The Oxford English Dictionary defines an oxymoron as “a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction". Few statements qualify more than “Affordable Verbier". At least, this is if reputation is to be believed.
It regularly hosts royalty, including both Princes Williams and Harry, while the pair’s uncle, Prince Andrew, owns a chalet in the resort that is reported to cost anywhere up to £13 million, depending on which red-top you chose to read.
Verbier is also a home-from-home for some of the world’s more prosperous celebrities. Richard Branson owns a 24-bed chalet in the area, and Victoria Beckham has often been spotted in a pair of incredibly small salopettes on the slopes. Verbier even has a chair lift that the locals casually call the James Blunt, as the goose-voiced pop warbler helped fund its construction.
"Is it really possible to have an affordable ski trip to Verbier?"
In fact, I lost count of the amount of times I heard the name James Blunt casually dropped during my brief stay in resort. To this day, I am still yet to decipher whether this is pride or knowing irony on the part of the people who live and work in Verbier.
Away from the headline names, the town is reportedly chock full of luxury chalets - expensive even by ski town terms. The kind of holiday homes only within financial reach of the kind of people who get a little twitchy when the Panama Papers get mentioned.
In many European ski towns, the streets are lined with hire shops, bars, small supermarkets, and tourist shops selling postcards, snow-globes and other assorted tat. While these are all present in Verbier as well, they’re interspersed with the kind of high-end, designer stores that wouldn’t look out of place on London’s Bond Street.
Wealth and opulence are obvious throughout the area, and combined with its upper-A list clientele, Verbier’s reputation for being one of the world’s most luxurious resorts is a pretty apt one.
But can that reputation be challenged? Is it really possible to have an affordable ski trip to Verbier? I went with a slim wallet, and a dream of brushing shoulders with at least a Middleton, if not a Windsor (nee: Saxe-Coburg), to see for myself.
I arrived in Verbier late at night, and quickly made my way to my hotel. It’s situated in a small village called Le Châble, further down the valley than Verbier itself. It may be a little out of town, but Le Châble is just a couple of minutes away from the resort via cable car, and it offers cheaper accommodation that the more famous Verbier.
The next day I awoke to a dream scenario: After somewhat of a barren start to the season across Europe, Verbier was blessed with twelve constant days of snow ahead of my arrival in Switzerland. However, the thick cloud and heavy snowfall had been replaced with deep blue skies and glorious sunshine.
Combined with the 12-day dump that had gone before these were text-book bluebird conditions – something not even the broadest of wallets can buy. Having the freedom of the pistes - it transpires mid January is an excellent time to come to Verbier - along with excellent conditions soon translates to fun.
Of course, along with its opulence, Verbier is also well known as having some of the best freeriding terrain in the world. Renowned big mountain legend Xavier de le Rue has called the town home for the past few years, and holds the mountains there as among his favourites, and if they’re good enough for the Frenchman, they’re good enough for anybody. The price of a trip to Verbier may well go in many people's ‘cons’ column, but the terrain is writ large in the ‘pros’.
"It’s no coincidence that the Freeride World Tour calls into town every year for the Verbier Extreme"
There are enough easy blue runs for beginners, but the area is rich with trickier red and black runs to test the most experienced skiers and snowboarders.
There are also Itinerary runs - ungroomed but patrolled areas of the mountain, ideal for people who want a taste of riding off piste, but with the knowledge that there will be somebody to lend a hand if trouble occurs.
Furthermore, what the Four Valleys lack in high quality freestyle parks, they more than make up for in super steep, freeride terrain. It’s no coincidence that the Freeride World Tour calls into town every year for the Verbier Extreme, pitting the best Big Mountain riders on Earth against the steeps of the Swiss resort.
The gondola down the the valley from Verbier also serves the opposite resort of Bruson. Bruson is the lesser known brother of Verbier, but lacks none of the picture-book conditions of its better known neighbour.
After a few runs down the slopes, I make my way to to a restaurant at the top of the La Cot chairlift where I’m greeted by one of the top brass from Verbier. He tells me that there is a lot of investment going into the resort and the whole Four Valleys area, in a bid to attract a new level of clientele.
"It’s a real indication that there is a cheaper side to Verbier"
There is talk of the upcoming inaugural Impulse festival in the area (90’s radio friendly rockers Texas were set to headline, though Jessie J - whose biggest hit is titled Money, ironically - was deemed to attract “the wrong kind of audience") and the construction of new four and three star accommodation down in Le Châble and the surrounding valley. It’s a real indication that there is a cheaper side to Verbier.
So could this valley, so loved by royalty - both regal and celebrity - really be the destination for a ski holiday on a budget? Le Châble appears to hold the key. The town offers accommodation that not only competes with most other ski resorts in Europe I’ve stayed in, but also provides the kind of high standards that the Four Valleys are synonymous with.
I stayed in A Larze hotel – a newly built place that offered excellent quality for around 120 Swiss Francs a night (about £85). It’s located down in the Le Châble valley, which is an excellent location for accessing both Verbier and Bruson by gondola. In fact, for people wanting to visit Verbier for the mountains and not solely to drink expensive vodka with their chums from finishing school, Le Châble makes for an excellent location.
By contrast to A Larze, Verbier famously offers the W Hotel, where a night in what they call a ‘cosy room’ starting at just over 600 Swiss (£430), and some options will set you back 10,000 Swiss (£7000) for a roof over your head for a night.
Also in the resort is The Farinet, arguably Verbier’s most famous après spot and hotel, and it acts as a perfect metaphor for the resort. The bar is split into two. The smaller side has a bar with live music every night, where locals, seasonaires, and holiday makers alike dance on tables, sink a few (a lot) of lagers and rave the night away.
Through the double-glazed glass divide, however, the more exclusive – and when I visited much quieter –area. Tables are available for people willing to pay upfront for a bottle of booze – not 330ml of Carlsberg, but a pricey bottle of vodka. Pixie Lott has hung out there. James Blunt - that name again - has hung out there. Rooms are cheaper than at the W just down the road, but still start at 1260 Swiss in high season.
So, if you feel the call of Verbier’s incredible terrain but, like myself, were on a budget, Le Châble not only suffices, but exceeds expectation. There are enough options for the average person to enjoy all that Verbier has to offer them, without having to cram eight people into a hotel room designed for two.
However, we can’t promise that you will be able to escape the name James Blunt while you’re there.