W Verbier’s Urban Beat in the Alpine Peaks and Beyond
Following a few days satisfying my city-girl fix in cosmopolitan Geneva, Switzerland’s second-most populous city at 1,353 feet above sea level, I was eager to bring down the pace a few notches but on higher ground in the southwestern mountain resort of Verbier just two hours away by train in the neighboring canton of Valais. The ascent was the perfect wind-down as tracks weaved through the breathless beauty of the Swiss Alps until finally reaching the ski village famous for sun-kissed slopes in one of Europe’s largest ski areas. With more than 400 skiable acres, it is considered one of the best off-piste resorts in the world.
The village, perched at an elevation of 5,000 feet, has a mere population of 3,500 residents, including some of the world’s top skiers. Come winter, that number increases to 35,000.
The intrigue of Switzerland, a small compact country about the size of the state of New Jersey, is that most of it is covered by the majestic alpine range making my trek from the fashionable cantonal capital in the flatlands up to the steep tranquil mountains as easy-breezy as a day trip from Los Angeles to San Diego. Thanks also to the Swiss Travel Pass—a visitor’s key to the country—I was free as a bird getting around with unlimited passage on trains, trams, buses, and boats anywhere within Switzerland (the pass must be purchased before arriving in the country).
I didn’t completely leave the urban scene behind anticipating my arrival at the W Verbier, the swanky hotel brand’s first European address—and its first alpine and ski retreat—that opened in December 2013. I expected to expect the unexpected.
Unlike higher profile W properties in major cities around the globe, the low-rise chalet-style exterior built from local timber looked right at home in the unpretentious village, a favorite getaway for die-hard skiers, snowboarders, and après-ski fans. Prince Harry and Sir Richard Branson are regular faces here; so is James Blunt, who is also a local.
Even the understated “W” logo on the bottom edge of the second-floor balcony almost went unnoticed. And across the street, the main ski run was cleverly redirected to Place Blanche (a former parking lot) next to the Medran gondola that whisks guests, non-skiers included, above 10,000 feet to the summit of Mont Fort in minutes. Here, spectacular views await and an exhilarating day on the trail begins.
French for “White Square,” Place Blanche is the new gathering spot of Verbier and part of the W’s four-chalet complex with 130 guest rooms, residential apartments, units for rent, and conference space. On the edge of the square a giant W glistens like a beacon bringing together the community of locals, visitors, and W guests to partake in the hip town square, which features lively après-ski at Off Piste Bar in winter and a cool pop-up beach in summer as well as shopping, dining, and mingling (or dancing) to music, compliments of the W’s resident DJ.
At check-in, down-to-earth staff smartly attired in red welcomed me inside the minimalist foyer. But a few steps beyond, the airy and warmly furnished Living Room—the W’s reinterpretation of the traditional lobby—lured me through.
“Each W has its own narrative with ties to local traditions,” explained Martine Nerheim Ahlsen, marketing manager at W Verbier. Comfy seating upholstered in natural and contemporary textures arranged for conversation and relaxation, a 20-foot-wide fireplace, a full bar, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking over sloping chalet rooftops, dense forests, and the distant Grand Combin massif and Mont Blanc (the highest peak in the Alps at 15,771 feet elevation) practically screamed out, “Stay a while!”
The narrative here is also mountain chic, that is, informal yet sophisticated with impeccable W standards and its trademark Whatever/Whenever service.
On the wall across the room a modern mountain-scape in red, white, and black stretching the length of the bar looked three-dimensional. A closer inspection showed internationally renowned street artist Buff Diss’ masterful use of masking tape to create dramatic peaks and the ebbs and flows of gentle valleys. More of the Australian-born and Berlin-based artist’s provocative works with lines are integrated throughout the property.
Another feast for the eyes and the imagination are photographs by acclaimed Dutch fashion photographer Marcel van der Vlugt, whose interpretations of seven Swiss legends (think Heidi and the Snow Queen) on the walls at Eat-Hola Tapas Bar and on the outside windows facing Rue de Medran are the makings for stimulating conversation.
Vibrant and contemporary art and interiors are a nod to New York City—home of the first W hotel that opened in 1998—and juxtapose in exhilarating ways with the tranquil mountain setting of Verbier, a goal Dutch design firm Concrete Architectural Associates set out to achieve.
Inspired by dramatic and unexpected lines carved by skis in the snow, Concrete’s design elements infuse a sense of energy and surprise (the color red is everywhere). And the “grand staircase” in the light-filled atrium joining the chalet that contains the reception area and the Living Room to the chalet next door that houses guest rooms was no exception.
