Itinerary: 4 Days/3 Nights in Courchevel with Crystal Ski

 

Ah, skiing. There’s something about the mountains, the snow, and the feel of sitting in a chair lift as you climb up to sights unseen that never gets old. Since moving to London I’ve, sadly, only been able to hit the slopes once. While I had a great time in Andorra last year, this year I was keen to try something different. That’s where Crystal Ski swooped in and saved the day. Crystal specialise in ski holidays departing from the UK and a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of sampling a bit of what they have to offer.

Travelling with fitness blogging superstar Cantara of Gymbags & Gladrags, we embarked on a sponsored 4-day/3-night ski trip to Courchevel 1850, located in the 3 Valleys ski area of France. I later found out that not only is this the largest interlinked ski area in the world, but Courchevel 1850 also happens to be the mother of all luxury ski resorts in France.

So, without further ado, here’s a quick look at our travel itinerary for your reference. If you’re interested in a similar ski holiday, I’d urge you to take a look at either Crystal Ski or flexiski, as both have loads of different options for a range of budgets.

Thursday, January 15th

4am is never a good time to wake up, but the fact that I was headed to the Alps helped me a bit. With a 8:30am flight to Geneva departing from London Gatwick, I booked a car through my favourite local minicab service, Carrot Cars, which mainly operates in and around Canary Wharf.

The car picked me up promptly at 5am and I was at Gatwick within 80 minutes. The journey took longer than usual because of a torrential downpour (accompanied by hurricane-force winds), but I made it safely to the terminal at just about the same time as my fellow blogger and travel partner, Cantara.

After checking in our bags, we ate a quick breakfast before boarding our EasyJet flight to Geneva. Crystal Ski had arranged for their sister company, Flexiski, to handle our airport transfer. After we made it through immigration and baggage claim, we were promptly greeted by a driver holding a sign with my name. Our driver spoke almost no English, so it wasn’t exactly a chatty two-hour drive to Courchevel 1850. Despite the slight awkwardness it turned out to be for the best as I think we both ended up sleeping on the way over.

Hotel Saint Louis

Awakening from my in-car nap, I realised we had made the journey from grey Geneva to the winter wonderland of Courchevel. As we made our wake up the mountain, the views only got prettier. Before I knew it we reached the adorable Hotel Saint Louis, which is managed by flexiski, a sister company of Crystal Ski. The hotel was set up like an older style ski chalet, complete with wooden walls and a roaring fireplace. It’s not a five star hotel by any stretch of the imagination, but it was clean, comfortable, and charming.

After checking in and dropping off our things, it was time to pick up our ski equipment before enjoying a quick walk around town, followed by a much deserved nap – I did wake up at 4am after all.

Friday, January 16th

I didn’t sleep well on Thursday night to be honest, and the 1-hour time difference between France and the UK didn’t help things. But with the view of beautiful mountains right outside my window, I summoned myself out of bed and downstairs for a hot breakfast before gearing up and hitting the slopes with Cantara.

Cantara_Ski

Cantara, looking way cooler than me on the slopes ;)

We had a ski lesson at 2pm, so we figured we’d get a little practice in before lunch. After a year off I definitely needed to find my legs and Cantara was a complete beginner, so perhaps we were being a little too ambitious.

By the time lunch rolled around I was ready for a nap! Crystal hooked us up with New Generation Ski & Snowboard School and our instructor, Andrea, met us at our hotel at 2pm. We caught a ride up to the nursery slope and spent the next two hours skiing down green runs.

Saturday, January 17th

View of snow falling during breakfast from the dining room of Hotel Saint Louis.

On Saturday morning I woke up to fluffy snow falling outside my window. A bit tired from the previous day, Cantara and I decided to take it easy before our lesson. So instead of skiing all morning we borrowed a small sled from the hotel and went to town. Hotel Saint Louis is right across the street from a side entrance to a green slope, which happened to be practically empty on a lazy Saturday morning. It had been a good 20 years since I last sledded, but I can tell you that it’s no less fun in your 20s as it was when you were a kid. I probably could have sledded all day – and would have if the trip was longer.

Because I have a little bit of experience skiing and Cantara only just started the day before, on Sunday we split our two hour group lesson into one hour individual lessons. I was up first at 2pm and spent the next hour with Andrea working on technique, keeping my skis together, and using the poles properly (who knew they did anything other than prop you up?!)

