Verbier may be the playground for the rich and famous but that didn’t stop us getting VIP treatment when we descended on the idyllic Alpine resort. Despite our lowly status as members of the proletariat, our ski guide snubbed a crown prince of a significant Middle Eastern country to take us on a tour of the slopes.
We had, in fact, made the booking with the European Snowsport school before the crown prince but we still felt like royalty as we skipped the queues on the first chair lift with our guide, ski school boss Julian Griffiths.
On our way he pointed out the restaurant where Prince Andrew had his birthday lunch and revealed that Prince Harry had also been on the slopes recently.
The resort has been a favourite with the Royals ever since Sarah Ferguson, before her marriage, worked at the Farm Club, one of the most popular nightclubs in Verbier. She has been returning ever since with Beatrice and Eugenie, and other members of the Royal Family often visit.
They are not alone in wanting to sample the fantastic skiing and vibrant nightlife of Verbier, one of Switzerland’s premier resorts. Hugh Grant and James Blunt – who has a plaque on a chair lift he opened recently – enjoy skiing here and Richard Branson has a luxurious chalet that he lets out for a reported £100,000 a week.
Half the fun of going out and skiing in Verbier is trying to spot the rich and famous, but unlike resorts such as St Moritz, this picturesque town wears its fame lightly and attracts a wider social circle than the more exclusive locations.
It is true that prices can be high but it is also possible to live well without breaking the budget, especially since the credit crunch.
Four years ago, in the heyday of bankers’ bonuses, you could buy cocktails costing 10,000CHF (£6,700). These were specially created by ice carving artists flown in from the UK and took the shape of chalets the size of small tables. Exquisitely carved, the ice creations were hollowed out and filled with a mixture of champagne and brandy which was consumed by revellers from straws stuck in openings including the chimneys and the windows.
You are unlikely to see such scenes of decadence now, but the good news for bonus-challenged skiers is that pubs and clubs are vying for custom in a way they never had to before so while prices are still not cheap, going out shouldn’t break the bank.
An excellent way of joining the Verbier jet set is to stay, as we did, in the Hotel Montpelier, which has just been taken over by British company Ski Total. Before the takeover, rooms here cost 700CHF (£465) per night because the hotel is in a quiet, central area with fantastic views, well appointed rooms and a small spa complete with sauna and steam room.
Staying with Ski Total costs a fraction of this but the food and service is still first class with cooked breakfasts, soup and cake for skiers arriving back from the slopes, and a superb five-course dinner at night complete with wine and aperitifs. A deal like this makes staying in Verbier a reasonable proposition, giving a taste of the high life without having to worry about post holiday credit card bills.
Our guide Julian took us to a couple of mountain restaurants where again we were treated like kings and the food was excellent. Prices were, admittedly, higher than at home, but the food was mouthwatering and extremely high quality. Even so, the delicious home-made soup with hunks of bread is good value for those on a budget and usually costs around £4, even in the restaurants on the Verbier side of the mountains which tend to be a bit more expensive than those in the other valleys.
There is no doubt that in Verbier special treatment is not reserved just for the rich. We found the locals to be inclusive and welcoming and, indeed, this egalitarian attitude was one of the reasons Julian set up his business here ten years ago. In that time he has had some interesting clients – some attracted by the fact that he can offer a couple of ski instructors who are also trained bodyguards and others by the fact that his is the only school to use a GPS tracking system so that there is no danger of youngsters being lost. Classes are also small, kept to a maximum of six.
“I’ve always liked Verbier because you can rub shoulders with the rich and famous but it’s not a snotty resort,” says Julian, who has a contract to provide guiding and ski school services for the occupants of Richard Branson’s chalet. “It’s an interesting place.”
And of course the skiing is fabulous.
For the expert skier, Verbier has to be one of the top destinations in the world. The off-piste is renowned and extensive with long descents if conditions are suitable.
Furthermore, for those who don’t wish to employ a guide, Verbier has a fantastic selection of yellow runs which are marked off-piste where genuine off-piste conditions can be savoured secure in the knowledge that the full ski patrol service is available if necessary.
On piste, Verbier has a huge selection of superb runs facing all directions with the emphasis on medium graded red runs, ideal for the intermediate skier. The variety is excellent with everything from wide motorway slopes to narrower tree-lined descents while, with a glacier, snow is guaranteed.
Verbier is at one end of the Four Valley area, which is one of the largest in the world with more than 400km of piste. You would have to be a very fast skier to cover it all in one week. For those who like touring on their skis it is ideal as every valley has a different feel although, while Verbier has modern, fast lifts, there are a few drag lifts involved in crossing some of the other valleys.
For the non-skier there is much to do in the picturesque town which lies in a sunny spot in the south-western part of Switzerland, less than two hours from Geneva airport.
The town has preserved its Swiss-chalet-style charm and offers a modern sports centre with 25 metre pool, squash courts, an ice rink where the new activity is go-karting on ice, good winter walking, and the longest toboggan run in this part of Switzerland.
Non-skiers can also enjoy the lively après ski – check out Le Rouge, the Farinet, the Pub Montfort and Chez Danni which are always heaving when the skiers leave the slopes.
Later on try the Farm Club, the Casbah, Coup d’Etat or Public Verbier after eating at perhaps Millennium, the Chamois or Al Capone. If you want to check out the place where Prince Andrew had his birthday lunch it is Le Carrefour but, unsurprisingly, quite pricey.
In any case, as we discovered, you don’t have to have royal blood to enjoy the delights of Verbier.
THE FACTS One week’s half board at the Chalet Hotel Montpelier in Verbier starts from £598 per person. An adult area lift pass in Verbier costs £259 for six days but Ski Total (www.skitotal.com) are running a Swiss saver of two for one on lift passes. Six day adult ski hire starts at £155. Adult group private lessons start at £66 per group, www.europeansnowsport.com