Over the past 45 years, my relationship with Verbier has had its ups and downs. I love skiing and the 24-hour hustle and bustle of Switzerland’s trendiest destination, but today’s question is: how can you enjoy one of the Alps’ top resorts and its 410 kilometers of skiing without facing a financial crisis.
When I first visited this area, home to some of the most challenging and exciting off-piste runs in Europe, you got CHF 2,165 for your pound. Now you get a stingy 1.1.
To my surprise, it took me until this season to discover the simple answer to how a foreigner can explore Verbier on a budget. Don’t stay here: park your suitcase and your ski bag next door in the small connected village of La Tzoumaz.
Verbier is the hub of the gigantic 4 Vallées ski area, which includes a total of six resorts. Three of them – Thyon, Nendaz and Veysonnaz – are nice enough, but they’re in far-flung corners, a gazillion turns from Verbier itself. Bruson is closer, although it is on the other side of the Val de Bagnes and the railway town of Le Châble.
La Tzoumaz wins hands down on location, ease of skiing and honest, unsophisticated charm. This is a real Swiss chalet village situated at an altitude of 1,500 meters – almost the same as Verbier – at the foot of the north-facing slopes of Savoleyres, Verbier’s second ski resort. The number of chalets built here every summer has exploded in recent years. The reason is obvious: value for money.
However, let’s be clear: it is not a replacement for Verbier. When the lifts close during the day, there’s no access to the nightlife – there’s no dancing until 4am at the famous Farm Club – and your wallet will feel a lot happier for it. Along with equipment rental, basic food and drink costs may also be slightly lower in La Tzoumaz, but the real savings are in the cost of accommodation and nightlife.
Older skiers will remember this small resort as Mayen de Riddes. In 2005 it was renamed because, I guess, it wasn’t considered cool enough. Z-heavy Tzoumaz (27 Scrabble points) means the ‘place to take a break’ in the local dialect. The village is about a tenth the size of its glitzy big brother, surprisingly less chic and the après is largely what you make of it in your hotel bar or chalet. But it’s the price of staying here that puts a warm glow in your stomach – and the welcome is completely genuine.
I consider the five-star Hotel W Verbier to be on the podium for the best ski hotel in the world. It is perfectly positioned at the foot of the Médran slopes. On weekend afternoons, the après-ski bar W Off Piste tempts wealthy, designer-clad skiers at the bottom of the home run for champagne, exotic cocktails and live music. W Hotel prices in January start at £869 for a double room with limited view, while £10,950 will get you the best two-bedroom suite – and that’s the cost per night. The good news is that breakfast is included.
Meanwhile, in La Tzoumaz, I checked into Boutique Hotel Pap’llon, a beautiful new establishment run by a charming Portuguese couple. Like other long-term residents, Pico and Anna decided to migrate from hectic Verbier to the quieter – and much cheaper – La Tzoumaz. My immaculate en suite room on the second floor had stunning views over the valley.
Downstairs in the busy bar and adjoining restaurant there was not a Brit in sight. My fellow diners were all Swiss and mostly locals, tucking into an assortment of savory meat and cheese delicacies. My gastro highlight was a three-minute stroll down the main street of Les Trappeurs (+41 27 565 17 66) and was an introduction to power, a traditional meat dish from the Val de Bagnes – in French the title means gallows. This is a kind of pre-cooked meat fondue with pieces of beef, chicken or even bison, which hang from a wrought-iron table gallows and are then flambéed for a spectacular final effect. It’s surprisingly tasty.
But we came here to ski. Equipment rental is a fraught business, often conducted on a weekend evening in a crowded store with indifferent staff. Intersport Perraudin provided friendly and knowledgeable service on the short morning walk to the gondola and perfect all-mountain skis for the varying conditions.
From La Tzoumaz you can get – on skis – to the main access lifts of the 4 Valleys without having to descend into the tempting fleshpots of Verbier itself. No need to wait in rush hour traffic at Médran’s main gondola – the stuff of skiing nightmares. As we started the sunshine quickly gave way to flat light, but the snow was amazing and when you’re in the heart of one of the world’s largest ski areas you have to take the light you get.
We flew around the 4 Valleys without the busy ride up from the Médran lift. Kévin, our guide who runs the Tzoum’Evasion ski school, wanted to do Tortin – one of the more demanding slopes in Verbier. In a whiteout we decided differently.
Instead we enjoyed the freedom of the pistes and 10 centimeters of fresh powder next to them, before stopping for coffee at L’Inkontro (+41 27 775 26 73), a new piste-side pizza restaurant with plenty of contemporary atmosphere and surprisingly reasonable prices .
The temptation, of course, was to descend to Verbier itself after lunch with friends at old favorite Le Dahu (+41 27 778 20 00) in La Chaux. Maybe it was time to head to La Rouge, the Pub Montfort and the other watering holes for which the resort is rightly famous?
Doing this means watching the clock to catch the last lifts home and your wallet – it’s amazing how many francs you can spend when you’re having fun. But I was happy to ski back up the slopes to beautiful La Tzoumaz… to “take a break” before dinner.
Direct return flights from London Heathrow to Geneva Airport cost from £90 with Swiss (swiss.com). Complete the journey by train from the airport to Riddes – a return ticket costs from £59 (sbb.ch). Seven nights at Boutique-Hôtel Le Papill’on (papillon-latzoumaz.ch) costs from CHF 1,470 (£1,335) per room, B&B, on a double sharing basis. Six days of premium ski hire from Perraudin Sports (perraudinsports.ch) starts from £228. A week’s ski pass for the Verbier 4Vallées costs CHF446 (£405) (verbier4vallees.ch).
Peter was a guest at Verbier Tourism (verbier.ch).