Last month, Jeremy Dies went skiing in Verbier, Switzerland, with a group of friends.Here, Dies explains what it's really like to stay in a chalet and shares his advice so you can plan a fantastic Swiss ski vacation too.
Skiing in Europe vs. U.S.: Having spent part of my childhood living in Paris, I've been fortunate enough to have spent some time skiing in the Alps. People always ask me how it compares to skiing the American West. While the terrain can be just as challenging and snow just as light, the question, in my opinion, misses the point. Yes, the skiing is great. But what makes skiing in Europe so spectacular is that it's… well, in Europe. People ski hard, but it's more than OK to take a 90-minute lunch break to sit in the sun and drink delicious vin chaud (literally "hot wine", with nutmeg and other spices). Fantastic food and culture on the mountain is a departure from the pizza and hot dogs found at American ski resorts, and it's a lot of fun to take full advantage.
The Lowdown on Verbier: Verbier is a fairly small town, packed with chalets. There is a defined downtown area near the Medran lifts that is packed with shops, bars, and restaurants. There is an enormous infusion of Brits and Swedes in Verbier, to the point where one section of chalets is called "Little Sweden" by the locals. There are many upsides to this, including a heroic party scene and pervasive English.
Staying Chalet-Style: Chalet rentals are common in Verbier, and rentals often come with catering. I was initially skeptical of this, as I've never had a vacation experience that would compare. After all, I am in my early 30s and was renting a chalet with 10 high school friends and at first felt extremely uncomfortable at having a staff around. Fortunately, those that work at these chalets tend to be consummate ski bums, taking time off from the "real world" to work hard and ski harder. Not only was our staff fun and friendly, they gave us great tips about where to go and what to do. Our rental included breakfast and a gourmet dinner, which were both delicious and saved money as compared to the expensive restaurants in town.
Ski Report: We got incredibly lucky with the March conditions, with Verbier boasting the best conditions in 17 years. There is plenty of terrain to explore, and Verbier is most famous for what it offers off-piste. On sunny days, it's a safe bet to stay near Medran (located in the village) and Mont Fort, which offer both challenging and beginner terrain as well as fantastic views of the Alps.
On foggy, cloudy, or snow days, make the trek to Bruson. Bruson can be reached by taking the Medran lift down the mountain to Le Chable, then taking a bus to Bruson. Because it's situated lower in the valley, it's less likely to be fogged in. Yes, a bus is a pain, but it's totally worth it, and the separation from the "main" mountain means more fresh tracks for you. It's like having your own ski resort all to yourself, with tremendous off-piste and tree skiing. There's even a restaurant a the top that could seat 10 people, perhaps 15. Just be sure to check the bus schedule so you're not stranded.
Recommended Restaurants: Le Fer a Cheval by the Medran lifts has a nice patio and gets good sun. Au Vieux Verbier is more formal but has delicious food. Their specialty is a beef "gallows," which is a cast iron contraption covered in steak that comes with different sauces for dipping. It tastes better than it sounds. On the mountain there is a very nice (and expensive) restaurant at Les Ruinettes, if you can tear yourself off of the slopes. For a more conventional yet no less fantastic, European ski experience just find any slopeside restaurant, get a table outside, and sip a vin chaud over charcuterie or raclette (melted cheese). There is a great place with lots of sun at La Savolyeres that fits this bill.
Best Bar: Maybe it was the Swedes, but Verbier has a rockin' nightlife scene. We figured this out quickly, when we saw people stumbling home in ski boots late on our first night. Apres-ski is almost a religion there. People often ski hard until 4 PM (though mornings on the mountain aren't as crowded — see the previous sentence for my guess as to why) and hit the bars directly after skiing. On Wednesdays, most chalet staff have the day off and cram Le Pub Mont Fort (located near the lifts in Medran) at 4 for happy hour, with cheap pitchers abound. It gets wild, with cover bands rocking and the customers dancing on the tables.
Getting There: Take a plane or train to Geneva, and then take a local train for about 90 minutes to Martigny (it's a beautiful ride, much of it along Lake Geneva). From there, you can tram it up to Le Chable or take a taxi or van.