‘Sloane Square on the Slopes’: The enduring British love affair with Verbier
It has just been voted the World's Best Ski Resort, and plays host to the likes of Richard Branson, Bear Grylls, James Blunt — and Prince Andrew, of course. But just what is it about Verbier that the Brits love so much?
On a perfect February morning in Verbier, with the sky a deep azure and bright sunlight dazzling off the pistes, George is waiting for a chairlift. Towards the end of last year, the 33-year old decided to flee London and set up camp for the season in the Swiss mountains. With London in the grip of omicron, it felt like a no-brainer. He had friends here. Geneva is within easy reach for meetings or international travel. The time difference means he can be up, out and get a morning of skiing under his belt before his US colleagues even have the coffee on. “I can ski until about midday and the guys in America have no idea,” he says, with a grin.
Then there is the lifestyle. For a certain kind of European, but particularly Brits, Verbier has long been a byword for Anglophile loucheness, with an understated luxury that doesn’t have the dazzle of oligarchical Gstaad or St Moritz, but still knows how to have a good time. Since Prince Andrew’s notorious exploits at The Farm Club — Verbier’s most famous nightclub — in the 1980s, it has been known as somewhere for piste-seeking elites to come for excellent sport and even better après-ski. It has always been a haven for tourists, retirees and people unencumbered by the need to work for money. But since the start of the pandemic, more and more professionals are realising that the mountain lifestyle needn’t only be for the holidays.
Slim Aarons captures Verbier in its 1960s pomp
If that wasn’t enough, last month Verbier was named the World’s Best Ski Resort at the World Ski Awards, voted for by the industry, dethroning Val Thorens. Judges praised its “world-class terrain, charming chalets and thriving apres scene,” adding that it had managed to retain the charm of an “alpine village” while adapting to 21st-century standards of luxury.
“It’s great to be out here,” George confirms. “Verbier has amazing skiing but it’s also a high end resort without being too chichi, with an amazing lunch and après-ski vibe. That combo is why people love it. Plus it’s south-facing, so it gets the sun, and it’s not just Brits. I’m friends with French people, Norwegians, even a Scottish guy. It’s a nice mix.” Officially, the British have traditionally made up around 20% of Verbier’s winter clientele, but culturally the resort has long had a British heart.
Whatever their origin, this year the visitors are so numerous that George turned up only to find he was already too late for accommodation. “There are so many people doing the work-from-home thing that it’s pushing out a lot of the saisonnaires,” he says. “Rent is going up and up and there’s a huge over-demand. I’m basically in an AirBNB the whole time, which is extortionate.” That aside, he says he has loved every minute. “There’s a real community, which you don’t have in other resorts. I saw Richard Branson the other day, or ‘RB’ as he’s known up here. Bear Grylls, James Blunt, they’re around all the time.”
Prince Andrew’s chalet in the town, a £17 million property which the royal is allegedly trying to shift
All three men have property in Verbier. Blunt has a lift named after him, following in musical tradition: one was previously named after Diana Ross, who was married to a local. Blunt also had a popular mountain-top restaurant, La Vache, which he owned with the motorbike racer Carl Foggarty and former England prop Lawrence Dallaglio, the latter a mountain of a man in the mountains. Blunt fell in love with the resort when he was doing army ski training, and has lived there on and off for more than a decade. He is no longer involved with the restaurant, but is still very much a Verbier man. “I only take the lift with my name on it,” he once joked, adding that he wanted to play his music from speakers there so other skiers avoided it.
Before Prince Andrew’s mother generously stepped in to help pay his settlement with Virginia Guiffre, the disgraced royal was reportedly trying to shift Chalet Helora, the £17m property he owns with his ex-wife Sarah Ferguson, to help cover his legal fees. Ferguson was spotted skiing there with her daughters at Christmas, escaping the scandal surrounding Andrew. The Beckhams, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Ed Sheeran, Barack Obama, Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Oliver, Jude Law, Hugh Grant: all are old “Verbs” hands.
