Faces pressed against glass, our train twists and turns through picture-perfect mountains. We start shouting what we can see, like alpine bingo. Paraglider! Sky diver! On and on we go, past prettily coloured houses with undeniably Swiss architecture peppered with cyclists, runners, grazing sheep and doe-eyed cows. Books firmly stay in bags as we pass Lake Geneva or Lac Leman as it’s known to locals – a shimmering expanse of freshwater which the Swiss share with France. Waterfalls appear out of nowhere, gushing from the side of mountains, Chillon Castle whizzes by, a fairy-tale fortress which we later learn has a deceptively dark history, sitting pretty on the bank.
We were on our way to The Lodge, Sir Richard Branson’s Alpine retreat in Verbier, Switzerland and one of only a handful of properties in the very exclusive Virgin Limited Collection (which also includes his Caribbean home, Necker Island and Mahali Mzuri which we visited in January). The flight itself only took about an hour and a half, but the scenic train ride from Geneva airport to Verbier itself took another two hours, meaning we’d been up since an eye watering 3.40am in order to get us here for lunchtime. Thankfully the first question asked of us was – Bubbles? Please.
We’re quickly given a tour of the Lodge which houses just nine bedrooms. As with all of the Virgin Limited Collection properties, The Lodge is paired back luxury at its finest. The exterior is an unassuming wooden structure, blending seamlessly into its surroundings, but you quickly learn that it’s the little touches that take this place from your run of the mill ski lodge to luxury alpine retreat.
In the summer you can rent out rooms separately, whilst for most of the winter months The Lodge is hired out exclusively. For that reason, there’s a real party pad vibe about the place, with a large open plan room housing the communal dining table, complete with huge corner sofas if you’re happy to chat with your neighbour (and more romantic snugs if you’d rather your own space). Outside there’s a hot tub bubbling away, looking out onto those beautiful mountains we’d spied on the way over and plenty of deckchairs for soaking up the sun.
Upstairs our bedroom looked out over the garden, with its own balcony and table for two (ideal for our morning Nespresso). A dog sits on top of our double bed – it’s our ‘Do not Disturb’ signaller. There’s a desk with pre-stamped postcards, a sofa with more cushions than guests and plenty of wardrobe space. The bathroom is home to double marble sinks and a shower over the bath, complete with *that* rubber duck (each property has its own uniquely designed version which you’re encouraged to take home and add to your collection). Leave your toiletries at home, there’s a great selection of full-size Cowshed products – whether you’re feeling more like a wild cow, a dirty cow, a saucy cow or a grumpy cow – you’re covered. Doors don’t come with locks (unless you specifically request one) and your name is written on the chalkboard outside for the duration of your stay.
The basement is where the magic happens though, down here you’ll find the party room, complete with bar, pool table and flat screen TV which Andy repeatedly snuck off to watch the start of the World Cup. A serene indoor pool, hot tub and steam room is round the next corner, followed by a gym that no one ever uses. This is also where you’ll find the treatment room but more of that later.
We’d managed to arrive just in time for lunch, which like all meals at the Lodge are served communally. A refreshing salmon salad later and we’re splashing about in the hot tub with the other guests, London and our long journey a distant memory. Lunch merges into afternoon tea merges into our evening meal – rates are inclusive of all food and drinks at The Lodge and it feels like a continual feast.
The evening menu is shared at lunch and changes each day, with three set courses on offer (of course if you really don’t fancy something the team are happy to adapt it to you). Each evening we start on the terrace with canapes and bubbles before moving inside to tuck into the likes of ricotta and olive agnolotti (small ravioli) with truffle vinaigrette, pickled red onion and parmesan. Each course is paired with the perfect bottle from the wine ‘library’. Chardonnay to start, followed by a Beaujolais to accompany our hake wrapped in pancetta. I look around, there’s not a scrap left on anyone’s plate. Portions are absolutely spot on – enough to fill you up without putting you straight into a food coma. A deconstructed rhubarb cheesecake arrives and the wine hasn’t stopped flowing. They’re either trying to get us drunk or they’ve run out of room in the cellar. Cheese arrives with port because there’s no way we’re escaping a hangover tomorrow so in for a penny, in for a pound.
Upstairs our dog is waiting for us, a giant Toblerone at his feet. Why leave a couple of half-arsed truffles on our pillow when you can have a midnight feast of the legendary Swiss chocolate? Quite. A note says he’ll top us up if we manage to get through the whole bar during our stay but given we’re only here for two nights, I rather hope we don’t.
The next morning, in desperate need of a great big dose of mountain air we set out to explore the mountains. After a leisurely breakfast (it’s served until 10am) we were given a rucksack full of everything we could need – packed lunch, sun cream, tissues, map – and dropped at the start of our hike. We followed a stream past wildflowers and a heard of very noisy cows, culminating in a breath-taking viewing point.
We enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to take the ‘advanced’ route home. It was only on the way down that I was reminded of my fear of heights – but as they say, ‘what goes up…’. We’ll spare the details but needless to say, I was very grateful to be back at the ranch and ensconced in my robe, ready for an hour’s long aromatherapy massage. My wonderful therapist asks how I want to feel after my treatment and gives me a choice of 10 oils to sniff. I settle on ‘revive’ which is apparently what Princess Diana wore as her scent – I’m sold. Intended for evening use, it has a natural blend of Geranium, Ylang Ylang, Patchouli and Sandalwood which I’m promised will pep me up and leave me feeling sassy and powerful and frankly, who doesn’t want to feel like that? An hour later I come round, my shoulders once immovable with knots, newly ironed out. I feel like I’ve been tranquilised – it was without doubt one of the best massages I’ve ever had.
And pep me up it did, my last recollection was ordering an espresso martini – after that I’ve no idea what happened. Around the breakfast table the next morning it looks like I’m not the only one. One by one, guests sheepishly appear, like long lost friends, which after last night, we now are. Friendships are formed rather easily when dinner is communal, the wine doesn’t stop flowing and you’ve got staff expertly trained in whipping up anything you can possibly think of at the drop of a hat.
The team make The Lodge the experience it is. Sure, there’s a bar (two actually) but we never need to walk up to it because someone has always found us, wherever we are – sun lounger, hot tub, sofa – to make sure we have everything we need. It’s not like they’re standing on ceremony (one guy brings his adorable dog to work with him), its way more relaxed than that. It’s visiting close friends, it’s coming home. And just like at home, the bar never closes.
If you want obnoxious and flash this is not for you, but if you want a home away from home, with the sort of hospitality you’ll remember for years, The Lodge is most definitely the one to book.
For more information head to: http://www.virginlimitededition.com/en/the-lodge/
Need to Know
We flew direct to Verbier from London with British Airways with flights starting from as little as £26 each way.
Take the train from Geneva Airport (platform 3 towards BRIG) to Martigny and then change to the small St. Bernard Express Train that departs from platform 50 to Le Chable. From Le Chable you can take a taxi transfer to Verbier for 70CHF one way. Visit www.sbb.ch for train times and rates. Alternatively if the cable car is open (only weekends during the summer) jump on that instead of the taxi. It’s a beautiful (if slightly terrifying) way to arrive.
The cable car pass is included in your room rate.