Winter 2011

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La Plagne trip report.March 5th - 13th 2011.

After a great road trip to Canada in 2010 we had decided to stay in Europe for this years winter holiday. The question was where would we go. With two young children aged 4 years and 16 months we would have a lot to consider in order to make the right choice. Our 4 year old has already had 3 trans-atlantic trips and his sister was with us in Canada last year when just 4 months old ,so a short flight to Europe and a week in the Alps should not be too much of a problem.

Jill and I were looking for a resort we had not visited before that had to have a decent snow record, be at a reasonable altitude and have easy slope side access for Craigs ski lessons. We needed good reliable childcare and we wanted this to be in the place we were staying rather than having to drop them off elsewhere in the mornings. After looking through a lot of family ski specialist companies we were drawn to Ski Esprit. They seemed to fit the bill perfectly and had their flagship chalet hotel in Belle Plagne. The Deux Domaines also had a swimming pool, something we also wanted and the reports I read on sites like Trip Adviser were all positive. The total price came to £3119 for a week in early March and that included Paradiski lift passes for us plus full nursery day care for Anya and Craig’s full day snow club and ski lessons. It was half board and was with flights from Edinburgh to Geneva including ski/board carriage plus transfers to resort. It seemed a pretty good deal so we booked up almost a year in advance and we later found out that this Chalet Hotel ended up being fully booked for the whole season. We had a large room with two single beds pushed together plus another single bed for Craig and plenty of room for Anya’s travel cot.We had a large bathroom with bath and shower plus a separate toilet. There were plenty of storage areas and the balcony was on two sides of the room (Room 701).

We were flying out early on the Sunday morning so had booked in at the Quality Hotel Edinburgh Airport on the Saturday night. It cost £90 for the room plus parking and there was also a £1.50 charge per adult for the short bus transfer to the terminal and back. Our room was on the first floor above the entrance and was a little noisy as the smokers used the doorway and chatted loudly until quite late on.

The next morning was an early start as the alarm went off at 4.45am,it would be a long day both for us and the kids but compared with our usual long journey to Calgary via London this should be a piece of cake. Got the luggage down to reception and onto the bus which was quite busy and we were dropped off about 200m away from the airport terminal, grabbed a trolley and made our way to check-in. We had no wait at the Jet2 desk and after a few minutes wait in getting the passports scanned I was asked to put the luggage onto the weigh scale, we had two large bags between the four of us plus our two large board bags. The normal bags came in at just under the 20kg allowance but when I put the first board bag on it was showing just under 25kgs, the girl said it was over the 20kg weight but I could take some stuff from it and move it to another bag. I knew the second board bag was even heavier so I opened the bags up and pretended to move a couple of things before strategically placing the first bag back on the scale while using my knee at one end to lift it up slightly, thus making it read less than it actually was ! I calmly smiled and chatted to the girl as the weight hovered around the 19.7kg mark and after what seemed like ages she put a tag on the bag and told me to take it down and put the other (even heavier) one on. I managed to do the same thing again and thanks to lifting the end of the bag slightly with my knee I kept it under the 20kgs allowance. We then dropped the bags of at the oversize luggage drop off point and went for breakfast.

The flight to Geneva took off pretty much on time and was uneventful with friendly aircrew and a reasonable amount of legroom. We landed and got of the aircraft and onto the bus to take us to the terminal building where it was only a few minutes until we had retrieved all our bags. We made our way through to the terminal exit to be met by the Esprit rep and we were shown where the coach was, the driver helped load our bags and we sat at the back where there was a large table with nice seats all around it. We were soon on our way and were told we were being dropped at Moutiers where we would transfer to another coach to take us up to La Plagne. It turned out to be a minibus just for us and the two reps and it was not long before we were at Aime and starting to wind up round the hairpin bends to Belle Plagne. The two Esprit staff had slept on the minibus and woke up just before we arrived at our destination but what surprised us was that neither of them had a grasp of basic French and when the driver asked where the Hotel was they could not communicate very well and we thought that we would have to act as translators !

