News from the snow
Gstaad is one of the world's most famous resorts and the traditional rival to St Moritz, although the two are somewhat different in style. Gstaad is understated whereas St Moritz seems to be somewhat more obvious about its wealth. Gstaad also has the most ambience, with more attractive chalet style buildings and the whole made all the more pleasant by the recent pedestrianisation of the main street. The skiing is different too, somewhat limited locally, but the area pass covers half a dozen areas in the vicinity that together add up to offer 250km (156 miles) of trails. What's unusual is that you can hop on and off the mountain trains to get to the base stations of each of these ski areas with gondolas or cable cars, almost invariably departing a few yards away from the rail station in each case. The only exception is the high altitude Diablerets glacier to which you need to catch the ski bus, also included on the pass. The Saanenland area is a wide valley with gentle, wooded slopes that receives more than average sunshine and less than average fog. Gstaad's international fame is also a little more recent than that of St Moritz. It really got on the map in the 1920s when an exclusive school, 'Le Rosey' opened, catering for the children of royalty, politicians, show business stars and leading figures of business and industry. At the same time the Palace hotel opened to cater for the parents of these illustrious offspring. As the children who had become attached to the resort returned as adults the resort thrived, and between 1945 and 1970 the emphasis was on developing the ski area. During the preceding millennium the Saanenland in which Gstaad stands had a mixed history, located as it is on the border of French and German speaking Switzerland it had seen ownership pass to different immigrants from the east and, increasingly, the west. From the tenth to fifteenth century the land was controlled by the Counts of Gruyère, but there was an early alliance of the inhabitants of the valley, and between 1312 and 1455 the locals gradually bought their freedom. The strong influence of Gruyère, still felt today, means that the population of the Saanenland tend to have a similar 'mentality' to the French Swiss, even though they speak in German. Tourism, of a kind, started to get underway in the eighteenth century, when those who could afford to, visited to enjoy the benefits of the climate. By that time the cheese for which the area is also famous was already well in demand. Mountain tourism really took hold in 1905, with the coming of the Montreux-Oberland (MOB) railway. But the Saanenland still has an active agricultural life and, alongside the fur coats, (well, not quite alongside usually) you will find 7000 cows - one for every local - and 90 cheese farms. However, 90% of the population do now work in the tourism sector.
One of the world's top resorts incorporating an excellent sports centre with free access to lift ticket holders. Gstaad offer a world class selection of on and off slope facilities and accomodation standards that have become living legends. The resort centre was pedestrianised in 1997. Gstaad is the key part of a series of French and German speaking resorts linked by scenic mountain railway all included in the lift pass price.
Another valley takes in Schönried, Saanenmoser and Zweissimen, also all on the Pass and recently lift-linked to one another to form the largest single lift-linked sector on the pass. The third valley runs over in to bordering ski pass territory; that of the Alpes Vaudoises resorts of Gryon, Les Diablerets, Les Mosses, Leysin and Villars. A Gstaad area pass valid for four days or more is useable on those lifts as well as at Adelboden and Lenk. However, the first ski area you come to, the high altitude Diablerets glacier, which had its access cable cars replaced in 1999 (separate to the Les Diablerets resort ski area) is included in the Gstaad Pass from day one. Finally, Gstaad has its own 'local' slopes on the Wispile and in a second area up a short valley a bus ride from the centre at Lauenen.
The Wispile has some village level nursery slopes, and an easy run at the top of the mountain accessed by a two stage gondola. There's a long intermediate and a long black run from the top station back to the valley. Most of the rest of the terrain at all the other ski areas is graded either easy (60%) or intermediate (30%) and most of it takes place on wide open trails cut through thin woodland on north facing slopes and meadows on the lower slopes. The advanced ski runs are dotted around the area with most of the individual areas having at least one good long black to try.
From the Diablerets glacier there's a wonderfully long easy run of 14km (9 miles), with one unavoidable steep black mogul section which eventually takes you back to the ski bus stop at Reusch on the road to Gstaad. You will ski a 1650m (5414feet) vertical on this one descent. Château d'Oex has several black-graded descents including a rather long one down from Monts Chevreuils to Les Moulins, above the village, and heli-skiing is another option.
Facilities for children aged three and older are especially good in Gstaad, prior to that facilities are limited with no day care and just the option of rather expensive baby sitters provided through your hotel or the tourist office. On the other hand, children aged nine and younger can use the ski lifts with an accompanying paying adult, free of charge.
A ski kindergarten for children aged three or more has its own on-snow Disney-themed area at Saanenmöser. Ski school classes for children from age three are also available at Schönried, Saanen, Lauenen and Gstaad's own ski area with lunch cover available on request. The full package includes children's ski races and may include a spaghetti party with subsequent torchlit descent on skis, and activities such as animal footprint recognition and making snow sculptures.
Off the slopes Gstaad is a good family choice because of its pedestrianised centre, relaxed atmosphere and superb facilities. These extend to a nice play park (free!) near the village centre, which may be clear of snow for much of the winter. Remember too the fact that children love moving about on trains, buses and gondolas!
It is difficult, but just about possible, to find a place both to stay and eat economically if you are financially challenged.
The local products you must try are Hobelkäse - wafer thin slices of the mouth watering alpine cheese and the local Saanen mustard. Restaurant Alti Poschi at Posthotel Rössli has local specialities.
Apart from the wide ranging sports facilities you can take an evening toboggan run, sleigh ride or try bowling. Visits to the cinema or the Chesery Casino, which also has dancing, are other options. There are live bands daily at the Grand Hotel Park and the Hotel Ermitage, and discotheques at the Alpin Nova (Grotte) as well as Chlosterli in Grund. The Kristall Night Club has dancing as well as cabaret acts.
Over in the French speaking sector there's yet another snowboard park at La Braye above Château d'Oex. Finally, the Diablerets glacier is a popular destination for summer 'boarders who tend to greatly out number skiers. Although there are a large number of T bars to contend with in the area, 17 of the lifts are gondolas or cable cars (trams) accessing the highest points, and it's all downhill from there.
Not surprisingly, the Gstaad area has been voted one of the best 'boarding zones in Switzerland.