To get to the top of the Attelas mountain in Verbier, you take the James Blunt Chairlift — named after the singer, who has a chalet in the Swiss resort and opened the lift himself. If you wanted a walking cliché for old Verbier (or ‘Verbs’, as Sloanes only semi-ironically call it) you could do worse than Blunt, the Old Harrovian who served six years in the Household Cavalry and stood guard over the Queen Mother’s coffin in Westminster Hall in 2002.
Verbier was once old-money skiing. And there’s still a bit of that going on. At the top of the James Blunt Chairlift, I glimpsed an elderly John Mills lookalike with a Brief Encounter accent, wearing a patched-up cagoule and tattered salopettes dating from c.1974 — the ultimate in shabby ski-chic.
But now Verbier, just like other old money haunts (Ascot, public schools, Chelsea), has been flooded with new money, along with wraparound goggle sunglasses and slick skisuits that shout out the latest super-rich war cry — ‘No carbs before Verbs!’ I’m not sure I was quite in with the Verbs in-crowd with my red Aldi Ski Pro Lite Shell Jacket and black Aldi ski trousers, £74.98 all in.
The Russians and the Arabs have poured in to Verbier. And now this old Alpine village — once home to the poorer farmers who couldn’t afford to live on the fertile valley floor — is a crucial stop on the global elite’s eternal merry-go-round. Its chalets and restaurants are too expensive for the Valley Rally brigade — young Sloanes who down Jägerbombs by the bucketload, occasionally breaking off to coat each other in whipped cream.
The spirit of rugger-bugger après-ski lingers on in a few spots. I was told of one bar where the seasonaires — the ski instructors and the chalet girls and boys — buy jugs of beer purely to throw over each other at the end of the evening. But you have to go in search of all this. Yes, there are quite a few prominent bars and clubs in the centre of town — the Farinet, Le Rouge, the Farm Club and the Fer à Cheval (aka ‘the Furry Shovel’) chief among them. But they are outnumbered by high-end shops like Moncler, which sells ski trousers (actually not that different from my Aldi pair) for £480.
The expensive shops and an older, richer crowd have laid a quiet blanket over the town; ideal for people like me in search of an early night. My sleep was uninterrupted by the noise of high jinks. I didn’t see a single naked Sloane with a traffic cone on his head. I did see surgically-enhanced pensioners enveloped in mink, the billionaire Yetis of the Alps.
Whereas the invasion of the hyper-rich has sprinkled hideous, glitzy tower blocks across London, they have had the opposite effect on Verbier. Neighbouring, cheaper towns in les quatre vallées are blighted with pile-’em-high, sell-’em-cheapish concrete blocks. But not Verbier, which sticks to the building code of handsome log cabins, instituted by the impoverished farmers who first settled in these high pastures. How appropriate that the descendants of those farmers still own large patches of this gilt-edged, south-facing, steeply-raked mountainside. That steep rake means most chalets have a view over the roof of the next chalet down the mountain. And what a view — across the valley to a jagged skyline of snow-capped ridges that intersect to form an uneven bowl around the town.
As you ski the four linked valleys, two peaks jump out at you from unexpected corners: white, high-shouldered Mont Blanc and the dark isosceles triangle of the Matterhorn, straight out of a child’s drawing of the perfect mountain. In the end, it is the skiing that justifies, or makes up for, the silly glamour and expense of Verbier’s shops and clubs. There is a sporting seriousness beneath it all. On Sunday, it’s true, the pistes were largely empty first thing as people slept off the morning après the après-ski. But, by 11 a.m., the queue for the James Blunt Chairlift was packed with the Jägerbomb crowd, with their snowboards and alarming, DayGlo trousers.
Verbier is part of the biggest skiing area in Switzerland. Along with the constantly shifting views of those peaks and mountain ranges, there are 250 miles of piste strung across the four valleys, along with the neighbouring slopes of Bruson and Savoleyres. You could work out your route for yourself, but I was accompanied by an easy-going guide-instructor from Performance Verbier, a private skiing school.
I am no expert skier, but I easily managed the 30-mile round trip across the four valleys and back in a day. You can spend all week on the slopes above Verbier without getting bored. But it’s worth heading further afield to see how the rocky heart of Europe clicks together. Look west and you see the French Alps stretching beyond Geneva. Look straight down the side of the mountain and you see the Rhone snaking along the valley floor, still just a thin ribbon of water here, less than a hundred miles from its source, the Rhone Glacier.
Ski all the way to Les Masses, at the far end of the four valleys, and the chalet and restaurant prices tumble. I had lunch at Le Bois Sauvage, a new English-run restaurant in Les Masses. The cheeses and beef come from the cattle that summer in the mountain pastures. I had a rich, thick Beef Charolais stew for £21 — cheap by Swiss standards.
The closer you get to Verbier, the higher the prices. Brasserie 1 in Le Châble, the town on the valley floor directly below Verbier, has a two-course lunch for £32. Mackerel followed by stonebass risotto were impressively fresh for a town perched 2,800 feet up in the Alps.
If you want a brush with the stars, James Blunt co-owns La Vache — a restaurant halfway up the mountain — with rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio and superbike champion Carl Fogarty. The pizzas and burgers are decent and surprisingly cheap — you can load up on Verbs carbs for around £20.
It’s funny how my chippy criticism of the super-rich evaporated the moment I stayed in one of their chalets. Chalet Chouqui is kitted out for the better class of Bond villain — Goldfinger after a lucrative spell of shorting the gold market. On the outside, it is trad Verbs — all logs and deep, snow-carpeted eaves. Inside, it is hi-tech comfort, with a private cinema, bar, steam room and 50-foot swimming pool.
What you’re really paying for, though, is the service. Nine staff, including two chefs, remove all the agony of skiing. Skis, boots and helmets are delivered to your door. A 24-hour car service delivers you from chalet to slope to nightspot. Breakfast, tea, pre-dinner, drinks, canapés and a four-course dinner are all thrown in.
Of course, none of this comes cheap. But if you fill the villa to capacity with 18 people it works out at £3,6 00 per person for a week in low season.
You can get the same level of service at one of Ski Verbier Exclusive’s smaller chalets from £1,000 per person per week, which gives you oligarch service at near package-tour prices. No one ever said Verbs was cheap. Lots of people thought it was much more expensive.
Chalet Chouqui from £3,600 per person per week. See www.skiverbierexclusive.com or call 01608 674011. Guiding and tuition with www.performanceverbier.com. See also MySwitzerland.com. SWISS flights from £39 one-way: www.swiss.com or 0345 990 9161.