For LUSSO 28, regular contributor Chris West stopped for 36 hours in Verbier to separate truth and rumour about the coming 2012-13 ski season.
Verbier continues to amaze. That’s partly the stunning scenery but it’s also due to the stunning shortage of high-end luxury for the young and active European super-wealthy. The hedgie who’s happy to spend £30,000 on membership of Loulou’s just so he can sit amongst the same people he sits amongst at Queen’s Club, probably doesn’t want to hook up and slurp down a 26CHF pizza. If he’d wanted to slum it, he’d have gone to Val d’Isere.
Luckily, Verbier is catching up with the European concept of luxury and 2012-13 will see some new arrivals and some promising developments.
The stand out place in Verbier isn’t in Verbier at all. Away from the lights, away from the partying Brits and after a 20 minute drive, you arrive in a place of perfect calm. Montagne-Alternative is an innovative, village-hotel concept in the hillside hamlet of Commiere.
Five different houses, cow barns and raccards (family granaries) have been renovated with zen-like restraint into ultra-simplified modern accommodation for 32 people, spread across 16 bedrooms. From the outside, the wood and stone buildings remain in keeping with the locals’ 30 or so houses. The only hints of recent attention are a subtly hidden window or the fresh wood shingle roofing tiles. Elements such as the higgledy-piggledy wooden cladding or a set of 1960s lime green shutters have been retained, reflecting real life’s lack of uniformity. The visual harmony has come with a social harmony, and relations with the local families are great.
During renovation, each house’s internal spaces were opened out, and furniture kept to the just-necessary. As you step down into a central space, your gaze is pulled gently from room to room, across the open spaces until it comes to rest on the mountain view framed in the giant window at the end. Nothing has been allowed across the threshold of the houses that would confuse your eye or cause distraction. Surfaces remain harmonious with the outside world, reusing the original wood or locally sourced stone.
The hamlet faces south. In front of every great view is a welcoming, well-worn leather sofa or chair that exerts a magnetic effect on your soul. It’s like sitting inside a beautiful camera obscura.
The bedrooms are large, rather than ‘grand’, and each has a double bed placed in the centre, aligned so that the first thing you see when you wake up is the view down the valley. In one room, the simple single-piece wooden bedhead has been joined to another horizontal piece to form a desk; two lamps are fixed in, swivelling to be either bed lamps or desk lamps. An old school chair provides the simple seating: you won’t be writing for long (no stationery is provided), instead there will be maximum time available for contemplation.
Currently, there is no central restaurant or dining space. Food is brought to your room. There are simple local fresh produce or a local chef (including Marco Bassi, ex Chalet Adrien) can be whistled up from the valley below.
You can be left alone for a night or a week, catering for yourself, or you can have a chef prepare your every meal. The WSJ delivered with fresh croissants from the valley, or total seclusion? It’s up to you. The mission statement of the collection is to inspire positive emotions. Montagne-Alternative does exactly that.
Back in Verbier, Chalet Raphael is a reminder that more money always buys more taste; it just might not be your taste. From the outside Ch. Raphael is unassuming and appears to be formed from the joining of a pair of traditional, mid-sized chalets. The neighbours are within a popped Champagne cork’s flight. Once you’re inside, however, the scale and decadence of the place makes you gasp, snigger or act like you’re used to it. The whole place is c.3000 sq. metres, about ten times the size of an ordinary 5-bed chalet, and no corner or niche has been left ungilded, unfluffed or unloved.
Come into the lobby and your eyes rush to the bar (it’s one of two). With its walnut wood panelling, art deco lamps and zebra skin rug, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Mayfair hotel. Across the other side of the lobby is a lounge that could seat a dozen. Leading off of that is a wood-panelled, library-chaired cigar room. (If your preference is to sit in this rather masculine space and enjoy having something else smoked, there is a fur rug and cushion arrangement in front of the log fire.)
Back across on the other side of the bar is a dining room ready to seat a dozen or twenty, and off of that is a media room big enough to host a mini-screening of whatever kind of performance you’re into.
