Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter Were you able to sleep?
Train traveller 1 That’s the plan, I mean, you’re not going to get the best sleep, but at least it gets you there and an extra day skiing.
Train traveller 2 Maybe lie on the floor.
Train traveller 3 I’ve taken a lot of night trains around the world, and I quite enjoy having a lie down. But obviously, I appreciate it’s not possible.
Train traveller 4 We all met at uni and we used to have up to 30-hour coaches. So this is…
Peter This week, we’re going skiing and letting the train take the strain. The downside is having to sit up all night for nine hours in your seat during the rail journey across Europe. The reward is a full seventh day on snow in a one-week holiday. And being able to bring your own equipment and whatever luggage you want at no extra cost. Now, Travelski Express is a brand new charter that takes snow lovers from the Victorian Gothic splendour of St Pancras station in central London directly to Moûtiers and Bourg St Maurice in the French Alps. These two towns are the railheads for a host of French resorts. And these include Les Arcs, La Plagne, Méribel, Tignes and Val d’Isère.
Felice Well, there’s nothing new here. Eurostar has been running direct trains to Bourg St Maurice on winter weekends since 1997 actually.
Peter Yes, but in 2020, to the horror of its regular snowbound customers, it dropped the service, citing the pandemic as a reason. But in fact, the real reason was probably far more related to Eurostar’s dire financial situation at the time and the need to concentrate on more lucrative intercity services. UK emergency laws prevented British skiers travelling to France that winter, and there was little or no prospect of services being restored for the following one.
Felice Enter Guillaume de Marsillac and his French tour operator Travelski. This is the accommodation arm of CdA – or the Compagnie des Alpes, which happens to be the largest owner of ski lifts in Europe.
Peter Now, the absence of British skiers in the French Alps has been really hurting resorts in general and CdA in particular. You see, British skiers are really important to the Alpine economy. Sure, the UK has hardly registered on the scoreboard of the Winter Olympics. But until Brexit and the pandemic, they accounted for over 45% of winter clients in major resorts in France, 45% of the people who buy lift tickets.
Felice How could this be? Very simply, the vast majority of Europeans can only take vacations at set times of year. Brits, on the other hand, can traditionally take time off whenever it suits them. For example, in January, which is largely a no-go month among the French and others, major resorts rely on a high percentage of British to fill their beds.
Peter The situation is really hurting CdA where it hurts most: in its pocket. So Guillaume decided to do something about it. Now, in the past Eurostar has always steadfastly refused to run charters from London. I know this personally because five years ago I tried to arrange one on behalf of a major French resort, and the answer from top management was a resounding ‘impossible.’ A consortium of British tour operators also tried without success, but I guess CdA has rather more firepower than all of us.
Felice And all of this is why Peter and I found ourselves on a Friday evening on the platform of St Pancras, along with 300 or so excited fellow skiers and snowboarders waiting to board the first direct train of the winter to Moûtiers and Bourg St Maurice.
Traveller 1 It feels like an airport. It’s not quite the train station experience.
Peter No indeed. The passport and health security procedures seem pretty straightforward. But when we put our cases through the X-ray machine, I’m immediately red flagged. I’d brought along a bottle of Champagne to toast the departure of the first direct chartered Eurostar from London to the French Alps and I failed to read the small print on my ticket. The night train is dry, no personal alcohol allowed and none served on board, so I say farewell to my bottle of Moët as it disappears into a waste bin at security. I just hope the station cleaners managed to rescue it and pull the cork. Perhaps the no-alcohol rule is a good idea. If we want to ski tomorrow, it’s better that we sleep rather than party tonight.
Felice Our seats are Standard Premier, which means that they partially recline and we also get an airline-style dinner and breakfast the next day. At the start of the ski season the decision by the French government to ban British visitors from the country means that we’re leaving weeks behind schedule. But shortly after 8pm on the last Friday in January, the train pulls slowly out of St Pancras.
Peter Before you know it, we’ve slipped beneath the channel and are making our way slowly southwards. No doubt the train could be going a lot faster, but the idea is to reach Moûtiers at about 6am, no earlier, for our coach transferred to La Plagne, which is our destination for the next few days.
Now that we are finally on our way and have already reached French soil, Guillaume has got a huge smile on his face. Guillaume, you must be very pleased that you finally got the project off the ground. So here we are, we’ve just left Lille and we’re moving down now through France. So far, so good.
Guillaume Yes, so far so good, as you say. We are very excited. It’s been quite a journey. It’s like a pregnancy, you know, it started nine months ago, back in April ’21…we thought, ‘Let’s, let’s go for this adventure’ and here we are and we have our first train running, so I’m quite pleased. Yes, quite happy.
Peter And how many passengers have you got tonight?
