Sustainable travel

First tracks: Swapping plane for train on a ski trip to Les Arcs

Catch the newly relaunched ski train from London St Pancras and you’ll beat the pack onto the slopes, writes Helen Coffey

Friday 11 March 2022 16:11 GMT
<p>Les Arcs is accessible, car-free, via the funiculaire from Bourg</p>

Les Arcs is accessible, car-free, via the funiculaire from Bourg

Les Arcs is desperate for you to take the train there. Desperate.

“We did an audit of our carbon footprint – 57 per cent of it comes from guests travelling to the resort,” says ski area manager Laura Cumin.

“We’re doing our part, and we really want to encourage people to catch public transport here.”

And for good reason. Unlike most French resorts, Les Arcs offers a unique proposition – a fluid, end-to-end transport experience for flight-free (and car-free) travellers from all over Europe. At the foot of the resort lies the town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, complete with a well-connected train station. From there, rather than a lengthy bus transfer up windy mountain roads, travellers can catch the regular funicular service, arriving into Arc 1600 – the lowest of the ski resort’s four villages – in around seven minutes.

Les Arcs is connected to Europe by train from the town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice

Staying elsewhere in resort? A free, regular shuttle bus runs between the villages of 1600 and 1800, and between 1800 and 1950 and 2000. Each of the outposts is pedestrianised and car-free. “Our founders were already thinking about the environment way back in 1968 when the first part of the resort was built,” says Laura.

As a flight-free traveller – and a Les Arcs superfan, having done my one and only ski season there 13 years ago – I was keen to try out the journey. The lapsed ski train service from London has been revived this season by tour operator Travelski Express, which has chartered a Eurostar train every Friday night, returning on Saturdays, and sells complete week-long packages to resorts across the French Alps, including return trains and transfers, accommodation and lift passes.

The beautiful part is that the train pulls into Bourg at 6.43am. There is no possible way someone flying can beat you to the resort

The process could hardly be simpler – I finished work as usual on a Friday night, pootled over to St Pancras station, and boarded the train ready for the 8.04pm departure. A proper dinner was served onboard – forget French cuisine, bangers and mash or mac’n’cheese was the order of the day. The lights were dimmed and the train whizzed across France overnight, arriving at the mountain towns of Moutiers (the drop off point for skiers travelling to resorts in the Three Valleys ski area) and Bourg (for resorts including La Plagne, Tignes, Val d’Isere and La Rosiere) the next morning.

The service is direct – no stops at Paris or anywhere else before the mountains – and takes around nine hours. But the beautiful part is that the train pulls into Bourg at 6.43am – there is no possible way someone flying can beat you into resort (unless they have access to a Tardis).

Sadly, the train is not a proper sleeper – there are no couchettes with beds, so you need to resign yourself to kipping in a seat – but the excitement of dropping off somewhere in the Parisian suburbs and waking up amid the splendour of the Alps goes a long way towards making up for it. I sleepily trundled my enormous bag off the train (another advantage of reaching a ski resort by rail is the generous baggage allowance at no extra charge) and made my way to Cafe Le Tonneau around the corner from the station, where Travelski Express kindly lays on a light breakfast of croissants, juice and coffee, included in the package, to bridge the gap between the ski train’s arrival time and the first funicular up to Les Arcs at 7.30am.

Arc 1600 is accessible by a quick funicular ride from Bourg

As part of the resort’s push to get people swapping road for rails, they’ve made the funicular free for anyone arriving by train this season – just flash your ticket and climb aboard.

I arrived into Arc 1600 as the sun rose; my bags were dropped off at the three-star Hotel Arcadien before 8am; 15 minutes later my ski and boot hire was taken care of. With a good 45 minutes left before the Combettes lift near the hotel opened for the day, I had time to swing by Bistrot de Dodo for an extra shot of caffeine and to muse on my supreme good fortune: it was a perfect bluebird day, with sky the colour of a chicory flower and light-dappled slopes that were sure to be set ablaze when the sun reached its apex.

By the time the first chairlift swung around at just gone 9am, I was ready and waiting for it while much of the resort was just waking up. Greeted by near-empty slopes, I enjoyed “first tracks” in the truest sense of the words. Saturday is transfer day in the mountains, meaning the first guests don’t usually arrive until at least midday. All tiredness was soon whipped away by the mountain air rushing by as I flew, dreamlike, down smooth, silent pistes. It felt unreal – like many Brits, my last time up a mountain had been a lifetime ago, back in pre-pandemic 2019.

