I first glimpsed Gstaad while watching Valentino: The Last Emperor, the 2009 documentary about the legendary Italian fashion designer. The film provided beguiling shots of the Gstaad chalet Valentino shared with husband Giancarlo Giammetti. Even more stunning were the alpine views out its windows.
After a visit in the late 1980s, journalist Bob Coacello raved about the chalet’s “deep paisley sofas, Lalanne sheep sculptures, and Arcimboldo sixteenth-century vegetable portraits” and dubbed it “the town’s hottest social ticket. ”
With or without an invite to the Valentino-Giammetti compound, I was determined to get to Gstaad someday, somehow. But I soon learned it is hard to reach, both logistically and financially. Hidden in a particularly remote stretch of the Alps, the resort town is a breathlessly expensive hideaway of the global elite. However, thanks to a business trip to Basel, I managed to swing a few days there in early March 2020.
Yes, that’s right—just as Europe was being engulfed by Covid.
Ignoring early stories out of Wuhan, I began researching my trip to Gstaad back late January. Despite Valentino’s lordship over the town’s social scene, a Google search for “gay Gstaad” only yielded one solid lead—the Alpina Gstaad Hotel, which had recently won International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association certification.
When I saw pics of the Alpina Gstaad, I knew this was the place for me, and not just because the ILGTA approved. Both inside and out, the hotel achieved that same blend of Alpine ruggedness and urbane plushness that made Valentino’s chalet so mesmerizing.
The ride from Basel to Gstaad via the Montreux-Oberland-Bernois railway was breathtaking—emerald-green valleys, snow-capped peaks, waterfalls plunging into deep granite-faced gorges. The one sour note was the constantly looping digital display instructing the Swiss to stop shaking hands, per COVID. Fortunately, you could still dismiss such warnings as a silly overreaction back in early March.
As the train neared Gstaad, I understand instantly why billionaires bunkered down here. The town is nestled in a valley that would be sublime even without the surrounding mountains. However, the views south to 9,500-foot (3,000-meter) peaks around Diablerets made the entire scene jaw-dropping.
From the station, the Alpina’s house Tesla whisked me to up to the hotel, which sits on a strategic rise above town. Such is the level of service that everyone at the reception desk already knew my name. And by the time I got up to my room a few minutes later, my bags had somehow materialized there magically.
On the way up, I noticed the hotel had discretely placed two touch-less hand-sanitizer dispensers near the elevators. Apparently, even billionaires were not immune.
After a few minutes in my room, I never wanted to leave it again—and not just to avoid infection. The views from my balcony took in the hotel’s lovely grounds, Gstaad’s pitched rooftops, and all the gorgeously glacial peaks in the near distance.
Then there was the room itself. Every object seemed engineered to marry pleasure and comfort, from the mattress to the complimentary pen and paper. When paired with rustic Alpine finishes—pine-paneled walls, handmade leather headboard, and cabinetry made from recycled local wood—it delivered exactly the cozy luxury that made Valentino’s chalet so alluring.
At the dinner hour, I could see that, despite COVID, the hotel was still quite full. As I dipped cubes of crusty bread into a rich, nutty fondue, I wondered if the one-percenters had received word that the virus was all just a ruse for them to gain even more wealth and power. That illusion fell away the next morning at breakfast when I was placed at the table adjacent to an ash-blonde. Draped in creamy Chanel cashmere, she exhibited a very persistent dry cough.
After breakfast, I headed straight to Glacier 3,000—the area’s tallest mountain and home to a fantastic, full-service winter resort that sits nearly 10,000-feet above sea level. From a gravity-defying dining facility designed by Mario Botta, you can hike straight onto a glacier, go dogsledding, or whizz down slopes that range from beginner to too-terrifying-to-contemplate.
When I got back to the hotel that evening, I noticed the crowds had thinned significantly. When I checked the news, I learned that Italy had taken a drastic turn for the worse—and that Europe was suddenly realizing that massive action would be necessary. But that I didn’t stop me from dining at the hotel’s Michelin-starred Megu restaurant, which specializes in some of Japan’s rarest, most prized ingredients. Satsuma beef, smelts from the Mukawa River, hand-made tofu from Saga prefecture.
When I returned to my room, my sake-soaked brain sobered up quickly as I read that the world’s borders were beginning to close. This meant I would have to rejigger all my plans for my two-week vacation—the one that had only just begun that morning. But I slept soundly knowing that, before returning to reality, I would spend the next day in the Alpina’s Six Senses Spa.
If the Alpina Gstaad is a privileged world apart, its sprawling, Zen-like spa seems to exist on another spiritual plane entirely. After a deep-tissue massage from one of the best practitioners I’ve ever experienced, I really didn’t care that the rest of my vacation had been derailed.
Best of all, I had the entire spa to myself—the grotto-like indoor pool, gorgeous heated outdoor pool, sauna, steam room, and plush chill-out spaces. Apparently my fellow guests had headed off to their 10,000-sq-foot flats on Paris’ Champs de Mars, or their Blohm + Voss yacht docked off Cannes, or wherever it is oligarchs shelter in place.
I ended my two days in Gstaad inside a room formed entirely of pink Himalayan salt. A half-hour breathing in its briny air, my masseuse ensured me, would fortify my lungs against the virus.
I never got to see the inside of Valentino’s chalet, but my hotel and its spa provided the perfect consolation. How and when I will return, I don’t know. But if there is ever another global pandemic, I plan to win the lottery, board the Montreux-Oberland-Bernois, and quarantine myself permanently in the Alpina Gstaad.