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Alps_Race_thumbIt was like a Top Gear challenge, but with trains and planes instead of cars. They both get you there, but which is the better trip? Snowcarbon.co.uk founder Daniel Elkan and Snow editor Roger Fulton played Clarkson and May
 
 

If you’re going skiing in the Alps, how do you get there? The odds are you fl y – and you’re not alone. About a million of us do so each winter. After all, it’s the quickest way isn’t it? Geneva’s just a 90-minute flight from London. It makes sense to fl y. Or does it..? Last winter we were challenged to a race by skiing website snowcarbon.co.uk to show that going by plane is not signifi cantly quicker than going by train.

Snowcarbon’s co-founder Daniel Elkan is a man on a mission – to get skiers out of planes and onto trains. At a stroke you’ll cut your carbon emissions by 90 per cent, so from an environmental standpoint changing the way we travel could make a huge difference. But faster? C’mon, Daniel, who are you kidding?

‘Consider this,’ he replied. ‘Your fl ight is more than just the 90 minutes you’re in the air. It’s the time it takes to get to the airport, it’s the two hours before departure you have to check in. It’s the frequent delays. It’s waiting, fi ngers crossed, for your bags to emerge onto the carousel. And then it’s the transfer, often another bum-numbing 90 minutes in a coach.’

Well, we love a challenge...and so we put it to the test. First we chose our destination: the French Haute Savoie alpine villages of La Clusaz and Grand Bornand. They are very convenient for Geneva and we love them to bits. They’re not huge, they have buckets of charm, great scenery, great skiing and great cheese! Real cheese, we mean, reblochon to be precise, the essential ingredient for a delicious tartifl ette. Who could resist?

We enlisted the help of the good folk at award-winning French Alps specialists Peak Retreats to help with accommodation (and boy did they come up trumps – but more of that later!)

Then we fi xed the ground rules. Daniel lives in north London. Snow editor Roger Fulton is in Hertfordshire. So, geographically, Luton Airport worked for us, while Daniel would leave the country via Eurostar’s terminal at St Pancras International station.

Then timings: most people who fl y take a ridiculously early-hours fl ight and end up hardly sleeping the night before. But to make our journeys more of a race, we aimed to co-ordinate our ‘leaving home’ departure times as closely as was possible. That meant getting a 12.15pm fl ight from Luton for Snow’s team against a 9.30am train out of London for the snowcarbon boys. But it also meant we got a better hour-by-hour comparison of our respective journeys.

That settled, we left the rest in the hands of fate, well, easyJet and Eurostar. Here’s how things worked out...
 


SNOW’S JOURNEY


Alps_Race_Snow08:00 Wake up, get up, heat up coffee and croissants. Photographer Graeme arrives at 8.30, and tucks into my croissants and coffee.

09:15 Leave the house for the fi ve-minute walk to Radlett station, buy ticket to Luton Airport Parkway (three stops).

09:34 Train bang on time. OK, so that’s brownie points for the railway, but this is the simplest way to get to
the airport. Alternative: M1 roadworks and airport parking. And if I’d had to get to Gatwick??? M25! Hmmm…

09:52
Arrive Luton Airport Parkway. Cross bridge, and down the steps to catch the shuttle bus to the airport. Simples.

10:00
Board shuttle. Momentary panic as I check for passport and can’t fi nd it. Check again and do fi nd it. Man-searching. Shuttle ride is just ten minutes. Smooth as you like.

10:15 Enter terminal. Scan departure board and see no delays expected for our fl ight. Head for check-in. Encounter fi rst queue of the day. Could have paid an extra £9.50 for priority boarding and skipped all this, or checked in online, but, hey, this is the way it is for the majority of fl iers, so this is about keeping it real, right Graeme? Graeme tells me he’s already checked in online, and just drops off his bag. Send him to take pictures of people queuing.

10:30 Check-in. Painless.

10:40 Buy Euros at bureau de change counter. Graeme picked up pre-ordered money at his bank yesterday.

10:50 Up the stairs to security. Could have paid extra to take a priority staircase. Even Graeme baulks at that idea. It’s the usual process: queue, remove belt, shoes, coins, mobile and coat, and wonder what makes the beep as I go through the arch. Remember keys in back pocket. That frisk: they always seem so suspicious.

11:00 Clear security. Look for a chair to sit on so I can put shoes back on. Still 35 minutes till we start boarding, so there’s time to do the usual airport ‘hanging around’ things. Buy water, mints, newspaper, sit in cafe area, where Graeme tucks Alps_Race_Snow2into a healthy-looking Prêt salad. I’m saving myself for lunch on the plane.

11:35 Boarding begins. Those with priority boarding get on fi rst – but the fl ight is not full, so what was the point? It doesn’t get you off the ground any quicker.

