Having taught our children to ski when we lived in Canada a few years go, but now living back in the UK, we felt a ski holiday was overdue
However, not wishing to fly for environmental reasons seemed to create barrier for a family of four (two boys 11 & 8) now living in Scotland — and with no real experience of long-distance European train travel.
A bit of research showed that London to the Alps was eminently do-able. The trickier bit was incorporating the Stirling to London leg. Total travel time from Stirling to the Alps was going to be in the order of 24 hours, so we decided that the most cost effective (and fun) itinerary would be:
• morning train to London
• afternoon Eurostar to Paris
• sleeper train to Briancon
— thereby avoiding stopovers.
Unfortunately, rail-booking agents would only sell us tickets from London so we had to sort out the UK leg separately and my big concern with that was what happens if our train down to London is late, we miss our Eurostar and then consequently our sleeper. Turns out the answer is a mixture of UK CIV tickets (from Scotland to London) and allowing plenty of time for changeovers. CIV tickets can only really be bought in train stations and station staff have rarely heard of them, but they allow you to get a later Eurostar if your UK connecting service is late.
And so, we arrive at Stirling train station just after 6am to allow plenty of time to get to Edinburgh for our 8am connection down to London. Accepting that the journey was a long one and wishing to minimise potential stress, should trains run late, we allowed three hours in London and two hours in Paris.
Of course, having done all this, the train connections all ran like clockwork and we had no issues at all. However, the generous schedule did allow Felix (our youngest son) to point out with glee that we had our meals in three different countries on the way down: breakfast in Scotland, lunch in England and dinner in France. What could be finer than that?
The train travel lived up to our expectations. In London we had time to get outside for a wander in the fresh air, have some food, buy more food for the next leg and still have ample time for check-in. Two hours in Paris was fine — we would not have wanted less as we were trying to cross Paris in a taxi on Valentine's night, so it was rather busy. We pre-booked with City Airport Taxis and that worked well (their website defaulted into € once I chose Paris though, so I ended up spending £5 more paying in that currency than if I had chosen £ at the outset - lesson learnt for next time).
We were able to board the sleeper with plenty of time to stow all of the luggage and settle in before our mystery pair arrived to complete the six beds in the couchette. The cost of securing the whole compartment to ourselves ended up being too much as the cost of the sleeper services was much more than initially estimated.
Sharing though was fine, the only issue being luggage space as, though we had only brought as much baggage as we could easily carry, we each had a large rucksack, plus a suitcase and then four smaller hand luggage type bags. We managed to squeeze into these helmets for each of us and ski boots for the adults. There was room enough for us and our luggage in the couchette, but it didn't give much for our companions. I felt sorry for the guy on the way down who ended up sleeping on the top bunk with his guitar! Though I'm not really sure where he would have put it anyway.
The sleeper train was an hour late into Briançon, but this didn't inconvenience us at all. In fact, it meant we got to see more mountain scenery before arriving. What’s worth knowing is that SNCF has a scheme called G30 that allows you to claim back a portion of your fare on TGV and Intercites services if your train is over 30 minutes late. It was announced on the train, but if you’re a bit sleepy and not fluent in French it would be easy to miss. We filled out the form online, SNCF confirmed the refund within 24 hours and delivered 25% of our fare back — an unexpected bonus.
We chose Montgenèvre in large part because it was a family-friendly resort at the end of a sleeper train. It was a good resort, but the week we went it was so unusually warm and sunny that snow conditions were not great and that put a bit of a dampener on the ski experience. Having enjoyed the luxury of regular weekend skiing in Canada, we weren't really up for six days of morning and afternoon skiing. It was only really by the latter half of the week that we had figured out the runs that had good snow, suited our collective ability and required the least amount of walking at the beginning and the end. We discovered some great wide-open spaces are the Gondrands area, up near the top, where snow was better due to the increased altitude. The pistes were much wider and accommodating for those like myself trying to rediscover ski skills - plenty of space to work things out.
Chalet des Dolines was great. The apartment was well sized for the four of us, two good-sized bedrooms and two showers, plus a comfortable kitchen-diner-lounge. Boot room was excellent and the ski hire and a supermarket were right next door — as was a boulangerie. You could ski in and out, but the snow conditions meant that we were better walking. Another year with better snow conditions though and that would work really well.
We greatly enjoyed the rhythm of the holiday. Yes, the travel took longer than flying, but we ended up effectively with eight days in the resort by arriving early Saturday and leaving Saturday evening (no big queues to collect equipment, no rush to pack and catch the coach to the airport). The journey also felt like part of the holiday in the way that trekking to the airport does not. It seemed like we had a 10 day holiday (though we were all a little weary when we got home again).
We packed plenty of entertainment for the kids and we enjoyed the time together (reading, watching, playing games). We slept well enough on the sleeper and what child (or indeed adult) does not find the concept of sleeping on a train exciting! Though we note that the middle bunks are not as comfortable for adults as the top and the bottom - another lesson for next time. We were lucky enough to be able to take the children out of school on the Friday before the holiday to make this work and it was definitely worth it, but even if that had not been possible the travel would still have worked.
All in all, I think we can safely declare the whole adventure a success! We would definitely recommend the method of travel and the resort to others. Going by train rather than plane is more expensive, but the experience is so much better that we’ll just appreciate it as the luxury it is. Travelling a little less often but better, is probably the way forward for us.
We were so very pleased with the holiday and for having been able to do it without flying. We can't thank Daniel from Snowcarbon enough for all his help putting it together.