Want to make your journey to the Alps more relaxing, and arrive in resort even earlier? Snowcarbon’s Daniel Elkan thinks he has the answer – Paris Stopover journeys to the Alps by train. Here’s his pick of ten ski destinations in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria that you can travel to this way.
Conventional wisdom says that, however you are travelling to a ski resort, you should get there as quickly as possible. Every effort should be made to shrink the journey time between your rain-soaked home and your snow-covered chalet in the Alps.
When I first discovered rail travel as an alternative to flying, the travel finally became enjoyable: no early-morning dashes to the airport, cramped flights and tedious transfers; instead it was all about watching the scenery glide by, in comfort.
However, I was still trying to get there as quickly as possible – and to persuade my ski buddies that the train can be as fast as flying. I even filmed a train versus plane race, Top Gear style, to prove it.
But recently I realised that there’s another way to do it. A slower way, which paradoxically gets you into your resort earlier. Instead of doing the journey in one go the same day, you travel to Paris the day or night before, stay in a hotel there and then get a fast TGV train the next morning, as the Parisians do, bound for the Alps.
By doing this, you have a lovely relaxed journey, get to see a bit of Paris if you want, and arrive in the resort while most skiers are still travelling. In many cases, arriving in resort for midday means that you can sneak a first afternoon on the slopes too.
This is particularly useful for skiers with Sunday to Sunday chalets in the popular Tarentaise region of the French Alps. As there is no Sunday daytime Eurostar Ski Train service from the UK, a Paris stopover journey provides a relaxed rail alternative.
There are plenty of TGV trains that leave from Paris each morning, and this kind of journey is viable for a variety of resorts in France, Switzerland Italy and Austria. In fact, I travelled this way with a big group of friends, having promised them that we would ski the same day that we arrived, and I filmed our journey. The film is above, and here’s a guide to some great resorts you can reach travelling this way.
Val Cenis, France
Val Cenis is at the hub of the beautiful, unspoiled Maurienne Valley. If you’re looking for a picture postcard holiday, you’ve found it: the view from the area’s second-highest peak, which overlooks Lac Du Mont Cenis and onwards into Italy, is extraordinary. The Haute Maurienne valley, in the Parc National de la Vanoise, has a more historic setting than most, and is anything but purpose-built.
Imagine a scaled-down Serre Chevalier – without the through-traffic in winter – and you’ll get some idea of the multiple-village feel of Val Cenis. It all fits together remarkably well, with a regular shuttle bus service between villages and lifts.
But what Val Cenis does best, in stark contrast to the idyllic but small mountain village resorts nearby, is variety. This is a place that offers much more than just skiing, and quite rightly the resort is proud of the range of activities that make it the number one family destination in the area. Children will love it here, and the beginner slopes are fantastic. Indeed, the resort is home to L’Escargot, the Alps’ longest green run.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 06:29 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Modane at 10:48; or the 08:27 TGV, arriving 13:07; from there it’s 30 minutes by bus or taxi.
Les Arcs, France
If you’re looking for a big French ski area, but you don’t want to pay a fortune to stay there, then Les Arcs is a good candidate. Set high above the town of Bourg St Maurice, where trains from London and Paris arrive to, the resort consists of seven mostly purpose-built villages scattered across the massif of the 3226m Aiguille Rouge. The 200km of high-quality pistes are on the doorstep and there’s another 225km in neighbouring La Plagne, linked by the Vanoise Express double-decker cable-car.
Many of the best pistes in Les Arcs lie above the villages of Arc 1600, Arc 1800 and Vallandry, and most are tree-lined for at least part of their length. They’re broad, well-groomed and confidence-boosting: and when the clouds come down or a storm blows in the lowlights cast by the trees, they add definition to the snow. So you can still have a blast here when skiers in Val Thorens or Tignes have retreated indoors.
Families will love going to Mille8 after skiing. It’s on the slopes at Arc 1800 and contains an aqua centre, a lodge with restaurant, a state-of-the-art luge course, and snow yoga – among many other facilities. For 2016-17 season the resort’s very first five-star hotel is opening in Arc 2000. The Taj I Mah, named after a 115-carat diamond, stars Le Diamant Noir restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Eric Samson.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 06:49 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Bourg St Maurice at 11:48; or the 07:49 TGV, arriving 12:51; or the 09:49 TGV, arriving 14:48; from there it’s seven minutes by funicular railway to Arc 1600, with bus connections to the other villages; you can also travel by bus or taxi (35 – 45 minutes) from Bourg St Maurice to all the villages.
