William Cash on the Grand Hotel Park, Dona Bertarelli’s exquisite labour of love, which instantly takes a place at the top of the über-luxe boutique-hotel mountain
THERE CAN’T BE that many super-luxe boutique hotels in the world whose brochures feature a photo of their female owner (blonde, athletic, glamorous and gorgeous) breezing through the entrance wearing leather boots, black jeans and a leather bomber jacket with chrome zips. As she walks in, with a warm and confident smile, looking like a Swiss version of Elle Macpherson, a doorman stands to attention. Unlike his boss, he is dressed up to his clean-shaven throat in a traditional Swiss hotel livery with epaulets and polished buttons that would not look out of place on the overcoat of a Fifth Avenue doorman in a snowstorm.
But that is Dona Bertarelli all over. And this photograph — with that smile, a Bertarelli family trademark, like she is walking into her own home — sums up much of what the new Grand Hotel Park is all about: creating a unique family boutique hotel that incorporates the ultra-modern (such as cordless Bang & Olufsen phones in each room) with the classic (such as the beautifully soft and understated chic grey flannel used to cover the armchairs and headboards in the rooms), while staying true to the historic tradition of what was Gstaad’s first luxury hotel.
The Grand Hotel Park does not, of course, just have a hotel glossy brochure. The hotel has its own glossy coffee-table book, which also acts as a social history of the hotel. It is not a social tourist destination, like the Palace in St Moritz can sometimes feel like. The shops are not selling souvenirs of the hotel — they are serious shops, like Louis Vuitton, Loro Piana and Chopard, for serious shoppers. The sorts of shops where you can order a bespoke Vuitton seat for your Vespa, or get to unwrap the latest Piana cashmere jacket before anybody in Milan.
This new history of the hotel sits on the coffee tables of every suite. When you are considering paying up to 21,000 Swiss francs for a night, being able to preview your suite in a glossy book — alongside photos of such guests as David Niven, Princess Grace of Monaco, the Aga Khan, Audrey Hepburn and Field Marshall Montgomery, who was a regular guest after the war — certainly makes handing over the Titanium Amex card more palatable.
After a 40 million Swiss franc refurbishment to celebrate its hundredth anniversary, the hotel is an avant-garde example of the new style of super-luxe hotel experience for which the word ‘luxury’ is simply too unimaginative. While much of the soul of the old hotel has been kept — including the services of Ischian chef Giuseppe Colella, who remains in charge of the hotel’s four gourmet restaurants — the hotel has, in Dona’s words, been given ‘the gift of a total face-lift’. As she adds: ‘I wanted to create a sanctuary of well-being for mind and body, a hedonistic palace that lovers of good food can discover anew, with access to privilege and exclusivity and discreet, secluded luxury.’
The result was completed in just nine months, with some 150 builders and workers on site to get the hotel ready for the Christmas season, which always starts with socio-religious precision on the Friday before Christmas. It is a bold blend of personal vision (Dona worked with designer friend Federica Palacios, who also has a chalet in Gstaad) that stylishly mixes ultra-modern detail and technology, contemporary comfort and traditional Swiss style, ambience and features — such as the original 1910 hotel lobby lift, which still works, and the old wood panelling and ceilings in the Marco Polo bar and restaurant.
Although made specially for the hotel, the thick red and green tartan check carpet in the library and fumoir looks as if it belongs in a chic hunting lodge in Scotland; combined with old antiques, gilt mirrors, absurdly deep armchairs and antler heads on the wall, the room — mixing old and new to create a timeless example of understated old Gstaad charm — fuses effortlessly into the DNA of the Grand Hotel Park itself, first opened in 1910 by Hans and Rosalie Reuteler, whose family continued to own the hotel until 1987.
Innovation has always been part of the history of the Grand Park, and the innovations made by Dona Bertarelli continue this tradition. On hearing in 1904 that the local railway was about to be extended to include the village of Gstaad, enabling winter tourists — especially those who had trekked out to Lake Leman — to take extended and easy trips to the beautiful Saanenland Valley, the savvy and forward-thinking Reutelers — who lived in Gstaad — decided to acquire some parkland on the side of Mount Wispile overlooking the village. When they opened their 53-room ‘luxury’ hotel in 1910, it was indeed the very epitome of modern luxury at a time when luxury meant having such avant-garde facilities as running hot water, central heating and electricity and a lift.