While much was familiar to me from my five blissed-out months here in 2008/9, the resort had undergone some impressive upgrades

A few runs to warm up and remember how this whole skiing business worked – thank goodness for muscle memory – and then it was time to join up with Alex, a fresh-faced 20-year-old from the ESF ski school, who showed me around the expansive ski area (425km of runs across the entire Paradiski area shared with the neighbouring resort of La Plagne across the valley) by pelting down runs from top to bottom while I whooped and hollered in her wake.

While much was familiar to me from my five blissed-out months here in 2008/9, the resort had undergone some impressive upgrades, many of them new in the last few seasons. Arc 2000 got an upmarket injection in 2016 with the opening of Taj-I Mah – Les Arcs’ only five-star hotel – while a gargantuan four and five-trident Club Med property launched in Arc 1600 in 2018. This season has brought Bear Lodge, Arc 1950s latest luxe addition, comprised of 30 rooms and 12 chalets.

The aprés-ski vibe got turbo-charged, too, by the opening of an outpost of legendary chain of on-slope bars, the Folie Douce, in 2019. But, most excitingly, 2021/22 has seen the launch of the resort’s latest attraction – a 1,077m long zipline, running from a newly built base next to the Aiguille Rouge bottom cable car station at 2,680m.

A new zipline opened this season

I felt duty-bound to give it a go, relishing the idea of promised speeds of up to 130kph while being winched into a serious-looking harness. “Ready?” asked the operator, as I stared down the 600m drop. “Oui!” was soon replaced by “Wheeeeeeeee!” as I hurtled down the line, eyes streaming and splintering the white and blue of the landscape into kaleidoscopic fragments.

It was over all too soon – that’s the trouble with a high-speed adrenaline rush – and then it was back up to the top in the Varet gondola to experience the other new incumbent: Beautiful Organic Break (aka BOB), a trendy café and terrace that opened its doors this season. It’s lunch on the slopes, but not as we know it – trading in the traditional cheese-laden stodge that most slopeside eateries serve up for freshly made open sandwiches, ordered by length, alongside healthy, grain-packed bowls. I opted for the CARE bowl – tomato, lentil and quinoa puree, toasted almonds, roasted vegetables, broccoli and tabbouleh – and balanced it out by ordering an absurdly plump blueberry tart with almond paste and crème patissiere for afters.

Feeling energised but not bloated – a welcome change from the majority of my post-lunch skiing experiences – I headed over to my final stop on the “nouvelles choses” Les Arcs tour. Another newbie for this season, the free-to-visit Museum of Mountain Animals is packed with cute and informative displays on Alpine critters like chamois, marmottes and ibexes. It fits with Les Arcs’ commitments to doing better when it comes to protecting nature.

Les Arcs’ new Museum of Mountain Animals offers displays of Alpine critters

“We want to reduce our impact as much as possible,” said Laura. “We measured and mapped all the wildlife we have in the ski area – so now we know when we want to build where we can do that safely. We’re working on actively protecting our local wildlife too, by working closely with the local Vanoise National Park.”

The area’s new council has taken an even bolder step: it has suspended all construction in Bourg and Les Arcs for at least the next six years.

It’s measures like these, along with auditing its carbon footprint, putting solar panels on lifts to garner energy, and making plans to use the water required for snowmaking to create hydroelectricity, that has led to Les Arcs being awarded the Flocon Vert (Green Snowflake). This certification is given to ski resorts that meet a set of 20 sustainability criteria, and has so far only been achieved by 11 destinations.

Healthier slopeside dining is on offer at BOB

Times, they are a-changing – not just in the 13 years since I tried my hand at being a professional ski bum, but in the last few seasons alone. I feel a warm glow at seeing that my old stomping ground, as well as boasting one of the most extensive ski areas in Europe, is part of the vanguard of resorts actively striving to tackle the climate crisis head on. “We try to be smart rather than wait for technology to save us,” says Laura.

So next time you head to the Alps, why not swap plane for train? With resorts like Les Arcs trying so hard to reduce their impact, it seems only fair that we as travellers play our part too.

Travel essentials

Travelski offers seven nights at the four-star Résidence Lagrange Vacances Le Roc Belle Face in Arc 1600 from £567 per person based on four sharing a two bedroom apartment, including return direct train from London St Pancras, lift pass and welcome breakfast.

More information

The Les Arcs zipline is open for anyone aged 10 and over and costs €55 per ride.


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