Once known for its Hooray Henrys and chalet-girl shenanigans, Verbier in Switzerland has toughened up. Now, it's a mecca for extreme ski and snowboard fanatics – with an après-ski to match
Verbier, in the Swiss Alps, has suffered in the past from its somewhat "Okay yah" reputation – based largely on a ra-ra ra-ther lively après-ski scene. It still has its fair share of Brit-twits, enjoying the same thrills and spills of an evening – but over the years, the social mix has become diluted as the Hoorays have headed for French Méribel and Courchevel in equal measure. The image of Verbier has toughened up, with free-riding dudes taking on the extreme terrain and powder in the main ski areas of the Mont Gelé and Mont Fort glaciers, leading once more to thrills and spills – but of a different kind.
The resort is now truly on the map as an extreme ski and board destination, up there with the best of them. Part of this is due to it being naturally blessed with a mountain location, but the rest is down to Warren Smith and his partner Melody Sky (http://warrensmith-skiacademy.com) who run the Verbier Ride Competition (www.verbierride.com). This annual event attracts some of the best free-riders in the world – and with them a whole new clientele, descending the steep slopes of this Sunny Swiss Deluxe Chalet Village.
With its stone- and wood-built chalets, which retain their original atmosphere and character, Verbier is the archetypal Swiss Alpine ski resort in the traditional style. Its location, on a sunny south-facing ledge, makes it possible to ski back to the village until late in the season. Perched at an altitude of 1,500m, it also offers spectacular views.
Verbier itself has a dynamic après-ski scene – one of its key attractions, along with the splendid mountain terrain and scenery. It attracts among its visitors many celebs and royals, so you can be assured of a better class of drunk. With 58 bars and restaurants, it has some of the liveliest night-spots in the Alps, with somewhere to suit every taste and pocket, from a traditional Swiss cabin to Michelin-starred restaurants. There is also a wide range of exclusive shops, two sports centres with swimming pools, Jacuzzi, sauna, squash court, an ice rink and a cinema that regularly shows films in English.
Verbier is blessed with a high, sunny location and panoramic views over some of the world's finest and most extensive ski terrain – more than 400km of well-prepared pistes serviced by 92 lifts. Surrounding it is some of the most varied terrain in the world. The Four Valleys area is suitable for all abilities: beginners can find niche areas such as the Savoleyres-Tzoumaz sector, while further a field (accessed by bus or car) is the quiet, picturesque and tree-lined Bruson area. Throughout the region, there is a wealth of options for timid intermediates right through to experts and extreme free-riders.
In recent years, there has been criticism of queue blackspots. However, the installation of new lifts has all but eradicated any problems – and work continues to improve further the inter-linking and speed of service.
There are plenty of relaxed blue runs for novices, and good English-speaking tuition is available. Beginners may feel daunted, however, by the often crowded south-facing pistes on the lower slopes of Mont Fort and the multitude of confident to expert skiers bombing down past them, high on adrenaline after their exertions up Mont Fort and Mont Gelé at the end of a day. For intermediates, there are runs ranging from relaxed to challenging. Here are some suggestions:
Le Rouge (on Carrefour), despite it's name. This is a nice, relaxed route for novices to build some confidence
Piste de l’Ours is a challenging red descent, used as a women's championship downhill race course.
Savoleyres Nord A steep black which morphs into a mogulled red; great fun, and not too long for the knees to suffer!
Col Des Gentianes (red) From here, there is a fabulous run down to La Chaux, a serene descent of more than 600m into the valley – and with lovely views. If the powder is good – and for a greater challenge – head over to Mont Gelé, Mont Fort or Chassoure and hit the bowls above Tortin for some vertiginous fun.
Mont Gelé-Attelas (red) For some free-ride fantasy, take advantage of Verbier's easy access to the awesome off-piste available: the couloirs either side of the Tortin-Gentianes cable car are as steep as they come. Look very carefully before you leap! Vertical descent: 400m
The preceding (couloirs) are best tackled in sunny weather. Do not attempt in foggy conditions, when poor visibility can quickly turn a fun challenge into a dangerous one – even for experienced guides.
Savoleyres-Tzoumaz (red-blue) This quiet run on the other side of Savoleyres is a welcome tree-lined break from the crowded, sunny intermediate slopes on the Verbier side. Vertical descent: 900m.
Toboggan run The Tzoumaz side also has a toboggan run of 10km! It's worth putting the skis or board down for thsi one. If you have never tried it, you should – it's a real hoot.
VERBIER AT A GLANCE
Number of lifts 92 (in four valleys), 39 in resort
Drag lifts 10
Chair lifts 18
Cable cars, bubbles 11
Uplift capacity per hour 41,328
Guides available Yes
Ski touring Yes
Number of slopes 70
Total piste length 125km
Longest run 15km
Glaciers Mont Gelé, Mont Fort
Beginners' pistes 39 per cent
Intermediate pistes 42 per cent
Expert pistes 19 per cent
Pros and cons
Extensive, varied terrain; huge off-piste potential.
