The Eurostar to the slopes has been reinstated — a more sustainable, door-to-door alternative to flying. Sean Newsom books a seat on the first departure
Put away your cabin bags, snow fiends. Rip up your airline boarding cards. Eurostar’s daytime Ski Train is back for the first time since Covid.
Last Saturday, December 16, a new version of the service that ran from 1997-2020 made its inaugural journey from St Pancras International in London to the French Alps. For anyone who knew and loved the original it was an emotional moment. That train was a thing of beauty. A seamless glide into the heart of the Tarentaise Valley, it brought British skiers almost to within touching distance of many of their favourite resorts, Val d’Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs, Courchevel and Méribel among them. Its return feels like one of the last markers of post-Covid recovery.
For skiers worried about climate change it’s a hopeful moment too, because travelling by train rather than by plane is one of the biggest steps you can take to reducing your holiday’s carbon footprint. It’s particularly beneficial for a trip to France, where the railway system runs on electricity generated largely by nuclear power and renewables. Research by the Ecollective carbon consultancy has found that for trips starting in London, a rail-based French ski holiday can produce just a tenth of the CO₂ generated by a flights-inclusive beach holiday to Greece.
Hang on a minute. A ski trip that isn’t a guilt trip? I begged for a ticket to be on the inaugural train. You can book it as part of a package with some tour operators, or independently from £394 return (eurostar.com).
Admittedly, it isn’t quite the service it used to be. It is, for example, no longer direct. The dedicated Ski Train runs from Brussels via Lille to the Alps. To connect with it you catch the 09.01 Eurostar from St Pancras, get off at Lille, and after an hour’s wait catch the second train to Albertville, Moûtiers, Aime-la-Plagne and Bourg-St-Maurice. As a result the full journey (eight hours 24 minutes) is slightly longer than some of the pre-Covid services. The train is shorter than a normal Eurostar too, so seats are limited.
Nor is it what you or I would call a Eurostar. It’s a rebadged Thalys train, now part of Eurostar’s rolling stock after the two companies merged. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of recycling, of course. But it does take an hour or two to become accustomed to the blood-red velour seating inside. Does any of this matter? No, provided you can get a seat. An hour’s wait in Lille is still an improvement on the sweaty-palmed alternative — that is, taking a train to the Alps via Paris, which involves man-handling your luggage from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon using the RER underground system or a taxi. In Lille you can while away the hour scoffing pear and almond tarts at the station’s patisserie instead.
On either side of that frangipane-flavoured interlude a delicious day awaits. Between Calais and Lyon, France flashes by at mind-boggling speeds: motorway traffic seems almost stationary by comparison. Then, when you start burrowing into the Alps, the scenery slides past the window at a more stately pace, inviting you to oooh and ahhh at it. In between you can settle into a good book, binge-watch season six of The Crown or talk the hind legs off your favourite donkey. In other words, the holiday begins when you climb aboard the train at St Pancras. You wouldn’t say the same of a busy flight.
Just be sure, if you’re travelling independently, to build a little flexibility into your onward transfer plans. Trains can be delayed just as planes can, and because of trouble around Chambéry (which affected all services into the Tarentaise) ours was an hour and 40 minutes late. Each station in the valley serves a handful of stellar resorts, but to reach them you need to travel on by taxi or scheduled bus services — and the latter don’t run late into the evening. Taxis are a safer bet.
Better still, do your skiing in intermediate-friendly Les Arcs. This is the closest ski area to Bourg-St-Maurice — so close, in fact, that it’s connected by a seven-minute funicular train, which runs until 9pm. There is admittedly a fearsome set of stairs to climb to get onto the footbridge leading to it. But if you’re staying in Arc 1600 — the village at the top — it’s a short walk onwards to most of the accommodation.
I stayed in the Hotel La Cachette up in Arc 1600, which is pretty much the perfect Ski Train option. Revamped last winter, it’s cute and kooky — and is close not just to the top funicular station but to the best red-rated piste in the whole of Les Arcs. Long, steep and slightly rumpled, its tilts and bumps will keep your turns exciting from start to finish. And helpfully, the piste is called La Cachette. You won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.
19 décembre 2023