Sauze d’Oulx, Italy
Some 30 years ago Sauze d’Oulx had the reputation as a Magaluf on ice, with its pub crawls more popular than the skiing. But Sauze has long since cleaned up its act and transformed itself into the charming Italian mountain village that it once was – and now is again. Sure, you can still go clubbing, but the primary reason for coming here is for the skiing – 400km of rolling pistes that link to Sansicario, Sestriere, Montgenevre and the rest of the Milky Way.
The pleasant family resort has arguably the best piste skiing in Italy and some excellent eating opportunities both on and off the mountain. However, Sauze is definitely not the best place for to learn to ski and it’s a no-no for families with babies and small children. The resort has a good mix of bars and restaurants: the newer part of town has the more affordable pubs and bars, contrasting with the Old Town’s wine bars and gourmet restaurants. It’s also a very short transfer from a train station, just a few minutes from Oulx, on the TGV route from Paris to Turin.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 06:29 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Oulx at 11:23; or the 10:41 TGV, arriving 15:43; from there it’s 15 minutes by bus or taxi.
Les Gets, France
Les Gets is a hugely popular family resort, and for good reason. The rolling pastures mean that it only takes a minimal amount of snow to be able to open, unlike some rocky higher resorts. And it’s part of the huge 600km Portes du Soleil ski area, with endless mileage to be covered, as well as excellent local slopes too.
The village is a pleasing mix of old Savoyard chalets and more modern wooden-and-stone buildings constructed in keeping with their beautiful alpine surroundings. An open-air ice-rink in the centre of town, opposite the attractive town hall building, provides a focal point for apres-ski family activity.
The atmosphere is releaxed, and there are some good places to eat both on and off the mountain. On a good day, the skiing around Les Gets and Morzine is superb – especially for beginner and intermediate levels. More advanced skiing and plentiful powder can be found on Mont Chery, which stays blissfully quiet.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 07:11 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Cluses at 11:05; from there it’s 25 minutes by bus or taxi.
Val Thorens, France
Val Thorens has become one of the best high-altitude ski resorts in the Alps – and it’s still developing. Bars like La Folie Douce and 360 have given it an apres-ski buzz, while a new generation of swish hotels like Altapura and Altitude 7 have broadened its appeal upmarket. There are some fabulous places to eat, too. Over the years, Val Thorens has actively supported talented restauranteurs, such as Jean Sulpice, whose Restaurant Jean Sulpice has two Michelin stars. Val Thorens’ lofty position has advantages and disadvantages, of course.
The white stuff stays in pretty good condition from November to the beginning of May, so it’s one of the best places in the Alps to ski in the late or early season. However, when a blizzard blows in, or the clouds come down, visibility drops to the end of your nose and there are few trees. But there’s plenty more than skiing here: the resort is home to France’s longest toboggan run, fat biking, gyrocopter flights and ice climbing.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 06:49 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Moutiers at 11:07; or the 07:49 TGV, arriving 12:12; or the 09:49 TGV, arriving 14:12; from there it’s 45 minutes by bus or taxi.
Saas Fee, Switzerland
Saas Fee is an incredibly cute resort, with a village surrounded by thirteen 4,000m peaks. Staying here will feel like you are living in a picture postcard: blackened hay barns pepper its car-free streets and every view over the roofs is topped with thousands of metres of crags and snow. There are some superb runs – in particular, the 1700m on-piste descent from the 3500m Allalin funicular station, passing by the Morenia mid-station, all the way back down into town – the kind of thigh-burner that you can repeat again and again.
There are also other activities here including ice climbing, tobogganing, winter walking and paragliding. Food on the mountain is excellent, and you can eat at the highest revolving restaurant in the Alps, which turns through 360 degrees during the course of your meal. In the village there are plenty of restaurants and bars, giving the place a buzz in the evenings.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 07:57 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Visp at 14:04; from there it’s 50 minutes by connecting bus.
Avoriaz is part of the Portes du Soleil – an endlessly varied playground, boasting 197 ski lifts, 650km of pistes, 10 terrain parks and oodles of off-piste in between. Set at the top of a great cliff, in a high-ish mountain bowl, Avoriaz has always been one of the most forward-looking ski resorts in the Alps. Designed to be car-free, it’s based around a series of high-rise buildings that are linked by boulevard-style pistes on the outside, and stairs, lifts and covered walkways within.
