RICHARD BRANSON BUILDS A SKI CHALET WORTHY OF HIS REPUTATION
BY PATRICK THORNE
THREE SEASONS AGO, WHEN SIR RICHARD BRANSON ANNOUNCED his intention to open the most luxurious chalet in Verbier — the world-class ski resort already known for its wealth of impossibly posh accommodations — the eyebrows of the elite were politely raised. Branson may have founded an international conglomerate of ridiculously successful businesses, made a name for himself as an international adventurer, and created a string of über-exclusive retreats in the British Virgin Islands, South Africa, and Morocco, but what could he possibly have to offer Verbier? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Nestled on a gentle slope just above the town of Verbier, The Lodge is a picture-postcard alpine chalet, albeit an expansive one. In addition to opulent accommodations for 18, guests will ﬁnd a private ice rink, a spa with a resident therapist, gourmet chefs, drivers on call 24 hours a day, and even a party room with a glittery disco ball twinkling above the dance ﬂoor. Should you care to leave all this for the thrill of Verbier’s superb steeps and off-piste challenges, the base of the main Médran gondo- las is less than 250 yards downhill. When the day is done, The Lodge is one of Verbier’s few ski-in properties, with an off-piste track that’s passable by all but complete novices. And, of course, there are upscale shops and lively cafes in the village below, not to mention a legend- ary après-ski scene frequented by a host of international jet-setters, European royalty, and, occasionally, Branson himself.
It’s a good thing Verbier has so much to offer both on and off the hill; otherwise guests might never venture beyond the The Lodge’s log-decked walls. The main ﬂoor features an open plan with a ﬁnely appointed great room surrounded with ﬂoor-to-ceiling glass doors leading to a vast deck, where sits a hot tub seemingly large enough to hold all 18 guests, several of their friends, and quite possibly some of the staff. Following the traditional British chalet-party model, the property serves as a home away from home, where guests can eat to- gether around long dining tables, indoors or out, after watching their meals being prepared in an open kitchen by a staff of gourmet chefs. The pièce de résistance is the ground ﬂoor The Swiss Alps and snow-covered conifers create an iconic setting outside The Lodge, matched within by luxe furnishings and modern décor. party room, which is surrounded by walls of giant squishy sofas looking out across the dance floor to a plasma TV, library, pool table, and serve-yourself bar. Just beyond, steps lead down to the indoor pool, a lounge area with yet another hot tub, a steam room, the spa area, and a gym. There’s also the thrill of treading in the footsteps of the rich and famous: The Bransons stay each winter, normally taking any weeks left unbooked and bringing along guests like musician Peter Gabriel. In fact, you’ll ﬁnd Branson family pictures by the ﬁreplace, along with resident dog Bam Bam, a handsome ﬂat-coated retriever who has sniffed the crotches of the leaders of the industrialized world. But while the incredible skiing, drop-dead gorgeous setting, and impeccably appointed property are at the heart of The Lodge’s appeal, at the heart of its success is the husband and wife management team of Paul and Hannah Allen, who honed their hosting skills at Branson’s private Necker Island resort in the British Virgin Islands. Any whim, request, or creature comfort is merely a phone call away – the numbers for Paul and Hannah, and all the other services, are loaded onto your own handheld device on arrival. Both the prices and the demand for The Lodge are high. Weekly rentals (which are the norm during winter) peak at around $160,000 over the New Year holiday but — even during this global economic downturn — most of the 2009-10 season is already booked. So b ok now or risk staying in a mere mansion on your Verbier ski trip.