In the glamorous Swiss Alps, a novice skier can brush up on his moves and live the high life—all without breaking the bank (well, almost).
I throw open the windows in my tidy room ($100) at the Hotel Alphorn on the edge of Gstaad and stick out my head like a cuckoo from a clock. The air is crisp and cool, and I have a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains.
I make my way to the breakfast room for a buffet (free) of hard rolls, cured meats, and jams. The strong coffee jolts me awake as I make my plan for the day. As a rusty novice, I've booked a morning ski lesson in the neighboring village of Saanenmöser. I purchase a day ski pass ($53) at the hotel, and get ready to start schussing, Alpine style.
First things first: I head to Edelweiss Sport (Les Arcades; 41-33/744-5005)—a quick walk from my hotel—and rent skis and poles ($40 a day) to complement my borrowed boots.
The train (included in the ski pass) to Saanenmöser departs from the center of the village. We wind through the valley, dotted with cows and chalets, until we arrive at the tiny village precisely 16 minutes later (thanks to Swiss punctuality).
I meet Walter Perren, my instructor at the Alpinzentrum Snowsport School (Hornbergstrasse; 41-33/744-1044; alpinzentrum-snowsports.ch), for a two-hour group lesson ($46) with a handful of other beginners.
After a few trips down the bunny slope, the patient Walter has me turning beautifully (albeit carefully) on a more difficult intermediate run.
Walter has said "Adieu," and I'm getting bolder with my newly improved skills. I zip up and down the slopes until my legs can't take it anymore, then clumsily march my way to the station in my ski boots, change into shoes, and board the train back to Gstaad.
Back at the Alphorn, lunch ($8.40)—a large mixed salad—preps me for my next adventure. At the suggestion of the innkeeper, Claudia Deplazes, I decide to put my moves to good use at the top of the nearby Glacier 3000 (3,000 meters, or 9,840 feet, high).
Just behind the inn, I hop the bus (also included in my ski pass) to the glacier, a 30-minute ride away. Once there, the gondola to the top takes only 45 minutes, but suspended in midair, it feels like an eternity. The children in the car giggle and press their faces to the glass to get a better view, while I stand firmly in the middle, eyes to the floor. I'm deathly afraid of heights.
At the summit, fabulous Swiss and German thirtysomethings lounge on the observation deck sipping wine, while skiers take to the glacier's gently sloping surface. I have a glass myself, to calm the nerves. This expense won't count toward my budget; it's medicinal.
I muster up the courage to give the slopes a try. A group of British grade-school children nearly knocks me over, but I'm getting more confident. My mind shifts to après-ski, so I take the gondola down to the base and get the bus back to Gstaad, where I drop off my skis and regroup.
At the historic Hotel Olden in the center of town, I stop in for a glass of Aigle wine ($6), which comes with a plate of potato chips, olives, and peanuts. I try to channel Brigitte Bardot, Richard Burton, and all the other chic celebs who sat at this very bar after a day on the slopes.
Time for fondue. It's going to put me over budget, but no visit to Gstaad would be complete without it. The town's best is served at Saagi Stübli, the cozy cellar restaurant of the Hotel Gstaaderhof, steps away from my hotel. I dunk cube after cube of crusty country bread into the pot of rich Gruyère fondue ($24). Then I stumble back to my hotel—warmly sated and ready to tackle the glacier again tomorrow.
Total spent: $277.40
How to Get There
Gstaad is a three-hour train ride southwest from Zürich. The trip is a breeze, and the connections easy. On the lower level of Zürich Airport, pick up the train to Spiez, then change to the regional line to Zweisimmen. From there, hop the tiny locomotive to Gstaad. See sbb.ch/en for more.
When to Visit
Peak time is Christmas through January 6. After that, rates fall and you'll find deals.
For $3.50, you can have a stellar cup of coffee at Charly's Tea-Room Confiserie (Dorfstrasse; 41-33/744-1544), which has the best people-watching around.
Stock up on snacks—yogurt, chocolate, nuts—at the Coop (Promenade; 41-33/748-4110) grocery.
Bring It Back
For souvenirs, such as a Swiss-flag coffee mug and schnapps, head to Molkerei Gstaad, a tiny cheese and tchotchke shop (Gsteigstrasse; 41-33/744-1115).
Worth the Splurge
For $51, get a day pass to the spa at the Grand Hotel Bellevue (Promenade; 41-33/748-0000). The five steam rooms vary according to the herbs and oils used, but the real draw is the Finnish sauna—a wooden hut outside in the snow, with a deep plunge pool alongside it.