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Every birthday, for as long as I can remember, I have ritualistically watched The Sound of Music. I’m unapologetic about this, because nothing raises my spirits more than the image of Julie Andrews running over a green hill or Christopher Plummer and his brood of seven walking over the Swiss Alps in lederhosen.
Binging on edelweiss and aspirational nuns had long ago created a passionate urge in me to see mountains for myself. Last year, I took myself on my first ski trip, to the French Alps, and this year on another – to Norway – but both left me unsatisfied. The mountains there were colossuses that triggered fearful ski falls, and both times they were covered in dust sheets for the winter, only to emerge in their lush summer clothes after I had left.
Which is why I decided to head to Switzerland in September. Here I would see mountains worthy of singing about, I thought, and I was right.
We stayed in Gstaad; that haven of the rich and private helicoptered that is also a small, thriving village populated by more cows than Moncler jackets. For those sans helicopter, Gstaad is a three-hour train journey from Geneva airport – and it’s well worth the trip.
The Swiss do train travel with aplomb; reclining seats and huge windows allow you to soak in the enormity of the landscape in comfort. From Geneva to Montreux, where we changed for a smaller train, the scenery is almost exclusively made up of the vast Lake Geneva. From Montreux onwards we boarded a train called The Golden Pass, which first ran to Gstaad in 1904, putting the hitherto unknown alpine village on the tourist map.
We were lucky enough to take one of the rare trains still in service from the early days of the line. Ours dated back to about the 1920s, and was decked out in green velvet and polished wood worthy of the Orient Express. Yet the interiors could not compete with what we saw behind the windows. As we snaked around the Swiss Alps, Lake Geneva became a puddle in the distance, and the train was hugged by steep, green-carpeted slopes and grazing cows.
Off-season Gstaad is quieter and smaller than I had imagined. Both sides of its identity jar for attention. Bentleys and cows amble past like it ain’t no thing, traditional chocolate shops and restaurants nestle alongside Ralph Lauren and Prada outposts, with everything housed in wooden chalet buildings. It’s a fairytale village of contradictions, where 14-century churches rub shoulders with public fountains donated by movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Andrews.
We stayed in the first hotel to be built in the village: Hotel Park Gstaad. Though it lacks the ostentatious grandeur of its famous neighbour, Palace Gstaad, it makes up for it with a sleek, understated sense of luxury and an authentic alpine warmth. It has a sumptuous spa, two pools and a restaurant headed up by celebrated chef chef Axel Rüdlin, who has recently won the Bilanz Chef of the Year. Notable is the area’s simmental beef, which is fast becoming the new kobe.
My room was big enough for a family of six; with a living and dining area, two bathrooms and a bed you could play volleyball in. But, again, all of it pales in comparison to the view. From every window, everything you want to do is gaze at the tree-dotted giants and snow-covered peaks in the background.
On day two we headed up one of these mountains. Well, a glacier to be exact. We magically found ourselves surrounded by snow in a barely ten-minute cable-car ride. The Tsanfleuron Glacier (known colloquially as Glacier 3000) is a shock to the system when last night you were sipping champagne on a terrace without a jacket. It was freezing as we walked over the world’s first and only suspension bridge connecting two mountain peaks – a hairy affair at 3000m above sea level. Its vantage point, though, makes up for it; while clouds snake around your feet, you can see Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.
We stayed on the glacier for a late lunch at Restaurant Botta, named after the architect Mario Botta who designed the elegant white block. I opted for beer and cheese fondue – when in Rome, right?
On a post-dinner stroll through sleepy Gstaad, we saw a local bride in a fur-trimmed white dress sitting in a green pick-up truck covered in flowers. With a smile on her face, she drank champagne as we headed back to the warmth of the hotel and cocktails created by bartender Dustin, who made me so many imaginative iterations of an old fashioned that I floated to bed slightly delirious.
The next day we were out at 9AM for a two-hour hike on the nearby Wispile, lovingly named the “family-friendly mountain”. This is where my Sound of Music fantasy took the reins; around every corner and through every alpine copse there was a fecund hill I half-expected to see Maria come running over.
We sat on some tree stumps by a mountain lake; with seemingly all the Alps at our feet and each green hill ghosted by a snow-covered peak so faint it looked like icing sugar. I asked our guide what else there was to discover during this time of year. She brimmed with ideas; swimming in lakes, horse riding, paragliding, cycling, hiking, cheese making and even classic-car journeys through the peaks. Then there are the classical music concerts and literary festivals that occur during the summer, the tennis and volleyball championships and the ubiquitous mountain climbing.
There seems so much to do, I wonder why everyone comes in the winter. “People love the snow,” our guide mused, “but there’s nowhere more beautiful in the summer” – I couldn’t agree more.
Beyond Gstaad: other off-season Swiss destinations
Extreme fitness in Saas-Fee
Littering Instagram feeds of late is fitness craze Peak Health. The brainchild of wellness entrepreneur Andrea DeBellis, this immersive alpine experience is half-luxury, half-back-breaking exercise. You’ll stay at the five-star Capra Hotel in Saas Fee which boasts 14 of the highest peaks in the Alps, and therefore some of the purest air. The week-long stay is catered to you – but includes daily mountain and glacier hikes of varying difficulty, high-intensity training sessions, yoga and unlimited spa treatments. It opened this summer and, though it intends to branch out to winter programmes, it considers summer to be high season, when the Alps can be best explored on foot.
Camping in Arosa
A well-known ski destination, Arosa also capitalises on its beautiful location in summer. The Tschuggen Grand Hotel offers a relatively inexpensive two-night camping experience in the Alps, where you can sleep under the stars (in a luxury tepee) and wake to a farmhouse breakfast in Alpenblick, a traditional Swiss restaurant. The area excels in the off-season months, with an abundance of lakes, riding trails and Europe’s highest 18-hole golf course.
Sailing in Ascona
The northern part of Lake Maggiore in Italian-speaking Switzerland is a haven for novice sailors. The best sailing school, Asconautica, offers a variety of courses, from children’s boats to regatta coaching and practice for sailing-licence examinations. After a day on the lake, you can hang your hat (and various sailing paraphernalia) at Hotel Eden Roc’s rather swish Ascona outpost.
Party in Verbier
People-watching is the sport du jour here. With an international crowd of celebrities and the well-heeled, head here for sun-drenched terrace drinking at Le Rouge or dinner at Chez Dany. Working off your hangover is easy: try any of the region’s famed mountain biking trails or head there in July for the soothing distraction of the Verbier classical music festival. After all that keeping up with the A-list, don’t break the bank but stay in the cosy and delightfully affordable Hotel Mirabeau.
Summer ski in Zermatt
The Matterhorn is the most-photographed peak in the world (and also the inspiration for Toblerone) but ski devotees needn’t abandon Zermatt in the off-season months. Here you can ski in the area’s high altitudes year-round thanks to a glacier. For après-ski, look no further than the cosy boutique hotel The Omnia.
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