Cru, Henri Cruchon, Morges, Red was Pinot Noir Champagne, Henri Cruchon, Morges. The next destination was dessert at the Lounge Halle of the Gstaad Palace Hotel.  Fruit, cheese, pastry which were beyond description were all set out in this luxurious bar where there was background music  and wine…Merlot del  from Tera Creda, and sweet wine Amigne de Vetroz “Fletrie” 2008 from Valais.

Next day, about an hour ‘s ride over some very bumpy, unpaved roads, but who cared with this breathtaking view, lunch was at an even higher altitude at Alp Walig built originally in 1786 as a farm and tenderly renovated now to  a small inn. Even the worst photographer couldn’t ‘t take a bad photo here with one of the most perfectly awesome sights in the world – high snow capped peaks and lush green pastures with cows which seemed like decoration for a postcard.  Between courses, there were four alp horn blowers, so very Swiss, so delightful.  The cows munched grass in the nearby pasture with their very audible bells around their necks as the Yodel choir sang traditional Swiss yodeling songs. What was so amusing was the cows seemed to enjoy the sounds as we all did therefore they vied for attention with their cowbells.  Again the food was a celebration as we sat on covered hay stacks and took in the outstanding view. Spatzli perfumed with wild garlic, and mountain cheese, loin of farmer’s veal in a herb crust with its cheek, young leek papet and celeriac, buttermilk cream with regional wild strawberries, mountain honey, crunch cereals, double c cream caramel ice parfait with Swiss wines-Blanc de Mer, and Pinot Noir de Valais.

Gstaad’s town is everything you’ve read about.  Flowers dripping from balconies on carved wooden chalets, shops with top labels and filled with travelers, ice cream vendors  busy  scooping their creamy treats while fountains trickled as children whizzed around the  car-less and charming streets. Every tourist should make a stop and watch the art of Swiss  paper cutting, considered one of the most important folk arts which has its root in China.  This very precise paper cutting unexpectedly became popular in the 70s.

A few artisans share a small room under a thriving souvenir shop,Scherenschnitte, Chalet Rou-Rife).  With only one table, they each have a schedule for their time there. Symmetry is one of the most important features  of this art form and the cutting usually depicts animals, trees, flowers and geometric symbols to mention a few subjects.  The borders of each are so intricate one wonders how this is done with just a few tools including a small, sharpened scissors.  From abstract to traditional, although there some are coloured , the most typical are the black and white and the designs are often duplicated and can be seen on t- shirts, napkins, handkerchiefs, posters, and  packaging of cheese and chocolate.

There’s not much more to ask for when you think of a summer vacation. With various outdoor activities and certainly a nod for those getting married, are married or just want to enjoy a romantic getaway, Gstaad has just about every aspect covered.  Although the altitude did make me light headed, I wondered if this had to do more with this land of Heidi where each day could be as active or as languorous and lazy as you want and look forward to evenings filled with great dining.

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