W marks the spot for style in Verbier
Right at the heart of Switzerland's A-list ski resort, there's a sleek new hotel complex that bucks five-star traditions by welcoming everyone. Minty Clinch skis into town for a close-up
Saturday 14 December 2013
When the lifts opened for the new season, I emerged at Verbier's Attelas mid station to find 30cm of fresh snow sparkling in the November sun. Such joy to be back on skis following Warren Smith (he of the celebrated, eponymous, Ski Academy) through knee-deep untracked powder. The easy red and blue cruiser down to Ruinettes was a perfect work-out for my rusty legs, all the more so as there was no click of ski on rock. "That's the best base I've known at this time of year," said Warren, cheerfully anticipating a great season for his pupils.
With the bottom section of the mountain still snow-free, I rode the gondola down over Place Blanche, Verbier's new alien heart. The sleek W complex – made up of a four-block low-rise hotel, apartments to rent or buy, restaurants, shops and conference facilities – would sit easily in Courchevel. However, until recently Verbier was a sprawling chalet city on a sun-soaked shelf opposite Mont Blanc.
The new W is a "flirty urban Alpine fusion narrative". Or so I was told. Those less buried in brand speak might see it as the world's first mountain W development. It is conveniently located next to the Medran station, the main point of entry to Verbier's magnificent slopes.
Historically, the base area has been a mess of desperation parking, shabby retail and skiers waiting around for their mates. Now the bottom of the mountain has been re-configured so that the finishing piste funnels skiers and boarders into the W zone at the end of the day. Even before they clip out of their skis, they'll be drawn into a session of DJ-hosted après-ski. Or they can clump across the road to the hotel, whether they're staying in it or not.
Traditionally, Swiss five-star properties keep hoi polloi at arm's length in the interests of guest privacy. But at the W, everyone's welcome for breakfast in the café, snacks in the Eat-Hola tapas bar, afternoon tea in the Living Room and clubbing in Carve. Dinner is masterminded by Spanish two-Michelin maestro Sergi Arola, but again the style is laid-back.
When I visited, the opening of the hotel was imminent (with the first guests eventually arriving at the beginning of December). Hard hats were labouring around the clock to bring essential polish to dusty concrete, while suits with clipboards introduced groups of beautiful lads and lasses to elite service. Top of the completion hit list: 105 smart red and grey bedrooms separated from spacious bathrooms by fires burning bio fuel. In some of the rooms, the showers offer valley snowscapes filtered through the flames.
The complex can only enhance Verbier's A-list reputation. Next door is The Lodge, Sir Richard Branson's imposingly vast chalet for rent; James Blunt not only has his own chalet, but his own chairlift. Still marked Attelas on the piste map, it was formally named after him when he opened it in 2007. Conveniently it ends at La Vache, the upmarket pizzeria he introduced for 2013 with partners Lawrence Dallaglio and Carl Fogarty. Regulars include princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, often accompanied by mum and dad.
The new W base is receiving a cautious welcome from residents waiting to see how it will affect business in other parts of the resort. "If we don't change, we stagnate," said Christian Sarbach, former president of the Verbier Val de Bagnes tourist office, "so it's good to have competition." The W, the first five-star complex in a resort chronically short of hotels of any kind, has nothing in common with its main rival, La Cordée des Alpes, a four-star newcomer from the 2012/13 season. Seasoned timber from derelict barns and hand-painted tiles conjure memories of early 20th-century climbers in ribbed knitwear swinging on thin ropes. It has a warmth the W may lack and its location at the other end of town guarantees sophisticated tranquillity.
La Cordée is the flagship of one of two entertainment empires fighting for night-time domination. Owner Marcus Bratter, an Australian who came to Verbier in the 1970s, also has the Nevaï, where Prince Harry stayed last March, and the Farm Club. Still run by the Bernardi brothers who founded it 1971, this iconic venue offers vibrant music and saucy dance routines to well-heeled guests.
Rob Sawyer, the proprietor of the Farinet hotel, Pot Luck restaurant and club complex on the Place Centrale, may feel more heat from the glitzy interloper up the hill. Since he bought into Verbier after making a fortune out of the Po Na Na club chain in the UK, he's had the lion's share of high-octane after-dark action. Live music in the long Après Bar, with its sliding glass roof, resonates around the place even before the lifts close, while gossips gather on leather-studded sofas in the Lounge Bar beside it.
In the Pot Luck Club, meals are shared, though passing delectable fusion food in tapas-sized dishes to your neighbour before you've finished them requires self-discipline. The name recalls a popular dining form in 1950s America, when wives brought around signature dishes to make a feast, but I doubt their food was as good as Luke Dale-Roberts's at Pot Luck. Later on at Casbah, gap-year girls in high heels serve drinks until dawn.
All this sounds expensive, but Verbier doesn't have to be. The faded Hotel de Verbier is an affordable Inghams chalet-hotel, the antidote to posh. Ski Verbier has expanded its chalet portfolio to 19, some of them smart and catered, others DIY. The company message is flexibility: if you choose pizza around your log fire, you don't pay for a four-course dinner.
The slopes offer equally rewarding choices. With at least eight English-speaking schools in addition to the ESS (Ecole Ski Suisse), learning for adults and children is easy. Start on village-centre nursery slopes and progress smoothly to gentle under-used terrain on Savoleyres. Once the basics are in place, there are no limits. The Medran lifts access prime race-track cruising on red and blue groomed runs that fan out from Attelas. The Four Valleys circuit is much less crowded, mostly because it's bedevilled by ancient lifts and poor connections.
Higher means steeper, with huge potential for challenge and adventure on and off the piste. The front of Mont Fort is a glacier bump run, the back a gnarly descent requiring a guide and nerves of steel. The Tortin wall is notorious for its moguls, while Vallon d'Arbi is a wonderful introduction to powder adventure. New for 2013/14 is the long-awaited gondola link from Medran through Le Châble to Bruson, an outpost caught in a time-warp, with a handful of chairlifts accessing mellow pistes and tantalising tree skiing. The locals who have always loved it are outraged by the invasion but it's on the lift pass so that you can enjoy it too.
Also new is the Cuckoo's Nest, the replacement for l'Olympique at the Attelas mid station. This is a sister lunch spot for La Vache, but with no celebrity frontmen. The decor is clock-oriented, with springs for seats, chimes for service and traditional Swiss food fused with sushi on the menu. The pursuit of flirty Verbier could well start here.
Minty Clinch was a guest of Ski Verbier (020 7401 1101; skiverbier.com), which offers catered chalets from £5,450 per week. Self-catering also available. She skied with the Warren Smith Ski Academy (00 41 79 359 6566; www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com).
Inghams (01483 791111; inghams.co.uk) has a week's half board at Hotel de Verbier from £479pp, with Monarch flights from Gatwick and transfers.
W Verbier (00 41 27 472 8888; wverbier.com). Doubles start at Sfr500 (£342), including breakfast.
La Cordée des Alpes (00 41 27 775 4545; hotelcordee.com). Doubles from Sfr270 (£185), including breakfast.
Hotel Nevaï (00 41 27 7754000; hotelnevai.com). Doubles from Sfr355 (£243), including breakfast.
Eating & drinking there
Pot Luck Club (00 41 27 771 6626; hotelfarinet.com).
Cuckoo's Nest (00 41 27 771 2615; cuckoosnestverbier.com).
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