Lively, varied nightlife.
Fewer queues than there used to be.
A sunny, panoramic setting, with stunning views from the highest slopes.
Good advanced-level lessons.
Good standard of piste grooming.
Overcrowded slopes in certain areas.
Sunny lower slopes will always be a problem, even with snowmaking.
Easily accessed off-trail slopes get tracked out very quickly.
Still some queues, mainly on Four Valleys links.
Slope map and direction signposting still hopelessly inadequate.
Busy traffic (and fumes) in centre.
Some long walks/rides to lifts.
The Four Valleys network is no rival fto the (French) Three Valleys.
If dialling from the UK, prefix all numbers below with 00 41 and subtract the first zero.
There are some lovely ski-to-door places with memorable mountain views. Unfortunately, the majority are situated low down on the mountain – and after lunch, some require you to descend back down to base to get back up the mountain.
Chez Dany (027 771 25 24) To get there, ski the red run (below the 110 Les Ruinettes chair), head through the trees and keep an eye out for the sign "Chez Dany". It's then a left turn to this delightful restaurant serving traditional Swiss specialities. Beautiful views – but do book ahead)
(Note: you will have to ski right down to Médran to get back up the mountain – so maybe this is a good option for a lazy end-of-day meal.)
La Marmotte (027 771 68 34, www.lamarmotte-verbier.com) Just below the bottom of lift 208 Savoleyres Sud, this is a Verbier institution. Welcoming, with a traditional atmosphere. Very popular – book well ahead.
Cabane Mont Fort (027 778 13 84, www.cabanemontfort.ch) Located on Mont Fort – below the Jumbo 3 cable overlooking La Chaux, on the way down from Gentianes – this is this perfect piste-stop. It has an amazing terrace view, and serves homely and nourishing food.
Chalet d’Adrien (027 771 62 00, www.chalet-adrien.com) Right next to the Savoleyres gondola base, this five-star hotel has two high-quality restaurants with amazing views from the terrace. La Table d'Adrien offers a gourmet fusion choice, while Le Garnier serves rustic homely food.
There are enough restaurants in the village to suit all tastes and budgets; most are located in hotels.
Pierroz (027 771 63 23) Chef Roland Pierroz presides over this award-winning signature restaurant in the Hotel Rosalp.
La Pinte du Rosalp (027 771 63 23) Another culinary tour de force in the hotel of the same name –and a little less expensive than Pierroz.
Au Vieux Verbier (027 771 16 68) Situated by the Médran base station, this restaurant is recommended for traditional, rich mountain cuisine – and popular with locals and visitors alike.
The Kings Restaurant (027 775 20 35), 8 rue de la Poste. A sophisticated restaurant and bar serving a fusion of French-Asian gourmet cuisine. Alternatively, lounge back in the chic bar area, renowned for its excellent cocktails.
La Channe Valaisanne (027 771 15 75), place Centrale. Excellent raclette served up in a comfortable, traditional atmosphere.
Barsalinp's Pizzeria (027 771 17 50) Across from the Hotel Bristol, near the central roundabout, this is the place for excellent pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven.
Fer à Cheval (027 771 26 69) Extremely popular for its perfect pizzas, this restaurant is renowned for its friendly service. Also a popular après-ski bar.
Harold's Hamburger (027 771 62 43) For great burgers, this is the business. Check your emails while you wait for your order, on one of the three iMacs... cool!
Verbier has an après-ski scene to match its extreme skiing – so when the adreneline junkies and powder hounds return to swap tales of their off-piste exploits, the drinks flow freely (not literally of course) and the partying begins.
Just as there is no shortage of great thrills up the mountain, so there is no shortage of rocking bars in which to have a drink – or seven... and the fun starts on the mountain, at the foot of Mont Gelé.
Powder Spirit Bar Great name, great views; situated at the top of the Attelas 2 cable car. Serves decent-value fast food; caters to a young crowd.
The Wax Bar and Au Mignon As in St Anton, the après-ski starts on the mountain. These bars are ski-to-door – from La Rouge, by the Mayentzet chair lift. Afterwards, head back down to Médran to sample some more infamous establishments.
Bar 1936 (027 775 25 11) At the bottom of Les Combes piste, between Le Mayen and Le Carrefour, Bar 1936 is a lovely relaxed chill-out with tents, music… and deckchairs, from which to enjoy the view of the village and to watch the sun go down.
The Offshore (027 771 5444), rue de Médran. This bar is the nearest to the Médran base station, so makes a convenient first stop of the evening. It's notable for the pink VW parked inside, but also serves a decent full English breakfast and tasty baguettes – so it's a great starting point next day, to cure the inevitable hangover.
