Room Service: Gstaad Palace, Switzerland
Hut stuff at a swish Swiss palace
The Gstaad Palace has hosted the well-heeled for 99 years. After a pause of a couple of months after the end of the ski season, it reopens for summer on 17 June. It was back in the 1950s that this fantasy schloss-style hotel single-handedly put a small Swiss farming village on the international map.
The original building dates back to 1911, and the hotel opened in 1913. By the Fifties it was flagging. But a bold decision by its owner, Ernest Scherz, to buck austerity and hire big-name American singers such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald drew the jet set to Gstaad.
By the swinging Sixties you would pretty much be guaranteed a sighting of Roger Moore, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers or Elizabeth Taylor. The ballroom could be converted to an auction room for Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows and the much sought-after Ferrari 250 GT.
Nowadays celebrities prefer to holiday away from each other, so Gstaad is no longer at the top of every paparazzo's hit list, but this is all to the good. The Palace in the 21st century has acquired a quiet dignity; the It Girl is now a Grande Dame. The hotel is still run by the Scherz family, who favour old money – lots of it – over too much bling. They continue to innovate, too. This summer there'll be a huge bouncy Gstaad Palace on the lawn for children and the Walig Hut, a romantic mountain Heidi-hole, will open for three months for those who want to overnight on their own in the summer pastures – with a herd of cattle for company.
Gstaad is in the heart of the mountainous Bernese Oberland and appears at first sight to consist of just two streets of expensive shops. On second sight there are some expensive restaurants too, the odd rival hotel and a chapel dating from the days before Ella and Satchmo came to visit. The Palace is perched on a rock overlooking the village like a benign version of Schloss Adler in Richard Burton's Where Eagles Dare.
Geneva airport is two hours away by rail, and Zurich two and a half. When you arrive at the station, a chauffeur will be waiting to whisk you on the eight-minute drive up to the hotel.
Summer activities in Gstaad extend to shopping, hiking and the Menuhin Music Festival (20 July-8 September) – another initiative of Ernest Scherz. Of course there's the hotel itself, which has indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, an ever-evolving spa and nine restaurants ranging from the expensive to the totally alarm-bells-ringing-on-your-credit-card.
The decor is traditional, almost English country house, the staff exceptionally good at their job but informal. As an old hotel built around a single square tower, the Palace doesn't have big rooms, even when it has knocked several together to create a suite. The recent refurbishments (2010 and 2011) have kept a healthy sense of old-world values: thick carpets, heavy drapes, leather sofas, tartan, chintz and beds to melt into. There are some new penthouse suites created out of the roof space, but these avoid any gold-tap excesses.
By complete contrast, the Walig Hut, a 13.5km chauffeur-driven ascent up Mount Walig, is an authentic 18th-century summer shelter with equally authentic furniture, furs on the bed and the bells of cattle clonking all night. The Scherz family bought it last year from a local farmer and kept refurbishment to a minimum. The hut is back to basics, Alpine style.
Maurizio Pagliano, a waiter from the Palace's Italian restaurant, looks after guests. Not only does he serve you food and wine ferried up from the hotel, but he also regales guests with tales of previous illustrious guests. The captain of an Argentinian polo team hosted a dinner at the hut last summer, posing on the back of one of the local cows only to be unceremoniously shaken off by his mount when it got bored.
As there is only a wholly authentic drop lavatory and no bathroom whatsoever, most guests are transferred back down the mountain in the morning to freshen up after Maurizio has arrived with breakfast. This is a weekend getaway with altitude.
Gstaad Palace, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland (00 41 33 748 50 00; palace.ch)
Doubles from Sfr650 (£478) half board. The Walig Hut costs Sfr 1,600 (£1,092) half board for up to four.
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