12:00 On board, in seat, knees pressed hard up against the back of the seat in front. Scan on-board menu. Wish I’d had that salad in Prêt, now, Graeme. Graeme? Graeme has fallen asleep already. How do people do that?

12:15 We take off. On time. So far, despite a couple of queues, things have gone smoothly. Luton is smaller than the dreaded Gatwick, more relaxed, less crowded – at least, it was today – and I can’t say the experience has been awful at all. Wonder how Daniel is getting on...

13:00 Lunch. Option one: a cheese and ham melt; option two: a cheese and tomato pizza. Can’t face the hot options, so plump for an egg sandwich. It’s...well, it’s an egg sandwich. This and an Earl Grey tea costs me a princely £5.90. Flight has been ok, but am feeling cramped. No leg room and some kid keeps running up the aisle shrieking. Are we nearly there yet? Geneva one hour ahead, so...

14:55 (local time) land in Geneva.

15:00 Walk down plane steps. Convenient photo opp. Through passport control. Walk to baggage reclaim.

15:30 Bags appear on carousel. Uncross fi ngers. Through the nothing to declare door and scan waiting line-up of placard holders for transfer driver holding one with our names. Tick. Walk what seems like the entire length of Geneva airport – and a bit more – to car park.

15:40 Climb into minibus and begin drive to La Clusaz. Progress is slow. Saturday afternoon traffi c. Takes an age to get out of Geneva. This transfer is supposed to take just under an hour. Hold-ups aplenty. At one point, driver forced to slam brakes on. Graeme’s camera fl ies off seat into stair well. Camera breaks. Unhappy snapper.

17:10 Arrive at Hotel Au Coeur du Village, La Clusaz. Check watch: that’s just under seven hours plus one hour time difference. Eight hours on the clock. Bit more than a 90-minute fl ight. Text Daniel to say we’ve arrived. He texts back, claiming to be in the hotel spa. He’s teasing; his train isn’t due into Annecy for another 15 minutes. And Annecy’s a 40-minute taxi ride away. Still...
 


SNOWCARBON’S JOURNEY


Alps_Race_SnowCarbon07:00 Wake up. Get up. Fry up

08:00 Leave home. It’s a ten-minute walk to West Hampstead Thameslink station, and then a ten-minute train ride to St Pancras International.

08:25
Arrive at St Pancras. Photographer Matt has come from Milton Keynes, and he’s got croissants and coffees in hand. He’s good like that.

08:30 Check in at Eurostar. Pretty effortless: ticket goes through the machine, gates open; security and passport control takes fi ve minutes in total. No anxious weighing of bags, no hunting the oversized luggage area for our snowboards. They’re coming with us on the train – and for free.

09:00 The Eurostar slips out of St Pancras. We’ve booked a table seat. People around us look like they are enjoying themselves. And so are we. The journey is part of the holiday.

09:50 Time for a caffeine fi x. The Eurostar cafe bar is a couple of carriages down, but the walk makes you appreciate being able to get up and move about on a train. Cappuccino and Kent countryside whizzing by.

12:17 Arrive Paris, Gare du Nord. Our onward TGV for the Alps leaves from Paris Gare de Lyon, the other
side of the centre of town. By RER (a kind of Metro train), it’s only two stops, but we’ve got a simpler, less wellknown solution: a pre-booked taxi by transfer company Paris City Line.

12:20 At the end of the Eurostar platform our driver, Brian, is waiting with ‘snowcarbon’ written on a placard. He smiles, grabs one of our wheeled snowboard cases and shows us to the eight-seater vehicle, parked just outside the station.

12:30 Cruise through Paris. Brian points out different landmarks. On our left is the quirky Canal St Martin, further over is the romantic Promenade Plantée built along an old railway line. Will have to come back and explore Paris sometime. For now, there’s a race on...

12:45 Park at the attractive forecourt of Gare de Lyon station. Time for lunch.Opposite the station lie an array of restaurants and brasseries, and crates of Alps_Race_SnowCarbon2fresh oysters and mussels. Tempting, but the risk of missing a train while getting involved in a sumptuous meal is too risky.

12:50 Opt for a restaurant in the station, Service Bleu. The staff’s curt manners are counterbalanced by the convenience: we are sitting opposite the platform from where our TGV departs.

13:10 Salad and tartifl ette, washed down with a carafe of vin rouge. Surely much the same meal that Roger and Graeme had on their fl ight – but I merely speculate...

13:40 Get on the TGV and fi nd our table seats. Importantly, there’s plenty of leg space to kick Matt under the table if he cheats at cards; which no doubt he will do.

13:50 The TGV’s off. The initial part as we move out of Paris is slow, but then as we hit the countryside the train starts to fl ex its muscles and move from a trot to a canter. This beast can reach speeds of 320km per hour, yet from inside you’d never know – it’s so quiet and smooth.