As I crossed the story-high catwalk the sight of plushy bleacher-like seating below completely wowed. A two-story wall of windows framed in red practically brought the outdoors in, and dozens of red cylindrical lamps suspended from the ceiling created an irresistible atmosphere to enjoy a cappuccino, relax après-ski, sip a cocktail, and schmooze.
Descending the great steps leads to food and entertainment.
At the culinary helm is two-Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola as culinary director. Teaming with executive head chef Torsten Sallstrom, who hails from Arola’s Gastro restaurant in Madrid and W Paris Opera, the pair create tantalizing flavors that please the palate with local Swiss produce and artisanal products. This forms the heart of their creations at W’s dining choices: signature Restaurant Arola (classic Swiss dishes with a bit of a twist and from Arola’s native Spain pica pica, the spirit of sharing small plates); Eat-Hola Tapas Bar (the bar is 82 feet long); the Living Room (light fare); W Café (for on-the-go or on-the-spot light meals); and Off-Piste Bar across the street at Place Blanche.
A bright red tunnel dug into the bottom of the stairs—a design tribute to the fantastic Swiss tunnel system throughout the Alps—leads guests into Carve, the exclusive underground nightclub and Verbier hot spot where (to the tunes of the resident DJ) the beat goes on until the wee hours.
Soothing, dimly lit hallways softened the mood as I headed to my room. Called the Spectacular Room, it had all the coziness I look forward to in a mountain chalet, starting with the spacious balcony where I watched the climbing gondola, looked out to the village, and inhaled healthy alpine air.
And contrasting design elements inside the room seamlessly came together creating a homey oasis: walls of warm wood in the first half of the room with the subtle carving of Switzerland’s cross, a stone floor leading to plushy shag carpeting, red-tinted glass panels partitioning off the bathroom, a cowhide chair, Bocci glass globes hanging like a chandelier over the nightstand, shelves decorated with curios, state of the art electronics, and a Nespresso coffee machine (my favorite).
Winter guests at this ski-in ski-out property (I visited during summer) will be spoiled by the W Mountain Concierge, where you can get fitted for equipment, purchase lift passes, and be on your way to the gondola three minutes away. Guests may also book ski and snowboard lessons, off-piste coaching, and other winter activities including snowshoeing, ice karting (imagine a racecar on ice), helicopter rides, and paragliding. And if that’s not enough of an adrenaline rush, how about parachute jumping from a helicopter?
On the last run of the day schuss to Place Blanche, park your boots, boards, and skis overnight at the Mountain Concierge (they’ll be ready for you in the morning), then partake in open-air après-ski fun and relaxation back at the square or indulge in a muscle-soothing massage at W’s Away Spa.
While I had missed the W’s inaugural ski season, my off-peak sojourn took me beyond the slopes and introduced me to a warmer side of the Alps surrounding Verbier. Lush high-mountain foliage can’t be a better backdrop for outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, and golf.
But what really got me excited was venturing onto a dirt road with Irene Maldonado, manager of environmental programs at Tourism Verbier. At the wheel, she led the way to Maison de la Foret (“House of the Forest” in French). In the middle of the woods near the village of La Tzoumaz, this unexpected mini-museum that seemed to pop out of nowhere is also a lovely café, an outstanding learning center (interactive children’s activities and guided hikes), a store (fresh honey and more for purchase), and a play area for kids. The welcome mat is out for all guests to embrace nature’s beauty, wildlife, and flora.
If you are a cheese lover like me, a summer trek here is a must. Raclette, one of Switzerland’s prized alpine cheeses, is made only in the Valais Alps and only during the summer months from the raw milk of black cows that graze from May to September in high-altitude pastures abundant with nutritious herbs, grasses, and flowers.
Like a pilgrimage, Maldonado and I paid a visit to the award-winning raclette cheese cellar, Centrale Laitiere in the village of Champsec, a half-hour drive from Verbier. We watched master cheese-maker Eddy Baillifard turn precious raw milk into glorious wheels of raclette.
This divine cheese, discovered during the 12th century, is also a meal. A half-wheel of raclette is heated over an open fire, then the luscious “meltiness” is scraped onto a plate and served with air-dried meats (another Valaisan specialty), finger potatoes, pearl onions, cornichons, and fresh-baked rye bread. This simple yet exquisite communal meal, which can last for hours, has been a Swiss tradition for centuries (it is said one must never eat raclette alone).
Alas, on my last day a taxi was to pick me up to catch the early morning train. I had no choice but to place a take-away breakfast order of toast and coffee the night before. Speeding down the mountain, I peeked into the brown bag given to me at check out. As the W kitchen would only have it, there was a picnic of a meal: fresh-baked bread, jars of jam, fresh alpine butter, and a bowlful of gorgeous chunky homemade granola. Now that made me feel like royalty.