Save your sanity and travel by train. Daniel Elkan, editor of flight-free website Snowcarbon, finds ten great ski resorts in Europe you can reach by rail.
When I first took up snowboarding I used to fly to resorts. I was regularly baffled by how a one-and-a-half-hour flight could morph into a nine-hour marathon of airport queues and transfers – and that wasn’t counting delayed flights. On one journey, to Sauze d’Oulx in Italy, I noticed a railway track down the hill as our transfer coach approached the village. I imagined it was too far from London by train, but a week later, peeking at an old Thomas Cook rail timetable, I made a discovery: there was only one train change to get to Sauze from London and, door-to-door, it would take only a little bit longer than flying. I returned to the Alps by train the next year and was hooked. Seated at a table playing cards with friends, scenery gliding by, I’d finally found an enjoyable way to travel to the slopes. At the same time, my rail journeys were notching up only a fraction – approximately one eighth – of the pollution created compared with flying.
Here are ten of the best resorts to make tracks for:
Don’t let this lesser-known resort fly under your skidar. You’ll find Claviere’s traditional village, which is at an altitude of 1,760 metres, brims with Alpine charm. Located right in the heart of the hugely popular 400km Milky Way ski area, the snow record is excellent and the fact that most runs are tree-lined is a big visual plus. Although the resort doesn’t offer a great deal for late-night party people, lively Montgenèvre is just a two-kilometre walk or taxi ride over the French border.
St Pancras on the 10.25am Eurostar, change in Paris and take the 3.24pm TGV, arriving Oulx at 8.05pm, then 15-minute taxi ride. Book return rail travel with Rail Europe from around £130.
It’s just about impossible to fault the skiing in Les Arcs. For beginners there’s a great ‘ski tranquille’ area above each village, while for intermediates, the seemingly endless network of runs mean carefree carving all day. Experts should check out the legendary Aiguille Rouge-Villaroger – a magnificent run. Of the several traffic-free villages that make up the resort, the newest arrival is Arcs 1,950. It’s a good set-up because you can literally ski through the village. The buildings, traditional style but newly built and perfectly arranged, make it feel rather like a ski version of ‘The Truman Show’. Another option is to stay in Bourg St Maurice, a working town that offers huge value for money, and take the seven-minute funicular ride up to the slopes each day.
St Pancras on the 10am Eurostar Direct Ski Train, arriving Bourg St Maurice at 6.51pm, then seven-minute ride by funicular train to Arcs 1,600. Rail-inclusive packages to Arcs 1950 from £549 with Inghams.
The crazy thing about Megève is how long the powder snow lasts. You can get back up the slopes day after day and it is still sitting there, untouched. This isn’t due to some magical meteorological quality of the region; it’s simply because Megève’s clientele mostly like to stay on piste. This is great news for those who like their powder snow accessible. Unsurprisingly for a resort founded in the 1920s by France’s bons viveurs, the restaurants are legendary. The very best are on the slopes, such as the rustic Raviere hut in the woods at Mont d’Arbois. And at the end of the day, Megève’s medieval village has a grand, cobbled main square that makes a blissful setting for a post-ski glass of steaming hot wine.
St Pancras on the 6.02pm Eurostar, change in Paris and take the 11.02pm Corail Lunea sleeper train, arriving St Gervais at 8.43am. Book rail travel with Rail Europe from £126.
No one does après-ski like the Austrians, and few resorts do it better than Söll. By the end of a week here you’ll have made new friends, danced on tables and been gently marinated in beer and glühwein in the welcome arms of bars like Moonlight. Be warned, however, that local legend DJ Ötzi has carved a living from creating cheesy remixes and you will hear these again and again and again. I love Söll’s friendly village and nightlife but the ski area is also a honey, part of the 279km Ski Welt. It’s intermediate heaven and the north-facing runs above Söll itself hold their snow well. The views over the Wilder Kaiser are fabulous from every angle, and if you have lunch on the slowly rotating sun terrace of the Gipfel restaurant at the top of Hohe Salve, you get a 360-degree tour as you eat.
St Pancras on the 4.02pm Eurostar, change in Paris and take the 8.20pm City Night Line sleeper train, arriving Woergl at 9.41am, then 15-minute taxi ride. Book rail travel with Deutsche Bahn (08718 808066) which offers returns from £215 in a six-berth couchette.
