When money’s snow object: Skiing on a big budget
If you want to ski like an aristocrat or oligarch, there’s no shortage of luxury locations
Lifestyles of the rich and famous have involved skiing since the early 20th century. Skiing was, simply, what one did – assuming one was an aristocrat, a silver-screen star or royalty. Famous faces gave salopettes, skis and bobble hats a forever fashion status.
Since those heady days, skiing has opened up to all. There are purpose-built resorts, all-in packages, Aldi ski gear and Ryanair flights. And yet the sport is still intrinsically linked with luxury. Celebrities, European royals and Russian oligarchs head for Alpine stalwarts or Swiss resorts with private airstrips and helipads. Many ski resorts beat cities for the number of Michelin-starred restaurants per head. Five-star hotels and destination spas are the norm, and luxury chalets come with a 24-hour concierge that includes a chauffeur service in, obviously, a luxury vehicle.
One of the grand old dames of the luxury skiing scene is nestled in the Saanen valley in Switzerland. Gstaad is a twinkling village that has been attracting celebrities and royals since the 1960s. And it does twinkle: as you drive (or are driven) into the valley, the pedestrianised streets and fairytale castle hotels sparkle with thousands of glittering lights. Everything here is suave. Designer boutiques line the main promenade, and the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Cartier tastefully compete with each other for trade. Outside designer furnishing boutiques, Mongolian throws and Argentinian alpaca blankets are draped over custom-carved seats should you wish to rest for a moment. Many who travel to Gstaad might don designer ski gear but they remain on the promenade.
However, the skiing is also suave and the scenery is postcard-worthy. There are 220km of mostly intermediate-friendly trails. The Gstaad-Zweisimmen-Rougemont ski area, which has 150km of pistes, comprises five hills, while nearby Château d’Oex offers a further 30km. Glacier 3000 at Les Diablerets, a drive from the Gstaad, adds 25km. Though it may not have the most extensive piste area, Glacier 3000 (glacier3000.ch) excels at everything that is not skiing.
A trip to the top of the glacier from the Col du Pillon station is worth it for the view alone: 24 snow-capped giants including Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, the Matterhorn, Grand Combin and Mont Blanc. For an added adrenaline hit, as well as the pistes, there is the world’s highest toboggan run, dog-sledding and a suspended footbridge that leads to a summit station. Glacier restaurants mean you won’t be in any rush down the mountain.
A new addition to the hotel scene in Gstaad is the Ultima Gstaad (ultimagstaad.com). Think of a superyacht crossed with a luxury chalet. Then add an abundance of designer silks, fur and velvet, many custom-made by Louis Vuitton and Hermès, and you’ve got the Ultima. Actually, add a glass grand piano, customised by artist Alec Monopoly, one of only two in the world (the other is owned by Alicia Keys); the tumbling chandelier that hangs overhead; and a complimentary chauffeured Maybach. Now you’ve got the Ultima. And that’s before you venture to your suite, of which there are 11, and six residences.
Undertone of anonymity
There is a fine line between staying somewhere to be seen or to remain unseen. The Ultima seems to cater for both. There is an undertone of anonymity, with veiled corners, and even the façade is not branded. Sultry lighting continues in the chic Duchessa restaurant which offers Italian flair in velvet surrounds. Breakfast, also served here, is not to be missed, though you might want it served in your suite once you have checked that out. Back at the front of the hotel, mixologists will cater to every taste in the bar – the perfect place to be seen. The dark corners of the Shisha Bar will entice a more discreet clientele.
Suites are all generously proportioned and each is fitted and furnished with state-of-the-art technology, bronze fireplaces, chunky candles, unique sculptures, custom-buit seating and coffee-table hardbacks begging to be read. Beds are two metres wide and a pure delight. The colossal bathrooms are panelled in grey marble from Northern Italy. They come with Hermès minis, spotlit rain showers and bathtubs for two. Every room has at least one balcony, overlooking Gstaad or the Diablerets massif. Staff throughout offer warm conversation at every opportunity and will cater to every need. Downstairs the Ultima Spa facilities comprise a large indoor pool, hot whirlpool tubs inside and out, sauna, steam room and gym. Highly talented masseurs are on hand for tailored treatments. The Aesthetics Clinic offers state-of-the-art anti-ageing treatments.
If you can summon the desire to venture further – in your Maybach, perhaps – book dinner in 16 Art Bar Restaurant (16eme.ch) in nearby Saanen. This is an informal restaurant, very popular with locals. Brothers Nik and Simon Buchs offer an excellent daily menu inspired by local dishes, and it is served in a 300-year-old former bell foundry now adorned with artworks created by their father, Herbert Buchs. Meats are grilled on an open fire and the wine list features Swiss delights not to be missed.
It all comes at a cost, of course, but when in Gstaad . . .
High-end skiing: where else can you ski like the stars?
An upmarket yet quaint resort town, Crans-Montana offers dramatic views of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. There are beautiful winter hiking trails and ski trails to suit all levels. Stay at the five-star chalet-like LeCrans Hotel and Spa (lecrans.com; rooms from €400) for celeb treatment in one of the 15 rooms with views over the mountains and ski-to-door access.
Val Thorens, France
There is no skimping on the snow at Val Thorens, which sits at 2,300m. The resort trails link across the Méribel and Courchevel valleys as well as neighbouring Maurienne. Lay your head in the Scandi-minimalism of the Altapura hotel (altapura.fr; rooms from €240), where pre-arrival communication means guests at the 72-room hotel can book lift passes and ski lessons in advance of arrival.
Well-heeled Parisians and Genevois head to Megève, near the Italian and Swiss borders. It emerged as a popular ski destination for the rich and famous in the 1920s and retains an old-fashioned charm. There are three ski areas, a car-free city centre, open-air ice rink, cobbled streets and horse-drawn sleighs. At Relais & Chateaux Flocons de Sel (floconsdesel.com; rooms from €200), the three-Michelin-starred chef Emmanuel Renaut serves foraged produce with Michelin aplomb.
Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
After the 1956 Winter Olympics, this 1,000-year-old town, carved into the valley of the Boîte river, became a must-visit ski destination. Surrounded by the Dolomites, it has 140 runs and over 60km of cross-country trails, and it is just two hours from Venice. The relaxed, upscale vibe attracts the likes of George Clooney. Ernest Hemingway was also a fan. The Cristallo Hotel Spa & Golf (cristallo.it; rooms from €260) is a lavish mountain lodge about a mile from the gondola. Order a cocktail at the piano bar and you’ll blend right in.
Lech Zürs am Arlberg, Austria
The twin towns of Lech and Zürs have traditional farming village charm. Here, it’s about serious skiing for serious people and it is known for its off-piste and heli-skiing. To balance the rustic charm of the towns, there is a surfeit of five-star hotels, especially in Zürs. New lift links via Flexenbahn have enhanced the piste and off-piste skiing. Lech was a favourite of Diana Princess of Wales. Relax in the Senses Spa at Hotel Arlberg Lech (arlberghotel.at) where an overnight stay will set you back about €650 per night.
Whistler is now the second-largest ski mountain in North America, with 8,171 acres across two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb. This means there’s snow and lots of it. It has a village set-up reminiscent of Austria, meaning there is no ski town in North America that parties like Whistler. Check whistler.com/accommodation for lodging options. At the top end, head for the ski-in, ski-out Fairmont Chateau (fairmont.com/whistler; rooms from €150). It has a surprisingly intimate feel for a 550-bedroom hotel. It’s unlikely you’ll bring your pooch, but he is welcome too. They’ll even put up a Christmas tree in your room.