Rich pickings in poor man’s Verbier

IT’S unlikely you’ll have heard of La Tzoumaz. With just 300 permanent residents, few hotels and no town centre (or après ski) to speak of, it’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find a ten-minute ski from Verbier, Switzerland’s sexiest resort. No: La Tzoumaz (rhymes with satsuma) is quite definitely Verbier’s shy, unfashionable, and very diminutive little sister.

Which is why for avid skiers, families and those who find Verbier prices laughable, it’s a very clever alternative indeed. La Tzoumaz is smaller, cheaper, and offers the same skiing as its ritzier neighbour, with an area all its own that’s good for beginners and intermediates. Tire of its slopes and you’ve got easy access to the rest of the “4 vallees” (Verbier, Nendaz, Veysonnaz and Thyon).

Is it the Alps’ best-kept secret? Hard to say. But word on the piste is that private investors are clocking on to La Tzoumaz: a new lift opened this season linking Le Carrefour with Savoleyres (at the top of the La Tzoumaz gondola), further opening up access to the rest of the valleys. A new complex of apartments, shops and restaurants is about to be built opposite the main lift, and about 20 chalets are being built each year.

So far, so…what? Where’s the sparkle, you ask, where’s the luxury? It’s at Chalet Auriane, a chalet to compete with Verbier’s finest, only more affordable. Auriane, owned by an endocrinologist from Islington, is the first – and so far the only – five-star chalet in La Tzoumaz. And what a beauty it is.

Inside, the richest materials make it feel luxurious but incredibly warm. There’s a big, windowy living room with furs thrown over elegant leather sofas and chairs and a fire. The dining room table – connected to the spacious kitchen – looks out on the mountains with a specially-commissioned birch tree sculpture leaning over it, bringing the outdoors in. The rooms are mostly small but chic and cosy, with great views. The only stand-out room is called Verbier (others are St Moritz, Klosters and so on), which is enormous, has a bath with a view in the middle of the room, and an enormous fairy-tale bed made out of birch trunks and branches.

Perched atop a slope, above a cluster of other chalets, Auriane has its own funicular to take guests, luggage and skis from the car to the house, and from the house to the slope. Sadly it was broken when we arrived on an icy night in January so we had to go the hard way: a very steep, almost ladder-like flight of stairs. Still, it was the thought that (almost) counted: the funicular is a suave, glassy machine that proved its efficacy on our return journey from chalet to car. As for getting from the slope to the chalet, it was a case of leaving the skis at the top of a sharp incline and sliding down – at speed – on our rumps to the front door. And, of course, clambering up in our ski boots. Which is all good snowy fun.

The chalet also has a gleaming new sauna/steam room and outdoor Jacuzzi. Both of which most definitely worked – within ten minutes of arriving, we were in the hot bubbles and freezing air, Lanson in hand, nibbling foie gras toasts.

About those foie gras toasts. One of the most decadent, impressive aspects of the Auriane experience was the British private chef and his partner in crime (and real-life partner), the Dutch housekeeper. Both used to have high powered jobs in the government and sacked it all in years ago to become seasonal workers. God is in the details, which, via the owner Paul, they grasp perfectly. So when you arrive after a five hour journey (an hour and a half from Geneva by car), the fact that the fizz is chilled and waiting with beautiful stem flutes means something. So does the quality of the foie gras: this is not cheap stuff from the hypermarche, but proper, creamy fresh liver atop buttery biscuity orbs.

The Auriane experience must be how it was to be an aristocrat in the old days: pre-dinner drinks, whisky post-dinner, a selection of terrific wines with food all seamlessly at the ready. The very best chocolates after dinner, and wonderful local cheeses. Great coffee. Fresh-baked cake and hot cocoa when you come in from skiing, at the ready if you want it. Your wish is their command – often before you’ve even had the wish.

The food is serious, too. Dinner on the first night featured a mountain salad (local lardons, pine nuts, walnuts, leaves) and the best beef bourguignon I’ve ever tasted, an aromatic mixture of melting stew with caramelised shallots, served with gratin dauphinoise, batons of carrot and green beans glazed with garlic butter. To follow was warm pear tartin with apple sorbet, raspberry coulis and – if you please – home-made apple puree. The next night was local mushroom risotto, venison in blueberry sauce and home-made chocolate fondant.

The next morning, emerging from our mountain-view rooms (all with Apple TVs), breakfast featured delicious local eggs, sausages and bacon for those who could handle it – otherwise, there was a fresh-baked loaf of still-warm wheaten bread, and two types of fresh baguette, cereal, yoghurt etc.

At last: the skiing. Up the La Tzoumaz gondola we went (no queues) to Savoleyres, the south-facing Verbier ski area. A few runs to warm up on the wide, pleasant slopes of La Tzoumaz itself, and off we went down to Le Carrefour – an eight minute ski away – and half way up Verbier. It’s faster to get to Verbier this way than it can be from Mondran, Verbier’s traffic-clogged hub.

La Tzoumaz is a clever way into one of the best, but most expensive resorts in the world. Staying at Chalet Auriane clinches the deal: here you can really have your luxury cake and eat it too, whether you’re here to ski, bathe, indulge – or preferably, all three.

Chalet Auriane in La Tzoumaz (tel: 07903 018549; www.chaletauriane.com) is available on a sole occupancy basis and sleeps up to 12 guests in four luxury en-suite double rooms and one bunk room with four adult-sized bunk beds. It costs from £825 per person per week fully catered, excluding transfers.

LA TZOUMAZ | WHY IT APPEALS
1. No lift queues: There are no queues for the main La Tzoumaz lift, compared with the mad scramble that there can be at Medran, the main hub in Verbier. It takes just eight minutes to get to the top of the Savoleyres ridge in the new gondola, so you can access Verbier’s slopes and the 400km of the four valleys quicker than from Medran itself. It then takes just another eight minutes to get over to Le Carrefour, half way up Verbier.

2. Empty slopes: The pistes in La Tzoumaz are relatively empty, even in peak weeks, compared to the busy traffic on the slopes of Verbier. Instructors come to La Tzoumaz on their days off.

3. Good for all levels of skier: La Tzoumaz is perfect for beginners and intermediates, but it also has some excellent, safe and easily-accessed off-piste. It is also only minutes away from all fabulous the skiing on offer in Verbier.

4. Short transfers: Sion airport is just 30 minutes away. Snowjet has flights from Stansted three days a week on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Only 1.5hours from Geneva (half an hour closer than Verbier, and much less windy – just 15 minutes of windy roads).

5. It’s cheap: Four Swiss francs for a beer in La Tzoumaz versus 10-20 in many Verbier spots. Meals out are also half the price of the equivalent in Verbier.

6. Good snow. The majority of the slopes in La Tzoumaz face north so they hold their snow pretty well.

7. Quiet: If you want early nights, this is the spot. La Tzoumaz, means “resting place for cows”, and comes from “tzoumer”, the local patois for “to rest”. It has just 300 permanent residents, and these numbers can rise to 7,000 in peak season in the winter.

8. Non-skier friendly: There is plenty to do in La Tzoumaz for non-skiers. It has the longest toboggan run, at 10km, in western Switzerland, there is lots of snow-shoeing and winter hiking in and around the valley alongside the bisses, the ancient irrigation waterways, which are all signposted.