Most of the accommodation is in self-catering apartments, and some of it is brand-new. Nearly all of it is ski-in, ski-out. Avoriaz has also had an open mind when it comes to the latest trends and was one of the early Alpine capitals of snowboarding. It built its first terrain park and half-pipe back in 1993. Ever since, it’s been a big supporter of freestylers, whether on one plank or two, and these days boasts three parks and a super-pipe, as well as one of Burton’s ground-breaking Stash forest parks. There’s also the innovative tropical pool centre, the Aquariaz, with lagoons and waterslides.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 07:11 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Cluses at 11:05; from there it’s 50 minutes by bus or taxi.
Val d’Isere, France
Hugely popular with the Brits, Val d’Isere’s village sits at a lofty 1850m. The skiing goes up 3400m in Val and 3456m at the top of the Grande Motte in Tignes, the resort with whom it shares the Espace Killy ski area. To really get the best this place you need to ski well, but that’s not to say that intermediates and even complete novices can’t enjoy themselves here. Val d’Isere is home to 27,000 guest beds and some 30% of visitors are British, but it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon. An eclectic group of French, Dutch, Scandinavians and other nationalities make up the rest.
On offer are a mouthwatering 300km of pistes, and 10,000 hectares of off-piste. To put this in perspective that’s 24,710 acres – three times more than Whistler, the biggest area in North America. Last winter – Val d’Isere’s 80th with lifts – saw the massif de Solaise area remodelled, with some 70,000 cubic metres shifted in order to regrade the summit as a new beginner area.
The village is very lively, with plenty of bars and clubs, as well being a magnet for high-end chefs. Indeed, you can even hone your cooking skills here: Chef Benoit Vidal at L’Atelier d’Edmond in Le Fornet runs a cooking course each month followed by a dégustation in the adjoining bistrot.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 06:49 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Bourg St Maurice at 11:48; or the 07:49 TGV, arriving 12:51; or the 09:49 TGV, arriving 14:48; from there it’s 40 minutes by bus or taxi.
Serre Chevalier, France
Many skiers find Serre Chevalier a refreshing change after the big resorts further north. The resort has pretty, tree-lined pistes and the charming restaurants on and off the mountains. The laid-back, Gallic atmosphere is appealing too – and all this comes with relatively low prices.
The resort also offers something that sets it apart from other resorts in Europe – Les Cols’Porteurs. These are free 90-minute tours of the ski area, every day of the week. Serre Chevalier’s ski area is quieter, prettier, and more forgiving than many of those further north – and 80% of the ski area is above 2000 metres. Officially encompassing 250km of pistes, it’s a big area too: it’ll take a confident group of piste-skiers at least a couple of hours to get from one end of the resort to the other – provided they keep their speed up and don’t stop for coffee.
The resort is also very good for first-timers and families, with dedicated beginner zones at each village and plenty of childcare facilities, so even toddlers can be kept entertained.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 06:29 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at Oulx at 11:23; or the 10:41 TGV, arriving 15:43; from there it’s 50 minutes by bus or taxi.
St Anton, Austria
You might come to St Anton for the advanced terrain or the legendary nightlife, or a combination of both. You won’t be disappointed. The skiing here is epic, the snow plentiful, and the mountain huts vibrant. And this winter, three new cable-car systems will connect all ski resorts on the Arlberg – turning it into Austria’s largest inter-connected ski area with a total of 305km of marked runs and 87 lift and cable-car systems. This will mean that the Arlberg-Arena will therefore extend from St Anton in Tirol to Lech and Zürs, as well as Warth and Schröcken in Vorarlberg.
If you know other resorts in Austria, it’s worth realizing how different the terrain is from places like Kitzbuhel, Schladming, and Saalbach. This is serious, high Alpine stuff – and very similar in character to what you’ll find in Verbier or Tignes. With such a cosmopolitan village, there are plenty of non-ski activities too, including a huge spa complex, the Arlberg Well, and the sports and climbing centre. There’s also the fascination museum of ski history, where you can see just how the sport has developed from its origins to the modern day.
Paris-stopover rail journeys: Depart from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar (choose your most suitable train time) and stay over in Paris; next morning take the 07:23 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon to Zurich, change there and take the 12:40 RailJet train, arriving at St Anton at 15:03.
A money-saving tip when booking
One of the most important things to know about Paris stopovers is that although you break your journey in Paris, as long as you stay less than 24 hours your journey can count as a ‘through journey’ and be valid for a Connection Fare, which is where the Eurostar and the TGV journey count as one combined, saving you money over booking the legs separately.
These journeys are most easily booked over the phone, by call-centre staff or rail-booking experts who can scan rail systems easily for lower fares, for example suggesting train combinations that would save you money, or where an upgrade would cost little extra.
Hotels in Paris near Gare de Lyon:
Rail travel information sources and booking:
More information on rail travel to ski resorts can be found at the online independent guide, Snowcarbon.