Leonardo DiCaprio, Jude Law, and Bono are names that pop up during discussions of celebrities who regularly ski in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, known for it’s excellent slopes, exclusivity and famous clientele. I’ve come here to see if it’s possible to enjoy Verbier on a more modest budget than the likes of Prince Harry might have at their disposal.
“This is the Diana Ross lift,” our instructor Alex says, as we scale a mountain looking down on postcard-worthy views of the snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps.
Singer James Blunt also has a lift named after him. He may not be very famous in the UK these days, but he owns a chalet here and is well known to the locals. Even though the Beckhams, Jamie Oliver, and Pippa Middleton are said to ski here, it seems I’m in a bizarre parallel universe where James Blunt is practically royalty.
But there’s a reason why big stars, and Blunt, make Verbier their skiing base. Part of Switzerland’s largest ski area, the 4 Vallees, there are 144 runs spread over 400km, connections to resorts including La Tzoumaz and Nendaz, and an altitude that guarantees an abundance of snowfall even in early season. The resort is south-facing and therefore sun-drenched if the weather allows, making the views as spectacular as they come.
Having skied mainly in France and across the Atlantic, I’m keen to see how the Swiss slopes compare. What’s most surprising in January is the lack of skiers and snowboarders around. Queues for lifts are rare and many of the runs are practically empty as we slice down the mountain as quickly or as leisurely as we like. It’s also clear that the variety means it caters for everyone, from pure beginners to serious Alpine junkies.
Mont Fort - the area’s highest peak at 3,330 metres - has panoramic views over the Alps, where you can see the peaks of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. The legendary run from the peak is well-known as a challenge for even the most seasoned of skiers.
It’s accessible by cable car, so there’s no pressure to ski or board down. But after some deliberation, I take on the 1,750-metre slope, and it’s no surprise it’s a steep 40% incline, mogul-filled black run. Elegance took a serious hit but I made it to the bottom, largely thanks to Alex from the Altitude Ski and Snowboarding School (www.altitude-verbier.com). And two minor stumbles doesn’t seem so bad when I learn that the run has hosted the World Speed Skiing Championships.
I wonder if Dicaprio can get to the bottom without falling...
We’re joined by Ski Sunday presenter and ex-pro boarder Ed Leigh, who I suspect is holding back when he leisurely takes on the famous slope with ease.
“I fell in love with Verbier for a number of reasons,” he tells me. “The sheer size of the ski area is mind-blowing, and they haven’t littered the slopes with lots of lifts that ultimately crowd the slopes and ruin the views.” Even after 25 years of being spoilt by alpine scenery, the beautiful views at Verbier still make him stop and drink them in.
Ed says the reputation as a prestigious resort hasn’t limited its visitors to just “billionaire frou-frou crew” though.
“Its freeride credentials have always drawn the less well-heeled powder pilgrims to town too. It’s the mixture that’s created the legendary nightlife.”
This ‘exclusive’ label is actually one they’re keen to shake in Verbier. In the current economic climate, like any resort, they need the mass market, not just those with money to burn.
And while in Verbier you could hire a £112,000 a week chalet (one Richard Branson owns) or stay in the fabulous five star Hotel W, you could also stay in Le Chable, a direct gondola or 15-minute bus ride away, and spend significantly less.
Hotel A Larze opened this year and has beautiful but cosy rooms for as little as £83 a night with breakfast. Elsewhere in Le Chable, there’s a good choice of self-catering apartments, and I’m told a hotel business in Verbier is looking to create 10,000 new beds, including dorm rooms.
Le Chable itself is more low key and unassuming than it’s more famous neighbour; it has restaurants, ski hire shops and a train station that’ll take you straight to Geneva. It may take ever so slightly longer to get on to the slopes, but it means you bypass any crowds at Verbier.
If you want nightlife though, Le Chable is tame and Verbier is where you’ll find apres ski (try Pub Mont Fort for £4 beer) turning into cocktails and clubbing into the early hours.
Bruson, on the other side of the valley, is quieter still. A charming but more modestly-sized skiing area, it’s only recently become easily accessible thanks to a new gondola from Le Chable. There’s plenty of off-piste, forested sections here for the more adventurous.
My own adventure into the powdery snow (slightly) off-piste is helped by instructor and ski race coach Sega, who is encouraging with a dose of tough love. I’m sure my turns are better for it though.
We stop for lunch at Dahu, perched on the mountainside with a breathtaking view. The pizza chef here is award-winning, but if you have more refined culinary tastes, the food at Brasserie 1 in Le Chable is by far the best in my experience, and it seems customer Tripadvisor reviews agree.
It wouldn’t be Switzerland without some cheesy raclette though, and in Le Chable, L’Escale is the place for it. Meanwhile, in Bruson, you can get a very reasonably priced cheese-based lunch hillside at Restaurant de Moay. The same can’t always be said of French resorts.
Later, we sip cocktails in La Farinet, where, ahem, Pixie Lott spent last New Year’s Eve. And while the hype would have you believe that champagne magnums fill the tables, the truth is it’s no more pricey than an average central London bar. Next door, there’s even a rock night on, where you can buy beer pitchers and have to drink from plastic cups in front of a live band.
As skiing goes, the pristine slopes of Verbier and Bruson are among the best I’ve visited, and with an abundance of snow, they’re perfect for an early or late-season trip. Lift passes are 66 CHF (£54) a day or 340 CHF (£280) for six days (more for access to the rest of the 4 Vallees), which is very similar to the likes of St Anton, Chamonix and Tignes.
Let’s face it, skiing is never cheap but if you’re planning to hit the slopes of Verbier, it is possible to retreat into an Alpine bubble at a sensible price, and still rub shoulders with James Blunt.