There’s something wonderful about getting on a train in London and getting off it again eight hours later at your ski resort. After the misery of flying and all that’s associated with the experience – the queues, the fights for seats, the getting there, the multiplying cost supplements – it’s great to just walk on to a train, chuck your bag down and your’re off. It doesn’t even take much longer than all the getting-to-the-airport, queuing, security, waiting, flying and transfer to resort either. The idea for this trip was to enjoy a couple of days on the slopes of the world’s third biggest ski region, and to intersperse the skiing with a selection of the ‘other activities’ the big resorts now lay on to keep the discerning 21st century snowman entertained. Our short attention span means we can no longer get excited by a 9 – 4 ski day, we need more. In my case I needed to slide down the local bobsleigh run on a big raft, and be towed behind a horse on my skis. Marvellous.Waterloo, Paris, Paradiski
DAY 1 – LA PLAGNE 06:55H
The only hiccup in my ‘take the train direct’ plan was that Eurostar only runs them on Fridays and Saturdays, so for a three-night stay I had to think out of the box and contemplate changing trains in Paris. Up with the lark, I catch the 6.55 departure, skilfully missing both London and Paris rush hours but still having time for a scrummy French brunch in the two hour
Having signed up for a descent on the Olympic bobsleigh run it seemed churlish to waste time checking in to a hotel and positively foolish to eat dinner shortly before putting my body through multiple G forces, so I headed straight up to La Plagne. The 1.5km long track was originally created in 1991 for the Olympics the following year, but it has just had a €6m makeover,replacing the old ammonia coolant with more eco-friendly glycol. That made little difference to me, though, as I hit 80kph on the bob raft as it jerked me through the course’s 19 bends. Riding as a passenger in proper grown-up bobsleigh goes half as fast again at 120kph but was too big a budget stretch at €107(the bob raft descent is €37).
I was booked in to the Latitudes Hotel in Les Arcs, in some ways a step up from my stay at La Nova apartments 25 years previously on a college trip, in other ways very similar. I headed over to see La Nova and pay homage to room 604 to which I had been attracted by a group of drunken Swedes imaginatively singing ’604, 604,604, 604’ on New Year’s Eve many moons ago. That was a great party! And I still meet up with Henrik and the gang. En route, I stopped for dinner at the tiny but wonderful Mamie Crêpes, a long-standing Les Arcs tradition where a hundred different varieties of delicious crêpes are available.Rather knackered by the time I reached Chez Paul (a bar run,claim the locals, by the only Brit who can speak French without a daft accent) to sample his amazing whisky collection.Somehow I got back to the hotel.
DAY 2: PEISEY VALLANDRY
Biathlon: Peisey Vallandry is not well known in Blighty, but it is a collection of small hamlets lying between the mighty Les Arcs and La Plagne – you pass over part of it on the spectacular double-decker Vanoise express cable car. It’s all part of Paradiski. The resort has etched out a niche as, primarily, a Nordic Centre with the area’s natural beauty all around as you tackle the 43km of cross-country trails or do a bit of snowshoeing. The big draw for me, though,was the biathlon range. I’d never touched a gun in my life, but had got totally hooked on the sport, thanks to Eurosport, and got so carried away I’d even booked a trip to Oslo the previous year to see a World Cup race. For those not in the know, biathlons involve cross-country ski racing,interspersed every few kilometers with rifle shooting targets. Race too fast and youcan’t hold the gun steady, miss targets and you lose. Race too slowly and you just lose anyway.It’s brilliant. So, this was my chance to try the guns and I have to say I’m going to be even more enthralled by the World Cup on Eurosport this winter. It turned out that after I tried to ski just 100m without even the rifle on my back, I was knackered. Pathetically, I needed a support to hold the gun up. Lying down with my legs spread (accurately known as the prone position) I surprised myself by hitting two of the five apple sized targets, 50m away. Standing up, I hadn’t got a prayer of holding the gun straight, and my patient instructor sardonically warned against accidentally hitting distant chamois, supposedly protected in the national park.