Anyway, we arrived safe and well at the front door which was secured and only accessible via your room key and we were met by about three staff who welcomed us and said they would take all our luggage up to our room. We were then taken up on the elevator to the reception and were very pleasantly greeted by the Hotel manager, Rachael. She told us the timings for the childrens high tea and let us have a look at tonights menu for our dinner and told us there would be an information meeting in the lounge before dinner. We were only given one room key (the credit card type) and to get another was €5 deposit, you really need this as to keep the lights and power on in the room you have to insert one of the keys into a socket just inside the door.

Our room was actually bigger than expected and we soon had all our gear unpacked and we were ready to go and have a look around. The kids had high tea at 5pm then we all went for a swim in the decent sized pool which was also quite warm. We soon got the kids settled and although they have staff sitting outside on each level providing a listening service we set up our monitors and made our way down to the lounge/ bar for a drink and the welcome meeting. There was a bit of a delay as most of the other guests had been due to fly into Chambery but as so often happens the airport had closed due to fog and they had been diverted to Lyon, we felt lucky to have arrived early and that we had had plenty of time to sort ourselves out prior to dinner. Not often you get a bonus flying from Scotland.

The Chalet Hotel Des Deux Domaines is the flagship property of Ski Esprit. All the 74 staff were native English speakers and you certainly never had to look far to find someone to ask a question or seek help from. They were mostly in their twenties and what did strike me most was that they were all genuinely friendly and helpful.

Onto the Hotel itself and we found the décor and furniture in both our room and the public areas to be in good order and the place was kept clean and tidy throughout our stay. Your first impression is when you are dropped off at the front door on the lower level and there is a small entrance lobby and a lift that takes you up to the reception and lounge bar area. There is an area with soft furniture near the nursery door which was good for the little ones to wander about. To get to the lift to the lower ground floor you had to go through a set of double doors which would only open if you were above a certain height, this was great as small children and toddlers could not escape. Through the doors was an outdoor snow pit with toys in it and there was also a games room for older kids. The lounge bar area at most times was big enough but on occasions (such as the ESF prize giving and sometimes just before dinner) it could have done to have been bigger with a few more tables. There was a large screen tv in the bar which usually had the BBC news channel running or any live football or rugby that people wanted to watch. The Hotel had WiFi in the bar and restaurant areas and again in a room on the 5th floor but not in the guest rooms. To get connected you just asked at the bar for a code and the connection was very good. The bar itself was quite small but it was never a problem to get drinks and they always had jugs of iced lemon water on the bar free gratis. From around 4pm they set up a table with cake and there was always tea and coffee available as well. Prices at the bar for cans of soft drinks such as Coke or Sprite were €3.50 and a pint of Amstel was normally €5 but during happy hours and promotional periods (when the football or rugby was on tv ) it was €4. You could also purchase a “beer card” for €45 and this bought you 10 beers but it was such a small slip of paper I somehow managed to loose mine after only having a couple of beers ticked off on it but the bar staff were all very good and they gave me another one the next day.

Just behind the bar was the restaurant which had great views over the mountains but at the children’s high tea the sun was would be shining directly in and it was difficult to see if you were facing the window. The kids could either sit at a table with their new found friends where they would be accompanied by a member of staff or they could sit as a family with parents and /or siblings. The younger children who were just in nursery had to be collected by their parents before 5pm and taken for high tea so Craig came and sat with us to eat. We found that Craig was usually very tired by tea time and it was sometimes difficult to get him to eat, but you had to realise that it had been an action packed day and that most of the other 4 and 5 year olds were the same. The food for the kids was good and wholesome and they always had enough. They would get a main course and a desert along with juice.

After high tea we would go back up to our room and get changed to go swimming. The adult guests were provided with white bath robes but there were no children’s ones. The pool was a decent size with a small shallow area for the small ones to play in and as I said before the water was quite warm. Outside there was a great hot tub with brilliant views. There was also another tub inside next to the pool. Upstairs they had an area for the adults only with another hot tub outside but we were never up there. In the pool area there was always a good supply of clean towels, these blue coloured ones were better than the white ones provided in the rooms and you are told to take them up to your room with you so that was good.

