self-drive ski holidays in france
carve out a holiday to remember
by steve walker
Every year as the UK grinds to a shuddering halt at the first hint of ice or the merest dusting of snow, thousands of us head south for the winter. Not in a desperate bid to seek out some sun but in search of a place where the cold is cool and snow means skiing. The self-drive skiing or snowboarding holiday is very much on the up and it's a lot easier than you might imagine to hop in your car and head for the slopes.
It's easy to understand how a UK resident might think twice before undertaking a self-drive skiing holiday. Over here it's every motorist's nightmare to see that cold, wet, white stuff falling from the sky. It invariably signals that you'll soon be in a tailback of epic proportions, but just a quick cruise across the channel and a few hundred miles away in the French Alps, they take it all in their stride.
It's a lot easier to wholeheartedly prepare for something if you know for certain that it's coming. The French authorities in Alpine regions know it's going to snow and when it does, they're ready for it. The roads are treated and the snowploughs are on standby so that even a heavy fall rarely presents a problem. The twisting mountain roads to the major resorts are usually cleared quickly and should remain safely ice-free even when temperatures plunge.
That said, it's important to plan your route properly. Following big snowstorms, some of the high mountain passes can remain closed for extended periods and it may be best to navigate around them or at least check on the state of the road before you depart. In addition, remember that you'll have to pay tolls to travel on the French 'Autoroute' motorway network but these will appear highly reasonable when you sample the miles of well-maintained and relatively traffic-free carriageway on the way down through the country.
If you're at all unsure, the best bet is to pick a ski resort that is easily accessible via main roads and doesn't require an extended drive through the mountains. Destinations that are particularly easy to reach from the UK include Val Thorens, Meribel and Corcheval in the 3 Vallees ski area as well as Tignes, Chamonix and Val d'Isere, details on all of which can be obtained through Ski Collection (0844 576 0175) or www.skicollection.co.uk). All these resorts are between 500 and 600 miles from Calais and are less than 1 hour's drive from the motorway network.
Obviously, most of us don't have the luxury of picking the vehicle we take on a self-drive skiing holiday but 4x4 cars do have an obvious advantage should you need to drive on snow while front-wheel-drive cars are more adept than rear-wheel-drive ones. Powerful rear-wheel-drive models in particular can get a little hairy in slippery conditions. Space is also a key consideration as skis, snowboards, boots and the warm clothing you'll need in the mountains all eat up boot, and possibly even passenger, space. A roof box or ski rack could be worth considering but a better option might be to hire equipment at the resort. That way, there'll be more room for any duty-free shopping you feel inclined to pick-up on the return leg before joining the ferry for the trip back.
When it comes to actually piloting your car in wintry conditions, there are some techniques you can use to stay safer. Stopping distances increase exponentially if there's snow or ice on the road or even if it's wet so maintain a sensible distance from the car in front. Change up into a higher gear earlier to avoid wheelspin and engage a lower gear when descending steep gradients thus allowing the car to slow itself with less need for braking. When you do have to brake, do so gently and gradually. If you start to skid ease off the accelerator and avoid sharp brake or steering inputs. It's also key to maintain a good view of your surroundings so take the time to fully clear your windscreen and windows of any ice before driving and use your fog lights if external visibility is low.
Before setting out, It's always wise to take basic sensible precautions to ensure you car is in good working order. Check that fluids are at proper levels, that the radiator and screen wash reservoir are topped up with anti-freeze and make certain that all your tyres have plenty of tread. You may be running your car's heater, wipers and lights for extended periods so check that these work properly and that the battery is fully charged. Many UK service centres offer to carry out winter checks on vehicles and one of these services may be a good investment. If you think you might need snow chains, buy them in France. They're far more freely available and you'll pay about a third of the price that they'd cost you in the UK but in most cases they shouldn't be necessary.
The great thing about the self-drive skiing holiday is that you have the freedom to do things the way you want. You can organise the various components of your trip yourself, enlist the help of one of the numerous ski holiday firms or do a bit of both. Companies like Peak Retreats offer various types of accommodation in various types of resorts and, being ski holiday specialists, they'll be able to advise you on the best way to get the most out of your holiday.
Beyond the basic accommodation costs, there may be insurance, ski hire, lift passes, and ski lessons to budget for but by going through a company like Peak Retreats, you can organise everything in advance so there's no hidden expense when you arrive. A good way of cutting back on the cost of a self-drive skiing holiday is to travel in a group and most of the leading ski companies offer large chalets which can work out very reasonably when the rent is split between two families or a group of friends. That way, there's also the possibility of splitting fuel costs and motorway tolls on your journey.
A week or two on the pistes is an increasingly popular way for people in the UK to wind down during the winter months. It's hardly surprising given the accessibility of the top Alpine resorts, the breathtaking mountain scenery and, not forgetting, the skiing itself. Taking the self-drive option might not be something you'd considered before but it gives greater freedom to go about your holiday in the way you want, allowing you to ski at different resorts if the snow conditions aren't great where you're staying, and it can be a good way of keeping costs down.
If you are concerned about the drive, there really is very little reason to be as long as you take some basic precautions. The French motorway network is extremely well-maintained and the toll roads in particular can be almost spookily traffic free. In the mountains, even heavy snowfalls don't cause undue disruption on major routes and the combination of stunning scenery and serpentine roads can make travel by car genuinely rewarding.
SELF-DRIVE SKIING - USEFUL CONTACTS
Ski Collection - 0844 576 0175 or www.skicollection.co.uk - tailor made four star skiing holidays in the French Alps.