Three thousand metres above sea level, at Verbier’s highest point, the landscape turns into a treacherous canvas of black rock and ice. As we gingerly navigate hairpin turns in a Toyota Hilux pick-up – an impressive feat of driving by any standard - we pass two lone female hikers. They look lost, cold, and exhausted. Our guide Francis is concerned at having to leave them – it’s already 4.30pm and they have several hours to go before finding shelter. ‘When the mist drops up here’, he says, gesturing to the milky white around us. ‘You feel really small in the world.’ We rumble on, past several avalanche paths.
Verbier’s strong community spirit is built on respect for these unpredictable surroundings. There are several accommodation huts dotted around the wilderness, which are left unlocked all year round, and can be a lifeline to stranded hikers or skiers. Cabane Mont Fort (2457m) is not free, but is particularly comfortable, and serves great food. There are two rows of exterior doors, one above the other, in case guests are snowed in.
In spite of such dangers, Verbier is a resort that caters to all abilities. Swiss Mountain Spirit offer a variety of non-skiing activities – take the children on a 40 minute sled-ride pulled by championship huskies, or a 15-minute helicopter tour for a bird’s eye view of the slopes. Colin McRae hopefuls can go snow and ice driving on specially constructed tracks used by the Touring Club of Switzerland. Die-hards can do a day’s heliskiing at Gstaad or Zermatt. If you’re feeling particularly reckless why not throw yourself down the mountain, head-first, on a glorified rubber dinghy? You can take twenty-nine friends, and reward yourselves with a nice meal at the bottom. Verbier Summits are the people to see for paragliding lessons or Speed Flying, a hybrid of skiing and gliding which is the white knuckle sport du jour; extremely fast and not for the faint of heart.
There are ways to soothe such vigorous physical exertions. Verbier Touch offers an in-chalet massage service with trained physiotherapists, well-equipped to deal with mountain injuries. Chilali Massage offer ski-specific Pilates exercises dubbed (appropriately enough) Skilates, to improve core strength on the piste. There’s even massage at the top of the slopes, on fur-covered snow tables. If it’s a spa stay you’re after, the opulent Rococo decor of the L. Raphael retreat is a warmer option. Verbier is a resort that caters to every whim, no matter how eccentric. You just need to know where to ask.
Perhaps this is why it is so popular for a ski holidays with high-end Brits. An early noughties boom in British investment led to a year-long ban by the Swiss Government on property development by foreigners. Environmental groups clamoured to protect the mountain, which groaned under the strain of skier footfall. The village has less than three thousand permanent inhabitants, yet its infrastructure caters to over 30,000 people a week in peak season. Development has since recommenced, however; where better to invest city bonuses than a premium mountain getaway? I am shown a three-chalet development with hydraulic swimming pool, the £30m investment of an English business tycoon.
If luxury is defined as painstaking attention to detail, Chalet Kernow delivers. The arduous 19-hour journey (thank you, satnav) melts into insignificance as we step into the cosy, cedar-scented interior and know we need worry about nothing else. The 24-hour service includes a chef, chauffeur and childcare. The decor is luxurious but not stuffy – well-worn sofas welcoming as old friends, a roaring log fire, £250,000 wine cellar and hot tub on the terrace. All this paled into insignificance when we discovered the automatic toaster. Across the mountain, Richard Branson’s The Lodge provides an equally luxurious alternative (bet he doesn’t have that toaster though), and exclusive hire is available for up to 18 people in season.
The sumptuousness of the chalets helps soften the blow of the cruel, jagged peaks, which are home to some of the most dangerous skiing in the world. Francis points out the location for Xtreme Verbier at Bec des Rosses, a freeriding contest down a near-vertical slope with more bumps than a Braille manuscript. Out of season, the lush green hills and distant snow-covered peaks make Verbier look like a Sound of Music setpiece. As well it might; there’s a world-class music festival in July and August, which pulls in 40,000 people each year. The mountain cows are charming, in spite of their alarmingly large tongues, and the constant tinkling of their bells provides the village soundtrack in the warmer months. Each spring, the two strongest beasts fight the Combat des Reines, or Battle of the Queens. The winner is crowned (lack of opposable thumbs means this has to be done by the locals) and leads the herd for the rest of the summer. When there’s elitism among the cattle, you know you’re in the right place.
