Verbier, Switzerland Ski Holiday Guide
Skiing and Snowboarding in Verbier, Switzerland
Verbier, Switzerland Ski Resort is located on a really sunny south-westerly shelf high above the Rhone valley at the center of the vast 'Four Valleys' ski area; it's a sensibly attractive place (especially if you are able to afford to stay away from the traffic-jammed Place Centraie up in one of the swanky chalets that are scattered across the upper part of town). In spite of a drop in UK visitors during recent years to just over ten per cent, several of these chalets are British-owned and English is still pretty much the first language in a resort that crawls with fellow countrymen out to ski all day and party all night - another great reason for not staying on or close to the Place Centraie, which functions as the main apres-ski artery.
The Four Valleys ski area lays claim to an impressive 410km of pistes and 94 lifts, everything accessed with a fancy electronic hands-free smartcard, but you'll probably just ski a small proportion as the different valleys are dispersed far and wide. And as the piste map helpfully points out: 'If you get stranded in another resort, you'll have to pay for your own return' - with or without your smartcard.
Two gondolas climb up from Verbier's main lift station at Medran and head to Les Ruinettes, just on top of Verbier's limited treeline. From here the fancy Funispace whisks off skiers up to Les Attelas at a snowsure 2,700m. The option then depends on your skill levels. For experts, a small cable-car goes on up to free ride-friendly Mont Gele for off-piste runs only, while the majority of the on-piste holiday traffic goes downwards, either left to La Chaux, right to Lac des Vaux or directly down to Les Ruinettes and Verbier. All of these runs are ideal for intermediates, although the area can become really crowded, particularly during the weekends.
From La Chaux the once biggest ski resort in Switzerland, 150-person Jumbo cable-car, heads up to Col des Gentianes and another queue-prone cable-car continues up to the highest point in the Four Valleys, Mont Fort, at 3,330m. When you get to the top, relax and enjoy the splendid view for a few minutes because it's strictly red, black or off-piste from here on down, with 1,300m vertical of moguls down to Tortin and the link to the rest of the Four Valleys.
Mont Fort is Verbier's sole official black piste - all the rest are now designated as 'ski itineraries' and sum up the machismo of Verbier's skiing perfectly. Actually, if you want to find the most famous off-piste descents on the piste map, you only have to look for the 'danger' signs and you'll perhaps spot a track going down the mountain. Even so, this machismo shouldn't be enough to put intermediates off, as there's a lot of challenging piste and some gentler off-piste besides, but skiing beginners should likely head to another resort altogether as, apart from a couple of fairly un-snowsure nursery slopes on the golf course above the village, this is actually a resort for virgin powder, not powder virgins.
Verbier's other main ski mountain, Savoleyres, is a more tamed beast than Mont Fort, having a top height of just 2,350m and plenty of gentle blues and reds. Ideal for a day of therapy if you've been traumatized by Tortin's bumps.
In spite of some sizeable investment, Verbier's ski home runs and lifts could still get pretty crowded during peak times, particularly when the snow's dodgy. Being on a sunny shelf also implies that the area is great for sunbathing but not that good for snowholding, so the village runs are not a guaranteed winter wonderland, though extensive snowmaking helps out throughout lean times.
For mountain ambiance and great food, head for lunch at the Cabane du Mont Fort, a mountain refuge at 2,500m on the Gentianes piste. Don't expect to have the place to yourself though. Farther down the hill, tucked deep in the trees above town, is Chez Dany, another perennially famous hangout with loads of charm, great views and cheesy faves. Access is off-piste but that does not stop the crowds so you are advised to book in advance. Over on Savoleyres, the recommended are Sonalon and the rustic Buvette de la Marlenaz, both off-piste but worth the effort. Lastly, if it's chips-and-views you're after, Les Attelas and Les Ruinettes both feature large sun terraces and self-service standards.
Verbier has a fantastic snowpark at La Chaux, with all the rails, jumps and corners you will need. Otherwise, this is a fabled area for free riding. The world's best riders assemble every year on the north face of the Bee des Rosses for O'Neill Xtreme. View them in action and you'll never want to leave the ground once more.
The Verbier Sports Centre is the place for soothing your aches and pains, with a 25m heated pool, sauna and Turkish bath. There's likewise a solarium, indoor skating rink, climbing wall, tennis and squash courts. If that all sounds a bit active, then book into the Spa by Valmont (027 771 61 70), at Chalet Valmont, where 'beauticians will plunge you into an unforgettable sensory experience' - and all for just Sfr600 for five hours of treatments. Back outside there are 25km of groomed hiking trails and a 10km toboggan run from Savoleyres to La Tzoumaz, in the next valley along.
Mountaineers may wish to try Pure Alpine Rock Climbing in the Alps. With tour packages starting at US $100, you can avail guided ice and rock climbing and mountaineering instruction on your way to the top of the Mt.Blanc and other European Alpine summits.
Restaurants and Bars in Verbier
Verbier's nightlife is as notable as its skiing and there is something for everybody, from galloping foodies to boracic boarders. If you're truly looking to eat up your francs, then book into Pierroz, in the Hotel Rosalp, top of Verbier's gastro pile and among Switzerland's leading eateries, featuring 19 Gault Millau points, 50,000 bottles of wine in the cellar and expensive menus. Another gastro option is La Grange, a piscine outpost in a pile of fondue. If that seems a bit lofty, then Verbier also has plenty of inexpensive, more relaxed options. One of the best is Le Fer a Cheval, which has a really lively bar and cute, wood-heavy restaurant dishing out everything from snails to pizza with friendly staff and friendly prices (for Verbier). If you're searching for a place to dip your bread, try Relais des Neiges, right next to the Medran lift station. Lastly, if you've been in the pub all evening and missed dinner altogether, high-altitude hamburgers are served until 1.30am at the famous Harold's Snack Bar on the main square, complete with chips, milkshakes, internet access and large-screen footie.
You can't miss Offshore, it has a pink VW parked inside with a surfboard and parking ticket and is great for post-ski drinks, the same with the nearby Big Ben pub. From here it's a short lurch to the Pub Mont Fort - blaring music, simple decor and pints galore for unreconstructed beer monsters. For a break from the Brits, go for the Swiss-dominated Nelson Pub, just off the main square, which in a weird twist of Swiss fate, appears far more like an English pub than anywhere else in town. Cozy bar, pool tables and the beer's a little cheaper too. For apres-apres ski, Taratata is a great place for a dance, while the Farm Club is a good spot to break the bank.
Accommodations in Verbier, Switzerland
Many Verbier visitors stay in chalets, so if you prefer to be king of the hill, book in along with nine friends for a week at Chalet Goodwood over New Year. The price is a appropriately exclusive £27,000, but that does include six staff. Of the hotels, the super-exclusive Chalet d'Adrien is a five-star folly close to the Savoleyres lift, with spa, fitness, suites the size of houses and ridiculous prices. More accessible is Verbier Lodge, a very good-looking B&B chalet with cozy bedrooms, outdoor Jacuzzi and skiing to the door if conditions allow. For real bargain basement accommodation, the Bunker, in the Sports Centre, fits the bill spot-on. Once an atomic bomb shelter, it bears the warning: “No windows and daylight - not recommended for guests suffering claustrophobia”, and you have to bring with you your own sleeping bag. It's a very cheap sleep, and there's also a swimming pool and skating rink.
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