Selina, my Swiss guide in Gstaad, told me I must begin my first visit to this honeypot for the rich and famous by jumping straight into the deep end. What she wanted me to do was take a two-mile hike around Lake Lauenensee and then plunge into the jade green waters fed by rain and snow water. Crikey! Wild swimming is not my thing, although it did look inviting. I thought I had arrived in the Bernese Oberland to relax in that potent Alpine dream; hot sun, clear mountain air, wildflower meadows, Heidi-like wooden chalets, and friendly cows collared with tinkling bells.
"But I will freeze," I feebly protested.
"No," Selina insisted, "after your long journey here it will make you feel alive! It will be so refreshing."
Nervously, I braved the wobbly wooden pontoon, passing through a Biblical shoreline of bull rushes until we reach deep water and plunge in, startling a large pike passing by. Selina was right. The water was actually warmer than the English Channel, and connecting with the natural world in this remote wildlife reserve, floating on my back looking up at pine forests where rare owls nest below the craggy Mount Wildhorn, was magical.
This was my spartan introduction to what I thought would be the lush life of Gstaad, favourite retreat for the mega rich when the snow falls, who descend through mountain mists by private jet to ski the slopes by day and party in the VIP lounges at night. From December to March, Gstaad swells from 7,000 souls, mainly strong-armed farmers, to 40,000 visitors, all attracted by chichi designer boutiques and the promise of being a part of the world’s most glamorous capital for winter sports.
But in early summer, when this calendar beautiful Alpine canton empties, Gstaad’s elegant pedestrian promenade is nearly deserted, and the slopes and woods that were alive with skiers in cold weather are once again a lonely Eden where Bambi-eyed deer run free. Gstaad sits like a shiny jewel in the Gstaad Saanenland region, ten chocolate box villages situated across five valleys, ringed by white-capped high peaks, which is really only known to most holiday makers when coated in snow.
To other eyes, however, the Swiss Alps in summer offer an even more beguiling, authentic, if neglected experience of Swiss bliss, and the region of Gstaad Saanenland is a prime example.
Already, my immersion into a healthier, simpler, unchanged pastoral life made me eager to take on my next challenge: one that is not so energetic. Winding our way past fast flowing rivers favoured by adventurous white-water rafters, we zipped to the lonely hillside chalet of Dominik Matti, whose small family-run farm produces three tons of Berner Alpine ‘Hobelkäse’ cheese every year.
Dominik had 26 attractive Simmentals; brown and cream cows which all have individual names and a different ‘ding dong’ to their bells, so he always knows which of his wandering cows is in faraway meadows, even when he can’t see them. His star cow is Birke, who recently won 'Most Beautiful' in her class in Saanenland’s annual bovine beauty contest. This pageant for the cheese makers beloved beauties is a source of great pride to the winners.