Guillaume Tonight we have over 300 passengers, precisely 310 which is quite quite an amazing number in view of the context and the complexity of organising all this in the middle of the COVID crisis.
Peter Because unfortunately, you missed the first six weeks of the season, but you still have, what, 12 rotations left?
Guillaume Yes, we do: 12 rotations, which is quite a lot and we are quite happy and we are seeing a huge pickup, especially for the latter weeks of the of the season. Obviously for the very short term, most people have already organised their holidays. But it looks pretty exciting, yes, for the rest of the season.
Peter We’re talking to a group of lads sitting beside me and they couldn’t understand why they’re here. They didn’t understand what was going on because they’d seen your website, they’d booked. They had no idea they were booking with a French tour operator, but they’ve always come on the train. They saw you had a train, so they’ve come on it and they’re thrilled.
Guillaume Well, that’s the whole story. We believe in the train, we believe those packages make a lot of sense. We did listen to what clients were looking for, and we know that many people were very fond of the ski train. And so resurrecting it and making it available again to the English community is a great thing. So I’m glad they love it.
Peter So did Eurostar stop running the train for financial reasons or because of COVID?
Guillaume Well, I’m not here to comment about Eurostar decision, so it’s up to them to tell us or to tell you. What we know is that this partnership makes a lot of sense, both for them and for us, and we have really collaborated together to build up this proposal. And now we are happy to make it run. And in a couple of weeks, we will start to discuss whether we should continue, do it differently next year. Maybe they will do it by themselves, maybe we will add another train by ourselves. We’ll see. But for now, let’s enjoy the first season.
Peter It’s important to point out that this is really a charter train, right? It’s not actually a scheduled service, although some of the people on it think they may be on a scheduled service, but they’re not. You have to have booked with you to come on the train. Is that right?
Guillaume Absolutely. Yes, it’s it’s clearly not a scheduled train. It’s a fully owned train. I mean, a Travelski train, and obviously, yes, the only way to book this train is to go through our website and actually book on our website to buy a package, which includes not only the train, but also includes some accommodation and a ski pass and a number of services which go together.
Peter Felice, what do you think of the journey so far?
Felice Very comfortable, nice, comfortable seats that recline; wide seats, big tables, food – better than airplane food, lots of room to stretch your legs, go and walk around if you want to. It would be nice to have some screens so you could watch something, but I suppose everyone has their own, so it doesn’t matter.
Peter There’s a lot of people on board with skis, and there’s plenty of room for all the luggage.
Felice That’s the best thing. You can have all your washing things with you in your hand luggage. You can take as much as you want with you, plenty of room, so you don’t have to worry about weighing your luggage or anything like that. The only thing is when you go through security, you have to lift your suitcase up quite high by yourself and then get it off again for it to go through the X-ray machine. So you want to be strong and have a good back. What have you eaten this evening, Peter?
Peter Well, I had macaroni cheese and spinach, which was not bad at all…and a coke and a cup of coffee.
Felice I’ve had the vegan option, which is marinated mushrooms with charred vegetables which was quite good…and fruit salad afterwards.
Peter I know in a minute we’ve got to try and see if we can get a bit of shuteye.
Felice That’s going to be difficult because everyone’s very chatty around us. They do supply you with eye masks, but that’s not going to help you. We’ve brought with us our own cushions and I bought earplugs, so hopefully we can get a bit of sleep. And I brought my own pashmina as a blanket, too.
Peter As you can hear, everyone’s pretty excited the thought of skiing tomorrow morning. And I don’t know how much sleep we’re going to get, but we’re going to try anyway.
So a bit of a sleep. Not much, I have to say. But now it’s 04.20 in the morning and we’re having breakfast.
Felice It’s a bit early for me, especially when they came and asked me if I wanted a cooked breakfast. Anyway, we’re getting off in an hour and a half, so I suppose it’s now breakfast time.
Peter We’re going to get off at about quarter to 6:00 in the morning, which I’ve said is a bit tough. But hey, we’re going skiing.
Loud speaker You’re arriving Moûtiers in around 15 minutes. Please get off the train at the next stop. If you are travelling to Méribel, La Plagne, Les Menuires or Brides les Bains, if you are leaving us here please gather all your belongings ready for arrival. Thank you.
Peter Here we are on Moûtiers Station. So how much sleep have you had, Felice?
Felice Probably four hours, I should think, because they started turning on the lights and serving breakfast quite early and there was a bit of chat…people chatting until about 11.00pm. So yes, it was OK.
Peter An hour to wait now before we can get our coach up to La Plagne. It’s kind of a long morning already, isn’t it?
Felice It definitely is, yes. And when we get to our hotel, we don’t know if we can check in or not. We’ll have to see when we get there.
Peter Maybe we’ll be lucky. We’ll find out.
