Famous for its chichi ski scene, the Swiss resort of Gstaad also has some surprisingly active things to do when the snow and show have gone
The town where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor hung out was always going to be rather select. One sweep of the luxury boutiques dripping with gold and furs confirmed all that. But Gstaad has an unexpectedly active summer side, and it started with a cocktail.
I studied my glass carefully in the Rialto Bar. “So what is the secret ingredient?” I asked Roger, a local. He looks at the unnaturally blue foamy cocktail for a moment. 'Washing-up liquid?' he suggested. A Gstaad-by-Night turned out to be a Friday-night powder keg of gin, triple sec, Malibu, blue Curaçao and jus de citron.
It certainly had something formidable in it because after drinking it, the three-hour flight and train from Heathrow to Gstaad seemed eons ago. Even all the hiking, glaciers and whitewater rafting we had planned in this corner of the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland seemed a remote possibility. And if all that wasn’t enough, there was always the adrenaline thrill of a really dangerous fondue.
The hand of God
Ruth, our guide for Saturday, brought me down to earth with a bump in the morning. There's nothing like an alpine hike to clear the head. We rode a small cable-car up to Rellerli, one of the local peaks, at 1,837m. “We call it the hand of God,” she told me, pointing to the five valleys lying below an impossibly blue sky. The views were magnificent and, as we hiked along the ridge, distant cowbells tinkled in the steep valleys as if on cue. They might be taped. Finally, after smelling the flowers and stopping for a packed lunch, we rode scooters the entire way back down another mountain, juddering over cattlegrids and reaching epic speeds and levels of excitement.
Sunset drinks at the Gstaad Palace hotel, where Liz and Richard checked in, were perfect for glitterati-watching. If the thrill of seeing an A-lister swan in doesn't warm you, the grappa will. One of the unexpected delights of the town below was the food – crunchy rösti, superb free-range and naturally organic beef from the valley and some of the best wines around, all served in wood-panelled cosiness.
Sunday was a good introduction to adrenaline sports. The rapid cable-car ascent to the Glacier Diableret - the Devil's Glacier - soaring above us at 3,000m, was a great start. I was soon fiddling with the safety rope binding myself and five comrades to our glacier guide. He led us towards a crevasse. 'You'd find it difficult falling down that,' echoed Tom, a 70-year-old mountaineer. He was more used to the proper dangers of the Karakorum in Pakistan. The air was thin, and views of the Matterhorn and its snowy ilk were stunning. But the hike was short and stayed close to other tours and people on husky rides, making it seem rather tame.
The rafting lesson, however, seemed more promising. Did you know there is part of the raft called the Oh Shit Line? It runs around the outside and is there to grab in a panic if you fall overboard while being conquered by rapids. We pushed our bright yellow craft out into the gentle Saanen river, which was soon racing along the valley floor, interspersed with quieter, blue-grey pools where you can watch the wagtails flit about and have a group singalong of 'Yellow Submarine'.
The rapids were fun but the time to come is in May and June, when the meltwaters turn it into a chaotic torrent. And for those who still need an additional thrill, jump in. The water is so cold you can only survive for about three minutes, and it takes your breath away. Certainly beats lazing on the sofa.
The rail journey to Gstaad from Geneva takes two and a half hours.
White-water rafting costs from £62 per person, glacier hikes with a guide from £346, both with Alpinzentrum Gstaad.