The walls are covered in green veloured wallpaper (with piping) and oil paintings, mirror-sided tables struggle under the weight of marble and onyx pyramids. And what doesn’t glisten can be stroked: one of the lounge seats is a 7-foot long plush chair in the shape of a jaguar (you recline on its back and rest your feet on its head). As one colleague commented, you just know that the interior designer responsible for sourcing all this was able to retire afterwards.
Chalet Raphael has two, or was it three, elevators. Despite the maps on the walls, disorientation soon takes over. Pick one lift, go down a couple of levels into the mountain and you arrive in the Fitness Room, home to about twenty different full-sized weights machines and running machines.
Go down another level and you find yourself at the swimming pool. Or “pool complex” may be the more appropriate expression: there is a huge terraced area and half a dozen treatment rooms surrounding a pool that is 15m long and clad entirely in onyx.
Visitors one level further down will enjoy your stroke: they can watch you through the port holes of the wine tasting room.
Come up for air at ground level, just for a moment, before you take the stairs up to the bedrooms (beneath the gaze of a full-sized painting of a Pope, or some other incorruptible holy man). There are 8 bedrooms, and a master suite. Their design aesthetic by now is no surprise, but the occasional entirely marble-clad 4m square shower room can still make you gasp. The taste is unrelenting, unforgettable. But the size of the place is also remarkable. The suites are 30-40 sq. metres; the Royal Suite is around a 100 sq. metres.
In all, the interiors of Ch Raphael are about the only thing in town that can compete with the views of Verbier’s surroundings.
In between the two extremes of Montagne-Alternative and Ch. Raphael remains Sir Richard Branson’s Lodge. Big, but retaining good taste, it’s now in its sixth year and is one of the most deeply luxurious chalets in the resort. It’s five minutes’ walk from the centre of town and lies in a relatively quiet, wooded spot. The interior styling is a modern version of Alpine, so there’s still enough wood to build an ark, but much of it is lighter or greyer than the traditional sauna-effect and many of the walls offer contrast in white plaster. There’s an indoor pool, steam room, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, gym and –new this year – a mini skating rink. All the rooms have recently been refurbished.
During the 2012-13 season, The Lodge is available for exclusive weekly hire but it’s also worth enquiring about individual, hotel-style room bookings: it’s not well-known, but if the whole chalet has not been block-booked, then individual rooms are released 6 weeks in advance.
The Lodge sleeps 18 and the price includes all meals, the services of more than a dozen staff and a 24-hour car service.
The other firmly established luxury chalet option in Verbier is of course CK Verbier. Each property is its own house, decorated with a chic mix of art and antiques. There is also access to the CK cave, with the finest private collections of wine in the Alps, apparently.
The W-Hotel Verbier, the chain’s first Alpine presence, is tantalisingly close to being ready but won’t open for this season. The W apartments, however, are fully open so perhaps that’s nature’s way of telling you it’s time you committed to Verbier.
The W is one piece of Les Trois Rocs development, and forms part of Verbier’s biggest ever development. The new centre at the base of the Medran (“Place Blanche”) will include a commercial centre of après-ski bars, shops and perhaps spa and massage options. Currently, the amount of time anyone spends at the Medran base is exactly equal to how long they have to spend in the cable car queue, waiting to get out of it. A little charm will be welcome at the base of this lift.
The other large development in the centre of town is La Cordée des Alpes.
When LUSSO visited in mid-October, we’re pretty sure we could still see the timber frames forming the carcass of the building. Despite this, we’ve been assured that it will open on 12.12.2012, or perhaps 22nd December. And of course, all builders will tell you it’ll be ready for Christmas (they’ll just never tell you which one). When it is ready, this will add 14 apartments and more than 30 rooms and suites to central Verbier. The arrival of more hotel rooms is important. There is good chalet accommodation in Verbier but few night-by-night beds. Of course LUSSO has no objection to the block-booking banker, but hotels will allow a little more spontaneity and a little more variety in the clientele.
