And I thought I knew the Verbier/4 Vallées region – the biggest linked area in Switzerland. After well over a dozen visits, I rather smugly thought I knew pretty much all there was to know – at least in broad terms – about this effervescent resort in the Val de Bagnes. You know the kind of thing – a vast area located between 1500 and 3300m with snow normally guaranteed from November to April, but plenty of snow cannons on the main runs providing back-up if required; 410 kms of ski runs and a giant snowpark at La Chaux; big challenges on Mont-Fort and down to Tortin and breathtaking skiing from the top of the Stairway to Heaven. And finally the après-ski that will keep you from your bed into the small hours – if you let it!
But hang on! What’s this area called Savoleyres – the place that alerted me to my partial ignorance? Memories of the slopes here, running down to the charming village of La Tzoumaz (1500m) were simply not registering in my brain when I got there.
The number of times I have made straight for the obvious departure point of Medran, completely blind to the possibility of the counter-intuitive concept of taking the Savoleyres gondola which – to be fair – you have to know how to get to in the first place.
So when I made my way to the 17th Momentum (London) City Ski Championships during the first weekend in February, and found myself riding this rather ancient lift to get to the race paddock, I had this strange feeling that I wasn’t in Verbier at all. Was I getting seriously forgetful? I knew I’d skied to La Tzoumaz at least once in my life, but I realised I must have got there via Attelas (2727m) and the Vallon d’Arbi itinéraire. Then one of my equally experienced ski-writing colleagues said much the same – he simply couldn’t remember skiing in this part of Verbier.
So what’s so special about Savoleyres, and why did Verbier select this area for the first City Ski Championships to be held here after four years in Crans-Montana? With its north-facing slopes it’s a very different world from Crans, where the championships were held on south-facing slopes. And more than that, Savoleyres is really quite a different world even from Verbier itself!
Although the runs are fundamentally a nice, straightforward network of blue and red pistes offering delightful family skiing, the slopes chosen for the fiercely competitive head-to-head dual parallel team slalom, and the equally pulsating 41-gate giant slalom in the City Ski Championships were just the right pitch for maximum excitement, both for skiers and onlookers.
So even if the rest of the Verbier slopes didn’t exist, Savoleyres alone would provide something for every level of skier or snowboarder, in a charming almost utopian backwater of an otherwise quite brash, gung-ho and full-on ski area that’s celebrated by skiers the world over.
The latest addition to Savoleyres/La Tzoumaz is a new “fun slope” on the Taillay run, with a tunnel, bridge, a play area shaped like a snail, bends and small jumps. This area is designed to give children an opportunity to learn the basics of freestyle while enjoying themselves on a course that can be used by those from blue level upwards.
Meanwhile a crop of recently built hotels have added a new dimension to the resort as a whole – most noticeably the 5-star quasi-rural wood-clad W Hotel with 123 rooms, which, with its four huge chalets, resembles a small hamlet all by itself.
Yup, Verbier is always re-inventing itself, and sometimes progress seems to have a momentum all of its own. And yet – Savoleyres itself seems delightfully evocative of an era now departed.