How to get the kids skiing and still have a good time

The Channel Tunnel means easier access to the pistes. Christian Wolmar and his family put the London to Les Arcs connection to the test
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The Independent Travel
There is now a new way for skiers to get to the Alps. The opening of the Channel Tunnel with fast trains direct to Lille and Paris offers a potentially relaxing and easy way to get to the slopes, especially as many resorts are within a short bus or taxi ride from the little stations along the line from Chambery to Bourg St Maurice.

We have been to Les Arcs for several years running partly because it offers good skiing for all grades but mainly because the ski school for the children has proved really excellent. The resort is just nine miles up a few hairpin bends from Bourg St Maurice, the terminus of the train through the Savoie: so letting the train take the strain seemed an obvious thing to do.

But strain there still was. Skiers were clearly not on the minds of those devising the initial train schedules through the tunnel last season. When I tried to book my family on the service from Lille to Bourg St Maurice, SNCF, the French railway company, told me that the first Eurostar train out of London missed the high speed TGV connection at Lille for a Lyon train by five minutes. They told me I would have to change in Paris, taking a taxi across town from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon to connect with the TGV service to Bourg St Maurice.

That was the plan anyway. But TGV seats can only be booked two months in advance and on the appointed day all the seats on the Bourg train had already been sold. The reason was that people booking within France were allocated seats by the computer from midnight on the relevant day. SNCF in London could not access the computer until normal working hours, by which time all the seats had gone as we were travelling at the hectic pre-Easter weekend.

Back to the drawing board, we were booked on a Eurostar leaving London at 7 23am, then a TGV from Paris to Chambery, and then a slow local to Bourg. The journey was scheduled to take 12 hours and indeed it did. All three trains were comfortable, though the first two were crowded, and the children, even the five-year-old, really enjoyed the journey as well as catching up on their sleep. A 150F (pounds 20) 20-minute taxi ride and we were in our apartment.

Travelling across Paris, though difficult because skiing trips necessarily entail lots of luggage, did give us a break and a couple of hours in one of Europe's great cities. But the hassle of dumping our luggage in amazingly expensive lockers (70F, or just over pounds 9) and the difficulty of finding a good cheap restaurant near the Gare du Lyon means that on balance, next time we would avoid Paris.

We stayed two weeks in Les Arcs 1800 which last Easter had more snow than anyone could remember for the spring. Pretty it ain't, but our apartment virtually gave out on to the slopes, dispensing with those early morning, problematic walks with skis, a big bonus when you've got a five-year-old in tow.

The ski school lived up to expectation and the two eldest children both earned bronze chamois in the ski races so beloved of the French. The little one, Misha, easily passed her one-star test and progressed to the two- star class though she just failed the eventual test. The French are not sentimental about these matters: if you are not good enough, you fail even if you are only five. However, taking her on the slopes for two weeks - despite a bout of chicken pox which kept her off skis for a few afternoons, even though she insisted on skiing in the mornings - meant that by the end of the holiday she had really cracked skiing, dancing down the bumps on the reds.

Five is an excellent age to do this. Misha is a toughy and enjoyed skiing at four - and even at three. As one ski teacher put it: "they learn in a day at four what takes a week at three". But at five she had the balance and the physical courage to enjoy it thoroughly, picking herself up from the falls without complaint. She is now a real skier.

The skiing in the resort is really extensive, with plenty of pleasant reds and no shortage of blacks. Certainly, there were lots of different runs for me and my two eldest, who now swoop down the black runs with confidence. However, there is no really challenging black run, and the most difficult face is from the top of Aiguille Rouge, which is often closed.

The return journey was equally smooth: even though it was pouring with rain in Chambery when we had to change and the platform had no roof. There were potentially chaotic scenes as hundreds of people, many with skis, piled on to the TGV train but French stations cleverly have little diagrams to show exactly where each carriage will be when the train arrives. Once inside the train, the journey was wonderfully relaxing and in Paris we even had time to pop up to Montmartre for that impressive view of the city.

Overall there is no doubt that the train wins out compared with the nightmares of either driving for 12 hours or the hassles of those ghastly early morning flights. The ensuing four-hour transfers are often made longer by ski companies who don't seem to realise that if they hurried up, you could get an extra half day's skiing.

But with such scanty schedules and poor connections, SNCF and Eurostar are going to have to try a lot harder before they attract all but the real rail enthusiasts to what is the best way of travelling to the Alps.