Felice We’ve chosen to stay in La Plagne. It’s one of seven Travelski destinations this winter and we’ve chosen it because it’s close to Moûtiers and also because we haven’t been there for several years. La Plagne isn’t one but 11 resort villages scattered across the mountain at different altitudes. Most of them are purpose built, but there’s also some traditional villages such as Champagny and Montchavin, and it’s linked by a giant cable-car to Les Arcs. Together, they form the Paradiski area with a huge 435 kilometres of linked pistes. You’ll never run out of terrain here.
Peter Some people claim that La Plagne offers just motorway skiing for intermediates, but that’s not fair at all. Of course, it suits holidaymakers who want to put a big mileage beneath their feet each day. After all, it’s a huge area of immaculately groomed pistes of all standards, but it also suits beginners, families and…you’re not expecting this… extreme skiers. As we were about to discover that some serious steep here off-piste. And no, there’s nothing benign or boring about La Plagne’s ski area, I can tell you.
Felice We were booked into a hotel at Plagne Centre. Not the prettiest, but one of the most convenient purpose-built villages at an altitude of 1970 meters. Transfer time up from Moûtiers was just 30 minutes and dawn broke to reveal a perfect bluebird day: cold and sunny. What more could we want? As expected, our room at the three-star Belambra Club La Terra Nova, wasn’t quite ready. But after another breakfast, we changed into ski gear, grabbed rental skis and met up with our guide Thierry. And we were raring to go when the lifts open at 9am. Ready to ski? Hmmm…tired but not ready to go to sleep yet. Who would be on such a perfect day?
Peter ‘So what do you want to do?’ said Thierry. Well, what we thought we should do is to explore as many of the pistes we can, so that we can see how they all link together. We’re only here for a couple of days, and it’s been a while since we were here.
‘Bad idea,’ said Thierry, checking the signals from our avalanche transceivers, ‘It’s quite a big week here, with the half term holidays coming up, I think we’ll go off-piste. I’ve got a great itinerary for you and you’ll enjoy this, and it’s a chance to see a bit of La Plagne’s wildlife along the way.’ Thierry, as we were about to discover, doesn’t do pistes.
Peter So we’re down in Champagny le Haut, which is a little hamlet above Champagny itself. It’s just got cross-country skiing by the look of it, and cross-country is about what we’ve been doing. We’ve come down a cliff face as far as I can see. Looking back up at where we’ve been, it’s really quite extraordinary that we got here in one piece. All thanks, I have to say, to Thierry our guide, who got us down, but I’m not sure it was something I really wanted to do. Felice, run us through what we’ve done over the last two or three hours?
Felice Well, our guide…ESF guide. He said that because it’s quite crowded on piste, and we can now ski therefore lots and lots of people are here. We would avoid it and go off-piste. We haven’t done anything like this for a few years, so we were not at all sure. And anyway, he assured us that it would be a nice, lovely flat open powder field.
It hasn’t snowed here for some weeks, but it’s north-facing so it would be protected and he was right. It was gorgeous, an open powder field. We had lots and lots of turns through powder, not very steep. And then I sort of suspected that it was on a plateau and that you actually have to get off the plateau at some time. And that’s what we had to do.
Peter Yes. Well, he did tell us that it would towards the end, it would be a little bit of a narrow path, as he put it, where we would sort of side-slip and stop and look up and… with a bit of luck, we should see quite a lot of wildlife and that we would see bouquetin, which is a kind of mountain goat with huge horns. And they go for cliff faces, we should have thought of that one, and we’d maybe see a few vultures and perhaps an eagle even. But anyway, we carried on down through the powder field, which was pretty good. I have to say it could have been a lot worse than what I’m about to tell you…the worst bit. But it could have been a lot worse because he wanted to start from up on the glacier and take us down quite a difficult piece of off-piste first. But fortunately for us, the high winds had closed the lifts up to the glacier.
So we started with the Roche de Mio, which is itself high enough. I think it’s 2700 or something, and had done into – or rather towards – the valley. Felice is right, the talent through the powder in the middle were sensational. I mean, it’s three weeks, three and a half weeks since it snowed. Then there was just glorious, untouched field with ice crystals dancing on top of the snow, and it was really, really beautiful. And then it just kind of got a bit worse.
Felice First of all we went down a very narrow path, which you had to side-slip, and then the snow ran out. Then there was more snow. Well, when the snow ran out, we could clamber over it on our skis; it was sort of grassy. Then there was a bit more snow, much narrower. Then the snow ran out altogether so we had to take our skis off.
