What do you look for in a ski resort? Chances are it’s a winning blend of interesting terrain and fantastic après; perhaps ease of access for the weekend, and the chance that you’ll find a nice place to stay — even a nice person to enliven your stay.
For all of these, consider Verbier. Two hours from Geneva, it’s hardly undiscovered: from Jude Law and Leonardo DiCaprio to the freeriders who compete in Xtreme Verbier (the finals of the no-holds-barred freeskiing and snowboarding tour, held in March) it’s a haven for energetic powder-hunters who like to make fresh tracks all day and party all night.
This year Verbier’s allure is heightened with new lifts, which bring direct access to still more of the Four Valleys, Switzerland’s largest ski area. Plus, the W Hotel has opened, bringing glossy urban chic to a town traditionally associated with cuckoo-clock chalets.
‘I’m here to get you anything, any time, just as long as it’s legal,’ grins Monica, the W’s decidedly extrovert ‘Insider’, as I check in. She is a concierge and embodies the hotel’s philosophy of providing guests with the ‘Whatever/Whenever’ motto.
My reveries of what I might possibly request are, however, cut short by the view. It is hard not to gawp. The lobby looks across to the Living Room — or bar — where ski bunnies in designer fur-fringed hoods pout from hanging Perspex chairs. Beyond, floor-to-ceiling windows give on to a starlit mountainscape. A long horizontal fire flickers. Basically cross Barbarella with a Bond film, then add contemporary lighting and Eames furniture for a lick of cool.
The W has also pulled off a particular coup in its location. The main descent into the Medran area used to end, abruptly, with a car park. Now skiers kick their heels into a showy turn in a piazza lined by the W and a complex of shops and restaurants. Snap open your boots and order a vin chaud at the Off Piste bar where the W’s resident DJ ramps out funky house, before moving on to the hotel’s chichi club, Carve.
Can there be a downside? It is expensive. The rooms begin at 500CHF (£340) a night, peaking sharply in high season, and a passion fruit caipirinha will set you back 25CHF (£17). At these prices one hopes that early teething problems, such as the in-room fires not working, will soon be solved.
For the old guard who don’t associate Verbier with high heels, or those on a tighter budget, there are great alternatives. Après at the bar in Hotel Farinet, moving to the club under the hotel around 2am, is tried-and-tested, solid fun; beers at nearby Pub Mont Fort, the Fer à Cheval (aka Furry Shovel) or The Loft are cheaper still — these are where the seasonnaires hang out.
For accommodation, it’s worth remembering that the gondola goes down from Medran to Le Châble, the town below Verbier, where the price of a room is substantially less. What’s more, in the morning it will return you straight up the hill, avoiding the peak-season Medran queues.
New this winter, the gondola now links up to the Bruson ski area — a seductive zone of tree-skiing — and another fast cable car brings high-speed access to the smaller Four Valley resorts Siviez and Nendaz.
So Verbier has over 400km of trail runs. The pistes are wide and varied, and studded with restaurants serving fondue (don’t miss Chez Dany), or with great tunes and shots aplenty (Bar 1936). But the resort’s real treasure is its easily accessed off-piste.
‘Verbier is a definitive off-piste resort,’ says Gabriella Le Breton, author of Skiing Europe. ‘Expert skiers and riders can enjoy 1.5-mile vertical descents, steep drops, narrow couloirs, open powder bowls and some of the most challenging “off the back” ski routes in Europe off Verbier’s two main peaks, Mont Fort and Mont Gelé. Even better, this snowy playground is all lift-accessible.’
As I arrive, however, my goal is simply to get down. Blame it on having a baby, on natural cowardice, whatever, somehow I’ve lost the ability to ski. Happily, Verbier is also home to one of the best places to learn: Warren Smith’s Ski Academy, whose satisfied clients include Lawrence Dallaglio, Claudia Schiffer and — so the rumours go — royalty.
While Warren is busy coaching celebrities on Channel 4’s The Jump — apparently taking particular care of model Melinda Messenger — I take a lesson with his number two, Rob Stanford. A Mancunian with trust-me, chocolate brown eyes and a ski technique to die for, Rob is a straight-talking sort. ‘We both skied that like a bag of spanners,’ he says, after I judder down a creamy red run. He’s half right.
The draw of the Academy is its ability to transform your performance. ‘People come to us when they’ve hit a plateau. We approach skiing as a sport. We are coaching you to your best as an athlete, physiologically and psychologically; we are not asking you to follow us down the hill then stop for hot chocolate.’ His instructions are clear and simple: ‘Female hips are wider, that naturally shapes the femurs inward, so women can be prone to having knock-knees.’ I learn to hold my skis closer together and my knees further apart; suddenly I shift out of my squatting position.
Understanding that half my battle is fear, Rob finds ways to unfasten my dread. He teases and distracts me. He admonishes and encourages me. What works best? In the end it’s simple. He tells me to: ‘Ski like a superhero!’
Newly minted as Wonder Woman in salopettes, I’m ready to go higher, up to Tortin. Off the back of the lift we enter a vast bowl, full of squeaky-fresh gentle bumps. A swift wobble averted (‘Do you want to be here?’), I come down, finding a rhythm through this magic, empty snow field. It is a privilege. It’s beyond exhilarating. I’m in love again.
At lunch I meet Sonja, a seasonnaire from Hampshire who’s taking the five-day group Academy course. ‘My guests last year took the courses and raved about them. I’m thrilled to be here.’ This April the Academy launches a girls’ week, under the aegis of Becky Hammond (who competed on the World Cup halfpipe circuit) and Fiona Jamison (who races in freeride competitions).
After that, surely I’ll be ready to join the dudes at the top of Mont Fort, to wave to the Matterhorn and carve my way down.
W Verbier starts from £340 per double room per night, including taxes, charges and breakfast (wverbier.com). For info on arranging your trip, visit myswitzerland.com, and for the Ski Academy, warrensmith-skiacademy.com
Original article published in ES Magazine, in March, 2014