Beyond ski: Old-world luxury at the Gstaad Palace
Fondue, Swiss chocolate and a 10,000sq-ft spa spell the last word in indulgence
Perched on a hilltop overlooking Gstaad, the former sleepy farming village which has become one of Switzerland's ritziest resorts, the Gstaad Palace was the place to be seen for the international jet-set of the 1960s.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong performed in the ballroom to regular guests such as Roger Moore, Julie Andrews and Peter Sellers, who also shot scenes for 1975's The Return of the Pink Panther at the hotel.
More than 100 years after it first appeared on that Gstaad hilltop, the Palace retains a reputation as one of the finest luxury hotels in the Swiss Alps – and Portfolio is here to experience the best the Old World has to offer.
Our Swiss Airlines flight touches down on schedule at lunchtime and my fiancé and I begin our two-and-a-half hour, three-train rail journey towards Gstaad. While changing trains in the UK conjures up visions of frantically huffing and puffing across railway bridges, in Switzerland things run, as you might expect, like clockwork.
The train's panoramic glass windows come into their own in the final half-hour, as we go deep into the Alps. Spring is on its way and we glide through green and white valleys, where shorts are as common as ski suits.
Gstaad's architecture is strictly traditional and dominated by wooden chalets, many of them painted with stunning centuries-old murals and mottoes. However, there is one obvious difference from the world of Heidi – in keeping with the resort's status as the home of alpine luxury, the shops are a laundry list of the world's most exclusive designer brands.
From the outside, the Gstaad Palace might seem a little intimidating, its pointed turrets overlooking the town from the top of a steep hill, however, the interior is anything but. Decorated in a cosy chalet style, with eclectic furniture and plush upholstery, this first-time guest immediately felt at home.
A glass of complimentary champagne waits for us in our room - a double deluxe, quintessentially alpine in style, with light wood and high ceilings giving it a warm yet airy feeling. The spacious bathroom boasts a two-person tub, steam room-style shower and dual sinks. The real selling point, however, are the extraordinary south-facing views from the windows and balcony, which look out directly on to the surrounding mountains and the picturesque village below.
Without waiting to unpack, I head to the spa, ready to receive the hotel's signature massage, enhanced by the gorgeous scents of Jardin des Monts, a range of artisanal oils made from herbs grown on the mountainside just outside Gstaad.
Afterwards, I explore the sprawling 10,000sq-ft spa, which includes men's and women's sauna and steam room complexes, an indoor swimming pool and a well-stocked lounge and relaxation area. The highlight, though, is the plunge pool, which begins inside and continues via a glass hatch, out in the open air, offering superb views of the mountains between the plumes of rising steam.
That evening, we head to La Fromagerie, one of the Palace's five restaurants and notable for its location in an underground vault used to store government gold during World War II.
This rustic tavern-style dining area serves two great Swiss institutions – raclette and fondue. Its specialty - a rich champagne and truffle cheese fondue - comes with a basket of steaming boiled potatoes and fresh bread. A well-balanced glass of Swiss white wine cuts through the intense flavours, but we still need a long walk after this most indulgent of dinners.
In our room, housekeeping has made its second visit of the day to make sure everything is perfect: the ice caddy has been filled; the bed is freshly made, and the lighting turned low, with the television softly emitting classical music. It is emblematic of the Gstaad Palace's unparalleled line in discreet charm and old-world sophistication.
Despite fromage-overload only hours before, the hearty continental buffet in the Grand Restaurant tempts us to breakfast, before we head out for a macaron-making workshop at the Maison Cailler, the oldest chocolate factory in Switzerland. The unmistakeable aroma of chocolate fills the car before we even pull up in the factory.
We are taken to a glass-walled kitchen workshop where master chocolatier Patrick awaits to guide us through the process of making our own macarons. With the ingredients already measured out and our expert on hand to show us the ropes, we don't go too far wrong.
Leaving the batter baking in the oven, we take the factory tour and what I had imagined might be a rather staid experience – plastic model cocoa beans in glass cases, that sort of thing - turns out to be fantastically outre: a dark room is suddenly illuminated by a spotlight on an Aztec god, his thunderous cries filling the room, before we proceed through a corridor designed to resemble a 16th-century trading ship.
Finally, after a colourful journey through the history of chocolate - with plenty of samples along the way - we return to the workshop to pipe and assemble our macarons. Not only are we given a stylish gift box for our not-so-stylish creations, we also receive a certificate and, to my particular delight, permission to keep our aprons and caps.
Our next adventure is a horse-drawn carriage ride through the cobbled streets of Gstaad with a local tour guide who, despite the fairy-tale setting, is at pains to emphasise that her village not simply a fantasy playground for the uber-wealthy.
Between cheery waves and shouts of "ciao" to passers-by, she relates with grim satisfaction the case of a wealthy chalet owner who took his neighbour, a cow farmer, to court over the cowbells which were interrupting his lie-ins. The case was thrown out.
"In Switzerland, we have a saying," she says. "Here, everyone is treated like a king, but the king is treated like everyone."
Nothing could better describe the atmosphere we found at the Palace. Service was swift, thoughtful and unfailingly courteous, but neither servile nor overbearing.
This feeling of warmth and respect between staff and guests further emphasises the hotel's focus on family, both those who return to the Palace year after year as guests and the multinational staff who have made it their home.
The in-house magazine includes a feature on couples who met while working at the hotel, while the Palace's Italian restaurant Gildo's takes its name from the maitre d' who spent 40 years inside these walls.
It is here we find ourselves for dinner on Saturday evening, sipping an Aperol spritz in the ambient low-lighting. A deliciously tender pink saddle of lamb comes with a dollop of creamy goat's cheese, set off by the slight bitterness of artichokes. A heavy Syrah proves the perfect complement to the meal, which I round off a smooth and sophisticated nougat mousse.
It's with no little reluctance that we leave the plunge pool and its breathtaking vistas for the last time on Sunday. With the sun creeping out from behind the mountains, we enjoy our final moments at the Palace over a beer and sandwich on the outdoor terrace.
Sipping a glass of champagne on our Swiss Airlines flight home, thousands of feet above the white-capped mountains, I feel I've truly experienced the very best the Alps has to offer in one weekend – and all without setting foot on a ski slope.
Rooms at Gstaad Palace start from 410CHF (summer rate) or 490CHF (winter rate) for a classic single and include breakfast and credit for lunch or dinner in one of the hotel restaurants.
Swiss Airlines lies to Geneva and Zurich daily from London Heathrow and London City airport.
Train connections can be booked online through the SBB website.
Workshops at the Maison Cailler chocolate factory can be booked online.