Once the kids were asleep we would set up our monitors and head down to the lounge for an aperitif and pre dinner canapés, which were always delicious and plentiful. Esprit staff would then take up position on each floor to provide a listening service between 19.30 and 23.00 each night. We were asked prior to dinner on the first night about our preferred sitting arrangements, you could have a table for two, sit with another couple or be part of a larger group. We said we would go with the flow and would be happy regardless, so the first couple of nights we sat with Dave and Liz from Southampton, then we had a night at a table by ourselves then for the rest of the week we sat with Richard and Pam from Manchester. It all worked really well and everybody had plenty to talk about. The food was excellent all week and of a much higher standard than I had anticipated, a starter, main course and desert followed by cheese and biscuits and coffee if you wanted. You had a choice of two different white, two different red and a rose wine to accompany your meal and they were all very pleasant. The wine was also plentiful and if you still had some left in the bottle at the end of the meal you were told you could take it to the lounge to finish it off.

Breakfast was from 7.30am and was taken in the restaurant where it was normally pretty busy and noisy, or you could go next door to a smaller room where the nursery children would normally eat to find a much quieter place to start the day. There was a decent choice of cereals, croissants, fruit, yoghurts etc as well as fruit juices and tea and coffee. They also took an order for a hot breakfast which would be something like scrambled eggs or sausage and bacon.

The property had been built into quite a steep hillside and from the reception there were two side by side lifts going up as far as the 4th floor, if you were in a room higher up you had to walk along the hallway to another lift that served between floors 4 and 9. At busy times it was often quicker and easier to use the stairs and the lifts were also quite small especially for taking babies and toddlers in pushchairs.

The rooms were all really well sound proofed and we never heard any noise coming from other rooms or the hallways. Our room had a balcony on two sides so basically got the sun all day long.

On the 3rd floor was the ski locker room, this place was big and spacious and warm and each room had a large cupboard for storing ski’s and snowboards plus in each cupboard there were heated boot holders, these were appreciated each morning. From the ski room there was a secure door through which you could make your way out onto the slopes, the path was about 50m from the Arpette blue run which took you down to Bellecote and a selection of lifts. On the way back you could virtually ski to the door. Up at the 9th floor was another way to access the slopes and was where the ski classes would be met by their instructors.

In the mornings I would take Craig up to the 9th floor and get his ski boots on and make sure he had everything he needed to go to his ski lesson. In his group he was the youngest at 4 as the others were 5 or 6, but he was fine and was up to speed with the rest of them as he had been on ski’s a number of times before. His group was 10 strong and they had two Esprit staff accompany them during the time they were out on ski lessons, they also had two ESF instructors so a ratio of 5:1 was pretty good as during the week I would quite often come across the ski class with 15 or 16 pupils snaking across the piste following their instructor (these were always French kids).Later in the week I asked to shadow Craig’s class and take some pictures and I realised just why he was so tired in the evenings. From the 9th floor of the Hotel they would all walk up the road then use a couple of other Hotel lifts to reach the Belle Plagne snow garden, it was a longish slog for young kids wearing ski boots but at least they did not have to carry ski’s as they were kept locked up at the ski garden. They spent time in the ski garden for a couple of days before being taken out onto the main slopes. There are nice wide blue runs through the centre of Belle Plagne and then they would be taken down to the Arpette chair and have their lessons up above the village. The ESF instructors, from what I saw were all positive and encouraging and Craig progressed really well throughout the week.

The nursery for the younger ones was on the same floor as the reception and bar/lounge. It was a large spacious place full of colourful posters and drawings. Anya had a great time and the staff were all very nice and attentive. During the warmer, sunnier days they would take the small ones out for walks in the pushchairs and would take them on the bubble lift down to Bellecote. They also down lots of painting and at the end of the week they gave us two A4 size prints of Anya’s hands and feet with a little poem attached to each of them, they were lovely and since getting home I have framed them and they are up on the wall in her room.