14:45 Time for some reading.

16:00 Nod off - there’s no shame in a mid afternoon snooze, we’re on the continent after all. On TGVs the French are beautifully civilised in terms of their mobile phone use. So I’m not woken up suddenly by someone barking: “Oui! Je suis dans une train!”

16:40 A little boy sitting in the seats across from us is delighted with something he’s been constructing out of building blocks. It’s all very technical stuff, but he’s happy to show us his creation. Meanwhile, to our right, the vast expanse of Lac du Bourget stretches away, calm and peaceful.

17:10 Roger texts saying that they’ve arrived. Damn! I text back asking what took him so long. Meet us in the hotel spa, I tell him, the Jacuzzi is the perfect temperature. He’s not buying it, the cynical hack.

17:30 Reach Annecy. The taxi rank is just outside the station, metres from the platform, so the transfer of bagage is again effortless. There’s a bus too but not for half an hour, so in the interests of the race, we’ve booked a cab.

18:15 Arrive at Hotel Au Coeur du Village. That’s just over nine hours door-to-door travel time, but a varied and enjoyable way to reach a ski resort.

The verdict

Snow summary
Apart from a slower-than-expected transfer from Geneva, this has been about as smooth and quick as it gets coming by plane, and it still took seven hours travelling time. Go figure.

The one-way costs
Train to Luton Airport Parkway: £6.50
Shuttle to airport: £1.50
EasyJet flight from Luton to Geneva: £81.44
Egg sandwich and tea: £5.90
Transfer from Geneva to La Clusaz: £73
(per person)
Total: £168.34
 

Snowcarbon summary
It takes all day to get to a ski resort by train. But it does by plane too. I’d take the train any day – quality chunks of time rather than stopstart, less pollution, and more fun.

The one-way costs
Train travel from London St Pancras to
Annecy: £132
PCL transfer in Paris: £13.50 (per person)
Lunch: £17.00
Taxi from Annecy to La Clusaz: £27
(per person)
Total: £189.50

 

A win win...


OK, we’re not stupid. Clearly it took a couple of hours longer by train, so technically that’s a win for the fuel-guzzling, carbon-hungry aeroplane. But whichever way you cut it, it’s a day out of your holiday just to get from home to hotel. Of course, you might just arrive by early afternoon and grab an hour on the slopes, but in our experience that so rarely happens. And those early flights mean such insanely early home-starts that you might just as well not bother going to bed in the first place. You’re likely to nod off on the coach transfer to the resort and wake up with a stiff neck and a slick of drool on the window. Elegant. We got lucky with our flight; there were no delays – but we all know what a few flakes of snow do to our airports. Remember last December? 

Alps_Race_La_clusaz_Grand_Bornand

So what about the train then? Well, environmentally, of course, it’s a no-brainer. More than 90 per cent of skiers still fly to the slopes, and those air journeys are responsible for an average 73 per cent of a ski resort’s carbon footprint. It’s a bit pricier, granted, but train travel is sooo much more relaxing. You leave at a reasonable time of day, check-ins are brief, transfers shorter or non-existent. Seeing the scenery change, the journey becomes part of the holiday. And with an overnight train, you can be on the slopes the next morning, while airborne travellers – even the crack-of-dawn ones – are still en route.

Verdict: clearly, it’s not going to work for everyone, but if you live within striking distance of the Eurostar, definitely give it a go.
 

Snow how


The chance to get a few days’ skiing in after our race – well it would have been a shame to turn round and go straight home – was made possible by our hosts the French Alps specialists Peak Retreats, who spoilt us rotten by putting us up at the hotel Au Coeur du Village, in La Clusaz. A junior suite costs from £1,268 in low season (late March) to £1,926 for a peak week date (Feb half term). If that’s too rich for your pockets, Peak Retreats do have some more affordable options in town: Hotel Alpen Roc – seven nights half board in a room for two double/twin ranged from £803 pp in low season (late March) to £1,087 for a peak week date (Feb half term) Residence Le Panorama – offers good value self-catering apartments sleeping 2-11. Seven nights self-catering in a two-bedroom apartment sleeping up to 6 would be from £882 per apartment (£147pp based on full occupancy) in low season and up to £1,873 per apartment for a peak week (£313pp based on full occupancy). New this coming season is Residence Les Grandes Alpes – 4-star apartments due to open in December 2011. Facilities include reception, games room, swimming pool, sauna and Jacuzzi.
Peak condition
Peak Retreats is a friendly, award-winning, independent niche tour operator featuring 40 Alpine resorts which offer genuine charm and authenticity. 

Making tracks
Return Rail Europe fares from London to Annecy start at £108 per person in standard class, subject to availability. For bookings, visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 4070.
Paris City Line taxis cost 30 euros per 8-seater vehicle