Don’t expect an avalanche of hipness to overwhelm Switzerland any time soon – thank heaven, says Oscar Humphries
Switzerland is neutral. It comes somewhere below France and Italy, but above Bulgaria, on an American’s list of ‘must-see’ European destinations. Unless you’re a keen horologist or chocolate fanatic it can seem an underwhelming place. Trains that run on time are great, but unromantic. Good cheese is all well and good, but cheese isn’t cool or sexy. He loves the wild flowers, the quiet, and the stillness of the lakes, the water glacier-cold. I find Swiss summers a little boring. They lack any buzz and have a resolutely off-season feel about them that appeals to some but depresses me.
Skiing remains my reason for travelling to Switzerland, despite half the runs often being closed because there hasn’t been enough snow. Swiss resorts have nothing of America’s snow-making-machine-manicured, alpine perfection. On a Swiss run you can turn a corner and find ice, mud, or cliff. At any moment a three-foot-tall German boy could veer into you. The New Switzerland might be low on snow, but its chicer and edgier than Old Switzerland. I’d thought that the trendy new Clubhouse Hotel in Chamonix and the Byblos in Courchevel represented the trendy Switzerland – then someone told me they were both in France.
Gstaad and St Moritz have always been fun. St Moritz is higher, so the skiing is better. Gstaad is lower but somehow less hectic – you are less likely to be sprayed by Crystal there. Both towns rarely seem to change. Clubs and restaurants open and close, but the smart set return to the GreenGo and Dracula like migrating ducks. I was at GreenGo in January. It represents a kind of boozy sophistication, the opposite of what one would expect in a remote town in a Swiss valley. At Hush in Gstaad, there isn’t a fondue in sight. There is nothing small-town about these Palace Hotels – despite their apparent isolation, everything from watches to caviar to ‘amusing’ society is available.
Skiers are tribal. A Klosters man is a Klosters man for life. People who go to Val d’isere (the Algarve of the Alps) think that everyone goes there. Gin-and-tonic-slurping insurance brokers who did the Cresta in the 1970s and boast of their sons’ sexual prowess will always go back to St Moritz. Verbier is becoming more and more fashionable. Long dominated by private chalets, most of which are rarely available for rent, Verbier is a difficult place to find chic accommodation. Richard Branson has opened Verbier Lodge, which offers, in addition to its nine double rooms, a duplex with five beds as well as three apartments with kitchens, two of them for six people and one for four. The lodge is not unlike the Chamonix clubhouse – with a local and international crowd. This new breed of ski hotel has none of the over-gilded stuffiness of the old. The Coco Club in Verbier is a night club and members’ bar in a celebrity ski-capital. Membership of Coco Club’s Concierge Service (£400 per annum) includes a secret reservation hotline to London, access to the Snow Queen private room, chauffeured transfer from club to chalet between 2am and 4am, and a concierge service arranging exclusive heli-skiing, an off-piste guide, and gourmet itineraries.
Staying this summer at the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne I got a delicious taste of old Switzerland. With views over the hazy lake to the mansions on the other side, the hotel represents all the values of old Switzerland – good service, good food, and a sense of safety. It’s the kind of hotel where, in the past, consumptives would come to die. Nowadays we come to the hotel spa to diet. On the train from Geneva to Lausanne, I lost my suitcase. Someone picked it up by accident. The next day I got a call from the deeply apologetic Swiss dentist who took it. He returned it himself. That’s what’s great about Switzerland – service. Whether it’s hiding Nazi gold or making the perfect Raclette – in Switzerland the customer is always right. Something British waiters and banks (with their call centres) have forgotten. I hope that as it gets more fashionable the Swiss don’t forget their very unfashionable manners.