For the younger ones they always had free milk and baby food available (good quality brand names) and each child had a shelve to store all their extra clothing and changing things. A great set up and I would recommend them to anyone looking for quality childcare. Next door to the nursery was the snow club room for the older kids, they would spend some time in here being entertained when not out on ski lessons or other outdoor adventures. In the afternoons Craig would be taken sledging or bum boarding or down to Bellecote on the bubble lift, every minute they were busy so no wonder they were exhausted in the evenings which certainly makes it easier to get them to bed at night. For older kids they had clubs in the evening and they would sometimes go ice skating or be taken down to watch competitions in the half-pipe or suchlike. Never a dull moment.

The village of Belle Plagne itself sits at 2050m, so is therefore pretty snow sure. They had got some fresh snow the week before we arrived and the pistes were in good condition. The village itself is built on a steep hillside and its not the easiest place to walk around, especially with young children but there are elevators through the apartments which help and there is a lift near the Belle Plagne bubble lift that takes you up to where most of the bars and shops are located. The area around the Montafon and Face du Nord restaurants is also rustic and quite attractive and there are excellent views in all directions. There are more shops and bars as well as a pharmacy and the medical centre down in Plagne Bellecote which has easy access via the bubble lift which runs until after midnight. There is also an ice skating rink near to the half-pipe.

La Plagne and Les Arcs are both very large resorts on their own but put together they form the massive Paradiski area and it would take a good few weeks to cover the whole area. With only a week to explore an area we had not visited before we decided to break it into sections and focus on a different area each day.

We started by heading up to the Bellecote glacier via the Blanchetes chair then the Carella chair to Roche de Mio at 2700m. Lots of long blue runs in this area including the run back through the tunnel to Belle Plagne. We had been concerned before we arrived by reports of lots of flat areas which were problematic for snowboarders, but this was not a problem and we never had to unstrap all week, just a matter of keeping enough speed when you could see a flat section up ahead. There are great views from the Bellecote gondola as it heads down then up to the glacier. The snow was excellent up high and we enjoyed the runs up here, especially the red La Combe run. There is also an ice grotto up on the glacier but we did not go inside, but at quite a lot of the lifts you would come across some really good ice sculptures which were always popular for picture taking. We had intended taking the black Le Derochoir run down to the restaurant at the bottom of the Bauches chair but the run was closed because of poor/lack of snow, it was a shame as this sector of the resort has more challenging terrain and was much quieter. We eventually decided to have lunch at Les Inversens where we got a table out on the deck and sat having lunch soaking up the sun. I enjoyed my cheese, ham and mushroom omelette with fries (€11) washed down with a small beer (€3.20).

Next day we decided to head over and down to Champagny-en-Vanoise (1250m). We took the Colosses chair then cruised down the busy blue runs to La Plagne Centre before a 15 minute queue for the Funiplagne Grande Rochette cable-car up to La Grande Rochette (2505m). Spectacular views from up here and we enjoyed one of our best runs of the week down the red Kamikaze piste, it got soft and sugary but was great for getting some speed up on the board and was also much quieter than a lot of the runs on the La Plagne side. We kept going until we arrived at the Restaurant Les Borseliers where we stopped for a mid morning coffee. This place has a nice big outside seated area in a sheltered spot where we relaxed in the warm spring sunshine. It cost €1.70 for a Café and €3.40 for a Café au Lait, both came with a small chocolate.We then really enjoyed a fast run down the red Les Bois run all the way to the village of Champagny-en-Vanoise. The piste, which has snow cannons all the way down was the only place with snow and the rest of the hillside was just green. The long Mont de la Guerre red run down from Les Verdons was closed. The Gondola back up was quiet and we took the Borseliers3 drag lift up and traversed over to Le Roc des Blanchets for lunch. This place was excellent, a stunning location, great table service, and great food. When we sat down the waitress came over and gave Jill a free aperitif and told us what the Plat du Jour was and took our drinks order.The view from the table was amazing and it would have been very easy to sit there all afternoon. We both had tartiflette and Salat Vert (€16). A small beer was €2.90, a bottle of Coke lite was €3.10, an expresso was €2.00 and a Café grand crème came to €3.60. It was a really good lunch and we had planned to go back later in the week but sadly never managed to. After lunch we made our way back via the Rossa chair and cruised back down to Belle Plagne.