After lunch at the wonderful L’Ancolie, a 240-year-old farmhouse in Nancroix Villagefor maximum contrast tomodern Les Arcs, it was time to join the masses in La Plagne and spend the afternoon racing around this vast area. With only a few hours to enjoy it all, I made a rapid crossing above the villages to enjoy the huge powder bowls before ending the day on trails cut through the forest around Montchavin Les Coches, the closest point for jumping on the Vanoise Express back across Paradiski to get to Les Arcs for the night. Second-night nosh was scrumptious Savoyard fare at Chez Clarisse, and somehow I found energy to crawl on to Le JO, where every night I’m told, there is some sort of live fun.
DAY 3: LES ARCS
Ski joring was something I’d readabout for decades but never had a chance to try before. Pictures of cowboys hanging on desperately as they were towed on a rough bit of rope behind a stampeding stallion filled my head as the ski bus transported me to a snowfield somewhere down near Arc 1600, where elaborately moustachioed Frenchman Jacques Fillietroz, aka The Buffalo Bill of Les Arcs,was waiting to meet me and other debutants with a collection of, thankfully, rather tame looking ponies. Monsieur Fillietroz it transpired is a one-man effort to bring ski joring to France and the world, having invented a special lightweight, rigid harness you cling on to manfully (ignoring the braver-looking seven year-olds also giving it a try). The harness means that if the pony stops suddenly, the harness prevents you from continuing to slide into the horse’s rear end, with potentially smelly and/or violent Images: pidz.com, Patrick Thorne consequences depending on the type and speed of your collision. It has proved so popular that Monsieur Fillietroz has started exporting his invention to other resorts and staged the French national ski joring championships last year as more people have learned the ropes.
My pony was very well behaved and I spent a pleasant hour or so mastering my balance and taking in the views from this quite gentle activity. Then, with my final afternoon ahead of me before the night train home that evening, I decided to call it a day for ‘ski resort alternative sports’and spend four or five hours bombing around the vast ski domain of Les Arcs. First stop was the recently completed Arc 1950: Le Village, built (and recently sold) by Intrawest, the company that built Whistler in Canada. And you could tell – it looked rather surreal stuck up a French mountain and took just 30seconds to ski through. Much of the terrain is long, fast,motorway cruising, although there is more variety than at many comparable resorts. However, the legendary 7km-(4.5 mile) long black from the top of the Aiguille Rouge down toVillaroger is one of the world’s longest and covers the world’s biggest vertical for a run of this grading, a full 2,000 metres.
After stuffing my face at TheTantra, which serves up rather good French nosh in a lounge atmosphere. and grabbing a swift drink in the Before Café, I found myself back at Bourg St Maurice for the Saturday night Eurostar back to St Pancras, which departed on schedule at 2215. It’s not a sleeper (that’s an option viaParis) but it is comfortable and there’s a good vibe among the happy skiers who roll in to London at 7.16 Sunday morning, perfect timing for spending the rest of the day in bed.
Paradiski, France: paradiski.com
Getting There:You can fly in if you enjoy misery, but the train is much better in every way. Eurostar offers a direct weekend ski service from St Pancras during the daytime andovernight. Return fares from London to Bourg St Maurice start at £149. Alternatively go via Paris SNCF, return fares from London to Bourg St Maurice start at £99, orovernight at £124 including berth in 6-berth couchette. Book: raileurope.co.uk; 0844 848 4070, Rail Europe Travel Centre, 1 Regent Street,London SW1. The station isconnected by funicular railway to Arc 1600, and other Paradiski resorts are a shortbus ride away. If you insist on frittering away your carbon quota Ryanair (ryanair.com),easyJet (easyjet.com), bmi (flybmi.com) and BritishAirways (ba.com) operate routes from London airports to Lyon and/or Grenoble, three hours away by road.
Staying There: skicollection.co.uk (0844 5760175) have a great choice of properties in each Paradiski resort, at all levels, best prices, and most importantly a French team who know both the British punter’s, and French owner’s, needs.
Terrain: 236 pistes –making425km of pistes.
Lifts: 134 ski lifts plus the Vanoise Express cable car, 2 glaciers (maximum altitude3,250m), 5 boarder cross courses, 2 snowparks, 1 half-pipe.
Snowmaking: 440 canonscovering160 hectares
Highlight: The rush of the bobsleigh is another childhood dream ticked off the list, just the space flight left to do as Nastassja Kinski is probably getting on a bit now (unlike me, of course).
Bummer: Too vast to do it all,especially in 3 days (need 3years more like…)