If you have the opportunity to live in Switzerland, you also have the chance to leave with two things: the ability to ski and the email address of a friend with a chalet in the Alps. Tragically, after a brief residency in Zurich, all we had was a pristine snowboard and a pair of skis hastily procured as the moving vans were being loaded.
But we did have one other valuable takeaway; we did know where to find the best snow in Europe. So after shipping in the grandparents to look after the kids in Singapore, we headed back to Switzerland for six days, to see if we could cut it on the mountains at one of the country’s most adventurous and glamorous ski resorts: Verbier.
Located just two hours from Geneva airport in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, Verbier attracts an international crowd. As the main resort in the country’s largest ski area – the Four Valleys – Verbier offers a broad menu of skiing terrains, which are serviced by nearly one hundred lifts.
Not having an invitation to stay at Richard Branson’s chalet, we opted to stay near the main gondola, at the glittering W Verbier. Like the newly opened hotel itself, the staff were fresh and sparkling. Their welcome made us feel as if we had arrived to stay with friends; if, that is, our friends also happened to be in possession of a chalet that is a master class in chic Alpine design.
W hotels are the designer offspring of Starwood Hotels. Amsterdam design firm Concrete won the chance to create the first W in the Alps, and from the irreverent use of the Swiss flag motif and faux fur, to glossy splashes of the national colour red, the décor manages to walk the precarious line that exists when decorating in a theme: between cheesy and cool.
The timber built-ins in the rooms were a masterstroke, providing an extraordinary amount of storage while referencing the iconic Heidi houses of the Alps. The bathrooms are enormous; the bath a perfect vessel for Bliss bath products. If the mark of a well-designed hotel is that you start mentally redecorating your home, then I knew the minute I started pricing animal skin rugs for our Singapore condo that the W Verbier had been successful.
It would have been easy to hide out in the W all day, gliding between the spa, the inside-outside pool and the lounge. Or simply to enjoy the fresh air on our terrace, watching the landscape of Verbier put on a new performance every day. But we had booked the hotel with the best access to the main gondola at Médran for a purpose: to ski.
Hitting the slopes
To the uninitiated, one of the great discoveries of staying at a hotel on the mountain is the ski room. Putting on warmed ski boots almost distracted me from the heated discussion between my mind and my legs about the sensibleness of hurling ourselves down a slippery mountain slope. Another distraction was eavesdropping on the other skiers, who in a range of accents were planning their itinerary of runs and refuelling stops.
Our plan for day one was a little less complex. Our aim was to negotiate the stairs to the Médran gondola with our skiing equipment while remaining upright, navigate our way down the mountain on the easiest run or trail (while remaining upright), and eat lunch.
While we did find the 10km easy trail, and even ploughed down the final steep slope that deposits you at Place Blanche, I think it’s fair to say that the results were mixed.
Struggling with jet lag and disappointment at our own skill level, we decided to tackle a new area, Mont Fort. At 3,329 metres above sea level, this is the highest point of the four Alps and the final challenge for the brave and fearless who have been skiing since birth. Of course, we were there without skis, snowboards or helmets and wearing our sneakers, not boots. After nearly two years in Singapore, I had forgotten the pain of minus 10 degrees, but the scenery was spectacular.
Another bright spot of our expedition was discovering a wide, easy run at La Chaux, near the gondola to Mont Fort. It was here that we played for the next few days, before accomplishing the long-held dream of successfully skiing down a red (intermediate) slope at a Swiss resort.
Unlike many of the other guests who had jetted in for a long weekend, we had the luxury of six days at the resort and did not feel compelled to spend every moment on skis. This meant we could pursue one of the other favoured sports at Verbier: shopping.
As expected, the alpine village offers a full complement of Swiss watch brands. But it also has interior design stores such as Terracotta Sarl and Boutique Sabi, whom you could engage to re-style your Singapore condo in Alpine chic or where you could just pick up a faux-fur key-chain or wooden tray to remind you of your moment in the Alps. If you discover you need some more shimmer or warmth in your travel wardrobe, the newly opened Hot Air at Place Blanche has a well curated range of European brands.
And for equipment and attire for your sporting time on the slopes, Mountain Air, also in the Place Blanche complex, has an excellent range and an extremely knowledgeable and helpful multilingual staff. My poor skis had arrived back in their native home of Switzerland damaged; working in three languages, Pierre of Mountain Air gallantly arranged the delivery of a replacement part, fitted me with temporary skis and had us all rapidly back on the slopes.
The jet-set visitors to Verbier demand entertainment both on and off the slopes and there is a wide range of bars, but perhaps the coolest of them operates during the day. Late every afternoon, the unfurling of the large pink umbrella at The W Off Piste Bar signals the beginning of the migration home for skiers and boarders. Located at the end of the main trail into Verbier, it offers a thumping soundtrack for re-entry into the village, the promise of champagne and beer, and an enormous opportunity to completely humiliate yourself, if you cannot negotiate the tight slope. It is also a perfect people-watching spot.
Another unique culinary experience that owes much to its location is dinner at Chez Dany. It’s located in a small chalet on the lower slopes; you arrive by snowmobile taxi and return home by toboggan.
Arrival at the popular La Rouge restaurant and club is also often on skis, particularly après ski. Tragically, the atmosphere was a little subdued on the cold Monday night we visited, but the Ibérico ham diminished any disappointment. Strolling from our room into the Arola restaurant at the W Hotel seemed a little mundane after our other adventures, but we ate there twice just to confirm that the raviolis au boeuf and carpaccio de langoustines were as sublime as we’d imagined the first time.
As we took one last ride down the Swiss Alps – in the safety of a car to the airport – it was once again time to assess our inventory from Switzerland. Skis, snowboard and pride were intact. We may not have made much of an impression on the slopes, but we now possessed a new appreciation for Swiss cuisine and design. Oh, and an animal skin rug.
While there are no direct flights from Singapore to Geneva, there are plenty of connection options (e.g., via Frankfurt, Zurich, Doha or London).
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