While other ski resorts come and go, Verbier endures. While the town has traditionally been dominated by local owners, that make-up is slowly evolving. International companies you might not expect to find here are setting up shop. One of these is 67 Pall Mall, the central London wine-centric private members’ club, which has just opened its second branch in Verbier. The next is in Singapore, to give you a sense of where they see Verbier sitting in the international firmament.
James Blunt rides the chairlift that bares his name
“Why Verbier? Because it’s London in the Alps,” says founder and CEO Grant Ashton. Ashton has spent the past few months overseeing the launch, which was just in time for “the most anticipated ski season in recent memory”. The new building includes a private members club and a public bistro as well as the most comprehensive cellar in the Alps: a treasure trove with more than 3000 bottles and more than 500 available by the glass. It’s a long way from a dodgy gluhwein and a punnet of frites. It’s also a large bet that a certain kind of fun-loving, free-spending visitor with a sophisticated palate will continue to come to Verbier for the decades to come.
“Verbier is very compact, very exclusive, and when you walk down the street, you’ll see someone you know,” he adds. “And that’s been it’s history for a very long time. It’s not as raucous as St Anton, but people certainly know how to have a good time. I’ve been coming for 30 years, although I completely failed to buy a chalet. A bad miss, that. But I always thought if we were going to do [another outpost of 67 Pall Mall] anywhere, we would do it there. A lot of things have changed, but actually not a lot has changed. Fer a Cheval is still Fer a Cheval. If you want 900 pints of lager and an AC/DC tribute band, you can still go to Farinet, and when you’re in the mood for it, it’s spectacular. There are people coming out of there in ski boots at three in the morning. And of course, the Farm Club is still the Farm Club.”
The Farm Club — a Verbier nightlife staple for more than 50 years
British tourists have been coming to Verbier since the start of the 20th century, when the town comprised a few huts. Back then it was a cross-country and ski-touring destination, a reputation that endures to this day. Then the skiing boom of the 50s and 60s saw the installation of a lift system, and the town grew in popularity. But it only achieved notoriety during the 1980s, when a fast set of royalty, aristocracy, tycoons and celebrities started gathering for snow, sun and hedonistic benders. A key figure was Paddy McNally, an Irishman who made a fortune in motor-racing and to whose chalet the great and good and not-so-good of the British upper classes flocked. But the real imprimatur came from Prince Andrew. At the Farm, which was founded in 1971 and celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, Andrew and his coterie, including Ferguson, who had previously dated McNally, would dance the night away, downing £90 bottles of vodka – an unthinkable amount at the time.
Alcohol wasn’t the only mood-lifter. One of the chalets they hung out in was known as “Cocaine Castle.” Their colourful crew included Jamie Blandford, now the Duke of Marlborough, a reformed hell-raiser who in 1986 admitted to spending £20,000 on cocaine and heroin in four months, and who was once said to have been “born with a silver spoon up his nose.” A famous actress was reputedly asked to bring a turkey from London for Christmas, only to discover it was stuffed with something punchier than chestnuts. And so on and so on. Tales from that era are legion. They established Verbier’s reputation as Sloane Square-on-the-Slopes, where the inhabitants of the dancefloor at Tramp could up sticks and move en masse over to Switzerland.
In 2012 Rob Sawyer, who started the Farinet club, told the Sunday Times that Verbier “still has something of the wild west days 20 years ago, when Jamie Blandford would drive around town shooting out the light bulbs of the street lamps with a shotgun.” Blandford’s predilection for drink, drugs and fast cars saw his father try to disinherit him, before a rapprochement. He still spends time here, but the days of raising hell are behind him.