If you’re after adrenalin rather than a round of golf (the course has some of the best views in Verbier), the Swiss Alps are a mountain biker’s paradise. World-class cyclists enjoy the rugged paths, and a special terrain has been carved out of the mountainside on the way up to Mont Fort. Francis chuckles with nostalgia at the foolhardy youth skidding down the rock face. We meet two seriously fit riders shortly after we reach the peak; they’ve done the journey in 2.5 hours and their chests heave between sentences.
The inhabitants in the village are warm and down-to-earth; there is no room for pretence when the mountain looming behind reminds you how small and feeble you are. Everyone lives in the moment, and looks after each other. Event organiser Nicky ffrench-Blake – who, like many English people, decided to stay after spending a season – says she still hitchhikes. ‘You couldn’t do that in England. This place has got real heart.’ Local foods equally so, focusing as they do on comfort rather than finesse: unctuous raclettes, cured meat platters, veal sausages and stews. Chez Dany and Le Carrefour are wonderful places to sample Swiss fare on the slopes – particularly on New Year’s Day after a convivial evening at Farm Club. For gourmet Swiss food, Le Vieux Verbier at the bottom of Médran is the place to go – beautifully presented with price tags to match.
When you tire of the fondue, L’Appartement at Hotel Chez Adrien offers Michelin-starred fine dining with an Italian flavour. Most luxury chalets also have a private chef who will rustle up your heart’s desire at a moment’s notice - I am told that Kernow’s Jono is one of the best in Verbier – he was sent to Australia one summer to brush up his fusion repertoire at source. New restaurant Le Rouge is an art deco establishment over three floors, run by the pub Mont Fort team, and will offer specialities from around the world when it opens in time for next season. Owner of the Farm Club Marcus Bratter, also runs Kings and Nevei two fine dining establishments that are well worth a visit. Kings’ French-Asian fusion dishes are particularly delightful.
The Verbier party scene has something for everyone (there’s even a swingers’ chalet, apparently). Apres Ski on the slopes happens at Le Fer de Cheval, the Offshore or Pub Mont Fort. The Milk Bar offers a less boozy version – tuck into giant ice cream sundaes straight off the frozen slopes. At the station, the young and trendy favour Coco, a high profile cocktail bar and club that offers an alpine concierge service to VIP members. Coup D’Etat is another high end late-night bar concentrating on cocktails, champagne and premium brand spirits. They aim to offer funky music, great drinks and service and a relaxed atmosphere for about 100 people.
At the other end of the scale is the Farm Club: a veritable microcosm of Verbier life whose doormen, the Berardi Brothers, are an institution in themselves. It boasts an extremely famous, fun-loving clientele who appreciate the discretion afforded by the management. What happens in Farm Club, stays in Farm Club.
Official tourist website" with lots of useful info including opening times, babysitter lists, accommodation search facility and local guide.
The Lodge : exclusive hire of Branson’s retreat costs £43,500 for seven nights in Winter. Other packages available.
Chalet Kernow : prices from £12,000-£35,000 a week. Le Ti, Kernow’s little sister, is available from £6,000 a week.
My Verbier provide luxury chalet and apartment rentals.
Cabane Montfort : book in advance and sleep at the top of the world.
Alpine Specialist will track down your dream property.
L Raphael is gorgeous spa where you can stay for your holiday.
Chilali Massage offer holistic therapies including hot stone massage and skilates.
See Verbier Summits for speed flying lessons.
Swiss Mountain Spirit offer a range of extreme sports, consultancy and expeditions.
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