A sense of adventure

Resort:  Ax-les-Thermes
By:  Guy Russell

We’re just one-week-a-year skiers who had been wanting to try going by train for a few years but kept putting it off because we weren’t sure if it was affordable. We were finally motivated by Snowcarbon’s great new rail-ski map. After looking at the various options, Ax Trois Domaines in the French Pyrenees won out. It looked quaint, unusual, affordable, varied enough, and easy to get to via the Paris to Latour-De-Carol night train.
The four of us went Wednesday to Wednesday for the cheapest fares. We took the 15:31 Eurostar from St Pancras, arriving into Paris at 18:58. We took the number 91 bus from Rue de Saint-Quentin outside the Gare du Nord to the Gare d’Austerlitz. It takes 40 mins but you feel you’re really in Paris rather than in a tunnel. You can also take Metro Line 5, which has reopened following maintenance work.

We ate at one of the brasseries opposite the station (we chose the one with most room for our luggage) from about eight till just after nine, and then found our 21:40 Intercites de Nuit train. Note that Gare d’Austerlitz is currently under restoration/ reconstruction: you have to find the alley to the concourse, and weave about among boarding and scaffolding. There’s a good description of the Intercites de Nuit at seat61.com – we had a compartment to ourselves (‘espace privatif’) and just put the middle bunks up out of the way. They provide water, eye-masks and earplugs. 

The train doesn’t reach Ax-les-Thermes till 09:14 so you’re not likely to miss the stop in the morning and there’s great scenery for the last part. At Ax station we waited about three minutes for the free shuttle bus (it goes every ten minutes; or you can walk into town in the same time if you’re luggage isn’t too heavy) to the gondola station. Some people then take the gondola straight up to Bonascre, the purpose-built resort at 1400m, but we were staying in Ax itself (720m) at Hotel Le Chalet, about 150m from the lift. We were there by 09:30, had breakfast in the hotel, stored our luggage, got changed, went to the ski-hire shop, collected our ski-passes, took the gondola and were in the mountains by about 11:15.

Ax-les-ThermesAx-les-ThermesPhoto: Guy Russell

Ax Trois Domaines (as the area calls itself) has about 80km of varied slopes. We were lucky, arriving in sunny weather after a big snowfall; and twice more had that ideal combination of snowy nights and sunny days. So the conditions were fabulous – the only minor trouble being that hordes of locals and Toulouseans, rather starved of good snow till then, all turned up to enjoy it too. But we heard only three other lots of English all week (and about the same of Spanish) so it really feels like a properly French, rather than an international, resort. The old spa town of Ax too is pretty and charming, with cute shops and cool bars, a big square that’s like the centre of après, and the famous free open-air hot communal sulphurous foot-baths. You can also go to the proper spa (all the usual features), the casino (we didn’t try this but it looks grand enough), or just through the narrow streets, where there are steaming springs all over the place.

Ax-les-ThermesAx-les-ThermesPhoto: Debi Morgan

We used the hotel’s free ski-room, as it was so near the lift, and usefully from our third-floor balconies could see the gondola queue (or its absence). On the last day, Wednesday, we left our luggage again in the hotel’s storeroom, spent a full day on the slopes, then returned the hire-gear, had time for a stop in the sulphurous pool with all the other skiers bathing their worn-out feet, got changed, and took the shuttle out to the station. Here we had the only hitch of the trip: I found an email sent that morning by SNCF saying that our prospective 19:47 train, direct from Ax to Paris, was not going to stop at Ax due to ‘unavailable equipment’ and advising us to take the slightly earlier local train to Toulouse and pick up the night train there. This was all fine after the initial shock, but the top tip here is probably to check your emails on the last day, as I don’t know if this is a rare or common problem. So we left Toulouse about 22:30, arrived Paris Austerlitz at 07:02, took the 91 bus again and then the 09:02 Eurostar, and were in London at 10:30.

Ax-les-ThermesAx-les-ThermesPhoto: Debi Morgan

So it worked out a great holiday for us: great skiing, beautiful resort, straightforward travel, and a sense of adventure that you don’t get with package trips. It was also excellent value. By booking as soon as the rail tickets were out (prewarned by Snowcarbon’s useful alert) we got Eurostar tickets for £39 each way, and IC de Nuit for €37 and €44 euros (even including espace privatif). The hotel was a reasonable €522 each for six nights high season, half-board (with amazing food, and they went to great trouble to cater for our two pescatarians - they were expecting the usual omelette, but every night they got different types of fabulously prepared fish), when most hotels in French ski resorts tend to be way out of our price range. The only other travel costs were getting across Paris (€2.50 paid on the bus, or €1.80 with a Navigo card (Paris’ Oyster card)) and getting from home to London. So at £612 it compared well with, say, a Crystal Holidays trip, where we have to add getting to the airport and an overnight stay there (because of the super-early package-deal flight) – and this year we got (nearly) seven days’ skiing rather than six. Hooray!