The famous luxury establishments remain: Le Nevai continues to shine. And the 4 stars of Le Chalet Adrien continue to shine, despite a rumoured change of ownership.
The other significant development in Verbier and its surroundings are the emergence of privately renovated and family-let chalets. Instead of modern apartments with wipe-clean Formica surfaces, smack in the middle of town, the best of these new-old places have a very high design aesthetic, they’re often converted raccards, and are usually situated on a quiet hill a few minutes’ drive from town. They are perfect for the young family who want to be able to have luxurious surroundings, a place that feels like their own – and get to sleep at night. One such is the newly converted Chalet Le Taureau, at 1000m in Montagnier (just 4 mins from Le Châble cable car base, or about 8 from the centre of Verbier). It is still very clearly a family’s own home and staying there feels like staying at the house of best friends who’ve just given you the key. It has a neat kitchen-diner, with a fully modern kitchen and five ring induction hob. There’s a wood burning stove which quickly heats the room (as well as a radiator) and a corner bench around the family dining table. Upstairs is the master bedroom, with shower room en suite, with its own terrace and views from the bed of the mountains opposite. In the lower ground floor, is the children’s room. Here, light has been brought into the space ingeniously. When the building was turned from a raccard into a chalet, the local planning permission wouldn’t allow extensive foundations to be dug into the mountain. When you can’t go down, you go up: the main section of the building was jacked up to allow the steel supports to be driven in. When the top was replaced, a ring of glass windows was inserted between the bottom and the top halves, bringing light and 360° views into the space. The ‘mushroom stones’ (which in the old days stopped vermin from scampering up the wooden pillars and raiding the granary) have been retained, and cut back into place around the glass.
What separates a place like this from the purpose-built 70s apartments in town is the wealth of care and attention. The handle on the sliding front door is built from the huge hinges taken off the old cow barn door. The sink surround of the master bathroom has been cleverly dovetailed together. A grandfather clock hangs on the wall, and it actually used to belong to the current owner’s grandfather; the coffee grinders were really used by his grandmother; the portrait is also of a distant member of the family. 2012-13 will be Chalet Le Taureau’s first season, after 120 years as a granary and cow barn, followed by 2 years of renovation works.
Ice karting is exactly at much fun as you would expect when you take high-end karts and remove almost all lateral grip. At Karting Extreme Verbier, the karts have a top speed of 50km/h (if you can hold a straight line) and are electric-engined, which means that power comes on quickly and they can go as fast in reverse as they can forwards (you’ve got to hope there’s time left at the end of your races for some 360’s and J-turns). They come with lightly studded wheels and are great fun in GP races, knockout races or slalom events, with a maximum of ten drivers at any time. During summer and early winter, they race inside on the ice rink. When the heavy snow comes, they move outside and race on a course of packed snow and ice, with high banked corners.
If paying your bar bill at the Farm Club is the most exciting thing you do at Verbier, it’s perhaps time to look up. The Verbier-Summits paragliding school offers 25-minute tandem flights during the ski season, usually piloted by one of the English twins, Stu and Mike, who own the school and have been flying for over 20 years. If you catch the bug, come back in summer and you can take the pilot’s course.
Despite head chef Marco Bassi’s departure, La Table d’Adrien remains one of the best places to eat. The lead in the kitchen has been taken by his assistant, Mirto Marchesi, who has managed to retain the restaurant’s 16 point rating in the Guide Gualt and Millau. The best of the other traditional restaurants are still Le Caveau and La Grange. However, Le Rouge offers salads, terrines and sushi for the carb-dodgers.
For something simpler, perhaps a healthier start to the day, pop down to Le Châble and visit the café at La Ruinette. This place is owned by the twins who own the paragliding school. It offers fresh juices, yoghurt and homemade granola. Once breakfast is over, you can then catch the lift up from Le Châble and sail over the queues and building works going on at Medran.