Gstaad's double life: from sleepy resort to billionaire's Christmas playground
Every year, Maurice Amon, the billionaire head of the banknote security firm Sipca, holds a massive party in Gstaad, Switzerland: bowls of cigarettes, bottomless champagne, table after table covered in colourful salads, smoked salmon and meat skewers, all perfectly untouched. Last year, Madonna reportedly left the party with her tearful daughter, Lourdes, and a tart message as she departed: “This party isn’t happening.”
It is not possible to understand Gstaad until you have spent a Christmas season there. The mountain air loses its typical crispness, robbed by the social angst that comes with keeping up with the uber-wealthy. It’s a game of hoping you will not get caught out in the tale of your not-fabulously-rich upbringing. Even the millionaires are adrift in a sea of billionaire guests: the Latsis family of Greek shipping heirs, the American property tycoon André Balzas … They’re all here to do one thing: celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or a non-religious equivalent.
The town is a sleepy mountain resort for 11 and a half months of the year. The main attractions are knitting exhibitions and Gstaad’s award-winning honey and top-showing cattle. Outside of agriculture, the primary excitement comes from the single cinema. The monthly magazine, , features reports on stand-up paddleboarding and the vandalism of sawn down birch trees.
But for nine days in December its residents normal lives go to bed and Gstaad dons the red velvet cloak of its alter ego: Christmas host for the world’s very richest. Each year, the municipality of Saanen swells from 7,445 residents to more than 30,000, as 17,000 temporary workers flood in to cater to around 6,000 of the world’s starriest VIPs: names like Valentino, Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway. Out go the knitting circles, in come the red carpets and last-minute film premieres – in 2014 Harvey Weinstein hosted a at the Alpina. The town even stars in 1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther.
Until 1916 Gstaad was primarily known as the next best thing to St Moritz. Though lacking the nightlife and Olympic pedigree of its rival to the east, Gstaad has one thing St Moritz does not: Le Rosey. Described by Nicholas Foulkes in as the “jet-set Eton”, this elite boarding school has educated everyone from Prince Rainier III of Monaco to the last Shah of Iran to the current Aga Khan, head of the Ismaili faith. With tuition fees of $110,000 a year, a winter campus in Gstaad is one of the perks.
Gradually, Gstaad began to be known as the most exclusive of the Alpine towns, and the rich and famous began coming here for their festive holidays. Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, and Roger Moore all helped turn Gstaad into something unique: a resort built almost exclusively around staging Christmas for the beautiful people.
Like St Moritz, Gstaad also has a Palace Hotel. Owned and run by the Scherz hotelier dynasty, it is hailed as the only option for jet-setters who lack the privilege of owning their own chalet. It is fully booked each season, with reservations coming in as early as three years in advance. Christmas is often celebrated in the suites – complete with tree and festive decoration – or in one of the hotel’s five restaurants, overlooked by an 18ft fir in the lounge.
The Palace is central to Gstaad’s odd double identity. Situated atop the town, it is a stone castle overlooking quiet streets below. The Palace leads down to the town promenade, a pedestrian area lined with Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Trois Pommes boutiques. At the end is the Hotel Olden, a celebrity haunt from the 1960s, whose traditional facade makes it look more like an old-fashioned Swiss restaurant than a hotel. Down from the Olden is the train station, where the resort’s English-language newsstand is a mainstay for guests like Harvey Weinstein, who can often be found sifting through books for hours, usually walking out with every newspaper and a handful of M&Ms.
The station brings in the small army of workers who must spring into life to cater to the festive season guests. Gstaad’s workers commute from the neighbouring town of Lauenen, a town of 812 people. Many of them are drivers: the number of cars on the road during Christmas jumps from the usual 700 or so to more than 3,000. For the family-run Taxi Simon, the Christmas season is a time of no sleep. “During the year, we have two full-time employees and two part-time,” says owner Mario Simon. “In high season, that increases to 20. And even that is often not enough. We have partnerships with other limousine service companies from different cities in to bring in extra Mercedes Vianos and cars to accommodate our guests.”
At the Palace, the staff are expected to maintain the mystery of their guests while silently catering to their needs. It’s a little city in itself, which must fulfill requests for everything from daily massages to one-on-one yoga sessions and fresh organic goat milk. “During the Christmas season there are no holidays, no days off,” says guest relations manager Barbara Branco-Schiess. Hotel staff typically work 13 or 14 hour days. Christmas is often celebrated on 28 December – the only lull before New Year’s Eve. To service 104 guest rooms, the hotel has more than 200 staff rooms – the team swells from 50 to 300 in December, all there to play their part in the production of making Christmas, well, the most wonderful time of the year.
For some, at least. The staff themselves are kept strictly away from the guests. They are free to party in the 13 nightclubs in Gstaad, but the hotel restaurants and bars, including the , are off limits. Mingling between guests and staff is not permitted on hotel property, and alcohol is strictly forbidden during work hours. (The rule is broken for Christmas Eve, when staff get a meal of steak frites with wine instead of the usual water.)
Gildo Boscini, manager of the hotel’s Italian restaurant, Gildo’s, has been working at the Palace for 45 years. “We are fully booked on a nightly basis over the season, and we always have to shuffle around tables for last-minute reservations,” he says. The busiest night of the year is not Christmas, he explains, but New Year’s Eve: “It is a special time in Gstaad – we serve lobster and caviar, there is endless champagne and music. It is so good, one year Bono even joined the band.”
The extra capacity requires extra voltage. In the run-up to the millennium in 1999, the visitors’ energy usage overwhelmed the town’s power grid, leading to a four-day blackout from 26-31 December. There are now 300 back-up generators hauled out of storage for the winter season. Lucia, director of operations at the Palace, describes the romance of the loss of electricity – candle-lit dinners – but says the workers in the resort had to resort to hand-written receipts, and worked double time to catch up in the early days of 2000.
The students and graduates of Le Rosey stand on a middle ground between the famous VIPs and the working residents of Gstaad. For them, the town is a second home. Alexandre Putman is a Le Rosey graduate who has spent Christmas in Gstaad since he was a child. “Gstaad is family for me, it is just a nice quiet place for family holidays,” he says. “A place where I don’t need to go out, don’t have to ski too much and can really enjoy time with my inner circle. I may see Madonna at a party but I would never go up to her.”
Come 3 January, there is a complete switchover. The western jet-setters depart on their private planes from Gstaad-Saanen airport, and the Russian oligarchs arrive for their own Christmas celebrations: 7 January on the Orthodox calendar. Eventually the Russians too depart, the 17,000-strong army of temporary workers heads home, and GstaadLife resumes features on the latest wave of vandalism: severed Christmas lights.
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