Back in 1910, the hotel had only three bathrooms. A chambermaid was on duty every morning and evening to run the bath for each corridor and guests had to put their name down on a waiting list in order to enjoy a hot bath after skiing. It wasn’t until 1940 that each bath had running water.
THE GRAND PARK is rather different from most other luxury boutique hotels, where the corporate ambition is to build the brand into a designer chain with bionic commercial plans to extend across Europe and doubtless the world. What makes the Grand Park unique — and inviting — is that a single family’s vision can be an extension of the entrepreneurial values and discreet brand of one of Switzerland’s most dynamic and successful business families.
The Bertarelli family website gives a full history of the family’s business, sporting and charitable interests today, which include a 350-hectacre Tuscan vineyard — Castello ColleMassari — in the foothills of Mount Amiata on the Tyrrhenian coast and ownership of Le Country Club in Geneva. The go-out-and-conquer-the-world family philosophy is summed up by a quote from 44-year-old Ernesto — brother of Dona, and now head of the family — which helps to explain why so many other wealthy families like staying at a hotel whose DNA contains the Bertarelli business genes. ‘One of the most rewarding things in life is to gather people together and enable them to socially and intellectually experience things that are truly unique.’
Despite the family’s wealth (fourth, according to the Sunday Times Rich List), do not think for a moment that the Grand Park is any sort of trophy hotel. The more understated and chicer A-list moneyed crowd — and the super-rich oligarchs — now stay at the Grand Park, partly as a result of Dona’s clever idea of building ten suites (from 75 sq metres), including the 395 sq m My Gstaad Chalet, which is the hotel’s Grand Penthouse ‘apartment-suite’ built on the sixth and seventh floors of the hotel.
The idea was to provide a chalet within the hotel for the sort of person who wants complete security, doesn’t blink at the prospect of spending 21,000 Swiss francs a night for four bedrooms, a personal gym — featuring leather-clad state-of-the-art gym machines — and a private spa with its own treatment room, sauna, Turkish bath, tropical shower and Jacuzzi. The personal penthouse chalet also comes with a private butler, kitchen/dining room and an open fireplace.
One of the more interesting observations of the author of the Hotel Park coffee-table book is that there are very few super-luxury hotels where Swiss-Germans and Swiss-French happily stay together; invariably the tribe — however rich — tend to find their own favourite places. The Grand Park, a great social leveller, is an exception to this and the truly international mix of German, Swiss, French, American, British, Greek, Italian, Asian and Russian (thankfully, I can hear Dona’s accountant say after looking at the bills of the top suites) is very much what makes the Grand Park so unique — in the way that the Bertarelli family have always strived, whether it is making pharmaceuticals or building world-beating racing yachts.
The hotel staff, led by manager Jean-Yves Blatt, strive towards achieving what Blatt likes to call ‘an acquired simplicity’. A good example was the evening that we were invited — in the middle of a blizzard — to enjoy a rustic dinner up in the mountains in a chalet lodge in Les Ouges that looked more like a cow barn than a hunting lodge. Decorated with cowskin rugs and simple hay bales, with traditional Swiss music and cooking on an open fire, it took us fifteen minutes of trekking up a steep and icy path — lined with candles — just to reach it.
But the dinner was entirely memorable for being so different, and I was reliably informed this simple ‘cow shed’ venue is regarded as one of the chicest places in Gstaad to throw a party during the winter high season. For somebody spending 21,000 Swiss francs a night on a suite, what is another 50,000 on a dinner seated on hay bales at an out-of-the-way location that is so exclusive that it will never appear in any restaurant guide?
A final word on the detail of the hotel service. When I checked in, as one of the very first guests to experience the new Grand Park Hotel, Kai Diekmann, the director of services, who had previously worked for many years in London, turned to me and whispered in my ear: ‘I trust you will enjoy your stay, Mr Cash. I slept last night in your room — road-testing everything to ensure that everything works to perfection.’ And it was.
My only quibble was that the Swiss don’t understand cricket or Sky Sports, so I had to tune into the radio and listen to the Ashes on the internet rather than live on TV. When I asked the concierge whether there was any way they could get Sky Sports beamed into the hotel, even the Swiss concierge drew a blank.
Exosphere (exosphere.com) offers three-night trips from £1,491 pp, including accommodation at Grand Hotel Park on a double occupancy B&B basis, plus return flights from London to Geneva and private transfers. William flew BA.