My journey to Verbier started with a flight to Geneva, with British Airways, who have now decided to charge for checking in more than one bag. This means for a return trip, it would cost up to an extra £70 to take a suitcase and a ski bag. I got around this charge by packing my ski boots in my hand luggage and all my other clothes in my ski bag. I noticed that many people had taken as much hand luggage onto the aircraft as possible, surely a compromise to safety. I can only imagine the negative impact this has on the UK ski industry when buying your own equipment means an extra charge of £70 on top of your ski trip. I understand that airlines need to make a profit and I would be happy to pay extra for a ski bag, but £70?!
Anyway…….I had decided to go to Verbier but had to travel out on a Sunday and be back on the Wednesday night. I took an early flight Sunday morning and a late flight Wednesday night meaning I could ski Sunday afternoon and all day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
My skis arrived both safely and quickly (a record for Geneva airport) in the baggage reclaim area and I was outside in under 30 minutes from leaving the aircraft. Getting to Verbier from Geneva airport is relatively simple and there are various options available including the train (about 2.5 hours with 2 changes) or my choice of Alpine Express. This privately owned transport company provides private or shared transport directly to Verbier at regular intervals. I met their representative in the arrivals hall and the transfer left at the scheduled time of 11.00, meaning my arrival in Verbier at precisely 13.00.
Verbier sits on a sunny south west facing plateau 1500 meters above sea level in the French speaking Valais region of South West Switzerland. The town grew during the 1960’s and ‘70’s, quickly establishing itself as one of the leading ski resorts in Switzerland. Renowned for its off piste skiing and crazy night life, Verbier appealed to a slightly younger and edgier crowd than other traditional Swiss resorts like Zermatt or Wengen.
Having arrived in the middle of town, at 13.00, meant I should waste no time getting changed and getting in a few hours skiing. Access to the main slopes above the town on a two stage gondola/cable car system starts at the top of the town, at Medran. I walked onto the lifts without queuing and I was on my skis by 14.00. Before the Funispace cable car was built in 1995, taking skiers directly up to Attelas (2700 meters) was a single 50 person cabin making the journey. Verbier had a reputation for serious queuing bottlenecks in key areas. Slow chairlifts were the only alternative and Verbier was in serious danger of getting left behind by its French neighbours. A huge re-working of the lift system seems to have eliminated all of these issues and in the 3.5 days I skied in Verbier, in the middle of peak season, I did not queue on any lift for more than 5 minutes.
I met up with an old friend of mine who has been coming to Verbier every season for more than ten years. Newton is a Californian who resides in Shanghai, he spends about 3 weeks in Verbier every February. I asked him why he comes back here year after year. ‘The skiing rocks and the atmosphere in town is great’. He goes on to say that this combination is hard to find in any resort on both sides of the Atlantic.
We ride up the Funispace lift together and reach Les Attelas on a sunny and mild Sunday afternoon. The snow looks in good condition although I’ve been warned that the powder could be better right now. We hit the pistes between Attelas and the mid station of Les Ruinettes which offer the intermediate skier good terrain for practicing wide carving turns or making excursions into the bumps, if the need is there. It doesn’t seem too busy although at the end of the day the slopes further down towards Verbier do get a little crowded, as people make their way back home or to the pub.
The piste skiing in Verbier is a bit like going to Rick Steins seafood restaurant and eating steak. You will get a very nice steak, but really it’s all about the fish. Many people hear amazing things about the skiing in Verbier, turn up and don’t quite get it. To really understand what Verbier is all about you have to be able to ski pretty much any kind of slope. This is not to say that beginners or intermediate skiers won’t have a good time. There are plenty of options for all levels to enjoy. But unless you can confidently ski off piste, on moguls or down steeper runs than you find in most resorts then you just won’t get the full Verbier experience.
We leave the off piste to another day and head down to The Pub Mt Fort. This Verbier institution is nestled close to the bottom of the main Medran lift station which is reached by a fairly crowded blue ‘road’ run through the trees. The Pub Mt Fort or just ‘The Pub’ as it is commonly known, is brimming with tourists, ski bums and resort workers mainly from the UK and Scandinavia. There are also plenty of Swiss people around and being a Sunday there are lots of regulars up from Geneva and Lausanne enjoying the late winter sunshine, on the terrace, before heading back to their city jobs the next morning. Newton introduces me to some Finns who seem like they have had a good day. ‘The snow is pretty good but you have to look for the best stuff’ said one, referring to the fact that it has not snowed heavily for more than a week and much of the off piste terrain has been ‘tracked out’. We drank a couple of beers and left early to be ready for a big day out on Monday………to be continued.