Peter It was very narrow; I guess it was probably a little bit over a metre, and dropping away on the left hand side completely sheer for I don’t know how many feet, but I wasn’t going to look too close to the edge to find out. And the edge was crumbling a bit, so you had to think very carefully where you put each footstep. But our guide had sort of feet like a bouquetin really, and he just sort of strode forward with our skis and occasionally he put the skis down and he came back and he helped us with our footsteps. But this whole process took what…how long did it take?
Felice An hour and a half, I think.
Peter Normally when you have those things, you think, ‘Oh, well, you know, we’ll do 100 meters like this and then we’ll be back on the snow,’ but we would turn corners on this, It wasn’t really a path at all, It was just a sort of like a ledge on the cliff face. And then when you turned a corner, which was not easy in itself, you could see the same conditions stretching out for maybe 300 or 400 metres ahead and then no sign of snow.
Felice So on and on we went, very slowly turning corners, working our way down the cliff face until finally, what a relief we got onto the piste at the bottom.
Peter Well, piste is not the word. Actually, what we got onto was the same ledge, slightly wider with some traces of snow on it. Enough certainly to ski on. And so in a sort of glorified sideslip, we carried on down this for maybe another quarter of a mile or something like that.
Felice We had to pole along the cross-country…or over the cross-country track, and I was so exhausted.
Peter Well, I can’t tell you the sense of relief to be one down in one piece and to look back up…you wouldn’t think any any human or indeed any goat could have come down there. But we did, and the reward was the refuge that we’ve just been into.
Felice Which was a beautiful old place decorated with lots of old books and funny hats and mountain eclectica and really warm and cosy and delicious food. Really delicious. So it was worth it for that. That refuge, by the way, is called Refuge Du Bois. I had a Croute au fromage, one of the traditional dishes of the Savoie and Haute Savoie. I mean, it really was some of the best mountain food I’ve ever had. The dish is basically bread soaked in wine, topped with melted cheese. I had goat’s cheese on mine, and then a fried egg on top. If that doesn’t get your legs working again after a morning like that, nothing will.
Peter So a taxi took us from Champagny le Haut to the main ski resort village of Champagny, from where we caught a gondola back up into the main ski area. Thierry, led us home…off-piste, it has to be said, whenever possible. ‘We’re just avoiding the crowds on piste,’ he said. Personally, I suspect a true mountain man like Thierry avoids groomed slopes whenever he possibly can. So finally, we return to the Terra Nova as the light was fading, exhausted, but absolutely exhilarated. What a day. The train? That was yesterday, wasn’t it?
Well, it’s been a great couple of days. After that first truly incredible one, weatherwise we’ve had a bit of a whiteout today, but hey, that’s a ski holiday. We made our way across La Plagne for lunch at Chez Pat du Sauget above Montchevin, located just above the cable-car linked to Les Arcs.
At irregular intervals we’ve been coming to Pat’s for years and years and it’s really refreshing to discover that it’s still the same family-run business that it always was, with the simplest of menus at still sensible prices. Madame may have handed on the business to her children, but hey, she’s still out there handing out the Génépi.
We’ve now handed our skis back to El Pro, a small shop in the mall at Plagne Centre, but we thoroughly recommend them for rentals. We got exactly the kind of skis we wanted and the service with a huge smile was absolutely brilliant. Now we’re having dinner at Pepi & Co, a very pleasant little pizza place in Plagne Centre on the edge of the piste, and outside the snow is softly falling on the terrace. Felice, home tomorrow. Thoughts on La Plagne overall as a destination?
Felice Well, I think my favourite villages in La Plagne are Belle Plagne and Plagne Villages because I find them more attractive. But overall, it doesn’t matter where you stay, the skiing is good and you can get everywhere, it’s all very convenient and I think probably the best sort of person it suits is a family with young children because there’s a nursery and kindergarten and ski school in every village, the piste skiing is quite tame.
Peter There’s some serious skiing for advanced skiers as well, isn’t there?
Felice Yes, you are taken by surprise because everyone thinks of La Plagne as having motorway skiing. Well, it doesn’t. It does have nice wide pistes, but it also has some very steep off-piste as well.
I think the train is very good value and I like the thought that it’s environmentally friendly, better than flying, and I don’t think it takes any more time to go by train than it is to go by air because you get delays and things like that, whereas you don’t normally on the train.
Peter Yes, I’d certainly come back and by train, it’s a good way to travel. Our homeward would transfer to Geneva Airport is a bit of a treat. In keeping with our low carbon arrival by train, Della from the Coolbus, a business based in Bourg St Maurice down the road, is going to pick us up in her Tesla for the 125 mile run to the Swiss airport.
Felice If you want to know more about Travelski and the charter train, check out www.uk.TravelSki.com – and if you want to know more about La Plagne, go to en.la-plagne.com – and for that Tesla experience, or less exotic airport transfers in the French Alps, talk to Della at www.thecoolbus.co.uk
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