Verbier on the Verge

Andrea Fazzari

Offering some of Europe’s best skiing—and better Backcountry than anywhere in the States—Verbier is no longer quite the secret it once was. Sophy Roberts navigates the ultimate winter resort.

The Russians are coming,” says Yan Felder. “They’ve done St. Moritz and Courchevel. Verbier is the next thing.” Felder, a top travel concierge here, is talking about the Swiss ski town about 100 miles from Geneva on the very weekend last December that the Coco Club opened and the town was all aflutter with the new nightclub’s over-the-top interiors and glitzy guest list. The Nevaï, a slick Miami-white 35-room hotel, also made its debut in town last season, and, from its restaurant, where a DJ spins nightly, it too sends off nocturnal reverberations. Not to be outdone, Sir Richard Branson recently unveiled a ten-bedroom glass-and-wood home for rent. With its spa and black-granite pool, it goes for more than 75 grand a week. All this in a traditional Alpine village better known for its classic pitch-roof chalets and wooden shutters carved with hearts.

According to Liz Berman, however, who with her husband owns three of Verbier’s best chalets—Kernow, Bella Coola, Chalet Le Ti—all the talk of Russians is misleading. The fast money, she says, comes and goes with the Russian New Year and the odd private party. The rest of the time? “I’d never pack a pair of heels for Verbier.

“The reality is, it’s a place for skiers,” continues Berman. “Its profile has been going up in the last two years, but don’t let that fool you. There’s always been a lot of money; it just whispers rather than shouts. In the afternoon, if you’re looking for something to do with your credit card, you won’t find much Prada or Gucci. There are lots of professional ski shops—and some great cheese and yogurt at a little delicatessen called La Chaumière. But a Chanel snowsuit? I doubt it.”

There are signs of Verbier’s new status, especially in the extremely high prices for rental properties like Chalet L. Raphael, possibly the best-equipped house in the Alps (onyx pool, nine spa treatment rooms—and a price starting at $200,000 a week). Another litmus test is the drink menu at the Coco Club, where there’s a cocktail that serves eight and costs $8,920 (granted, it comes with lifetime club membership). One British newspaper described the resort’s latest crowd as the Vulgarians of Verbier.

But for those who really care about skiing and get to know the resort intimately, Verbier remains much as it’s always been: expensive, understated, and designed for the passionate. There are more than 250 miles of trails over four valleys, with vast opportunities for free-riding and cross-country routes with lots of interconnected runs. The lift system was recently upgraded, and unlike those of the French Alps, Switzerland’s mountain regulations permit heli-skiing. The topography is dramatic—jagged Alpine vistas and wide powder couloirs speckled with elegant firs and, at the base of the mountain, the twinkling village.

So far all this has been saved from the oligarch-glutted fate of Gstaad and St. Moritz because unlike those two Swiss classics, Verbier has never allowed for easy entrée. The resort has no grand-palace hotel; in fact, until the Nevaï arrived, only the 29-room Chalet d’Adrien offered anything close to a high-end property. And chalets, for their part, are traded between homeowners, friends, and a few rental agencies based in Geneva, London, and the village itself. You need an insider contact just to navigate the contacts, with properties such as Chalet Goodwood forming waiting lists for the following season before the current one even closes.

Despite the clubby feel of the resort’s best real estate, its mountain restaurants are simple, rustic, and a far way from the long-late-lunch scene of fur wraps and Champagne that fills Courchevel 1850. There is stylish dining, though, some of it gourmet, as at Au Vieux Verbier and La Table d’Adrien, but the resort is hardly crippled by a weight of Michelin stars. Instead, unpretentious mountain staples appear again and again: raclette (melted cheese served with potatoes, dark bread, and pickles), fondue, and rösti (the rustic potato dish). All are washed down with one of the crisp, dry white wines of the local Valais region and taken at mountain restaurants like La Marmotte and Cabane Mont Fort. The smartest of the lot is Chez Dany. Many, however, prefer to spend their time on the mountain skiing, not eating, and just carry sandwiches in their pockets, along with warming flasks of génépi, an Alpine liquor. In Verbier, as opposed to those great gourmet and shopping resorts of the Bernese Oberland, you come for the skiing. And to retreat with family and friends to some of Europe’s best classic chalets, all scattered about a village where Swiss tax laws have clearly stayed kind to foreign wealth.

Maybe because it attracts the sportif— including “a few Americans who’ve discovered how much better Verbier’s high-altitude, off-piste potential is over the U.S.A. and Canada,” in the words of Lyndon Hunt, the Canadian owner of Chalet Solmaï—Verbier also has spirited nightlife, energized by both Genevan bankers and the Brits who zip up here on weekends. Many of the latter come to work as saisonniers (chalet cooks, nannies, drivers), spending their hard-earned Swiss francs in relaxed après-ski bars such as Le Pub Mont Fort. A more sophisticated set continues to frequent the Farm Club, a Verbier landmark, relaunched under new owners last December, where regulars keep bottles of vodka labeled with their names behind the bar.

