herald

Wednesday 22 August 2018

On track for great skiing

Taking advantage of the efficient trains around Verbier can be rewarding, Paul Hyland finds

ON any given day, most ski resorts are filled by three distinct groups: locals, tourists and ski/board bums. As a rule, the more bums, the better the skiing.

Verbier is Alpine royalty and every season, gnarly types with facial hair arrive in droves, weeks before the lifts open looking for work to keep them in beer and board while they explore the immense back country.

Many are English and among them in the early days of the season, Verbier echoes to the tones of military men. The British Army use the town as one of their winter training bases.

It's a party town, too, and in high season is rarely less than stuffed with well-heeled skiers from all over the world, but with a heavy concentration of our near neighbours.

Committed powder fanatics arrive by rail, the transport of choice for most who travel on a budget around the Alps and particularly in Switzerland, where trains are such a huge part of the social infrastructure.

Treat

But those who take the usual plane/ coach/resort tourist trail are missing a treat.

Jump on a train in Geneva Airport for Verbier (Topflight have built new packages for Verbier and Villars around the Swiss railway system) and within minutes, the world drops away as you speed along the shores of a pristine lake past massed ranks of old, old vineyards.

They make a lot of white wine in Switzerland and you won't see much of it in your local off-licence. They know what they like in these parts and very little is exported.

This is quickly obvious in any of the wide range of good restaurants in Verbier. Nothing comes cheap but after saving cash by making use of any of the flexible rail packages available, there should be some left to fill a glass or two.

Great cliffs rear up on either side of serried ranks of vines and within an hour, the massive jagged ridgeline of the Dents du Midi comes into view and Mont Blanc -- sacred ground for serious powder junkies.

Novelty

Not long after, there's a quick change at Martigny for a local train which brings you to a ski bubble at La Chable. The novelty of arriving with bags and baggage into Verbier

on a ski lift never wears off.You could leave Ireland with your boots on and step into skis four or five hours later at the foot of one of the most impressive winter sports arenas in the world, and your feet would hardly touch the ground thanks to the wonders of a rail system that works eerily well.

Flexible travel on a reliable rail/skibus system allows adventurers and families to strike out for less well-known venues from Verbier. All over the Alps, hidden gems lie waiting in small valleys where most tourists never venture.

Powder

At first glance, Champex Lac doesn't inspire images of deep powder and vast choice. But it has north-facing slopes and holds snow better than most in the area.

On this day, there's a foot of new powder and the mountain's all but empty. Fantastic.

The beauty of building a holiday around the train is the choice available and a perfect example of the joy that is Villars.

Drop down from Verbier on the ski lift and back into the Swiss railway system and you can find a route which will take you to the Col de Bretaye, high up on a plateau above the picturesque town of Villars sur Ollon and lifts which sweep you up to Les Diablerets.

All of this is achieved in short enough time to make excursions to snow-sure Leysin or any of the many small mountain resorts in the region not only a possibility, but a pleasure.

This was an eye-opener. Most Irish skiers stay in the resort the coach driver delivers them to and return, a week later, with no idea of the range available -- often just a few miles further up the valley. Let the train take the load.

Topflight have a full programme of Swiss ski resorts in their brochure which includes Verbier and Villars and a range of options for those who like variety.

www.topflight.ie, call 01 240 1788

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