‘Seven hours on a train!’. My friend was incredulous. ‘With a kid?’, she added, lest I’d forgotten.
But actually, in terms of travel time, taking the train isn’t dissimilar to flying. With a two-hour airport check-in, a two-hour flight, plus an average two-hour airport / ski resort transfer, that’s six hours accounted for already – not to mention our French friends’ passion for striking, or three miles of inter-terminal trolley-pushing.
Eurostar’s daytime snow train, direct from London St Pancras to the foot of the French Alps, runs once a week on Saturday throughout the ski season. No change in Paris (hence no gare to gare schlep across the city); and no weight or shape restrictions on baggage. The latter makes it a popular option for serious skiers with their own equipment and, as we found out, for family skiing trips.
Our train pulled out of St Pancras at 9.45 am on the dot, as advertised – suitcases neatly stowed, seated comfortably, and a Pret a Manger lunch to look forward to. The train, despite being full of families, was peaceful. Children of all ages – including our nine-year-old Emmy – relaxed into the journey surprisingly well with books, films and iPads. Even the very young ones – particularly those whose parents had downloaded 60 episodes of Peppa Pig – weren’t swinging from the baggage racks or running down the aisles.
We happily resigned ourselves to the hours ahead of reading, snoozing, chatting and film-watching – punctuated by leg-stretching strolls to the buffet car for tea, coffee and snacks. Both the ever-changing scenery and the hours sped by.
Choose a family-friendly hotel
A 25-minute transfer took us from the tiny train station at Aime La Plagne to the Hotel Terra Nova in La Plagne. Gargantuan ugly brown block it may be (scrap that, it is) but, once you’re inside, the hotel’s typically Alpine-style charm and comfort – plus the welcome it bestows on families – counter its outer beast.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in its panoramic restaurant overlooking the slopes. We went straight in for an early supper – a three-course buffet-style feast – to find children piling their plates with French cheeses and charcuterie, salads and vegetables, fish, chicken and pasta – all fresh and appealingly presented. And who – adult or child – can resist helping themselves to deep bowls of thick chocolate mousse, cheesecake, tiramisu, a freezer full of ice cream flavours and canisters of squirty cream? Plus apples, pears, oranges, bananas but…come on, really?
Ski school is the key on a family skiing trip
As Emmy went off the next morning for her ski lesson, I handed her instructor a piece of paper with my mobile number on it. ‘Ah yes’, Stephane said slyly, with a wink. ‘I will call you’. The blood rushed to my cheeks, I was so embarrassed. But no need – he quickly held up his hand, laughing. Obviously well-used to over-protective mothers fearing for their precious children’s safety, he understood exactly what the piece of paper was for and reassured me kindly.
On the piste in La Plagne
Feeling confident that Emmy was in capable hands, my husband Ali and I savoured our mornings exploring La Plagne’s wide variety of pistes. 85% of these are blue or red, making it an intermediate skier’s wonderland with otherworldly, uplifting scenery to match. We stuck mostly to the blues, swooping down long, empty, open stretches, zig-zagging across narrow, tree-lined runs, and cutting through some of La Plagne’s smaller, more traditional villages.
We’d never skied just the two of us before and, despite the difference in our experience, we made compatible ski partners. I’ve skied many times but err on the side of caution and just want to enjoy it; he’s newer to the sport but passionate about it, faster than me and far braver.
The run down from Roche de Mio became our favourite. The views from here are spectacular and, aside from one distinctly red stretch, the descent is gentle, beautiful and exhilarating. Plus, it features the ‘disco tunnel’ (as we called it) – a 100m skiable tunnel with flashing coloured lights.
I felt so relaxed – especially since I’d spied Emmy’s class on various occasions and seen how attentive Stephane was, always waiting for the stragglers before continuing. On one day Ali and I lost track of time and were running late to collect her. I texted our rep, apologising and asking if he could wait five minutes with her until we arrived, and immediately received a text back from him: ‘No prob’.
The week passed in a flash: early mornings kick-started by copious continental and cooked breakfasts; mid-morning, mid-mountain cappuccinos; lunch at Croq Neige (a glass of fizz and an excellent salmon croque monsieur for me, six days on the trot); pre-dinner card games in the hotel’s bar; and early to bed.
On our last evening, the hotel informed us that breakfast the following morning would be available from 4am to cater for the early flights out. Another reason, I thought, to take the train – which wasn’t departing until 10.13am. Civilised.