The first time I went skiing in Switzerland's Verbier was 1959. I was a penny-pinched student at Geneva University, the proud owner of a pair of 7-foot-long secondhand warped wooden skis and a pair of flaccid leather boots two sizes too large. I still remember the lonely 20-minute ride up the mountain in a solitary chair lift through a raging blizzard, wrapped in an old army blanket mercifully provided by the lift attendant at the base station.
Over the years Verbier has changed, to say the least. Granted, it has not achieved the sophistication of Zermatt or the social polish of Gstaad, but it does offer up an impressive array of ski runs and a total of 80 chairlifts and cable cars spread over what has become Switzerland's largest ski area.
By Swiss standards, Verbier -- a two-hour drive east from Geneva on the road to the Grand St. Bernard pass -- is a young resort. Until the early '50s, the high plateau on which the resort was built, and which took the name of the century-old village of Verbier halfway down the Bagnes valley, was used by the local cowherds as pasture in the summer and lay dormant under many feet of untouched snow throughout the long winter months.
In 1949, a dirt road was built connecting the village to the plateau. The year after, Rodolphe Tissieres -- a maverick lawyer from the valley -- had a vision: Verbier would become a ski resort. He mortgaged his family's belongings, coaxed some of the locals into contributing some of their jealously guarded earnings and, with $40,000, built the first chairlift. Verbier was born.
What emerged is a resort that in many aspects is unique. Indeed, of the 25,000 beds available for visitors, only 2,200 are provided by the 38 local hotels. The others are in apartments of various sizes and in chalets, both of which tend to be cheaper than hotel rooms. (A furnished apartment for five persons costs between $500 and $700 a week.)
But despite the savings, many people, especially foreigners, are still reluctant to rent an apartment rather than go to a hotel. This probably explains why half the skiers in Verbier are Swiss; Americans make up only 2 percent of the visitors.
The emphasis on apartment living in no way diminishes the quality of Verbier's hotels, which range from a simple but clean bed-and-breakfast establishment at $15 a night per person in a double room to $60 per person with breakfast and dinner in a more luxurious setting. While all provide good value for the money, my favorite is the Vanessa near the main square, with its cozy wood-paneled duplexes and small, practical kitchenettes.
The years when Verbier was short of restaurants are over, and eating out is now a pleasure, albeit an expensive one. The hotel Rosalpe has one of the best cuisines in Switzerland, and while the dining room is somewhat formal, on the ground floor it has a more relaxed annex called La Pinte. The Ecurie serves nouvelle cuisine; La Luge has the best steaks in town; the Robinson is where the locals meet and the Vieux Valais is well known for its cheese fondue. Not to be overlooked is the Vieux Verbier, for either lunch or dinner, and the Carrefour for dinner, if you have a car. Reservations are a must.
On the slopes there is a restaurant at every major lift station. While the food is not exactly of gourmet standard, nor the decor particularly alpine, it will keep you going.
Both buying and renting of ski equipment are no problem, except perhaps for those with inordinately large American feet. Off the central square, in front of the Monfort hotel, Ski Service was started in 1970 by a young American architect, Dale Anderson, with $8,000. Today, Anderson grosses $800,000 a year. He introduced American ski wear to Switzerland and has a full line of boots and skis for rent or sale.
On the central square, former ski champion Philippe Roux and his brother Dominique have confined themselves to selling, renting and servicing skiing equipment. Philippe, who speaks English, is unsparing in the personal attention he gives his clients and can even order a pair of custom-made limited-edition Lacroix skis for $700. Below the main square, Pierrot Michaud and his wife have a sports shop called Medran.
The two main ski areas in Verbier, which are connected at the base by shuttle buses, are the Attelas and Savoleyres. Lines are generally longer to get up the Attelas, but with some strategy -- such as being at the base station before 8:30 in the morning, or coming down to the village for lunch and then going up again at 1:30 -- you can beat them.
From the top of the Attelas, one of the best and more demanding runs is to ski down to the Lac des Veaux, take the chair lift up to the Col de Chassoure, ski down the Tortin run and then take the new cable car up to the Col des Gentaines. From there you can either ski back to the bottom of Tortin or ski down to Verbier.
Savoleyres is sunnier -- it faces south -- is less crowded and makes for altogether easier skiing.
Many of the best, and more challenging, views in Verbier are unmarked and signs are plentiful warning skiers that they take them at their own risk. While newcomers to Verbier should exercise some caution, you stand to miss a lot by staying on the beaten track. So get a good map of the area and, at least for the first day or two, hire an instructor at the local ski school. The price is $50 for half a day for a maximum of four people, and well worth it.
Ask the instructor to take you down the Mont Gele', the Vallon d'Arby, the Col des Mines, the Creblet, Tortin, the Col des Gentianes and the Plan du Foux. Once you are acquainted with these runs, you should have no problem facing them without a guide; but don't ski them alone. In the spring, the instructor will know exactly at what time the sun hits a particular slope, and with luck you will have corn snow all day long.
The ski school can also arrange to land you either by airplane or by helicopter (you must take a guide along) on a high glacier for an unforgettable run down to one of the adjacent valleys, where a minibus will pick you up. Or, if you are looking for a change of scenery, your instructor can arrange a drive to the St. Bernard pass, where you take the lift up to Super St. Bernard, ski down to the Aosta valley in Italy, have a great Italian lunch at Etroubles at the Croix Blanche restaurant and then are back in Verbier by the afternoon.
Don't forget to take your passport along. While there is no border control post on top of the pass, you will have to go through Italian and Swiss customs on the way back to Verbier through the St. Bernard road tunnel.
By some strange quirk, I have found that winter comes late to Verbier, and stays late. If possible, avoid Christmas, the Easter weekend and the one week in February (it changes every year) when Swiss schoolchildren are on holiday. But once the snow has piled up, it generally lasts till mid-May. Some years, the best powder is in April. March is low season with prices set accordingly. In good conditions you could probably ski one full week without going twice over the same run.
But even if you do, you will soon discover that the more you know Verbier, the more you will enjoy it.