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Eco-retreat asks skiers to pay more for less

A pod with a view swissinfo.ch

Imagine spending the night in a dome-shaped tent high on a mountainside in the middle of winter and paying a small fortune for the experience.

This content was published on January 12, 2005 - 12:16

Guests of the “Whitepod” lodge above the resort of Villars are doing just that, giving up on modern comforts for the chance to be far from the madding après ski crowds.

Nestled in a forest clearing at 1,700m, the retreat consists of a tastefully renovated chalet and five futuristic “pods” or geodesic domes.

Each pod has a double bed, a cow skin rug on the floor, petrol lamps for light, a wood-burning stove to keep out the chill and a chamber pot for emergencies.

The only bathrooms on the premises are located inside the chalet; so going to the toilet in the middle of the night requires a mad dash through the snow hoping that your private parts do not freeze off on the way.

For the exclusive inconvenience, Whitepod charges SFr1,100 ($936) a night for two people. A couple can commandeer a suite at the best hotel in the resort for that kind of money, and still have plenty left over for dinner, ski passes and shopping.

But whereas guests at the five-star hotel get access to the pool and 24-hour room service, Whitepod’s all-inclusive deal includes accommodation unique in the Alps, tours led by qualified mountain guides or ski instruction, as well as lessons in ecological living.

Experience nature

“I tried to find a means of accommodation, a comfortable way, for people to spend the night under the stars,” says founder and owner, Sofia de Meyer.

A lawyer by profession, de Meyer was born and raised in Villars before moving to London.

“I always loved this place. I wanted to find a concept that allowed me to share it with people, to give them a way to experience nature.”

The eco-concept extends to the meals which are served up by Whitepod’s resident chef in the chalet, using only fresh local or organic produce, with the emphasis on regional specialties, including the wines.

Sheepskins

The beds are covered with sheepskins and organic down-filled duvets. A generator provides electricity but for only a few hours a day.

“One of the main eco-tourism criteria is education, trying to have your guests leave knowing more about the environment they have spent their time in,” says de Meyer.
“That’s done a lot with the help of our mountain guides. They explain the trees, the flora and fauna and the mountain ranges.”

De Meyer calls Whitepod a “wilderness-style eco-retreat” even though it is only a 20- minute walk on snowshoes from the train station, and is located directly on the ski slopes.

Ecological alternative

But she says she is happy where it is, so that as many people as possible can see it. She wants to make them aware that there are alternatives to mass tourism, and ecological alternatives to skiing.

“I want people to come by and ask questions and hopefully one day they will come and stay so I can tell them ‘yes, we ski, but when there’s no snow we do lots of other interesting things.’”

In only its first season, de Meyer has convinced urbanites from Geneva and London to shell out for the exclusive opportunity to pay for the privilege of doing without, however perverse that may seem.

During swissinfo’s visit, a guest from Geneva staying with his family for one night said he was so impressed that he made a second booking for later in the season.

A British tourist booked in for five nights raved about how he had been pampered by de Meyer and her small staff, even if the eco concept mattered little to him.

Both were drawn to Whitepod because of its uniqueness and exclusivity.

About the high price, de Meyer counters that guests are paying for a “24 hour experience”.

“You don’t only pay for a night [in a pod]. And should you, it’s worth three times the price because there’s no other place in the whole of Switzerland that can offer you such a sunrise.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Villars

Key facts

The Whitepod resort is located above the ski resort of Villars, 1.5hrs from Geneva.
Cost per night, per person is SFr550, which includes pick up from Geneva airport, all meals, a ski pass, and the services of a mountain guide or ski instructor.
The sleeping pods are geodesic domes, a design invented by Buckminster Fuller in the 1950s.

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