The ski industry is all about numbers. The numbers of runs, the kilometres of pistes, the hourly lift capacity, the number of beds available. Although these figures are rarely representative of the true worth of a ski area (La Grave, for example, with its one lift, is often considered to be one of the world’s best backcountry resorts), established resorts have long seen the value in joining forces with neighbouring ski hills to boost their stats.
The French started it all when they linked the Three Valleys (Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens) and the Espace Killy (Tignes and Val d’Isère) areas. These were logical moves: large “name” resorts in adjacent valleys were involved, with the result for skiers being wider choice, better facilities and, ultimately, more value.
In Switzerland, the massive Four Valleys area, with Verbier at its heart, quickly became the main player.
The advantages for the resorts themselves are obvious, but does bigger necessarily mean better? After all, popularity brings its own problems, among them high prices, packed pistes, ridiculous lift queues and slopes bereft of snow by midday during the average powder day – all of which are increasingly common complaints in Europe’s marquee resorts.
The remedy? Look ever-so- slightly further afield. In each of the “super areas” there will be one glittering central resort, with lots of satellite towns in orbit. It is these towns that will be offering the cheaper options, the emptier slopes and the untracked powder. The Four Valleys is a classic example. How many of the hordes visiting Verbier each year are aware of the other options nearby?
In fact, there are five main resorts within the Four Valleys area: Verbier, Nendaz, Veysonnaz, Thyon and La Tzoumaz. Run the numbers and you’ll find a ski area ready to challenge any of the other multi-resort areas. They were linked in the 1970s and have an impressive 412km of slopes connected by 92 lifts (the uppermost of which tops out at a lung-stiffening 3,330m). Even better, the valleys (including Verbier) retain the quaint Valais charm that is the hallmark of this part of the Alps.
Still, the majority of visitors to this part of Switzerland find themselves heading straight for Verbier, the area’s “name” resort. It is easy to see why. Verbier has managed to retain a lot of its character in the face of almost continual development. It remains a beautiful town, despite the incredible amount of traffic that descends on the place each winter.
The bewildering versatility of terrain continues to be Verbier’s main draw. There are three main areas to choose from: Verbier/Mont Fort, Savoleyres and Bruson, and each have some of Europe’s best terrain. On its day, it is easy to see why this place is so popular.
And yet there can be something a little bit too glitzy about Verbier, particularly during high season. A dizzying celebrity count means that the place is usually talked up as one of the Continent’s hippest resorts, but the main effect of this has been to blunt some of the place’s vaunted exclusivity without taking the sting out of the prices. With a chairlift named in honour of seasoned resident James Blunt, this is a ski resort that knows, and is unashamed of, its client-base. The tipping point was probably reached when Richard Branson opened the hugely expensive The Lodge: Verbier, which can be yours from £43,500 per week. If you’ve got that kind of money, you’ll undoubtedly have a blast, but for almost everyone else, the town can feel a little like queuing up outside a trendy nightclub while watching other people being ushered into the VIP entrance.
So thank goodness that the Four Valleys is so rich in alternatives, with a stand-out trio of Veysonnaz, Nendaz and Thyon. Veysonnaz is a fantastic way of experiencing the skiing opportunities of the region without succumbing to the hectic chaos of Verbier. It is a quiet little Valais town situated on the edge of the Sion Valley, perfect for families and those looking for a relaxed skiing experience. A glance at its winter calendar reveals some of Veysonnaz’s character: this season’s highlights are a Children’s Carnival (20 Feb), weekly torchlight and moonlight ski descents, and the Big Egg Hunt (12 April).
Quiet it may be – there are only 11 lifts in Veysonnaz, including a fantastic new gondola lift which provides access to the most popular slope called the Piste de L’Ours – but it still has some serious skiing. The International Ski Federation holds a World Cup race on its slopes, and this year Veysonnaz will also host the Swiss Skiing Championships. And if you buy the Four Valleys ski pass, as opposed to the Printze sector pass (which accesses a respectable 220km of pistes serviced by 50 lifts in its own right), you’re plugged into each of the other valleys.
