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Reaching new heights with Gstaad Palace’s heli-safari

Gstaad has plenty to love at ground level – but soaring above it in a helicopter beats the lot, writes Alec Marsh

At Gstaad station I am met by a smiling member of staff from the hotel that shares its name. The words ‘GSTAAD PALACE’ are emblazoned above the peak and double braid of his hat. Moments later he’s driving us up the steep hill to the hotel in the silver and crimson liveried car.

Don’t let the name fool you: a glimpse of the Gstaad Palace shows that it much more closely resembles a castle than a palace. Indeed, looming high above the town and cradled by snowy mountains, this turreted pile is in Where Eagles Dare territory – albeit with a stunning terrace and jolly Côte d’Azur yellow sun shades over each window. But step inside and it’s palatial all right, though not in the conventional sense. For this is not
a Ritz at 3,000 feet. Rather it’s a glorious, 96-room fantasia in Alpine chic, one that’s been quietly cherished and cultivated by the Scherz family for eight decades this year – and one that shows no signs of fading. The current general manager, Andrea Scherz, names Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel as one of his favourite films. And his passion shows, not just in the astonishingly attentive staff.

The hotel opened its doors in 1913, at the dawn of the century that invented tourism. It now has a lavish spa, five restaurants and luxurious suites and continues to charm the A-brigade, who follow in the sepia-toned ski-boot steps of Peter Sellers, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Roger Moore et al. And it’s easy to see what keeps them coming.

Ascend the six red-carpeted steps at the door, and what meets you is an intimate, elegant, comfortable lobby, leading to the bar and the sun-trap terrace offering a huge Alpine view. But as Aristotle observed, we are social and political animals, and here it’s the people that count. They don’t call it the crossroads of Gstaad for nothing.

And there they are, relaxing and chatting in plush armchairs and sofas, underneath the painted shields of Switzerland’s 22 cantons and four half-cantons, the dressed-down private jet crowd, some with their kids – tumbling, running and stomping around in ski-wear – alongside genteel octogenarians playing a rubber of bridge as the sun goes down; others in the spa having the post-piste massage of their lives. Who are the most stressed people in the world, I ask my masseuse? ‘The French,’ she states without hesitation.

Now, I was about to say that there was nothing better than paddling in the steaming outdoor pool, which is kept at a balmy 38°C and connected to an interior pool by a Bond villain’s shark-gate, while gazing on the mountains glowing from sunset. But there is something better for the first time this winter at the Gstaad Palace: an Alpine helicopter safari.

The next morning, after a princely meal at the Grill and a superb night’s sleep in my suite, I’m strapped into the passenger seat of a Eurocopter Squirrel at the nearby Saanen airport, with two other London-based guests, Speros and Messeina. Sandro, a veteran of Super Pumas in the Swiss air force, is at the stick as we soar into the powder-blue heavens and crest the first ridges. ‘It’s the best thing you can do in the Alps,’ he says. On the left there’s Gstaad village, and there’s the hotel reflecting the glorious sunshine. ‘It’s perfect weather,’ Sandro adds. ‘Beautiful, huh?’ Boy, is it half.

We head south at about 70 knots, rising to just over 100 knots as we climb. From here, looking down on the snow-capped landscape and valleys below, it feels like being on
an airport travelator at 4,000 feet. How high can the helicopter fly? ‘This will go to 7,000m above sea level,’ Sandro replies. ‘They actually landed one of these on Everest.’

Soon we’re crossing over a knife-edge ridge – and the landscape falls away, my stomach with it – and enter a broad valley the distant ground the colour of dark Swiss chocolate. The high-altitude travelator tacks on, the rotors Karate-chopping the sky above. To our right, the serried Alps stretch on.

Ahead, I notice the jagged pyramid of a peak. It’s the Matterhorn. Our approach gives us the money shot of its infamous north face, said to be the hardest ascent in the Alps, and one whose 4,478m were not conquered until 1931. ‘You can see the bow of the Alps,’ notes Sandro, pointing out to the left. ‘That’s Monaco there,’ he adds, drawing attention to a cloudy gap where the mountains stop.

Suddenly we’re closing in on the summit of the Matterhorn fast, the expanse of rock and snow filling our line of sight. Then we’re wheeling by, the helicopter banking as we track
its pyramidical shape like one of the biplanes checking out King Kong. Through the window there’s a tiny cross at the zenith. You can almost touch it. As we move away, I ask
how close we were. ‘Officially or unofficially,’ hisses Sandro’s voice over the microphone. He grins wolfishly. ‘We were 150m from the top.’

Now we are flying towards another peak, where a tiny research building is visible: ‘That’s St Margaret’s hut, the highest hut in the Alps.’ We soar over it.

Soon we start to land, Sandro bringing the Squirrel down on to a glacier, one of 42 official landing sites in the Alps. It’s bizarre to be careening towards the ground – but before
I know it, we’ve landed. Just like that. We get out and the glacier feels very solid and cold – the Sebagos weren’t a smart move. But Sandro brings out a box of champagne flutes and a bottle of Ruinart blanc de blanc to the rescue.

After the pit-stop, we’re back on our way, high over the ridges and chocolate valley, and 20 minutes later we’re descending, banking and clearing the trees and above the airstrip at Saanen and touching down. ‘You’re the best pilot,’ Speros exclaims as he claps Sandro on the shoulder. The ground crew pluck open the doors of the Squirrel, and we disgorge from the heli and gather by the hangar; the rotors speed up and Sandro lifts away, this time much faster – up into the blue.  And now it’s time for a black run, of which Gstaad is well supplied.

Web palace.ch | swiss.com

Alec Marsh is editor of Spear’s

This article first appeared in the March/April issue of Spear's. For all this and more, subscribe here: https://www.spearswms.com/subscribe/

 

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