If you like sunny, varied pistes and long lunches, Crans-Montana is a solid choice. The panoramic views over the Rhône Valley are stunning, with skiing from 1,500m at the twinned villages up to 3,000m at Plaine Morte. It’s mostly rolling reds and easy blue runs, appealing for families. On slope you are spoilt for choice of mountain restaurants, but my favourite is the old Cabane des Taules, which used to be a cowshed. For the first time, from March 16 to 18 2011, the resort will host the City Ski Championships. Concurrently, the Momentum festival will have stand-up comedians and DJs, including Norman Jay, playing on the slopes and in the bars.
St Pancras on the 8.02am Eurostar, change in Paris and take the 12.58pm TGV, changing in Martigny to arrive Sierre 6.03pm; then 15-minute ride by funicular train. Rail packages with Switzerland Travel Centre from £799.
St Anton’s status as a popular destination for powder snow lovers and partygoers is well deserved. There are reams of off-piste areas to be explored, and lots of challenging slopes for advanced skiers. Any day’s exploring should end at the celebrated Moosewirt bar, which hosts daily après-ski mayhem. The village has character and bustle, and the railway station was recently relocated to the centre. The journey, through Switzerland to the Arlberg valleys provides an everchanging vista of lakes and mountains, and the final leg is on the smart new RailJet train.
St Pancras on the 6.22am Eurostar, change in Paris and take the 10.24am TGV, changing in Zurich, to arrive St Anton am Arlberg 6.57pm. Rail packages with Railbookers from £1,099.
The nightly sleeper train from Paris deposits you directly in Briançon, the first of several unpretentious villages that make up the resort of Serre Chevalier. Well known and loved by the French for its superb terrain, the resort is relatively undiscovered by the British. It’s an excellent choice for families, with good ski schools and nursery slopes such as those at Serre Ratier or Grande Alpe, plus bags of intermediate terrain to progress to. Of the villages, I’d recommend staying in Chantemerle for families or Villeneuve for bar-hopping options. Don’t expect wild nightlife here – save your energy for the slopes.
St Pancras on the 5.32pm Eurostar, change in Paris and take the 10.05pm Corail Lunea sleeper train, arriving Briançon at 8.30am, then 20-minute bus or taxi ride. Return rail fares with Rail Europe from £130.
Ask most British skiers about La Clusaz and they’ll reply ‘Where?’ It’s a resort that should be far better known, because it ticks a lot of boxes. The sweet village is located up the hill from the city of Annecy, and shares a 222km ski area with Le Grand Bornand. It is intermediate nirvana and there are plenty of easy off-piste options near most slopes. While the skiing isn’t high altitude, the snow holds well and the views of the magnificent Aravis mountain ranges make one of the most picturesque settings in the Alps. If you come for the last weekend in January, you can ski over to neighbouring Manigold for the Rhône-Alpes Husky Dog Challenge.
St Pancras on the 9am Eurostar, change in Paris and take the 1.50pm TGV, arriving Annecy 5.30pm, then 40-minute taxi ride. Return rail fares with Rail Europe from £108.
Verbier’s unparalleled off-piste options and animated nightlife means that it attracts a varied, cosmopolitan crowd. Some of the best off-piste options are the steep, open slopes off the Mont-Gelé cable car, and then the Après Ski Bar afterwards, for a rocking afternoon sun terrace with bands. The resort has cult status among snowboarders because of its extreme terrain, natural kickers and cliff jumps, and will host the Freeride World Tour in late March 2011, where extreme snowboarders compete on jaw-dropping terrain.
St Pancras on the 8.02am Eurostar, change in Paris and take the 1.09pm TGV, changing at Geneva and Martigny to arrive Le Chable 6.39pm, then 12-minute ride by cable car. Rail inclusive packages to Verbier from £624 with Inghams.
For music lovers and party people
Meribel has long attracted those who like a proper dose of nightlife with their skiing. Each year in March, the resort ups the ante with Little World Festival, a week-long event featuring British and French bands and DJs. It’s easy to stay out late here – but there is a lot to get up for. The resort sits bang in the middle of the 600km Three Valleys area, which has more piste than you could ever explore in a week and the local slopes are good for mixed-ability groups.
St Pancras on the 10am Eurostar Direct Ski Train, arriving Moutiers 6.13pm, then 20-minute transfer taxi. Rail inclusive packages to Verbier from £624 with Crystal.
The Time Out team seek out the best trips around Europe by rail, road or sea in this guide. This selection of 30 flight-free breaks from all points in the UK includes everything from practical family holidays to cross-continental voyages that restore the romance of travel.