Me, conquering a red run. (OK, not really)

After Cantara finished up her lesson at 4pm we (sadly) hung our skis up and dove into a little apres ski for our last night in Courchevel. After dinner we headed up the road to try the bar at Le Strato, which turned out to be a very swanky five-star hotel (let’s hope my boyfriend takes note of this!). The bar was lovely and filled with plush faux fur sofas that practically begged you to cuddle with them. The cocktails were, naturally, out-of-this-world good, and I later found out that the attached restaurant has a Michelin Star. Not a bad way to end a trip 😉

Gin Fizz from Le Strato

Sunday, January 18th

Leaving Courchevel

Sunday morning marked the worst part of the holiday – leaving. The one advantage to waking up early (our airport transport arrived at 8am) was that we were able to catch the sun rising over the Alps. It was truly special, as was the trip itself. I can’t recall the last time I was so bummed out about heading home, and when I did reach home later that day the first thing I did was start planning a return trip. If that’s not the mark of a good holiday, I don’t know what is.

All Aboard the Train des Pignes

 

Train des Pignes

What can I say about Provence in autumn? It’s spectacular. On my most recent trip to the South of France I had the distinct pleasure of winding through the Provence countryside for a blissful day full of hiking, photography, and exploration. My journey was made possible by the Train des Pignes, one of the many scenic train rides that snake through France.

The Train des Pignes originates on the coast – Gare des chemins de fed de Provence – to be precise, and ends in the mountain village of Digne-les-Bains. For day trippers like myself, the best route to take is Nice to either Entrevaux or Annot. If you’ve got all day, go ahead to Annot. Stop at Entrevaux if you want to get back to Nice in the afternoon.

The most convenient train departs from Gare des chemins de fed de Provence at 9:20. Unlike Nice’s main train station, you can’t get your tickets from a machine. Instead you’ll need to brush up on some French and muster up the courage to talk to the counter staff. Once you’ve got your tickets, you’re free to board the next train. The Train des Pignes is quite nice as far as trains go and are much more modern and clean than the trains I’m used to here in the UK.

Train des Pignes - Entrevaux

Entrevaux

After two or three hours of chugging along between rugged mountains and over trickling streams, we arrived at the medieval village of Entrevaux. With only about 1,000 inhabitants and topped with an imposing citadel, Entrevaux feels worlds away from the chic and cosmopolitan French Riviera. The train dropped us off across the street from the historic centre of the village. Just before reaching the gated entrance to Entrevaux we stopped at the very small (and adorably French) Restaurant du Pont-Levis for a leisurely lunch.

Train des Pignes - Restaurant du Pont-Levis

Restaurant du Pont-Levis

Nicoise Salad

Nicoise Salad

Local beef and lentils

Surrounded by autumnal foliage, bathed in midday light, and serenaded by the sweet sounds of birds zipping their way through the forest, this simple al fresco meal turned out to be the highlight of the whole trip. I could have sat and soaked in the views from Restaurant du Pont-Levis for hours, but alas, we had a village to explore.

Entrevaux France

Streets of Entrevaux

Entrevaux France

Exploring Entrevaux

Entrevaux is a maze of cobbled streets and medieval buildings. There are no straight lines here. Everything has had at least a few hundred years to settle and it’s easy to get lost within its seemingly endless supply of crooked passageways. By visiting in late October, we avoided the usual tourist crowds and at times it felt like we had the village to ourselves. Beyond a handful of small museums, restaurants, and a small tourist office, there’s not much to Entrevaux besides its crowning citadel.

Entrevaux Citadel

Hike up to Entrevaux Citadel

View from the Citadel at Entrevaux

View from the Citadel at Entrevaux

View from the top of the Citadel at Entrevaux

View from the top of the Citadel at Entrevaux

It costs €3 and a lot of thigh strength to make the hike up to the citadel. The route zig-zags up a mountain side and the ascent is steep. The views, however, are well worth the calories you’ll burn on the way up. What started out as a grey morning in Nice turned into a glorious afternoon in Entrevaux and as you can see from the photos above, October in Provence in a beautiful thing. The air is crisp, the skies are blue, and the trees tease with the smallest hints of orange and red. With time to spare before the next train back to Nice, we decided to head to the next town on the Train des Pignes route, Annot.

Fall foliage in Annot

Fall foliage in Annot.

