Luxury ain’t no Louis Vuitton, etcetera

What makes the Swiss village of Gstaad a hotspot for the global jetset? And why Bollywood is following suit? Nishiraj A. Baruah finds out
Kareena, Andrea Scherz and Saif al Khan

 

So what are you doing for the weekend?

“I don’t know, maybe I will go to Bern and sail,” says blue-eyed Stefanie Krisch, PR Executive at Gstaad Palace, Switzerland
“Sail?”
“Yeah, my boyfriend has a boat. So we end up going on short boating trips in the lakes.”
“And you?” I ask, looking at Vivienne.
“I may go heli skiing.”

We are at a grand golf dinner at The Gstaad – Saanenland Golf Course. Set 1400 m above sea level in the delightful mountain landscape of the Bernese Oberland, this course is one of the most beautiful in the Alps. Champagne and caviar flow freely, as a quiet man from Dominican Republic hand rolls Habanos on the spot. He even urges you to try your hand at rolling. 

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At the breathtaking Lake Arnen, a few kilometers from the village of Gstaad (southwestern Switzerland), I meet a banker from Bern engrossed in angling. “Yes, we caught a few trouts. I caught more than permitted, so I am returning them to the lake,” he says. Nearby, his friends and wife are busy making a bar-be-cue of the catch. It is a weekend and the fine roads on the Swiss Alps are packed with mountain bikers, hikers, motorcyclists and Volkwagons and Volvos with cycles hooked to the backs. And the rest of the residents? Well, they are all at the beach volleyball court to cheer the Swiss team against the Brazilians. The FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour – Grand Slam Gstaad is on and the galleries are a frenzy of high-on-hormone spectators in orange hats, yellow sunglasses and green skippers (goodies given out at the arena for free) and little else.

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Play and party
It’s definitely a sporty and outdoorsy culture in Gstaad.  And why not, when they have the most awesome outdoors in the world. The grassy hills are a feast for the eyes, even it turns white during winter when skiers from all over the world come; the air is so clean that every photograph I, a total amateur, take look like stills from a Mani Ratnam film; the water is so pure that you can drink from any public fountains and it’s better than Evian. Add to it the wooden chalets – some a hundred year old but well preserved – dotting the mountains like a cherry on a cake. The balconies are a riot of colours with flower pots dangling from the railngs. “We have a lot of white (read snow) here, so we like bright flowers,” a chalet owner tells me.

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If Gstaad residents – German and French speaking mainly – play hard, they also party hard. Tempted by the loud oomph, oomph beats, I venture out towards the Volleyball court by 9 pm only to find the entire village gathered over beer and music. And where do the international jet setters who frequent Gstaad party? “They mostly do it at their own private chalets when tycoons, industrialists and stars fly from all over the world,” says Tania Winter, Director of Business Development, Grand Hotel Park.

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What’s luxury?
But then parties, shopping, etcetera are just incidental for the jetset who visit Gstaad for the one thing they never have: Luxury. “We don’t define luxury in terms of these labels that you see in the market. Luxury is not LV or Chopard or Rolex. Yes, we do provide all the creature comforts and fancy gadgets like Bang and Olufsen entertainment systems, gold faucets in the bathroom, champagne and limousines, but at Gstaad we do not measure luxury by these standards,” offers Stefan Schar, Director (S&M), The Alpine, a luxury hotel. True luxury, he explains, is silence, quiet, fresh air, the me-time. “That’s the USP of Gstaad where high profile visitors can just be themselves, without paparazzi in tow,” he adds.

