You know it’s time to improve your skiing when you’re overtaken by a monk in full robes. We weren’t that far from the monastery of Ecône in Riddes but still, it was an unexpected sight – especially in the smart Swiss resort of Verbier, where it is fur or high-end high-tech fabrics, rather than hessian, that are de rigueur.
A friend patted me comfortingly on the shoulder. “I’m pretty sure he’s in fancy dress,” she said with a touch of ennui. “Besides, his cornering technique could really use some work.”
Verbier has always put the fear of God in me. It’s a massive place, with 410km of piste and numerous celebrated, hardcore, off-piste descents (the climax of the Swatch Freeride World Tour will be held here in March 2013). Add to that a town where a humble beer can cost SFr20 (£13), and a round of cocktails several hundred pounds, and, all in all, it’s a resort that tends to leave me slightly dazed.
This time, however, as I watched the monk whizz past, robes flapping, I was actually feeling quite smug. For this time I had found Verbier’s simpler side, its more modest, uncrowded, tree run-filled side. I had found La Tzoumaz.
The village sits on the far side of a snowy mountain ridge from Verbier, but is tiny in comparison. La Tzoumaz has around 300 permanent residents; Verbier has closer to 3,000 and in peak season the population swells to 10 times that. Verbier’s reputation is so dominant that few skiers know anything about La Tzoumaz, beyond its rhyme with “satsumas”. That seems set to change, though, thanks to new lifts which are improving access to the slopes.
A gondola added in 2008 made it quicker to get up to the Savoleyres ridge from La Tzoumaz; another due to open in 2014 will speed access back up to the ridge from the Verbier side. Better still, a chairlift introduced last winter allows skiers coming from Tzoumaz to bypass the centre of Verbier (where there can be queues) and go straight on to the rest of the Four Valleys.
Whether you make it that far is another matter. We did plan to – but with the local slopes above Tzoumaz offering untracked, knee-deep powder and perfectly spaced trees, it was hard to drag ourselves away. The cold didn’t touch us. We kept lapping the same lift, stopping only to drink hot chocolate at the Croix de Coeur mountain café. Hours disappeared. By the end of the day we were on first- name terms with the lift operator – he was glad of the company as there was not another soul in sight.
The following day, when we did make it over to Verbier, it was a shock to have to slow down behind other skiers, before dropping in to the Tortin run, where icy moguls the size of small cars lurked. Did these people not know there was fresh powder just on the other side of the Savoleyres?
The majority of skiers may not have cottoned on yet, but private investors are waking up to the advantages of La Tzoumaz. New chalets are being built at a rate of 20 a year, with developers attracted by lower prices, the beautiful views across the valley and by the proximity of Sion airport (just 30 minutes away).
The village changed its name in 2004 from Les Mayens des Riddes, embracing the local patois in which tzoumer means “to rest”. This ethos was evident when we stopped in for après-ski at Le Vitho, a new bar in the village, where there was a noticeable absence of ski bums dancing on tables in ski boots. “It’s definitely quieter here and more family-friendly than Verbier,” said Paul Jenkins, who owns Chalet Auriane, where I was staying. “There are never any queues for the lift, and the snow, because it’s north-facing, is pretty sure.”
Auriane, which launched last winter after being refurbished and upgraded, is the village’s first five-star chalet. It sleeps 12, and sits beside the piste with huge windows facing out across the valley. A private, miniature funicular glides you to the front door from the underground car park and then on again to the slope.
The decor is slick but with a touch of humour. As the front door swings open, you are greeted by a huge heated boot locker and a life-size papier maché tiger padding across the landing. “We got that from a Liberty window display,” said Jenkins, who says he was inspired by poor experiences on previous holidays to other chalets (“I just thought I could do better”).
As we sat in the sauna before making a dash past Philippe Starck chairs and through the snow to the hot tub in time to watch the Alpenglow, it was difficult to work out what else he could have done to make it any “better”. But then we skied the Vallon d’Arbi run and the final piece of the puzzle slotted into place. It’s not extreme off-piste, but it’s challenging, chock-full of powder, with steep sections, high traverses and silence. Best of all, it ends right at the chalet’s door. La Tzoumaz may be family-friendly, but you don’t have to be a child – or a monk – to have fun here.