The fact that the town is off the British radar will be a plus for some. Veysonnaz exists as a classic Swiss ski enclave, where the fondue flows freely and there is scarcely a British voice to be heard. At only 160km from Geneva, it is also popular with local holidaying Swiss, many of whom keep a second home in the region. It’s possible to rent one of these apartments or chalets through a specialist rental agency such as Interhome.
Next-door Nendaz has a similar ambience to Veysonnaz, but is slightly more popular with Brits, perhaps due to the fact that it is a little closer to Verbier. “Nendaz has a thriving scene that is slightly separate from Verbier,” says local resort guide and instructor Rob Spears (who is available for bookings on 00 41 79 530 45 54). “You’d probably head to Verbier if nightlife is your main priority but, if not, you’ll still find some lovely restaurants and bars, like Cactus Café and the new British-run restaurant Toko Lounge”.
Like Veysonnaz, Nendaz is well set-up for families with small children. “There’s a nice family atmosphere in Nendaz,” says Spears. “The plateau at the top station, Tracouet, is nice and sunny, and has tube rides and plenty of other diversions for really young kids”.
Nendaz is also geared up for those with active teens. Its unique Burton Snowboards “progression” terrain park is designed to introduce skiers and snowboarders to the thrills of freestyle jumps and rails in a relaxed environment. This isn’t a professionals-only park with flashy jumps. Instead, Nendaz’s park aims to coax the daredevil out of everyone, even if that means launching into the air for a nano-second.
As well as the terrain parks, you can find good intermediate and expert challenges in this part of the Four Valleys. Spears rates the tree skiing under the main Nendaz gondola, and cites the easy link to the rest of the Four Valleys, particularly the prized Mont Fort glacier, as a huge plus point. At 10,925ft, Mont Fort’s height means the snow usually stays soft for longer, and there are some simple off-piste sections to explore (even if, for first-timers to the area, a guide is mandatory).
The final resort to consider as a Four Valley alternative to Verbier is Les Collons/Thyon 2000. It is split into Thyon 2000, a purpose-built ski-in ski-out town which, with its modern architecture and above-the-clouds perch, will appeal to only the most hard-core of skiers, and Les Collons, the more picturesque village.
Surrounded by pine forests and sitting on three levels, this laidback part of the Four Valleys is perfect for couples looking for a getaway and families with young children, who will enjoy the ski-in ski-out access at Thyon, and the fact that the village is completely traffic-free. There is also a dedicated ski school for kids and some easy blue runs in the nearby Les Masses sector so parents and their children can take some runs together. A sledge run that links Les Collons and Thyon is brilliant fun too.
In terms of skiing, Thyon was once rather isolated. However, a new high-speed, four-person chairlift called the Ethérolla has changed all that. This speeds skiers to the top of the resort, from where it is easy to link with Veysonnaz and the rest of the circuit. There is also a surprisingly progressive aspect to Thyon, which has a well-run terrain park and a half pipe. It was one of the first Swiss resorts to offer snowboarders a dedicated terrain park, and it still plays host to the Swiss Snowboard Championship. Regular skiers and snowboarders will also find much to occupy them, although without the links to the Four Valleys, most accomplished riders would probably tire of the 10 lifts and slightly limited terrain in the resort itself.
While the reputation of a resort such as Verbier means it will always be popular, Nendaz, Veysonnaz and Thyon are proof that it is still possible to find some hidden gems. Sometimes, the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.
The most convenient airport for the Four Valleys is Geneva, well-connected from the UK by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com). Book trains via Paris through Rail Europe (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk).
Crystal Ski (0871 231 5659; crystalski.co.uk) offers a week in Veysonnaz from £629 per person, including flights to Geneva and half board at the Hotel Chalet Royal.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an “offset” through Abta’s Reduce my Footprint initiative (020- 7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
The Lodge, Verbier (0800 716 919; thelodge.virgin.com).
Interhome (020-8780 6633; interhome.co.uk) offers weekly rental of three-star apartments such as the Bellevue L, within walking distance of the slopes and with prime views of the Valais, from £629.
verbier.ch; 00 41 27 775 3888
veysonnaz.ch; 00 41 27 207 1053
nendaz.ch 00 41 27 289 5589
thyon-region.ch; 00 41 27 281 2727
latzoumaz.ch; 00 41 27 306 1851