“In essence, my life is little changed,” says Denise Denti, whose decades-old namesake boutique is one of the resort’s few ultrastylish shops. “Back then we were like peasants to those who were going to Gstaad. But we could ski. We always had snow and beautiful chalets. These two elements remain the same. If the talk of Verbier is now high-pitched, it doesn’t matter much. I can still live as I always did— quietly, with the best skiing in Switzer-land, maybe the best in all of Europe.”

Doing Verbier

Getting There

William Carlucci, of the Verbier- based Mountain Taxi (41-27/771-4806), takes visitors on the 90-minute ride from the Geneva airport. Alternatively, the 90-minute train trip from the airport follows Lake Geneva’s shore, going through the Alps to Martigny, a 25-minute drive from the resort.

Hotels

The classic Relais & Château Le Chalet d’Adrien (from $810; 41-27/771-6200; chalet-adrien.com) is minutes from the main ski lift at Médran and has two restaurants plus a popular lunchtime terrace. The contemporary-designed Nevaï (from $445; 41-27/775-4000; nevai.ch), meanwhile, is good fun for a younger set, but its white-walled aesthetic can feel a little too cool.

Chalets

These are available directly from owners and Verbier- and UK-based rental agents. Most provide staff, and prices are based on weekly occupancy. The best properties from the London-based Ski Verbier (44-20/7401-1101; skiverbier.com) are the warm, Moroccan-inspired Chalet Cheyenne (from $25,400), which sleeps ten; the two-person, centrally located traditional Chalet Mozart (from $2,700); and the modern 12-person Septième Ciel (from $31,800), whose glass walls open onto an infinity-edge terrace, a hot tub, and village views.

The ne plus ultra, though, is Chalet L. Raphael (from $200,000; 41-22/732-2828; bestchaletintheworld.com), sleeping 18. And Indigo Lodges, a company with a reliable service record at its nine Verbier properties, has Chalet Vail, which sleeps eight (from $40,300; 44-75/9509-9095; indigolodges.com).

The three properties in the Bermans’ CK Verbier (41-79/428-0172; ckverbier.com) portfolio are superstylish: Bella Coola (from $52,900), Chalet Le Ti (from $27,400), and, best of all, Chalet Kernow (from $54,700), which has a personable, largely English staff as well as a chef and interiors that mix old and new.

With large rooms, antiques, a formidable wine cellar, a sauna, and a steam room, the 18-person Chalet Solmaï (from $64,600; 44-77/8813-6622; thepowderco.com) usefully divides into a pair of self-contained units to accommodate two families traveling together.

Sir Richard Branson’s new property, The Lodge, Verbier (from $77,000; 44-20/8600-0430; thelodge.virgin.com), sleeps 18 adults and six kids (the latter in a bunk room). Expect mod electronics, a sauna, a spa, and nine en suite doubles done in a vernacular style with rich neutral interiors—all a five-minute walk from the main lift.

Apres-Ski

The Coco Club ($45; 41-27/771-6666; cococlub.ch) is open to nonmembers with reservations. Also, Farm Club (41-27/775-4000; farmclub.ch) is open from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.

At Table

La Marmotte (lunch, $45; 41-27/771-6834; lamarmotte-verbier.com) is a busy, rustic mountaintop spot with a sunny terrace. Among the classics are the fondues, röstis, and spaghetti. The no-reservations, cash-only Cabane Mont Fort (lunch, $45; 41-27/778-1384; cabanemontfort.ch) has stunning views and serves simple, well-priced dishes. It’s on the ski run from La Chaux to Les Gentianes. And Chez Dany (lunch, $60; 41-27/771-2524), on the Les Ruinettes ski run, is a cut above the rest. Gourmet restaurants, best at night and requiring reservations, include Au Vieux Verbier (dinner, $100; 41-27/771-1668) and La Table d’Adrien (dinner, $135; 41-27/771-6200).

Shopping Tip

Boutique Denise Denti (Rue de la Poste; 41-27/771-3422) stocks both clothing and home decor and is one of the—if not the only—fashionable stores.

Who To Know

Yan Felder (41-78/600-5525; yan@verbier.ch) and Mike Coppens (41-78/743-0822; teamphilipperoux@hotmail.com) can arrange everything: chalets, skis, parties, cooks, cars, and drivers. Coppens, an instructor with the Swiss Ski School, can also be booked for private lessons. Choosing a teacher or guide here is as significant as choosing a chalet, and a full day costs from around $460 for one or two clients. We recommend Altitude (41-27/771-6006; altitude-extreme.com), especially for snowboarders, and Adrenaline (adrenaline-verbier.ch) for heli-skiing. For competition-standard instruction, book a session with British professional skier Warren Smith (44-15/2537-4757; warrensmith-skiacademy.com).