Cheese, more cheese and mountain biking in the Swiss Alps
By Elizabeth Hotson
Prince Andrew has a modest little chalet amidst its snowy peaks and the Duke of Cambridge has been caught dad dancing in its bars. In fact the smattering of royals and other international VIP types make Verbier in the Swiss canton of Valais one of the most exclusive ski resorts on the planet. Come summer however, it’s all change and this pretty alpine hangout is keen to market itself as an affordable summer escape. That’s not as far fetched as it might seem; accommodation is far kinder on the pocket outside the ski season and many of the activities on offer are made eminently affordable by a 4€ a night tourist tax.
On paying your €4 you’re given a Verbier Infinite Playground (VIP) pass which means free or discounted activities including food, swimming and biking. The area is particularly keen to promote its cycling and the VIP pass will get you 50% off a lift pass for you and your mountain bike. It’s well worth the outlay - for expert riders and enthusiastic amateurs the Verbier Bike Park is a downhill dream. It’s got 6km of serious downhill tracks with a head-spinning 700m vertical drop in altitude which makes it perfect for thrillseekers and speed specialists.
If you’re not quite at expert level, you can start on something a bit kinder - there are four different gradients of trail – green, blue, red and black so it’s worth taking your time to build up your confidence. All told, there are 20km of downhill tracks and there are also plans to develop more obstacles and ramps and if you need a bit of guidance, each afternoon, pro-riders from the Verbier bike team can show you around the trails (min. 2 people), telling you all you need to know about the park and the obstacles on the way. The park’s open from early June to late October but check lift opening dates before you go.
Having expended all that energy on the mountain you can indulge guilt-free in the delicious local food. My highlight was a cheese brunch in an alpine setting so perfect it could have been a set from the Sound of Music. During a ridiculously picturesque trip to the pastures of Sery, I half expected a cheerful Maria to pop out and join us for our spectacular feast of cheese, fresh apple juice and fresh-from-the-cow milk.
The banquet, hosted by local farmer, Marc Maret and his wife was followed by a bucolic ramble through the postcard-perfect meadows where the local cows were grazing. I was utterly beguiled by the bovine bell chorus ringing through the valley and could have stayed there all day. The whole experience including transport from the centre of town normally costs a very reasonable 25 Swiss Francs - around £19 but with the VIP card, the whole trip including transport from town is free. The bargain of the year. The only downside is that you can only do the cheese brunch once per stay. You’ll also need to book - I advise making this a priority.
The alpine brunch isn’t the only dairy-themed activity on offer in Verbier, a town obsessed with cheese. Raclette - cows’ cheese melted and scraped over food in a lava like ooze - is a speciality and thousands of visitors come for an annual September festival dedicated to its existence. There’s also a working dairy in the village which makes its own award winning cheese and if you want to bring home a few samples, both the independent shops in town and the supermarkets have good selections.
To experience the joy of cheese in a typical, albeit rather refined setting, treat yourself to a meal at one of the many local restaurants offering fondue and raclette. After a bracing drive up through vertiginous mountain passes we spent a glorious evening at La Marlénaz restaurant, trying, but ultimately failing to get through five kilos of best raclette between eight of us. The theory is that you should drink white wine with your cheese feast in order to prevent the dreaded ‘cheese balls’ forming in your stomach.
Whether you believe in its preventative qualities, it’s well worth trying the local Swiss grape varieties as they’re not exported and you won’t get them back home.
With so much stuff to keep you amused you might find it difficult to squeeze in some rest but when you do want to get your head down, Le Farinet in the centre of town is a great option. Legendary for its après-ski activities, it’s a lower key affair in the summer but with its uber-friendly staff and luxurious bedrooms it’s the perfect place to relax after a day in the mountains. If you can’t resist downing beers and schnapps with the locals, there are lots of lively bars; just ask at the front desk - they might even join you for a drink or two.