The Pub Mont Fort Situated on Chemin de la Tinte (behind The Offshore – next to the Médran lift). Open 3pm-1.30am. A classic, famous watering-hole, reputed to sell more beer than any other in Switzerland – though a few other bars in Verbier have taken up the gauntlet! It's a good place to start the evening – and to return to later! Serves a good range of food until 10pm, then the restaurant turns into a "shots bar"… if you are still standing.
Crok no name (027 771 6934) Located above the Croquignoles bakers on the the road from place Central towards Savoleyres, this contemporary cool bar is busy right through to the early hours.
Hotel Farinet (027 771 66 26), place Centrale. Home to two of Verbier's most popular après-ski venues. The first is a really lively, crowded bar with a whopping great terrace-cum-conservatory with a sliding roof. Expect live music and a boisterous crowd. Inside, you may fancy the more laid-back lounge bar with its stylish cocktail-, whisky- and cigar-type of vibe – open until 1.30am.
Central T Bar Just next to Farinet, this smart, modern bar has big screens for sports fans and a popular sunny terrace. It is the best all-rounder in my opinion; open from 8.30am through to 1.30am. It serves an excellent full English for breakfast, and good-value fair throughout the day.
Murphy's Bar Serves copious amounts of the Irish stout, as fast as people can drink it.
Fer à Cheval As listed above (see Village restaurants), this is a very popular bar, too – for both visitors and locals. It has a couple of nice terraces where people can mingle.
The Milk Bar (027 771 67 77) A novelty for Verbier – a non-alcoholic bar, serving interesting cocktails (not milk). Also has a nice terrace.
The Farm Club (027 771 61 21), route de Verbier. Located in the Kings Parc Hotel – now in its 30th year – this kicking club caters to wealthy clients… or anyone willing to pay £12 or more for a drink. Bottled spirits work out at about £150, with free mixers – which is is probably the cheapest way to do it. To be admitted, you are advised to book a table.
Taratata A more affordable clubbing experience on the place Centrale itself, with good guest DJs mainly playing a house set. Has a large dance floor and a good mix of regulars and visitors.
Verbier is much like French Méribel, a long-established upmarket resort, but with very few hotels. It remains largely a chalet village – and a large one at that. While prices vary, there are some super-deluxe places such as The Lodge (www.thelodge.virgin.com) – part of Sir Richard Branson's new Virgin elite portfolio of hotels in exotic locations. Prices are up to £40,000 for a week (sleeping 12).
Le Chalet d'Adrien 5* Chemin des Creux – near the main Savoleyres lifts. It has two gourmet restaurants and sumptuous accommodation. The suites are enormous… et très cher.
Rosalp Route de Médran. Another comfortable gourmet's paradise. Though a lot smaller than Chalet d'Adrien, the prices reflect the quality: très bon!
Montpelier 4* Rue de la Piscine. A short walk from the village sports complex, this is luxurious accommodation, again with an award-winning restaurant.
Kings Parc Hôtel 4* Route de la Poste. A chic boutique hotel with 17 spacious suites, plus the Kings Asian fusion restaurant, the Kings bar and the exclusive Farm Club (see Best nightclubs, above).
Hotel Nevaï 4* Rue de Verbier. Newly refurbished and renamed hotel that oozes class; has a stylish Scandanavian boutique interior. Convenient for lifts, situated opposite Kings Parc. A la carte dining available.
Only 10 per cent of visitor beds in Verbier are in package-style hotels, so it can be tricky finding accommodation – especially if you are used to an all-in package with a mainstream travel agent. However, there are a couple of hotels that UK agents include on their itineraries:
Hotel Les Chamois 3* Close to the Médran lift. Very convenient location.
Hotel Vanessa 4* Rue du Lac 2-8. Good value, with a central location easy for lifts. Also serves good food in the restaurant.
British Airways (www.britishairways.com) and Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) fly to Sion (55km away, 1 hour transfer by road), Geneva (170 km/2 hours), Milan (270km/3-4 hours) and Zurich (300km/3.5 hours).
Journeys from Geneva to Verbier involve two trains, a walk and a bus. The transfer takes between 2h45 and 3h30. The nearest major station is Martigny. Then you must take a small train to Le Chable, where you can either take the cable car to Verbier or a direct bus from the station in the winter. For train timetables, see www.sbb.ch.
Cars can be hired from Geneva airport; snow chains are required by law – and enforced. Try Alamo (0870 400 4562, www.alamo.co.uk); Avis (0844 581 0147, www.avis.co.uk); Budget (0844 581 2231, www.budget.com); Easycar (08710 500 444, www.easyCar.com).
The drive from Geneva takes about three hours. Follow the signs to the St Bernard Pass (home of the famous St Bernard dogs) until Sembrancher; turn left there, up the hill to Verbier.
Tourist office (027) 7753888, email email@example.com.