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This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The snow-blanketed Swiss Alps have been hosting luminaries since Napoleon crossed the Great St. Bernard Pass in 1800 and have seen a steady flow of VIPs since, from Queen Victoria to Madonna. The former ascended 6,953-foot Mount Pilatus by mule in 1868, and the latter rang in 2013 with fellow guest Anne Hathaway at designer Valentino‘s chalet in the famously glamorous hideaway of Gstaad. Hathaway and husband Adam Shulman hit the slopes together and strolled arm in arm along the streets of the village of 3,200 residents.
They were part of an entertainment contingent over the holidays that gave the mountainous region an Aspen-like glow. In Verbier, two hours south, singer James Blunt and a few friends opened their own restaurant, and Cougar Town and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence celebrated his 44th birthday there with actress wife Christa Miller. “Is it legal in Switzerland to give your two young boys scotch to make them sleepy?” he jokingly tweeted.
The region’s ancient peaks and rugged runs are the main draws. Swiss resorts, in contrast to American ones, aren’t “groomed like a golf course,” contends Blunt. And while most popular U.S. mountains have total vertical drops of 3,000 to 4,500 feet, Verbier clocks in at 8,200 feet, Gstaad at 6,700. What’s more, Switzerland’s renowned Alpine retreats — which over the years have been the schussing grounds for the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman — are getting a dusting of fresh powder, from architecturally stunning thermal baths to high-design hotels. Four hotspots, plus a few in the French Alps, are easy to get to: Swiss Air offers nonstop 12-hour flights from LAX to Zurich, where trains with first-class cars depart from the airport to most ski areas.
With this season’s debut of the five-star, 56-room Alpina Gstaad (rooms from $930 a night, thealpinagstaad.ch), the hamlet in the southwest is again generating heat. The resort emerged in the 1960s as a getaway for such names as Julie Andrews, who still owns a house there, and Elizabeth Taylor. While the village has preserved its storybook charm, the Alpina, built for $337 million, gives chalet style a chic spin, pairing near-minimalist fir paneling and traditional farmhouse accents. It boasts the first Western European outpost of New York sushi hotspot Megu and a screening room.
Gstaad’s grand dame hotel also has been revitalized. At the castle-like, 100-year-old Gstaad Palace (rooms from $510, palace.ch) — where Madonna and daughter Lourdes hung out at its GreenGo bar — grand historic spaces have been refreshed, and there’s even a seasonal igloo suite. “It’s quite an apres-ski scene. People get dressed up in couture ski outfits, but they don’t ski really,” says Rizzoli & Isles actress Sasha Alexander. A Switzerland regular, she’s married to director Edoardo Ponti, who grew up in Geneva and whose mother is Sophia Loren. To get the wardrobe, look no further than the new Louis Vuitton boutique in a classic chalet with a toasty fireplace.
Verbier, near the French border, is known for a ski-hard, party-hard scene. As is the case throughout the country, food is notoriously expensive. Enter avid skier and part-time resident Blunt, who partnered with two buddies and a club owner to open La Vache (011-41-27-771-3291) in December. They recruited Heston Blumenthal of England’s Michelin-three-starred Fat Duck to launch the cafe in a converted lift station; it serves up pizzas and soups at half the cost of other restaurants. Blunt loves Verbier because “it really is a small village. Everyone knows everyone else who lives there.”
Sam Branson, producer of the 2011 anti-drug-war doc Breaking the Taboo, is a fan of Le Carrefour (lecarrefour.ch) restaurant: “What could be better than a choice between fondue and cooking your own steak on a hot stone?” For ultra-luxurious lodgings, private chalet The Lodge (thelodge.virgin.com), opened by Sam’s mogul dad, Richard, in 2007, goes for just under $100,000 a week; the digs sleep 18 and come with a staff of 13. More reasonable is the new 34-room Hotel Cordee des Alpes (rooms from $350, cdaverbier.ch), boasting local-stone fireplace mantels and walls.
ZERMATT AND VICINITY
There’s a reason Walt Disney chose the Matterhorn as Disneyland’s centerpiece — the 14,700-foot-peak in Zermatt is easily the Alps’ most iconic mountain. “There’s just an enormous feeling when you wake up in the morning and see it,” says Ponti. He did that over the holiday break, celebrating his 40th birthday at Riffelalp Resort (rooms from $2,100, seven-night minimum, riffelalp.com), which boasts exceptional views of the mount. Even though it’s car-free and reachable only by train, Zermatt can be thick with Matterhorn-snapping tourists. One good place to hide out is the artsy 19-room Backstage Hotel (rooms from $250, backstagehotel.ch), where every piece of furniture is handmade by local architect Heinz Julen. Or go more undercover in the resort of Saas-Fee, a bit to the east. A longtime family destination, it’s been discovered by design-conscious travelers looking to spend a few nights at The Dom (rooms from $350, thedom.ch). The town’s oldest hotel was given a spare 2012 makeover, complete with big, fluffy down-topped beds that overlook glaciers.
ST. MORITZ AND VICINITY
The St. Moritz region is an exclusive winter nesting spot for migratory celebrities like Kate Moss and George Clooney (who owns an estate just across the Italian border on Lake Como). It’s also home to two of Switzerland’s It hotels: Badrutt’s Palace (rooms from $500, badruttspalace.com), established in 1896 and kitted out with heated toilets and its own ice rink. Equally posh is the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains (rooms from $400, kempinski.com), a turreted 19th century palace visited by Natalie Portman.
But what makes the area a required stop are two phenomenal spas featuring thermal baths. East of St. Moritz in Vals, Therme Vals (therme-vals.ch) — designed by modernist architect Peter Zumthor, who’s been tapped to redo LACMA — is a labyrinth of baths constructed of local quartzite and built over natural springs. In the town of Samedan, four miles from St. Moritz, is Mineralbad & Spa (mineralbad-samedan.ch), built in 2010 in the first few stories of an 18th century clock tower. The colorful, tiled canals in the foyer lead to herbal steam baths and a 113-degree vapor room.
The French Alps have always had panache, as exhibited by Hepburn and Cary Grant in the chic 1963 thriller Charade, shot in Megeve, a spot favored by everyone from Brigitte Bardot to Marion Cotillard. “All of the French film industry still goes to Megeve,” says Ponti, who rents a chalet there every winter. This area is less cosmopolitan than Switzerland — with haughty French service to match — though not as expensive. But there are two game-changing power resorts. In the Russian billionaire playground of Courcheval, the newest member of the Aman resorts group is Le Melezin (rooms from $450, amanresorts.com), a 1950s hotel now done with cedar-walled rooms and wool-and-silk carpets. Altapura (rooms from $300, en.altapura.fr) in Val Thorens is furnished in contemporary whites and beiges and offers views of six glaciers. Perched 7,545 feet above sea level, it’s the highest resort in all of Europe.
Laurie Kahle contributed to this report.
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