Our next day saw us venture over to Les Arcs, we headed out via the Arpette chair then down to Dos Rond. There are a couple of flat stretches over here but there is a rope tow that you can grab on to which is a massive bonus. We then flew all the way down to Montchavin without stopping. It was pretty quiet and the red run from below the Vanoise Express was excellent. Some really nice sheltered runs in the trees in this area. We took the Montchavin chair back up and then cruised down the bottom part of the blue Mont Blanc run to the Vanoise Express. There were few people around which surprised me as it was 10am and we had virtually no wait before we were heading across the valley to Plan Peisey. Once over to the Les Arcs sector it was quite busy and we had a short wait to access the Peisey chair. We cruised down to the Derby chair and headed up to 2331m then decided to ride all the way down to Arc 1800 for a mid morning coffee and a Panini. It was nice sitting in the sun just in front f the children’ ski garden. The longest wait we had all week for a lift was at the Transarc gondola up to Col de la Chal (2600m), but once onboard it was a fairly quick and comfortable ride to the top, although at mid station there are always people trying to get into what are already pretty full cabins.

The views from the top were great and we made the decision to head back to the Vanoise Express and have lunch above Les Coches. It was a really nice run back down and as earlier we had no wait and we were soon cruising down to the Lac Noir chair and looking for a nice place to stop for lunch. It was very warm and the first restaurant we came to was the Cristal des Neiges where the tables outside were beginning to fill up. We got sat down and ordered drinks, a small beer was €3.50.

I had the Plat du Jour (€15) and it was a large plate of cooked ham, sausage, cabbage, turnip and potato, it was very filling and tasty. Jill had a nice omelette and salad (€12). We then had an easy afternoon making our way back to Belle Plagne.

The next three days were spent exploring above Belle Plagne and the Col de Forcle area. We did not head too far as our daughter Anya had picked up a sickness bug so we kept her out of nursery. I spent time tracking my son Craig with his ski class and practicing riding “switch” on the blue runs from the Arpette chair.

On Thursday we had lunch in Belle Plagne itself at the Face du Nord restaurant . We had a nice table outside in a sheltered position and I had a lovely large salad Savoyard (€12). After lunch we done a few runs from Roche de Mio (2700m). The snow on piste was really good this afternoon but by the time we finished at 3.30pm it was really warm.

Friday morning saw Anya unwell again so I went out on my own and had a great time following Craig and his ski class and getting the chance to see just how much he had improved this week, it was also a good opportunity to see what lifts and runs the ESF instructor was using so that I could take him to the same places tomorrow. He had 5 morning ski lessons but 6 days in snow club but we decided that he could come out skiing with me on the Sat morning and go back to snow club in the afternoon.

On Saturday morning we found Anya was no better so headed down to Bellecote to the Pharmacy to see if we could get some medication, the Pharmacist said we would have to see the Doctor at the medical centre just round the corner. Craig and I left Jill and Anya and I took him out on his ski’s, I had been going to hire a pair of ski’s for the day but had not got round to it. So I was on my board with an eager to impress 4 year old on ski’s who just wanted to show me how fast he could go ! We had a good couple of hours on the blue runs from the Arpette chair and on the runs down through Belle Plagne. We met back at the Hotel before lunch and Anya had been prescribed some medicine by the Doctor. The consultation and prescription charges came to just under €50. Craig went to lunch with his snow club pals and we decided to cross the road to the Hotel Carline for lunch. To access the lounge and restaurant from our Hotel you crossed the road and then took the elevator down, this looks a real nice place to stay and the lounge / bar area was very pleasant and comfortable. We decided to sit outside to eat lunch, the decked area is large and is right next to the blue run down to Bellecote and makes a popular stop of place for skiers to have lunch. The waitress and the service was excellent. We had a nice lunch and Anya slept in her pushchair. I had the salad Carlina (€16) which was smoked salmon and crab, it was well presented and really enjoyable. A small beer was the usual €3.50 which was the same price as a Coca Cola Lite.

