COMPROMISE may be key to a successful relationship, but who wants to compromise on holiday? If your travelling companion’s idea of fun is high-octane adventure but yours is blissful relaxation, selecting a destination will always be a challenge.
A ski resort might not seem the obvious solution, but a ski resort in summer just might be. Verbier, the most famous part of the vast Four Valleys ski area in the Swiss Alps, is facing an even bigger challenge: climate change. With no guarantee of heavy snowfall in the decades to come, the local authorities have had to get creative. Rather than let the village’s hotels, chalets and restaurants lie empty during the summer months – when the weather is lovely and the views are glorious – they have rebranded the resort as an “infinite playground” and thrown in free transport and activities for tourists.
A visit to Verbier is about the journey as much as the destination. Within about 10 minutes of disembarking at Geneva airport I was on a train, and in the blink of an eye the vast expanse of Lake Geneva came strikingly into view, the water shimmering azure here, air force blue there, with navy mountains to the south. From time to time the view was interrupted by a vast field of green corn or an explosion of yellow sunflowers, and dotted along the route are chocolate-box homes. Then after 90 minutes the mountains are suddenly up close, and before long it’s time to transfer for La Chable and take the bus or cable car up to Verbier Village.
A modest tax of four Swiss francs per night covers travel on all local buses and mountain lifts, a tour of Verbier village and its dairy, and even a brunch of locally sourced fare on a mountain pasture. Beyond these introductory treats, if the interests of visiting groups or couples diverge they can explore the mountains at their own pace, reconvening to compare notes, panoramic photos and butterfly spots.
For those looking to take it easy, a trip up the Médran gondola leads to a leisurely 3km mountain stroll between La Chaux and Ruinettes that’s peppered with an impressive collection of sculptures ranging from a huge, bold bird overseeing the valley to a giant artificial boulder that’s actually a camouflaged cabin. The dazzling “museum without walls” promotes environmentalism, education and culture at an altitude of 2300 metres, with new additions every two years.
Of course, the natural landscape is the main attraction, along with the fresh mountain air and vast expanses of well-maintained pathways. The blissful silence is interrupted only by the chiming of bells around the necks of Verbier’s dairy cows – assuming, that is, you’re not overtaken by the urge to start yodelling. You might also hear the odd high-pitched squeak or squeal, and if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll be able to trace them to adorable Alpine marmots, bounding around the rocks or standing to attention like chubby meerkats.
More adventurous hikes are assisted by chains and ladders, and those with a head for heights can cross the newly built suspension bridge over the Corbassiere Glacier and the Grand Combin. Alternatively you can explore the mountains on two wheels, with all-terrain scooters provided at the top of gondolas at Médran and Ruinettes and bikes available for hire at the bottom. Those with strong thighs and little fear can tackle some of the extensive mountain-biking trails, but with relaxation in mind we opted for e-bikes.
The only downside to a day of mountain e-biking is that it might just put you off normal cycling for life, as the “turbo” setting means the difference between soaring up a hill at 20km per hour and having to get off and push. If you learned to ride a bike with a parent running alongside with a reassuring hand on the saddle, you’ll be whizzing along with nostalgia in your heart, the wind in your hair and a riot of wild flowers in your peripheral vision. Your only concern will be to avoid accidentally swallowing any of the countless butterflies that thrive in these pollution-free conditions. Among the many I spotted were wood white, large wall brown, Titania’s Fritillary, Audetan Ringlet and stunning blue-and-red Zygaena transalpina.
The flowers don’t just look pretty (to human and insect eyes), they’re edible too. Think of foraging and you might picture a basket of mushrooms, carefully identified so as to avoid culinary catastrophe. But everyday plants also make lunch ingredients, if you know what to look for. While our bold travel buddies were roping themselves together for Via Cordata – a combination of hiking, climbing, mountaineering – across the Mont Fort glaciers, we took a gentle walk up La Tzoumaz in the delightful company of Cherries Ussher von Maur, a mountain leader who had us grasping nettles, snapping wild rhubarb stalks and loading our tote bags with a rainbow of floral sandwich toppings.
On arrival at the Maison de la Forêt at La Tzoumaz we chopped leaves and plucked petals to prepare a foraged feast. Sure, it didn’t quite match the previous evening’s meal at the Michelin-starred restaurant of Chalet d’Adrien – for which chef Mirto Marchesi prepared risotto with saffron and pan-friend chanterelle, an impeccable, melt-in-the-mouth half-cooked salmon in orange and citronella sauce, and a creamy sorbet of apricot and vervain jelly – but there wasn’t a morsel of hogweed couscous or stewed rhubarb pudding left over when we set off for afternoon yoga.
A short while later I was bending over, looking between my Lycra-clad legs at an upside-down mountain while breathing in … and out. The only downside, after this hour devoted to revitalising mind and body, was the realisation that any and all subsequent efforts to bend and stretch my way to inner peace were bound to fall short.
Whether your idea of the perfect break means getting away from it all or chasing natural highs, this summer playground is waiting to be discovered.
I travelled from Edinburgh to Geneva by Easyjet and stayed at the three-star Hotel Bristol in Verbier. The Verbier Infinite Playground Pass is issued free of charge to all guests staying a minimum of one night in the region and paying the tourist tax. www.verbier.ch
A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Herald.