Travel: An apres-ski driving lesson that translates into a lot of fun

November 20, 2013

Serre Chevalier, a high ski resort on the French-Italian border, is ideal for a group or large family holiday. And its added attractions, for Bristol Business News Travel Editor ANNE GORRINGE, included learning how to drive a ‘piste basher’.

As our tour guide pointed out the ‘Milky Way’ ski area on our way to Serre Chevalier from the airport my thoughts turned to chocolate. It was a two-hour drive from Turin, where I’d landed, to my catered chalet on the edge of the French village of Villeneuve and I was feeling hungry.

Spotting the 400km of pistes in the distance took my mind off it. Sun, snow and lovely slopes – food could wait!

I was in Serre Chevalier with ski operator Inghams and skiing was a large part, but not the whole attraction, of my visit.

I was scouting out a group trip, and wanted a great location with a few additional new activities to keep everyone happy.

The prospect of taking over a chalet, having all our meals cooked and no arguments about the washing up, were added bonuses. Unlike some French resorts, many of the friendly and welcoming staff – including the driver of the piste basher – speak only limited English. That means that a trip to Serre Chevalier is a great place to try out your French.

Beautiful views at Serre Chevalier

It’s also a pretty resort, with a 250km ski area of well, interconnected pistes and probably more trees than any other resort in Europe. As my ski instructor pointed out, this means that even when the weather closes in, the trees-lined slopes have good visibility.

Previously, she worked in Tignes – renowned as a snow-sure high resort – but swears Serre Chevalier (actually a collection of villages spread along a 16km stretch of valley) is better.

One of the reasons is that the skiing is all on one side of the valley. This means most slopes face north or east so never get the full force of the sun blasting them and, hence, stay in great condition.

The resort also offers a rather special driving school – with the chance to get behind the wheel of a piste basher. Great fun and more difficult than it looks!

Anne, in action on the slopes. Piste basher driving sessions are available until the end of March

Taking an hour off from skiing, I booked in to test it out for myself though, I’m ashamed to say, I had to first call on the help of my ski instructor to translate for me. My driver Andre – spoke even less English than I do French!

I loved it, though, and quickly discovered that the controls are surprisingly sensitive. One small twitch of the wheel sent us veering to the left and had Andre speaking very slowly and loudly to me in complicated French, convinced I would eventually understand. The panicked look on his face said it all, and as I at least remembered the French for left and right and slow I gracefully managed my first circuit of the track.

The only requirement for having a go is a British driving licence. Or, if you can’t drive but still fancy a trip in one of these curious vehicles, you can always book in for a special mountain restaurant dinner with a difference. The ‘difference’ being you are taken up the slopes by piste basher taxi. Great fun.

In the cab, getting a bit of advice before moving to the driving seat

Back on the slopes next day, it was time for group skiing. If you’re with a competitive bunch, watch out for Video Zone near the snowpark. As you ski past, your lift pass triggers an automatic gate and you get to see yourself in action as you approach the giant video screen at the end of the slope. The unique number of your ski pass means you can later download the film to your computer. Ideal for impressing your friends back home.

A big plus of this type of chalet holiday is the accommodation – enough for 10-13 people. But don’t feel you have to fill it. Going away as a group of four or six works well. The chalet comes with great views, two lounges to relax in and a balcony to sit and soak up the afternoon sun.

It’s all very sociable and everyone mixes in. Our chalet staff were all young, friendly and helpful, and part of their role including a morning and afternoon taxi service to the ski lift – saving us the 10-minute walk.

As an added extra, they even included us on their night out – a trip to Mojo bar in the quaint village centre where we sampled the local cocktails. The night life in Serre Chevalier is limited but fun, friendly and unpretentious.

Arriving later at its only night club we discovered it was ‘moustache night’! It wasn’t even Movember but, for some reason, the persuasive bar staff were armed with false moustaches and makeup. I shuffled past and hit the dance floor.

If you are looking for luxury and sophistication, other resorts may suit you better, but for a fun trip of mixed ability skiers, Serre Chavalier is ideal.  And, for guests coming in off the slopes each afternoon, the chalet staff provide not just freshly baked cakes but chocolate pieces to have with tea. Milky Way? No, this chocolate wins hands down!

RESORT FACTS: Serre Chevalier is made up of a string of 13 villages along the valley floor stretching about 16km from the old city of Briancon (which has an interesting ancient fort, worth a visit) and the small town of Monetier.

Serre Chevalier’s attractions include ice karting. It also has a health and well-being centre where you can ease aching muscles. The public spa is heated by natural hot springs with a wide variety of pools and Jacuzzis indoor and out. But, like most places in France, there’s a ban on baggy swim shorts – so it’s strictly Speedos for men.

A six-day area pass includes free travel on all ski-buses which circulate the area the 250km of ski runs makes it the largest resort in France.

For the more adventurous, the ski pass also covers a day in each of Les Deux Alps, Alpe-d’Huez, Puy-St-Vincent and Montgenevre/the Milky Way. You can travel by bus to these resorts – but a car makes it much easier.

FACT BOX: Anne travelled to Serre Chevalier with Inghams, staying at their 3.5-star Chalet Amandier on a catered basis (breakfast, afternoon, tea, coffee and cakes, four- course dinner with unlimited wines, tea, coffee and chocolates). Prices start from £489 per person, including return flights from Gatwick to Turin and transfers to the resort. Flights are also available from Birmingham (with a £19 supplement).
See or tel: 01483 791114.

Lunch stop on the slopes above Villeneuve

Lift pass: Six-day whole area lift passes start from 220 (£185).

Starlight piste Basher ride followed by dinner in a mountain restaurant:

Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the season from 5.30pm to 11pm.

Price €50 (£42) per person (including dinner)

For bookings contact +33 (0) 4 92 25 55 00 (48hrs in advance) Or via Inghams rep.


Learn to drive a piste basher:

Every Friday from December 18 to March 30. From 10.30am to 1pm and 2pm to 4pm.

€70 (£59) per session for holders of a valid lift pass

For bookings contact +33 (0) 4 92 25 55 00 (48hrs in advance) or via Inghams representative.

Les Grands Bains thermal spa and baths:
Family offer: 1 adult and 2 children (4-14yrs) 31 € (2hrs)
See or contact +33 (0) 4 92 24 98 98

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