Gstaad, St Moritz and Zermatt may be the grandest names in Alpine skiing, but it’s another Swiss resort that can truly claim to be the winter playground of the 21st-century elite. Just a couple of brisk hours by road from Geneva airport (or a mere 40 minutes from Sion, for the private-jet set), Verbier has gradually become a byword for gilt-edged, snow-fuelled hedonism. Cast a glance at the society pages between December and April and you could be forgiven for thinking that its pistes are populated exclusively by junior royals, sports stars, celebrity chefs, multi-platinum pop idols and hedge-fund gazillionaires.
There’s certainly a mega-moneyed feel to the place and a decidedly Bond Street dimension to the town centre. The lower slopes around the town’s edge bristle with chalets so luxurious that they’re as likely to have an artificial beach in the basement (yes, really) as they are to have his-and-hers crosstrainers in the gym. Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson’s mountain lair is here, as is that belonging to musician James Blunt. Diana Ross performed at the official opening of one of the cable cars. You get the picture.
Opulent living is all very well (so I hear, anyway). But if it’s full-on skiing you’re after, Verbier does not sell anyone short. And the good news is that you don’t have to be Bernie Ecclestone, or even James Blunt, to afford it.
My family and I were staying with Powder White, an independent company that puts the emphasis on “unpackaging” the traditional ski package and operates across the Alps, including the “big five” Alpine resorts of Courchevel, Méribel, Val d’Isère, St Anton and Verbier. Powder White will organise as much or as little of the logistics – lessons, guiding, airport transfers, equipment hire, etc – as you wish, giving the more free-spirited traveller freedom to do things their own way. We had a cosy, comfortable chalet at the top end of town, just two minutes’ walk from the main Médran lift station (and a couple of excellent restaurants) with spectacular views over the valley. Our friendly young chalet host, Gabbie, cooked breakfast, afternoon tea and a three-course supper each day, and kept the place clean and tidy.
For our first day, Powder White organised a “skills session” with New Generation, a British ski school with branches in 10 Alpine resorts. Our instructor, Si, helped us load our gear on to the free resort bus for a short trip across town to Savoleyres, a stealth-wealth mountainside enclave with a network of interconnected blue and red runs through gorgeous pockets of pine forest. It was the perfect place to start and we notched up a fair few kilometres in short order. Si was a charming, patient and skilful coach, pinpointing areas of our technique that we would need to work on through the week.
Heading back into town, we made a pit stop at Au Vieux Verbier, one of the town’s best-known lunch spots, where we sat and ate on sheepskins spread out in the sun. Like most mountain cuisine, the Verbien diet is of the rib-sticking variety, leaning heavily towards local cheeses and cured meats. Not that I’m complaining. Suitably refuelled, we climbed aboard the Médran gondola for an afternoon on Verbier’s central slopes.
Conditions were perfect and the piste-grooming was every bit as immaculate as you’d expect. On arrival at the Attelas ridge at 2,700m, Si guided us expertly around the mountain, which was just as well because the maps and signposting here leave a little too much to the imagination. Descending to a chairlift hub at La Chaux, he gave Isaac, 10, and Noah, eight, an introduction to skiing moguls, before demonstrating some decidedly gnarly moves on the jumps in the snow park.
Since everyone was wilting a little by this point, we began the descent back to town, a winding and varied blue route that snaked pleasingly through the trees and brought us practically to the front door of the chalet.
Of course, there’s more than one way to get your mountain thrills. Next day, we returned to Savoleyres to try our hand (and legs) at tobogganing. At 10km, the official toboggan run is the longest in the western Alps and takes in the same enchanted forest we’d skied through the day before. Not that there’s any time to admire scenery when you’re hurtling downhill on a moulded plastic luge at warp speed.
To describe the experience as exhilarating doesn’t come close. At one point, after we inadvertently strayed on to a neighbouring (and very icy) ski piste, the prospect of being flown home in a full-body plaster cast flashed vividly through my mind. Then, rounding a high bank on the final stretch, the sledge and I parted company. I travelled about 50m on my bum – the very definition of a seat-of-the-pants ride. The boys, of course, thought it was just about the most fun they’d ever had. I wish I could say the same for my wife, Kate, who made clear that for her, at least, it really would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
One thing we could all agree on was that the only way to follow the sledging would be a chocolat chaud – as tout de suite as possible. We grabbed a table at the swish T-Bar downstairs from the Hotel Farinet, the best known (and most raucous) staging post on Verbier’s après-ski circuit. We defrosted in style, before returning to the chalet for an early night.
The next day we awoke to another perfect Alpine morning and set off excitedly up the Médran gondola for some serious high-altitude cruising. But the curse of the limited signposting soon struck and before we knew it we were at the top of a vertiginous black-graded slope. Kate and the boys quickly identified a safe route and went for it. I lost my nerve entirely and sat down, skis off, by the side of the piste, considering my options. After several minutes (OK, half an hour) it turned out that I didn’t have any. I cursed the piste managers – loudly – and made a series of nervous, painful traverses to reach the bottom, wondering if I’d ever feel like going skiing again.
Convalescing over a superb lunch at l’Olympique, a chi-chi mountain restaurant with a jaw-dropping panoramic view, a more sedate afternoon activity was prescribed. We climbed aboard the cable car to Les Ruinettes and, as the fine weather gave way to cloud and snow flurries, we took a toboggan ride of a very different variety: hauled up to La Chaux and back by a team of huskies and malamutes. Supervised by their intrepid owner Olivia, it was a truly magical interlude, and I almost forgot my black-run terror.
It was Gabbie’s night off, so we dined that evening at Le Caveau, opposite the Hotel Farinet, a cosy, very friendly Verbier mainstay that specialises in raclette (made with the local Bagnes cheese) and a range of delicious fondue. There are worse ways to spend an evening. Weary of limb and full of stomach, I trudged back up the gentle hill to our chalet feeling rather like a grand fromage myself – although not the kind Verbier usually attracts.
Adam Leigh flew with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/ski), which offers a week’s fly-drive to Geneva from £219 per person, including return flights from Heathrow and Avis car rental. He travelled as a guest of Powder White (020-8877 8888; powderwhite.com), which offers a week at Chalet Verona, sleeping six, from £349 per person on a fully catered basis or £1,780 for the complete chalet on a self-catered basis.
Powder White Skills Sessions with New Generation ( skinewgen.com) cost from Sfr295 (£199) per session.
An in-chalet ski-fitting service is available in conjunction with All Mountain Rentals ( allmountainrental.com). Six days’ ski and boot hire costs from Sfr164 (£110).
A six-day 4 Vallées lift pass costs from Sfr355 (£239).
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