You might say his fortunes echo Verbier’s trajectory more generally. Speak to locals, and you get the impression the town’s days of ultra-wildness are behind it, replaced by a lower-key, more sophisticated kind of pleasure-seeking. For a while it looked as though it might go the other way, and become an oligarch haven like Courchevel, say, complete with couture shopping and table service. Just before the credit crunch hit, Verbier was somewhere you could spend £6,700 on a single cocktail, served in ice carved by artists flown over from the UK. In 2012 Guy Pelly, Prince Harry’s court jester, opened a branch of his club Public here, but it closed not long after.
“It’s not the fur-coat brigade,” says Kevin Krespi, who has lived in Verbier for several months of the year since the mid-90s. “There aren’t black chauffeur-driven Mercedes. There’s a lot of money here, but it’s understated. There aren’t boutiques — well, there’s Moncler, but there isn’t Chanel.” The average price of a chalet in Verbier is now around £8m. Branson’s house, The Lodge, can be yours for £100,000 a week. Hotels-wise, the top of the mountain is dominated by the W, which was recently ranked the world’s best ski hotel for the sixth year in a row.
“It would say 95 out of 100 people you see here are people who have been coming to Verbier for well over 10 years. You see Branson around, but he always has an entourage around him and these days keeps himself to himself. Paddy McNally’s still here, and apparently his fireworks cost £150,000, but there are only a few people like that. I would say Bear Grylls is more in keeping with the spirit of Verbier. He has put his kids in the international school here, and spends the season here.” Grylls, a superb skier, is more likely to be found attempting a daring bit of off-piste than falling over outside nightclubs.
“People come here because the skiing is very good,” Krespi adds. “Not to show off.”
The town is renowned for its off-piste skiing
Ah yes, skiing. Amid Verbier’s abundance of nocturnal pursuits, it’s easy to forget the reason most people go in the first place. Verbier is easy to get to from London, being only an hour or so from Geneva, and higher than most of the competition, making it a paradise for off-piste skiing. As Krespi says, “it’s not somewhere for beginners.” Skiiers in Verbier do not have “instructors”, they have “guides”. If you are looking for somewhere to practice your snowplough on forgiving motorway blues, Verbs is not for you.
“If you go to Val D’Isere or Meribel they have endless piste skiing, probably ten times the piste skiing Verbier has,” says George. “But Verbier is the off-piste, free-ride capital of the world. So it has this extreme-sports angle, too, as well as the amazing après.” Verbier is in the Four Valleys region, which also incorporates Thyon, Veysonnaz and Nendaz. He says Chez Dany is the place to go for lunch, and Carrefour. You go there for a late boozy lunch and then head straight out. Farinet is world class. Shed Burger for burgers, run by some young guys, is great, too.
In much of the Alps, the existential concern is climate change, which is reducing the number of skiing days per year, especially at lower altitudes. But Ashton is sanguine about the threats. Verbier has gone to trouble to improve its year-round offer, with a music festival in the summer and extensive mountain-biking provision. The presence of private members clubs, like his, is evidence of a core of people who want to be there all year round, and not only because Valais, the Swiss canton in which Verbier lies, has extremely favourable tax rates, including zero income tax. “Verbier’s pretty snow-sure,” he says. “The worry is that you start to see shorter seasons with worse conditions, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. As far as I’ve seen the snow has been as good as ever.
“Some would argue that the 80s era with all the Royals was Verbier’s heyday,” he adds. “I don’t think so. The patterns have shifted a bit, but there are still an awful lot of visitors left.”
Even during the worst moments of the pandemic, Verbier-lovers couldn’t be kept away. In December 2020, more than 200 Brits fled the resort under the cover of darkness, having been there right up to the moment the Swiss decided to impose a new lockdown in response to the new variant rising in Britain. Locals called it a “cloak and dagger” operation. Verbier hoteliers only discovered that their guests had absconded when they found room service trays left untouched in the corridors outside their rooms.
Although the circumstances were extreme, the sentiment will be familiar to many: once you’re in Verbier, it can be hard to leave. 67 Pall Mall and others might be betting the farm on the resort retaining its popularity long into the next century, but in Verbier’s enduring allure the real lesson is: don’t bet against The Farm.