Star fall
This is a different Switzerland really – not Basel or Zurich or Geneva, not the usual tourist route that most Indians take. In fact, throughout our stay, we spot none. However, the one that we meet turns out to be a boastful character who befriends me at a restaurant and brags that his father built half of Mumbia and his grandfather half of Delhi. Frankly, this Swiss village – 4 hours and three train rides away (charter plane for the rich and the famous) – is not really for those types. It is for the likes of Aga Khan who used to come with his entire family or Elizabeth Hurley who, it’s said, visited several times, each time with a different hubby! This is where Madonna comes, not for a concert, but to relax, where F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has a small boutique hotel and where Michael Jackson wanted to buy a hotel, but politely refused. Even Bollywood couple Saifeen chose this place for a twosome time. And hey, wait a minute! Who is that sitting alone with a coffee mug at the Bistro? Anthony Hopkins? Should I say a hallo? A photograph, maybe. But no, in Gstaad you leave them alone.

The cow and the car
Leaving them alone extends to animals as well. Sample this incident: As we take a cable car to a cheese-maker’s chalet, Vivienne from Gstaad Tourism follows us on her SUV below. Only to be stopped by a bovine beauty, but our Vivienne refuses to blow the horn and patiently follows the cow for nearly a mile. Later when we ask her why she didn’t honk, she simply replies, “It would have disturbed the cow.”

The only sound you would hear in the Alpine meadows are that of waterfalls. And music. In one of the restaurants overlooking Lake Lauenen, we are treated to, apart from cheese and wine, some lovely yodelling by a two girls who steal our hearts.

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The heart of the matter
Of course, follow your heart in Gstaad and remain free from bondages. That probably explains why everyone here wears a smile and not a frown. If marriage restricts, you break away. Like we meet this 47 year old woman. She was married to a material man – a dermatologist – who “likes to flaunt” his possessions, but she likes to travel and parted ways. What about kids? “Here we like to live our own lives, do our own things and a kid may not be a great idea for a person like me,” she says.

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Dear Tara…
Up at Glacier3000, I sit down at a tiny high altitude restaurant called The Refuge L’Espace and do a thing I have never done before: I write a post card to the love of my life. “Dear Tara, I am writing from a snow-covered Alpine glacier. We took a very very big cable bus and then a snow bus with wheels like that of a bulldozer. It is all white here and there is a taaaaalllll rock for a view. I also rode the Alpine coaster which was a bit scary but you can control the speed with a lever by your hand. Of course, cutie pie, I am missing you.” Never mind, Zara can’t read, she is just four, but the pictures on the postcard sure will tell her more than her papa’s words.

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I lost my bag
Where’s my bag? As we make our way to Zurich to catch our flight to New Delhi, I look around the train compartment. Only to realise that I forgot to pick the backpack from the platform while changing trains. I sigh – it had some precious souvenirs including cheese and a watch. But why complain about some lost material goodies when you have enjoyed true luxury: Gstaad!

(nrbaruah@yahoo.com)

BOX
Check inn

Gstaad Palace
Set on a hill, the Gstaad Palace offers a breathtaking view of the majestic Swiss Alps. Built in 1913 it has earned a reputation for discreet, refined hospitality and has always welcomed the most discerning international clientele. The hotel features a spa, a squash court and tennis courts. Log onto: Palace.ch

Grand Hotel Park
Entirely renovated in 2010, the luxurious Grand Hotel Park in the centre of Gstaad has a history of 100 years. The ski lift is just a 3-minute drive away. Enjoy Mediterranean, regional dishes and Asian specialities here. It also features a sushi bar and a wine cellar. Log onto: GrandHotelPark.ch

The Alpina Gstaad
Opened in December 2012, this luxurious 5-star hotel was built in elegant Swiss Alpine style, featuring marble, sandstone and aged wood. The hotel features its own cinema with rooms and suites offering balconies with mountain views. Also features the famous Japanese restaurant, Megu, Havana-inspired cigar lounge, and The Six Senses Spa. Log onto: TheAlpinaGstaad.ch

Grand Hotel Bellevue
This 5-star hotel is located in the centre of Gstaad, 300 m from the train station. It offers a Michelin-rated restaurant, exclusive wellness facilities, a cinema, a typical Swiss wine cellar  and spa facilities. Log onto: Bellevue-Gstaad.ch

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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