Adventurer Bear Grylls has just bought a chalet there. James Blunt already owns one. Richard Branson’s is both a home and a swanky hotel. It is where royals and celebrities have swished down the slopes during the day and partied during the night. In other words, Verbier is a place for the rich – expensive and exclusive.
That may be the case in winter but once the snow has melted a very different Verbier emerges. The mountains are still as majestic, of course, the panoramas as breathtaking and the air as sweet.
But now the hotels can be half the price and you can ride lots of those cable cars and ski lifts for free. In fact, there are as many if not more, activities on offer, ranging from the adrenalin pumpers to the chilled out, from the outdoors and sporty to the creative and the cultural.
One of the big drivers of the resort’s summer success has been the Verbier Festival. When this celebration of music for two weeks in July was originally launched most hotels used to shut for what was their off-season. This year it marked its 30th anniversary with stars of international standing performing for audiences from across the world.
We caught Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the young virtuoso from Nottingham who played at Harry and Megan’s wedding, performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Sir Bryn Terfel in Verdi’s Requiem, backed by a 70-plus choir and a full orchestra of young musicians from 60 countries: one of the Festival’s aims is to nurture the talent of tomorrow.
Other famous names this year included Nicola Benedetti, Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo.
It is not just the concert hall spectacles which draw the crowds. There’s the fringe-style UNLTD which includes burlesque, jazz, talks, workshops (most in English), performances in unusual places – at dawn on a mountain, for instance – and street music: within a couple of hundred yards we listened to a teenage pipe and drum band and drummers from Sudan. There is also music-backed relaxation like sound therapy and yoga which we enjoyed.
There are sessions for children to teach them about opera, different instruments and how to listen to a concert. I looked in on one on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which combined education and fun. It was to end with the children writing a recitative or story and singing it.
Verbier Infinite Playground Pass.
Most UNLTD events are free or cost only a modest amount and although tickets for the big-name shows would be similar to London West End prices, there is a 30 per cent discount with the Verbier Infinite Playground pass.
Given to all guests who stay at least one night in the destination, the VIP pass gives free travel on all bus routes throughout the Val de Bagnes region, free travel for pedestrians on selected ski lifts (cyclists get half price) and reductions on all kinds of other activities and entertainments.
We used it on the gondola from La Chable rail station (a couple of hours by train from Geneva along the beautiful lakeside with a change at Martigny) to Verbier and then again up from the village to Les Ruinettes.
For the last leg, we chose the ski lifts, our legs dangling in the air and our hearts in our mouths as we swept out over a couple of drops so dramatic we whooped as if on a fairground ride.
Ruinettes is the start of the permanent 3D Sculpture Park which features over a dozen works by artists who spend six weeks in residence to produce site-sensitive pieces inspired by the surroundings. At 7500 ft with sensational views over to the Combins mountains, there can be no shortage of inspiration.
I particularly liked one by Kiki Thompson (who incidentally started the project back in 2011) called Samsara, Sanskrit for life force, which frames the view in a sculpture which could be a mother and child, a tree of life or a heart. This year’s artist is British-Pakistani Haroon Mirza whose contribution will be installed in August.
Ours was a gentle guided couple of miles but the area also offers over 300 miles of hiking trails of differing degrees of difficulty, 21 running routes and 500 miles of bike trails including 12 miles of downhill mountain biking. Bikes, including e-bikes, and all-terrain scooters are available for hire.
You don’t need though to actually climb to the summit of Mont Fort, at 10,800ft Verbier’s highest point. A ski lift will take you to the new 360 degree viewing platform opened last December from which you can see Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn as well as eat the highest fondu in Europe.
Other outdoor excitements come in the shape of a zip wire where speeds can reach 80mph, horse-riding, lake fishing, paragliding, sky diving, helicopter rides, tennis, trampolining, two golf courses, and free entry to both the indoor and outdoor pools.
We stuck to a leisurely art lesson following one of the bisses, ancient but now restored irrigation systems which used to carry water from glaciers and alpine springs to the farms below, pausing a couple of times to attempt to draw close-ups of alpine flowers and the stunning scenery beyond.
We also stopped to stare at the local Herens cows, small black beasts whose feisty nature makes them fight to establish dominance.
Leading them out in summer to the high pastures is called Inalpe, their autumn descent Desalpe, both marked with parades and the award of two floral garland ‘crowns’, one for the best fighter and the other for the best milk producer.
We join a cheesemaking class at Laiterie de Verbier run by Marc Dubosson who teaches us to warm the luscious milk in our individual copper casseroles before adding first a special bacteria and then rennet.
While it sets we explore the cellars which house 6,000 wheels of cheese in different stages of ageing before returning to cut up, separate and sieve the curds and whey.
These will be pressed into rounds, soaked in a salt bath for 24 hours and then brushed daily to create a rind. We finish by sampling ones made earlier including a delicious soft one with local wild garlic as well as the regular ones for the classic Swiss dish raclette.
We ate well in Verbier. Highlights for me included homemade foie gras and a hearty potato rosti topped with bacon, an egg and, yes, cheese, of course, on the terrace of La Marlenaz and a vegetarian meal at La Cordee with wonderful surprises like marinated tomatoes with smoked burrata ice cream and cold pea soup with verbena and goat’s cheese foam.
A la carte menus tend to be pricey but there are good set ones for around 30 Swiss Francs (about £27) plus more affordable pizza and pasta places. It is also an opportunity to try the excellent local wine none of which is ever exported.
Although the Verbier Festival in July is the big hitter there are plenty of other festivals and events throughout the summer, some on music, some on food, some combining the two like the ‘Rocklette’ and the ‘Electroclette.
There are also screenings, craft demonstrations, a masked ball in a castle, exhibitions and quirky events like the PALP festival in the traditional alpine village of Bruson on the mountainside opposite Verbier. This year’s theme is Death with opportunities to learn about poisonous plants, write your own death notice or funeral playlist or lie in a coffin – I superstitiously declined the latter.
FLY: Return direct flights from London Heathrow to Geneva cost from £102 with Swiss
STAY: A three-night stay with breakfast at 4* Experimental Chaley is priced from £240 pp, based on two people sharing a room.
More Info www.verbier.ch
Swiss Travel Pass
The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel for visitors on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat network. It includes the Swiss Museum Pass, which allows free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices start from £186 for a three-day second-class ticket. A first-class, return train ticket from Geneva Airport to Verbier costs from £69.