Annot France

Annot

Annot is located deeper into the mountains and it was here where autumn was really in full bloom. For my money, France doesn’t get much prettier than this. With an hour before we had to head back to Nice, I happily explored the town with my camera phone in hand and snapped away at everything I saw.

Annot France

Colourful Annot

Annot France

Annot, France

Annot doesn’t really have any sites or attractions for day trippers besides a few hiking trails, and after heading up the citadel in Entrevaux, I was in no mood to trudge my way through the mountains. That’s not to say the town isn’t worth visiting though. It’s very peaceful and very pretty, and in my case, my only other option would have been to stay in Entrevaux for 2.5 more hours. I think I made the right choice.

More information on the Train des Pignes can be found on its website here. Return tickets from Nice to Digne-les-Bains aren’t exactly cheap – expect to pay over €30. Tickets to and from Annot aren’t much cheaper, but when you take into account that the route provides you with a full day of exploring, it’s well worth the cost.

Itinerary: 5-Days/4-Nights in Nice, France

 

Flight: British Airways

(hurray for Avios points!)

Hotel: La Villa Hotel 

La Villa Hotel

La Villa Hotel

La Villa Hotel Bathroom

La Villa Hotel Bathroom

La Villa is a 3* boutique hotel midway between Gare Nice Ville (Nice train station) and Vieux Nice (Old Town Nice). It’s a short walk from the corner of Boulevard Victor Hugo and Nice’s main thoroughfare, Avenue Jean Medecin, where you’ll find a shopping mall, restaurants, and coffee shops. There’s also a convenient tram that runs up at down Avenue Jean Medecin, which connects Vieux Nice with Gare Nice Ville.

La Villa is a modern that still manages to retain lots of French character. Our room was located in the corner of the building, which meant that we had lots of space and excellent views. Everything was clean and comfortable, and much nicer than what you’d expect from a 3* hotel in Europe – there was free Wi-Fi, a flatscreen television with several English stations, a writing desk, separate seating area, and an ENORMOUS bathroom with views of the neighbouring church.

Day 1 – Promenade des Anglais

We arrived at Nice Cote d’Azure Airport in the early afternoon and took the #99 bus straight to Gare Nice Ville. Tickets were €6 (they were valid for the whole day) and the journey lasted about 25 minutes. From the train station it was another 15-minute walk to the hotel where we checked in, and promptly vegged out in front of the TV for a few hours.

Nice Beach . . . in Nice!

Once dinnertime rolled around I managed to pull myself together and take a walk down to Nice’s famous Promenade des Anglais. There are plenty of restaurants lining the coast, but they were all extremely overpriced. So what is a budget traveller like me to do? Go to Subway, of course!

My boyfriend and I started a ‘tradition’ of eating Subway sandwiches in France during our first trip to the country a few years ago. It was winter and we were staying at a not-so-nice hotel next to Lyon’s major train station. Weary from our travels, we flocked to the first familiar restaurant logo we saw – and it was a Subway. Since then, it’s been a bit of running joke that when we visit the culinary capital of the world, we eat horrible American sub sandwiches.

Nice was no exception. I ran into a Subway about two blocks from the beach and order a foot-long sub, a pack of cookies, and a drink. Our dinner for two in Nice was a whopping €7/person and we took our little subway bag straight to the beach, where I got to watch the sun set over the French Riviera on a fabulous autumn evening. THAT, my friends, was priceless.

Day 2 – Monaco and Nietzche’s Footpath

Day 2 turned out to be a real calorie burner. One of the main reasons I chose to visit Nice was its proximity to Monaco. Monaco, as you probably already know, is an über wealthy micro nation nestled along the Mediterranean coastline. It also happens to be a scant 20 minutes from Nice.

Monaco

Monaco

I took the SNFC from Gare Nice Ville to Monte Carlo after a bit of a late start to the day. Tickets were about €3.50/person and trains leave several times an hour, so I didn’t have to time my arrival. The short train journey to Monaco offered beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea and of lovely little seaside villages.

I was excited to arrive in Monaco, but after a few hours of wandering around, I discovered there’s really not much to do in the tiny country. I saw the famous Monte Carlo Casino (but didn’t go inside) and ventured over to the local beach to dip my toes into the water. I then followed part of the F1 race track before settling in for lunch . . . at McDonalds.

