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Gstaad, "Come Up - Slow Down"
The Berner Oberland is the mountain part of the Bern canton. It consists of several valleys with mountain towns. Gstaad is in the most westerly valley.
Gstaad is the famous town, but this region is refered to as "Saanenland" and includes the towns in the valley between Zweisimmen and Gstaad. Gstaad, Saanen and Schonried are three towns at the end of this valley. The valley opens up at Schonried, where you look down to Saanen and Gstaad. Further down the valley is Chateau d'Oex, in the French speaking area.
Saanenland is surrounded by lower mountains with the huge mountains behind them and the glacier covered mountains further back. On a clear day from a high level hike, you can see the Eiger and the Jungfrau which tower over Grindelwald. This area is not as dramatically beautiful as Grindelwald, Kandersteg, Zermatt, or Davos, but it is still exceptional.
Map showing Gstaad and Saanen
The official motto for Gstaad is "Come Up - Slow Down", and it is an appropriate motto. The whole area felt like a summer playground for adults when we were there in September 2003. People were out walking, hiking, paragliding, riding Trottis, going for drives, sitting on restaurant terraces enjoying a meal and a view.
German is spoken in this area, but since it borders the French region of Switzerland, you will find French spoken as well. Many people also speak English. We heard many people speaking French. Menus are in German and French (sometimes with English). The written phrase you see on signs as you leave town or exit the mountain rides: "See You" - in English!
I thought Gstaad might be a larger town and busy, so for our September 2003 trip booked our two weeks in Saanen. Gstaad is a sleepy resort and a beautiful small town. It would have been fine to stay there. Saanen is smaller and is only a 30 minute walk or 5 minute drive from Gstaad.
A car is useful, and great for day trips to Gruyere (30 min), Montreux (1 hour) or other areas, but is not necessary. Buses and trains connect all the places you want to visit and hike. Many buses and trains run only once an hour, so be prepared to wait.
We did this trip with a car, so we would park at the lot for a mountain ride, do the hike and end up taking a bus/train back to where we had parked the car. Parking is free at most gondolas in the area (unlike Grindelwald where you pay to park).
Where to Stay
If you have a car, stay in Gstaad, Saanen or Schonried. If you do not have a car, stay in Gstaad or Schonried (although Saanen is only a 30 minute walk from Gstaad). All towns are on the train and bus lines, but Gstaad and Schonried both have many hikes that you can do right from the town or from a mountain ride that you can walk to. So, if you don't have a car, staying in either of these towns will be easier for getting to nearby hikes. You can hike from Saanen, but there are not as many hikes starting here.
Of the three towns, Gstaad is the largest with a good sized Coop, several hotels, restaurants, cafes, and stores. Saanen is the most charming with a main street of very old buildings. It has a few hotels, two cafes, a couple of restaurants, and some small stores. Schonried is the smallest town. Zweisimmen, at the end of the valley, is the less touristed town (and the least charming). Lenk, at the end of a valley from Zweisimmen, is a spa town - has healing waters - and is small and charming.
See the Travel Notes - Hiking in Gstaad section for detailed notes on the hikes in this area.
www.gstaad.ch: Gstaad Tourist Office. Travel information for the area and accommodations bookings.
www.mygstaad.com: MyGstaad, links for Gstaad
www.skigstaad.ch: Ski Gstaad, you wouldn't guess it from the name, but this site has a good hiking map and hiking information
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