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Ski Weekends specialise in short-stay coach holidays and in the current economic climate the keen pricing make it an option worth considering. February half term prices for the Three Valleys (staying in Brides les Bains) are £399 for a grown up and £339 for a child for four-days staying in a half board, three-star hotel.
The Ski Weekend’s operation is slick and efficient, as you would expect from a company operating its 29th winter season. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, while lift passes and ski hire are organised in advance to maximise your time on the slopes. There is also a free shuttle service to drop you off and pick you up from the gondola station that connects Brides les Bains with Meribel.
That said it is probably not right for all families. An overnight coach trip would not be something worth attempting with very small children. However, if your children are eight and over, then go for it. You need to have a glass half full attitude too. Do not embark on it thinking you or your children will have a peaceful night's sleep on board. You do sleep, but it is more in the pattern of the short, broken bursts all parents will remember from having a newborn.
Take a few essentials too - a small pillow, layers of clothing so you can get comfortable whatever the temperature on board, bottles of water, magazines, games consoles, an iPad loaded with a movie or two. The coaches are modern, with decent leg room, foot rests, reclining seats and there's a toilet on board (although our driver cheerily requested we only use it for number ones and leave the number twos for a motorway service station).
TUESDAY - DAY ONE
So it’s half term and we’re all packed and excited about a few days exploring the Three Valleys. We’ve booked carriage for two skis on the coach and have then tried to travel light, limiting our clothes and ski gear to the 12kg per person amount. This is worth thinking about as adult ski boots will weigh up to 6kg.
Living in the south east, we opted for the coach pick up at Stop 24 at junction 11 of the M20. You can leave your car at the service for up to five days for £20. Right on time at 7.40pm the coach arrives and we stumble on board carrying a bizarre selection of hand luggage items ranging from an iPad to ski helmets and knee braces. We are only on the coach for 15 minutes before we stop at the Eurotunnel check-in area. After our driver skilfully squeezes the vehicle on to the shuttle, we are on our way on the 8.50pm crossing.
As we hit the French peage, there’s time for a picnic tea as all the passengers settle down to watch the family movie Johnny English. A quick scan of the coach reveals four others families on board, a few older couples and a couple of single thirty something guys.
WEDNESDAY - DAY TWO
Sleeping happened in fits and starts, punctuated by a fuel stop and a bizarre sense of trying too hard to go to sleep so we arrive in the resort as fresh as possible for a day’s skiing!
But we are all wide awake at 7.30am when the French transport ministry officials pull our coach over for a tachograph check. We remain stationary for more than 30 minutes, with the coach drivers having to rely on the passengers’ French translation skills.
As we reach Albertville, the Ski Weekends overseas manager Ralph Chatburn jumps on board and does his best to get his bleary-eyed holiday makers in the mood for the day ahead. We are told our hired skis will be waiting for us at the Club Hotel Verseau (so no need to head to the ski shop) and then Ralph hands out our welcome packs, containing any pre-ordered lift passes.
And just a brief note on lift passes because the Three Valleys can appear to be a vast and daunting place, as can the lift pass options. For a four-day trip and if you are a beginner or an average skier, you will probably find that the Meribel Valley pass (which does not include Courchevel or Val Thorens) offers more than enough skiing. Plus passes of two or more days can be upgraded on a daily basis, so you could start off in the Meribel Valley, then pick a day to explore the whole Three Valleys.
Thanks to our unscheduled stop, we arrive at the hotel a little later than planned at 10am. After quickly dumping the bags in our room we grab a bite to eat at the buffet breakfast. The family room itself is a really good size, with two single beds for mum and dad, and bunks for the children. There is a balcony and a large bathroom with a shower over the bath. Generally the hotel is functional and comfortable, remembering Ski Weekend’s tag of “ski the best for less”.
We took our time to get showered, kitted out in ski gear and dropped off at the Olympe gondola – so it was around midday before we were ready to ski. The gondola takes 20 minutes to arrive in Meribel and the main Chaudanne lift area. It just so happened that the Women’s World Cup downhill was being staged in Meribel during half term and it was impressive to see the finish area set up at the bottom of the Roc de Fer piste. We headed up the Plan de L’Homme chair to warm our legs up on some blues running alongside and at one point through a tunnel underneath the fenced off downhill course.
We played around the central Meribel area after that – taking the Saulire Express gondola up to 2,739m to enjoy some more challenging but wide open reds. Somewhat shattered but with smiles on all our faces we headed back down to Brides les Bains for afternoon cake, a wholesome three-course dinner and a much needed early night.
THURSDAY - DAY THREE
After a breathless first day, we were able to understand our surroundings a bit more over breakfast in the hotel. Brides les Bains is more famous as a thermal spa resort but it is also keen to promote itself as a low-cost option for skiing the Three Valleys. The village is compact but has everything you need away from the slopes – a couple of good bars, a bank and a convenience store for snacks for the slopes.