To be honest I was a little disappointed by Monaco. Yes, parts of the principality are very pretty and yes, there are Ferraris and Bentleys everywhere and plenty of well-dressed people, but everything was very much crammed together. There wasn’t a lot of space and a lot of the buildings clashed with one another — I guess to put it another way, Monaco seemed like a really opulent, beautiful mansion that is full of busy furniture and bad artwork. You can still appreciate the house for what it is, but the furniture is a little distracting.

footpath

Nietzsche’s footpath

After a deliciously fattening (but cheap!) lunch at McDonalds, I caught the 112 bus from Monaco to Eze Village, a pretty little medieval town overlooking the sea. The bus departs every few hours and you can pick up a schedule from any tourism office in Monaco. The bus ride was only €1.50/person and took us along a beautiful coastal road.

By the time I arrived in Eze, I was pretty tired and the thought of climbing further up to get a better look at the village had lost its appeal. Instead, I made the monumental mistake of thinking the hike down to Eze sur mer (to the coast) would be easier. The hike is called Nietzsche’s footpath, and it’s a rocky descent that takes at least 40 minutes. On the plus side, the views from the walk were absolutely spectacular and the natural surroundings were a nice contrast from cluttered Monaco. After reaching the coast, I caught the train back to Nice and promptly laid in bed. I probably walked at least 10 miles over the span of 5 or 6 hours and was completely spent.

Day 3 – Train des Pignes (read about my trip in detail here)

After running myself ragged the previous day, day 3 was meant to be a ‘relaxing day’. The plan was to take a scenic train right into the heart of Provence and enjoy a day out in the countryside. This is what happened in reality:

We woke up at 8am, which is 7am London time, in order to catch the 9:20 train out of Nice. Still monumentally sore from the previous day, I schlepped myself out of bed and began a mad search for the train station. You see, the scenic Train des Pignes doesn’t depart from Nice’s main train station. It departs from the tiny Gare des chemins de fed de Provence, which is a few blocks north. It took 20 minutes of walking before we found it and by that time it was 9am.

I purchased two return (round trip) tickets to Annot, a little town about halfway up the line. Because we didn’t have time to stop for breakfast that morning, we stocked up on vending machine snacks before boarding the train. Once the train departed and reached the outskirts of Nice, the scenery really began to transform. Gone were the tropical palm trees and Mediterannean villas. They were replaced by pine forests, mountain streams, and ancient villages.

Entrevaux

Our first stop was the medieval village of Entrevaux, where we were supposed to enjoy a nice lunch and have a leisurely stroll. The first part of this plan went off without a hitch. We found a great restaurant called Restaurant du Pont-Levis that served excellent local food. After lunch, however, we made the last-minute decision to climb up to the village’s citadel. Perched high above on top of a mountain, this turned out to take an HOUR. The footpath to the citadel was well paved, but it was pretty tough considering my legs were already sore from the day before. Nevertheless, we came, we saw, and we conquered. Next stop: Annot.

Annot

As it turns out, Annot doesn’t have a great deal to offer other than an impossibly cute central square and some great autumnal scenery. The train journey back to Nice took somewhere between two and three hours. I don’t know the exact time because I fell asleep. On our way back to the hotel, we picked up – you guessed it – Subway and enjoyed a feast of sandwiches and cookies before tucking in for the night.

Day 4 – Villefranche-sur-mer

Thoroughly exhausted from the previous two days, I really made it a point not to expend too much energy on day 4. After waking up blissfully late, we took a 10-minute train ride to beautiful Villefranche-sur-mer. Located between Monaco and Nice, Villefranche is built around a beautiful natural bay and boasts an actual sandy beach, unlike the pebble beach at Nice. The day we visited it was nearly 25 degrees, which was perfect beach weather. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my swimsuit so all I managed was a quick wade in the sea before heading in for lunch in the village.

villefranche

Villefranche – this photo doesn’t do it justice.

Day 5 – Vieux Nice

My flight didn’t take off until 16:45, so I still had a half day to do a bit more exploring. After checking out of the hotel, we walked down to Vieux Nice to have a look around before heading off to the airport. The weather didn’t quite cooperate with us and it drizzled most of the morning. Even in the rain, Old Town Nice had its charms. The neighbourhood comprised of twisting pedestrians alleyways and candy coloured buildings that bore a striking resemblance to the architecture in Venice. Indeed, Nice used to be a part of Italy and that definitely shows in its older buildings.

Old Town Nice

Old Town Nice

After touring old town thoroughly, I head back to the Promenade des Anglais for a quick lunch before catching the #98 bus to the airport.