At the Montreux station, you don’t have to ask where the train to Gstaad is. It’s right there, on Platform 9¾. Or it may as well be. It’s a train unlike any other, small, black and gold, looking like someone’s just polished it. Everyone else is walking right past it, to more ordinary trains to more ordinary places. But if you’re going to Gstaad, climb aboard and sink into one of the emerald-upholstered, overstuffed chairs with the small brass seat plates. Travelling to Gstaad, in the southern, German-speaking end of the Swiss Alps, is a trip through time (many of its buildings are half a millennium old), but there’s a new reason to go: the Alpina. The $336-million hotel, the town’s first new hotel in 100 years, opened last winter.
Gstaad is the skiing village that every other skiing village wishes it was or pretends to be. I first learned about it from Dan Aykroyd’s character in Trading Places, whose watch told the time “in Monte Carlo, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, Rome and Gstaad.” It didn’t matter that half those places were in the same time zone—just that there was a place so exclusive that I’d never heard of it.
That’s the vibe Gstaad has played off for most of its century-plus history as a resort town. Those who know, know; those who don’t mostly can’t afford it. The local Matti brothers, the second-generation builders who were hired to build the Alpina, are better known for their chalets, most of which start in the eight-figure range.
The new hotel offers a sort of metaphor for the village, which is roughly half farmers and half billionaires (millionaires can’t afford this real estate). The Alpina was built by Marcel Bach, a former farmer who capitalized on his land and now seems to own much of the village, and Jean-Claude Mimran, an agriculture billionaire who moved to Gstaad to be closer to his three sons who were attending Le Rosey, the until-recently Canadian-owned $100,000-per-year private school that specializes in teaching kids how to be properly rich. The Alpina’s interior further plays off the dichotomy: the bedside lights are stylized Swiss cowbells, while the walls are hung with an enviable collection of contemporary art from the likes of Tracey Emin. The two-storey Panorama Suite, with its outdoor hot tub overlooking the peaks, costs $25,000 a night, but those wood interiors? Barn boards, at least a century old.
The mountains are gorgeous here, and the ski runs are splendid, but it’s the village that defines Gstaad. The main promenade, outlined in twinkling Christmas lights put up by longtime resident Julie Andrews, is populated by local cafés, a Moncler shop where a knit toque costs $175, and a local grocer that sells apples and Ritz crackers upstairs and champagne by the nebuchadnezzar downstairs.
If you have trouble seeing the value in a 15-litre bottle of Veuve, that’s fine. There are other Montreux trains that can take you to other mountains. I’m sure they’re nice, too.