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Oskar goes to Basel

A giant mythological creature, fish in beeswax and fluffy dog beds: at The Alpina Gstaad luxury hotel, animals play more than just an insignificant supporting role. Nevertheless, they also need to be able to behave appropriately, as author Titus Arnu found out during his stay as a guest in Gstaad with his Labrador Oskar.

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What kind of animal is that then? Situated in front of the hotel, an enormous creature that looks like a cross between a horse, a cow and a seal lounges in the garden. It measures four and a half metres long and more than four metres high, has a blue-green shimmer and its back and head are covered in a thin layer of freshly fallen snow reminiscent of icing sugar. The sculpture goes by the name of Third Animal and was created by the renowned German artist Thomas Schütte. It weighs 2.6 tonnes and can easily unsettle a 35 kg Labrador Retriever with its imposing presence.

Oskar is a cool dog who is usually quite patient and has no issues socialising with other animals and people. In the past, he has already had encounters with grass snakes, toads, donkeys, mini ponies and llamas without getting upset. While it cannot be claimed that squirrels and cats are his closest friends, he gets along with them just fine if they don’t get too cheeky with him. However, five-year-old Oskar is not quite so familiar with this mysterious mythological creature. Although he dutifully sits for a photograph next to the staring monster, the hairs on the back of his neck are standing on end.

Back to the hotel quick! Oskar scampers over the snow-covered terrace on his way to the ground-floor entrance. A sliding glass door opens automatically in front of him and he immediately feels like he’s in paradise. Light brown carpeting, wood panelled walls, cosy furs laid out on benches and chairs – and all topped off by this wonderful smell! The entrance to the terrace is located right next to the bar and straight on would be the shortest path to the kitchen. The smell of bacon, potatoes and eggs in the air leaves no doubt that a hearty breakfast is currently being prepared. Oskar is drawn towards the kitchen, but we have to go round to the left, make our way past the bar and navigate the dining tables to get to the lift.

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For a hungry Labrador, the journey through the chic Lounge of The Alpina Gstaad is more akin to a challenging obstacle course. Oskar can’t help but notice the smell of the croissants, eggs, cheese and sausages being enjoyed by the hotel guests and that are so close they’re almost asking to be snatched. He sniffs longingly at the breakfast delights, but his master leads him past them on a short leash. Dogs are not allowed in the Lounge, the restaurants or the spa area. ‘Dogs in hotels are a sensitive subject,’ says Tim Weiland, General Manager at The Alpina Gstaad.

On the one hand, ever more guests want to spend quality time with their loved ones, who also include their four-legged friends. On the other, however, some of these darlings are not as well behaved as one would wish in such an elegant environment – and this can sometimes lead to guests without dogs finding things a little too lively or being exposed to more hair, noise and stress than they would like.

For a long time, dogs were indeed allowed in the Lounge of The Alpina Gstaad, which forms the heart of the hotel and provides a place for people to meet. ‘However, one day I made my way to the bar area in the morning and was greeted by 25 dogs. Most of them were on leashes, while others were sat on their owners’ laps,’ explains General Manager Tim Weiland. ‘And then a German Shepherd came in without a leash.’ What subsequently happened is described by Weiland as nothing short of an escalation. The guests who had been looking forward to a mouth-watering Sunday breakfast experienced dramatic scenes, barking and growling, despite not having actually booked front-row seats for such a spectacle. Weiland reacted immediately and issued a dog ban for the Lounge.

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Nevertheless, the hotel’s General Manager, who originally comes from Germany, is actually a real dog lover. When he was working in a hotel in Morocco, he adopted a street dog. He named his four-legged friend Cappuccino because he was so small as a puppy that he would have fitted into a coffee cup. When Weiland moved to India to start a new job, he took his little companion with him. To his surprise, Cappuccino grew quicker than expected and ended up weighing 46 kilograms. Cappuccino lived together with him in the hotel, which wasn’t a problem, as he was so well behaved, as Weiland explains.

Unfortunately you can’t take it for granted that all four-legged guests have been reared so well, explains the General Manager. Without naming names or dropping any hints, he tells the story of a rich young woman who rented out one of The Alpina Gstaad’s most expensive suites for several days together with her lapdog. The luxurious rooms are furnished with high-quality, solid wood furniture, furs, exquisite sofas and white carpeting. ‘The lady celebrated her birthday in the suite, invited friends to join her and flew in a DJ,’ says Weiland, before sharing that ‘the following day she slept until four in the afternoon.’ Apparently, nobody was looking after the dog during this time. As a result, the white carpeting was strewn with dog droppings and had to be completely replaced. The dog’s owner and the hotel would go on to argue in court about the costs of the renovations.

‘If rock stars destroy a hotel room, they also get charged for it,’ says Weiland, and ‘there should be no difference in instances in which damage is caused by dogs.’ Unfortunately, some animal lovers don’t see things the same way. This is a shame, as The Alpina Gstaad is actually a very accommodating and dog-friendly establishment, as we notice at every turn during our visit. After a walk through the slush surrounding the hotel, the concierge rubs down Oskar’s paws with a fresh towel. An extremely comfortable dog bed awaits him in our room. Oskar also likes the fluffy mat made of artificial fur, while the flickering emanating from the gas fireplace and a few treats make this a truly wonderful experience for him. Labradors love cosiness!

As do people, by the way. In the dog-free lounge, I enjoy a fruity drink called Oscar, observe the colourful mix of guests and admire the design of the Japanese whisky bar. The counter is adorned with handmade shingles, while rarities in beautifully designed bottles are housed in a festively lit display case. Those who want to can order a collector’s bottle designed by an artist for several thousand Swiss francs – but only as a pair, as the label motif extends over two bottles. The menu also includes one of the most expensive bottles of whisky in the world, costing a staggering CHF 180,000. Alternatively, you could purchase a cheaper bottle, drink it all and you’d be left seeing double as you gaze at the label anyway.

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At dinner in the Sommet restaurant, head chef Martin Göschel serves up a delicacy that will make your mouth water: fresh char prepared directly at your table. The fish is doused with 70-degree hot wax that comes from the hotel’s own beekeeping operation. The scent of Christmas is in the air and the sense of anticipation rises just as it does before you get to exchange gifts. A quarter of an hour later, the fish is separated from the wax. It is now cooked, juicy and wonderfully tender. Over dinner, the hotel’s General Manager Weiland shares experiences about the super-rich individuals who spend their Christ- mas holidays in Gstaad and arrive with a butler and large entourage, including their pets, in tow. During their stay in the secluded mountain village with more cows than residents, they want to be disturbed as little as possible. The location is renowned for its discretion.

‘Come up, slow down’ is the slogan used by the destination Gstaad. And this also applies to animals! Since the incident with the German Shepherd in the Lounge, General Manager Tim Weiland has been careful not to upset the balance between dogs and people, especially at peak holiday times. Not every one of the 56 rooms and suites should have a dog residing in it at the same time and, of course, it also helps if the animals get enough exercise outside the hotel. Gravelled paths lined by sculptures such as the Third Animal lead you through the park. A walk at Lake Lauenen located 12 kilometres from Gstaad at the foot of the valley is even more calming for a dog’s psyche. Oskar jumps through the slushy snow, digs holes and catches the pine cones that his master throws. Quality time with your best friend in the mountains, stress-free exercise and a view of the snow-covered three-thousand-metre peaks – is there any greater luxury in life?

Words Titus Arnu
Photos Enno Kapitza

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