On a late-season family break to the Austrian ski resort of Zell am Zee, we found ourselves giving thanks to an unexpected saviour – Austrian Railways. The snow was melting fast, and we only managed two full days before there was more grass than slidey white stuff. Mercifully, Zell has a rail station with a direct link to Salzburg, so within 90 minutes we were in the city of Mozart chocolates and Sound of Music tours.
This ability to do a runner from a resort is something ski-bookers need to bear in mind, especially early or late, or in a season when the snow is a bit fickle. Many of the blockbuster resorts are very high, for the sake of good snow, but that also means that customers are incarcerated in a ski fortress, at the mercy of its exorbitant prices and lack of alternative entertainment if, for whatever reason, the skiing doesn't work out.
Better, then, to choose a resort with a railway escape route to somewhere worth escaping to. Preferably a railway with great scenery, and one that is habituated to running through even the wrong kind of snow. Here are some examples:
Zell am Zee, Austria
It's a little more than an hour from this exceedingly pretty village-based resort to the Tyrolean city of Innsbruck, positioned at the entrance to the Brenner Pass. Innsbruck is a city of medieval and modern, mixed together. There's the old town, rich in historic architecture, then there's Zaha Hadid's extraordinary anthropomorphic funicular railway. Innsbruck also hosts the excellent Alpenzoo, which has more than 150 birds and animals from across the Alpine region (kitzbuehel.com; innsbruck.info; oebb.at).
Grindelwald and Wengen, Switzerland
Grindelwald and Wengen, Switzerland
The train from Grindelwald takes just a half hour to descend to Interlaken, a summertime resort between lakes Thun and Brienz (from Wengen the journey takes a little longer). Old-fashioned grand hotels, good shopping, a lakeside castle, a collection of unlikely Asiatic restaurants (the mountains are popular with Indians and Japanese in summer), and the rather unusual theme park Mystery World, which concentrates on such big unsolved questions as "the Pyramids – why?" Bern, the Swiss capital, is a further 50 minutes away but is more charming than Zurich or Geneva. The centre is Unesco-listed for its 15th- and 16th-century architecture (grindelwald.ch;skiwengen.ch; interlaken.ch; bern.com; sbb.ch).
St Moritz, Switzerland
Upmarket St Moritz is at one end of one of the world's most famous trains, the Glacier Express, which runs to Zermatt. The most exhilarating and dramatic section of the journey is actually the Albula Valley, just below St Moritz, where the train spirals down through the mountain. It takes two hours to get all the way down to Chur, a moderate-sized town and one of Switzerland's oldest settlements. There are other attractions en route, particularly the toboggan ride between Preda and Bergün, close to St Moritz, a 5km descent where you can actually race the train. Both Preda and Bergün are handsome, traditional villages, whose 19th-century houses are covered in sgraffito plasterwork and have little wrought-iron balconies (stmoritz.ch; glacierexpress.ch; sbb.ch).
As you might expect, the grandfather of ski resorts – pioneered by the British – has its own pleasantly antique rail service. You can, with a change or two, get down to Geneva and to Annecy, but the journey times are quite long. A better option is to take the Mont Blanc Express, a mountain goat of a train that threads through the precipitous Vallée du Trient down to the cultured Swiss town of Martigny, connecting several other ski stations en route. On Saturdays, there's a direct ski train from here to Geneva airport (chamonix.com; tmrsa.ch).
This relatively small resort in the Julian Alps is served by the old-fashioned Bohinj Railway, created by Austrian archdukes to get to their Italian vineyards and onward to the seaside at Trieste. Burrowing through mountains, and circling around lakes, it connects Slovenian Jesenice with Italian Gorizia in a couple of extremely scenic hours. The old-fashioned lake resort of Bled, with casinos and boutique shopping, is a couple of stops along the line (bohinj.si;slozeleznice.si).
If you like the idea of stepping out of a sleeper train directly on to your skis, then Are in Sweden is the place to go. Extremely comfortable overnight sleepers – with cinema and a very lively bar car – depart Stockholm each evening and call at Arlanda international airport before arriving in Are at 7.30am the next day, just as the ski lifts start to swing into action (skistar.com; visitstockholm.com; sj.se).
By train all the way from the UK
Apart from Sweden, all these resorts, and more, are accessible by train from the UK. From 19 December to 11 April 2015 the Eurostar ski train (03432 186 186; eurostar.com) runs between London St Pancras and the resort-hubs of Moûtiers, Aime-la-Plagne or Bourg-St-Maurice, from where shuttles spread out to resorts such as Courchevel, La Plagne, Meribel, Tigne and Les Arcs. There's a choice of day train or night train, and journey times range between eight and 10 hours. TGV Lyria trains launch a direct service from Lille (with Eurostar connections) to Geneva on 14 December. Other destinations will require a change of train, often in Paris. For more information try seat61.com, and snowcarbon.co.uk, which also has a link to rail-inclusive packages. Voyages-sncf (0844 848 5848; voyages-sncf.com) also offers reservations.
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