Though poor people aren't actually banned from Gstaad, from the moment you arrive it is clear that this Swiss ski resort is an exclusive winter playground for the super rich. Mid-December at the Gstaad Palace Hotel, as the bankers, the brokers and the just plain beautiful arrive for the start of the winter season, is not, then, the most obvious time to come looking for a bargain, particularly if it's a Ferrari you're after. But I had heard that bargains were indeed to be found every year at Bonhams' sale of "exceptional Ferrari motor cars" held there every December. I wanted to see for myself and, who knows, maybe bag a cut-price Dino.
The turrets of the Palace Hotel loom over the resort as if it were its own private fiefdom, which, in a way, it is. The Palace is Gstaad. But you'll need money to burn to experience the ultimate in Alpine luxury. Gstaad's high street is lined with furriers, jewellers and delicatessens - there is a Co-op, but it sells champagne and foie gras, and most people send their au pairs to forage. If, like me, you think twice about ordering a starter at Pizza Express, Gstaad will expose you for a grovelling pauper within seconds.
So it is crucial to at least turn up in the right car. I chose a glassy black Maserati Quattroporte. A Range Rover might have been more practical for this snow-bound Shangri-La, but I had a few hundred miles of motorway to gobble to get there and, for that, few cars can match a Quattroporte. We dispatched the tedious plains of eastern France - and a quantifiable portion of North Sea oil reserves - in a morning filled with exhilarating surges, tempered only by the occasional appearance of something blue in the rear view. The Maserati's reserves of torque mean you can drive it in lazy automatic mode (though it's still smoother to change gears yourself using the paddle shift). It is a car that can soothe your nerves or goose your bumps, depending on your mood. And, of course, it is so lusciously sexy that the only thing better than driving one would be driving it and watching from the outside at the same time. This is JG Ballard territory, I know, but with this car refuelling is tantamount to an act of sexual congress.
You approach the Palace via a steep, winding drive, arriving at a grand covered entrance. Liveried doormen glide around, opening doors and whisking both luggage and car away. Inside, the hotel is a mix of Swiss guest house, albeit of the highest order (pine furniture, hunting trophies and massive open fire places), and international five-star luxury (there's a Harry Winston jewellers in the lobby and Moulton Brown bottles fill the marble mosaic bathrooms).
The hotel has been owned by the Scherz family since the 1930s. From Ernst Scherz it passed to his son Ernst Andreas Scherz and then his grandson, Andreas Ernst Scherz (someone get that family a book of baby names). "It's always been a family run business," Andreas's wife, Laura, told me as we sat in the bar looking out at distant skiers snaking down the mountain sides like tipsy raindrops. "We want guests to feel like this is a home from home." The key to this, apparently, is that staff stay on average 14 years, getting to know regular guests' whims and quirks. "John Travolta, Robbie Williams and a Spice Girl, Jean Claude van Damme and Victoria Principal have all stayed here," says Laura, inadvertently conjuring a fearful "snowed in with..." scenario.
For the last eight years the Palace has kicked off its winter season with the Bonhams sale, despite the logistics involved in hauling precious museum pieces up into the Alps and then displaying them on white carpet in the hotel's subterranean car park.
"Getting a million-dollar Ferrari through the window of a hotel ballroom while it's minus 10 and snowing is a problem," concedes Simon Kidston, the auctioneer and Bonhams' European president. "Especially when the window is 10ft above the sloping, ice-covered ground."
With estimates as low as £15,000 (for a 1984 400i GT), a bid wasn't entirely out of the question - given a quick remortgage. But I also knew that this cost would be just the beginning. It would be cheaper to raise the Titanic than restore a rotten Ferrari. Even with a pristine model I'd be lucky to escape a £3,000 mauling on every one of its frequent garage visits. Still, no harm in taking a quick look...
My chance came at a Krug and cocktail party held amid the 27 glittering cars in the basement. I blended in with the other guests - taut-faced, statuesque French blondes in floor-length furs; suave Italian men with swept back hair and Barbour jackets; and big bearded Germans in lurid chunky-knit cardigans (thank goodness I remembered my Primark shell suit and bobble hat). Then again, they might all have been Swiss - it's hard to tell.
The star was a 1958 250GT "Tour de France", a voluptuous, if over-restored, road racer. A unique Daytona with "winged hatchback" bodywork had a certain Captain Scarlet appeal, as did a brace of Ferrari F40s, one of them once belonging to Asterix creator Albert Uderzo; two 288 GTOs, one owned by F1 designer Adrian Newey; and the various Daytonas, Dinos and sexy 1960s four seaters. I love their smell - old leather, petrol and damp - and the way their fat tyres bulge around the wire wheel hubs (in contrast to the Quattroporte's strips of low-profile liquorice).
We reconvened the next evening for a car auction unlike any I've ever attended: no polystyrene cups of milky tea or sheepskin jackets; and a plush, mirrored ballroom instead of a freezing warehouse. Phone bids came from Hong Kong and California. About the only thing that was familiar was Kidston's patter, by turns cheeky ("You keep bidding, sir, and I tell you when it gets too much"), chivvying ("Another thousand if it will help, sir") and, as the evening wore on and bids remained low, increasingly desperate ("I can't believe we're selling a Testarossa for so little [£22,755]. It's got a full tank of petrol!").
There were bargains galore with most cars failing to reach their estimates. Anyone fancy a delivery mileage 612 Scaglietti for £87,000 (a new one is £170,000)? Or a Dino for just £31,500 (dealers are currently asking closer to twice that for good ones)? "My" 400i GT was bid to just over £10,000.
Afterwards Kidston remained upbeat: "Eighty-four per cent of the cars were sold, which was pretty good going. Often these days vendors are bullish and the estimates reflect that but we don't give up after the hammer comes down."
Despite a twitch of my bidding card when I became momentarily hypnotised by the prospect of owning a 400i, I didn't join the Palace guests driving away in a bargain. Unless, of course, you count the Maserati.
Gstaad Palace Hotel, double rooms from €407 per night, tel: 00 41 33 748 50 00 or visit www.palace.chReuse content