After lunch I took Anya back to the Hotel while Jill got out and done a few runs around Belle Plagne.

Later in the afternoon we got packed up before I took Craig to the swimming pool. We checked the notice board for departure times in the morning then once the kids were asleep we headed down for pre dinner drinks and canapés. As usual dinner was excellent and I really enjoyed my seafood chowder followed by Lamb shanks all washed down with a couple of nice glasses of wine. After dinner it was straight to bed hoping to get a good nights sleep before the long journey home the next day.

On the Sunday we got up at 5.45am, the good news was that Anya had not been sick and had slept all night. I got all the bags down to reception and placed them where we had been told to leave them the night before. We got a packed breakfast and we had also ordered packed lunches which at €6.90 were really good value. These lunches were available to purchase all week and would be a decent option for anyone on a really tight budget or for people who want to ski for most of the day and don’t want to have long lunch breaks ( that used to be me a few years ago, changed days now).

The Esprit staff carried all our bags and put them onto the minibus for us which was a great help when you have your hands full looking after two young children. Anya was sick before we left but Rachael the Hotel Manager took her jacket and gave it a wash down and tumble dried it for us before we got on the minibus. Anya was really unwell and we were both really worried. We got to Mouitiers and transferred onto another coach to get back to Geneva. By the time we arrived at the airport she had gone through about six sets of clothes so we had to get clean ones out of her bag before we checked in. At check-in we got the bags away quite quickly but going through security she was really sick again and the security staff were so unhelpful, we all got through and after gathering all our belongings together, getting our belts and shoes back on it was time to change Anya again. This was all very undignified as there are no washrooms / toilets before getting on the bus to go to the main terminal. Our flight was departing from gate D83 so we had a long walk including having to carry an ill child in a pushchair up two sets of stairs. Once at the gate we did not have to wait long and we were soon on the bus out to the aircraft. The Jet2 flight attendants were excellent and very helpful towards us even offering us re-hydration salts for Anya. During the flight Anya was very quiet and slept for a while and we were soon touching down at Edinburgh airport. We then had an hour to wait on the luggage coming through and that included Anya’s pushchair but we eventually made it to the bus and back to the car. Once we had all the kit loaded we set out back down the road for Dumfries. Anya seemed more settled now and the Doctor yesterday had said it would take about 24 hours before the medicine he had prescribed would take effect.

Once home we phoned NHS 24 and they called back later to say that we should take her up to the hospital but by then she had eaten a little , kept some fluids down and had went to bed and fell asleep. We said we would see what she was like in the morning and if we were still concerned we would take her to the hospital, fortunately she slept all night and was much better the next day , and after not eating much for three days she had the appetite of a Horse.

It’s a worrying time being abroad with an ill child but the Esprit staff were really helpful and the medical centre in Plagne Bellecote had a good English speaking Doctor.

Overall we had a good week in La Plagne and enjoyed the Paradiski area even though at times the runs were much busier than we are used to in Canada. There is a lot of unchallenging terrain but it was obvious to us that after a decent snowfall there are lots and lots of easily accessed off piste options. Grooming was good and as snowboarders we did not come across many areas that were so flat that we had to unstrap and walk. The scenery over the whole area is excellent and although some of the villages are not the most visually appealing we felt Belle Plagne was quite nice but its main fault is that its built on a steep hillside so walking about (especially with young kids) is an issue. We found plenty of good mountain restaurants and the service almost everywhere was efficient and friendly.

Ski Esprit were excellent from start to finish and we will certainly be looking at them for our next family winter holiday in the Alps. All the staff seemed to be enjoying their work and the nursery staff were all dedicated and genuinely wanted to make your stay as stress free as possible. The Hotel was great for us and everyone else was all in a similar situation so it was much easier to relax as you were not worried if your children were running about or a baby was crying as we were all in the same boat.

Would recommend Ski Esprit to anyone with young children looking for a holiday where they want plenty of time to ski and have their children well looked after and entertained, as well as having really good food and service throughout the whole week.