If you are looking to avoid the premium prices in Meribel, then Brides is a great choice as some accommodation rates are up to 50 per cent lower than the high altitude resorts. The resort also offers big flexibility when it comes to arrival dates, so you can choose when you start a short stay ski trip of three or four days.
We focused on Courchevel today. The Saulire Express takes you up from Meribel to Dent de Burgin. Staying away from the tough looking couloirs there are some terrific, beautifully groomed runs leading down into Courchevel 1850 and 1650. A particular favourite was the endless red Creux which takes you towards 1650 and the edge of the Three Valleys. 1650 is also home to the blue Indiens piste, where children can stop off and have a go at archery.
Skiing past Courchevel airport along crisscrossing blues also caught the attention, while Le Bouc Blanc restaurant at the top of the Chenus gondola is a great sunny spot to refuel and enjoy the view. A hot chocolate costs 3.70 euros, while a plate of frites is 5.70 euros. Whilst here we were able to reflect how surprisingly quiet the slopes were. After all this was half term in one of most popular ski destinations for British families and yet were rarely came across lift queues or packed pistes. Courchevel shone on a perfect bluebird day.
FRIDAY - DAY FOUR
This morning we headed in the opposite direction towards Val Thorens, the purpose-built resort that sits at 2,300m. Compared the yesterday, getting from Meribel to VT (as the locals call it) seemed a more complicated process.
From the peak of 3 Marches we were able to drop down some inviting reds and blues into Les Menuires, which is another favourite base for families. Then it is a case of a period of lift/ski lift/ski as we work our way across to VT itself.
I have to admit the skiing in VT was exceptional. Arriving from the Meribel side, you end up skiing through the centre of the resort and the holiday high rise apartments. The central plateau area is well geared for young skiers. There are even three covered magic carpet beginner lifts, to protect the little ones when the high altitude temperatures plummet. We ran out of time to fully explore the far side of VT up to Pointe du Bouchet but the experience wetted our appetite and going to VT demonstrates just how vast the Three Valleys is.
We chilled out and soaked up the sun on the snowy slopes around La Folie Douce, refuelling and enjoying the live music as the famous bar warmed up for the night ahead. Then it was time to head back to Meribel and be warned, with two tired children leave yourself plenty of time to negotiate your way back through Mottaret. This involves a lot of up and down skiing in late afternoon shadows.
SATURDAY - DAY FIVE
The reality of the final day dawned when we had to check out of the room at 8am, leaving your bags in the TV lounge area for later.
Today was race day in the Women’s World Cup Downhill and the finish area was electric when a French racer had the green light. To be able to ski down to different parts of the course and watch five or six skiers come down was live sport at its best.
But we knew we couldn’t stay all day, so a quick family vote decided that it was back to Courchevel for a final blast around. This time we dropped down into La Tania and found a lunch stop for something filling, knowing we would be snacking on the coach home this evening. Le Pub Ski Lodge has a great vibe about it and a burger and pasta lunch for a family of four hungry skiers came to 69 euros.
The afternoon was spent bashing the pistes around Meribel, including being raced and beaten by our sons on the skier cross course in the Moon Park zone. And just before we headed back to Brides les Bains, our eldest son spotted a temporary ramp and airbag had been installed near the downhill finish area. One final chance for him to pull some 180s in a safe environment.
After heading down the Olympe gondola one last time, we bumped into Ski Sunday’s Graham Bell, who was editing that weekend’s programme in a hotel in Brides. There was still time for a quick afternoon tea and cake session at the hotel. Ski Weekend’s also offer showers for departing guests who need to freshen up before the trip home.
We were on the road at 6pm and the drive home seemed to pass more quickly. We certainly slept more easily because the day’s skiing had left us exhausted. Thanks to an earlier Eurotunnel crossing in the early hours of Sunday morning, we were back at Stop 24 near Folkestone at 6am and home for a cup of tea in Sussex by 7.30am.
It had been a breathless four days of proper skiing. We pushed our boys to ski more and for longer than ever before and often on tougher slopes. There is no doubt you are not mad to take your children on a coach ski trip. In fact it can turn out to be one of the best experiences a family of skiers can have.
Sebastian, aged 10, says: “The coach was fun but it was quite hot at night. I didn’t find it easy sleeping in a chair but the bunk beds at the hotel were nice to sleep in. I was very excited to see the downhill racers, they went so fast it was brilliant. Skiing the Three Valleys was good and the jumps were the best bit. I had to be brave at the end on the air bag but I did a 180 and a backpack.”
Ollie, aged 8, says: “The skiing was really, really good. I got tired some days but the blues and reds were great. I was doing short turns like the racers did. Being in the hotel was fun and I liked choosing my own breakfast and playing pool.”