Legend has it that God on his day of rest laid down his hand on this spot so he could gaze upon the beautiful world he had created. The valleys that formed where his hand lay are the environs of Gstaad, Switzerland.
Famous as a resort for the rich and famous, Gstaad is a place as majestic as it is moneyed; the glorious mountain sights with their postcard fantasy charm may be free for all to see, but the price to stay in town is reserved for only the wealthiest people in the world. And even the privileged blanch at the costs.
“It ain’t cheap,” says one high-net-worth visitor drolly. “But it’s our second-favorite place in the world,” his wife chimes in. (The first is their multimillion-dollar Florida home.)
A cup of coffee here costs $10, a beer $20. Fifty bucks is about the going rate for a simple lunch ... for one person.
If you are going to visit Gstaad, there is only one place to stay: the Gstaad Palace. Of course there are other hotels in the small town of 7,000 residents (cows number 7,800). But the Palace, as it’s simply called, is the grand dame. It has been the home away from home for jet-setters and society mavens for generations.
"In the old days, you had a lot of great hotels where you had the hotel owner who ran it with a lot of pride and love, but most of these hotels have disappeared or have been bought up by big corporations,” says Andrea Scherz, whose family has run the hotel for the past 78 years. “We are different. We’re family owned, family operated.”
And guests are treated like family, too, which is why, perhaps, there is an 80% repeat visitor rate, and why sons and daughters come back again and again as their fathers and mothers did.
Wealthy families and often entire family offices make the Palace home, sometimes for weeks on end. It’s easy to see why: The setting is par none. The lush green hills mound tall to their white-capped peaks—the Alps—pointing high in succession and enveloping sky gazers in mountains of certainty that this one spot on Earth, away from the cling-clang hustle of city life, resting squarely in the pastures, whose simple-life farmland owners restrict any sort of garish impediment upon the terrain, is special.
And the Palace has means to provide whatever services are in need: fine dining, conference facilities, private rooms, a spa and athletic activities that range from leisurely to adventurous. A small airport nearby can accommodate private jets.
Still, even with patrons from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to Madonna and Michael Jackson, the Palace isn’t flash. In fact, bling is frowned upon.
Scherz acknowledges this and even recounts a story that speaks to the understated aura found at the Palace: “We sometimes had customers, Russians, who came with two Hummer four-wheel drive jeeps, the ladies with furs down here, jewels, high heels at 4 o’clock in the afternoon; a lot of show. We said, ‘OK, that’s fine. It’s January. We’re happy they have maybe four or five rooms, and all that business.’ Two days later—they were supposed to stay a week or 10 days—the boss comes down to reception to check out. ‘Is something not right? Didn’t you enjoy your stay?’ we asked. His English was very poor. He just said, ‘Not bling enough.’”
To be sure, everyone is welcome at the Palace (there is a loose policy that it never has more than 10% of one nationality inside), but because of its legendary roster of guests, some people come looking for wild experiences that just aren’t for the taking. Instead, discreet wealth is prevalent.
Take the Swiss family that every year books the penthouse suite for the winter season—at a cost of $16,000 per night. They come and go. No fuss. With anonymity. Their surname likely lost on most people.
It’s not to say that all guests are without quirks or extravagances. There is the lilliputian millionaire, for example, who insists that a platform be installed on top of the entire floor in his room so he can appear taller. And there was a Japanese mogul who had an exact replica of a Tokyo restaurant built in the ballroom—chef and flatware included—so he could propose to his girlfriend in their favorite eatery.
Accommodating all these requests are the Palace staff, who are equally gracious, unassuming and helpful.
“Every guest is a king and every king is a guest,” is a mantra often recited by staffers. And it isn’t just said, it’s acted upon. When my luggage didn’t arrive from the airplane along with me, the staff went overboard to assist, several of them literally offering me the shirts off their backs. Gildo, the head maître d’, after a couple of days of getting to know me, even made a joke of it. Yet the intelligence-gathering about guests is no joke: The staff is trained to quietly know as much as they can about guests’ habits, from what they order for food and drinks to preferred seating, to all kinds of likes and dislikes. Briefing notes are passed on to guest services administrators and files are kept.
“A lot of our guests don’t even read the menus. They just order whatever they want,” says Stefanie Krisch, public relations manager for the Palace. With some 60 cooks in the kitchen during winter’s high season, individual preferences can be handled without any problems. Some guests make their way into the kitchen to show how they want things done or to personally thank a chef for a meal. All of the “behind the scenes” areas that are typically off limits to hotel guests are actually open for anyone to roam. I was shown all the nooks and crannies, from the basement, where an eco-friendly heating system has been installed—sourcing wood chips as fuel from a plant several kilometers away—to a World War II bunker that has been converted into a cozy restaurant, La Fromagerie.
It was just after that war when the Palace began to blossom under the direction of Ernst Scherz, Andrea’s grandfather. As hotel manager, he was given the opportunity to buy shares in the property in 1947 and eventually become its sole owner. Along with his wife Silvia, he went about improving the hotel’s amenities and hosting and catering to many of the parents whose children attended nearby Le Rosey, one of the most prestigious—and said to be the most expensive—boarding schools in the world. Word among society types spread.
The Palace really shone on the international stage during the 1960s, however, when it began hosting gala dinners with international stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald, Maurice Chevalier, Gilbert Bécaud, Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark. This fostered the star factor that has been associated with the hotel now for decades.