Summer bliss in Gstaad: Wild swimming, farm-to-fork fondue and local immersion

In winter, Gstaad is a popular hangout for celebrities. But the warmer months melt away the snow to reveal an authentic, natural landscape that very few get to experience...

4 mins

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.

Views across Lauenensee Lake, where the author took a dip (Fran Lambert)

Views across Lauenensee Lake, where the author took a dip (Fran Lambert)

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.

Read next: The best summer adventures in Interlaken, Switzerland

Dominik Matti produces three tons of cheese every year (Fran Lambert)

Dominik Matti produces three tons of cheese every year (Fran Lambert)

Rod admires the view on Dominik's farm (Fran Lambert)

Rod admires the view on Dominik's farm (Fran Lambert)

"The farmers groom their cows like show ponies ponies for the annual Züglete, when they come down from the mountains," Selina told me. "They comb and shave the shaggy fur and dress their horns with a variety of different coloured sweet-smelling roses."

 It was a hot day, nearly 30°C, and Dominik’s prize-winning cows were in the barn. To keep the flies that plague them at bay, they were cooled by a giant industrial fan. No expense spared for these girls.

 "These farmers really do love their cows," Selina says. 

Dominik offered us slices of his homemade cheese (it tasted like Parmesan) with local Bernese wine before we retired down the hill to a fondue party. Gulping down the sticky white gobs of hot cheese taken with a fork straight from a bubbling hot pot, out in the open air with views of Gstaad 4,900 feet below, made it taste like food for the Gods. A paraglider was riding the thermals above us at 3,500 feet, well above the tree line. "But he must be careful," Selina says. "There are golden eagles up there and other birds of prey, and if they get too close to a nest with chicks they will be attacked. And if a bird rips a parachute with its talons at that height... kaput!"

We unwound that night at a mountain top restaurant, reviving plates of raclette cheese with new potatoes and hunks of juniper-scented bresaola. 

The author met the locals of Abländschen, including a carpenter (Fran Lambert)

The author met the locals of Abländschen, including a carpenter (Fran Lambert)

Friendly neighbours greet the author and the group in Abländschen (Fran Lamber)

Friendly neighbours greet the author and the group in Abländschen (Fran Lamber)

The ‘Detox Valley’ of Abländschen was just 11 miles from the shiny shops of Gstaad – Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint-Lauren and Chopard; all, it must be said, tastefully presented in detached chalets, their balconies bedecked with lipstick red geraniums – and is seemingly a world away from this high temple of consumerism.

Passing through dark, silent, mysterious woods, on winding, narrow one-lane roads, we entered a rural Shangrilla where farmers sleep in humble homesteads above their cattle just as their forefathers did, and meet in the evening to practise their yodelling skills. Woodsmoke curled in the distance, the dull peal of cowbells echoed through a valley of almost cosmic beauty, lorded over by a great granite slab of rock known only locally, and with some inverted pride, as ‘The Mountain Tourists Never See’, because so few come.  

We drove on rutted tracks up steep hillsides to meet the few workers who lived here, a pig farmer who with delight showed us his handsome brood of ten pink honking porkers, a lone carpenter hard at work whittling wooden shingles in his workshop, and a venerable gent feeding his four adorable donkeys who pull the open carriage at local weddings.

Last of all the biggest treat – a visit to the hives of the local beekeeper. We heard the buzz of 50,000 insects collecting nectar and pollen, busy making honey and wax. To disturb these bees or threaten the Queen Bee in any way is dangerous, so we were given full white canvas suits in case of a sting. We looked like cosmonauts or invaders from another planet.

Rod visits a local bee keeper to learn the process of making honey (Fran Lambert)

Rod visits a local bee keeper to learn the process of making honey (Fran Lambert)

Beautiful views in the ‘Detox Valley’ of Abländschen (Fran Lambert)

Beautiful views in the ‘Detox Valley’ of Abländschen (Fran Lambert)

There were four hives all throbbing with worker bees, little wings a blur of motion. The bee keeper carefully took out panels that consist of adjacent hexagonal cells, honeycombed with thousands of insects, to show us the nectar they were making. In the autumn, all this nectar is combed out, filling hundreds of pots with honey.

To a constant drone of the bees working away, our friendly bee keeper explained: “The bees may be portrayed as friendly creatures in story books but they live in a ruthless world. The Queen Bee’s active life lasts for about three years. After that she is considered finished and left to die.”     

In winter, Abländschen is so isolated that snow ploughs cannot clear the road, the only way in is by car via the Jaun Pass. There is only one auberge to stay at in the empty stillness of Abländschen; a comfortable but modest lodge (no TV or other luxuries), yet for those in the know, this bucolic backwater fits perfectly with Gstaad Saanenland Tourism’s slogan ‘Come Up, Slow Down.

"It’s like a detox for the soul," said Selina.                                                                                                                        

For a slice of culture, stop in the village of Saanen near to Gstaad (Fran Lambert)

For a slice of culture, stop in the village of Saanen near to Gstaad (Fran Lambert)

There are 300 trails of hiking and biking for slow travel in the Gstaad Saanenland region, plus kayaking, paddle-boarding, horse-riding, wild swimming, golf, rock climbing, and even the opportunity for those interested in the agricultural experience to spend a day with an Alpine farmer.

For those who like the outdoor life with a slice of culture, Saanen, the nearest village to Gstaad, is a more authentic Bernese Oberland community which stages a world acclaimed series of concerts until the end of September, all dedicated to the great violinist Yeuhdi Menuhin, who lived here in a pretty house near the ancient, high-steepled church.

It’s natural that Gstaad Saanenland’s other villages are anxious to maintain their pristine landscape. Long ago, they embarked on sustainability, which includes a free public transport pass for all overnight stays to encourage visitors not to drive their cars, as well as hotels that ask guests whether they wish their bathroom towels and bedsheets to be washed every two days instead of every day, to preserve energy and water. 

"Welcome back to civilisation!" jested our driver, as we once again pull into Gstaad.

With an hour or so to spare before my train, I took the opportunity to wind my way up the hill to the fabled Gstaad Palace Hotel, all turrets and castellated towers, a white wedding cake resembling a Ruritania castle, which lords it over the town. Michael Jackson tried to buy it when he stayed here. Nostalgic black and white photos of old-school celebrities, including former guests Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, James Bond star Roger Moore who had a house nearby, Louis Armstrong, even Second World War Hero General Montgomery, lined the walls.

It was all very luxe, but amid the splendour of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, health spas, and bedrooms at £2,000 a night, I found my thoughts drifted back to the untroubled natural beauty of Abländschen, the lost valley few foreigners ever see.          

Need to know information

About the trip 

Rod was a guest of Switzerland Tourism. He flew with SWISS and travelled by train with a Swiss Travel Pass, which covers all public transport across Switzerland (trains, buses and boats) and offers free access to over 500 museums. 


Rod stayed at the Golfhotel Les Hauts de Gstaad**** in Saanenmöser and at the Berghotel zur Sau

How to get there

Trains from Zurich or Geneva Airport to Gstaad operate regularly (with a connection in either Spiez or Montreux) and the journey takes just over three hours. Seat reservations are required when travelling on the GoldenPass Express.

For more information on any of the places visited, including the Gstaad cheese trail, Lake Lauenensee nature reserve, the historic town of Saanen and the idyllic Alpine valley of Abländschen, head to 

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