Sam Wylie-Harris takes the scenic route to Italy for a spot of skiing and discovers that driving to the mountains is far more civilised than flying.
Flying over the Alps will no doubt provide spectacular views of this world renowned mountain range, but I prefer to do things a little differently. And, I’ll be the first to admit, there’s a little bit of Daisy Duke in me.
Besides, driving in Europe can be a lot more convenient than flying: you can pack as much as you like, you don’t have to battle through airport security, and the journey can be just as enjoyable as reaching the final destination.
But a successful trip very much depends on the vehicle you choose to drive. I felt quite at home behind the wheel of the latest Ford Ranger Double-Cab Wildtrak truck – the engine of which is capable of towing a 160 tonne steam locomotive – for the 12-hour journey from the south-east of England, through France to the Italian mountain town of Courmayeur.
Our metallic orange 4x4 elevated us at least three feet above every other car on the road and, thanks to the grippy road handling and stability, surprising agility, traction control and emergency break assist, along with five-star safety rating and superb stereo sound, I had no fears about larging it on the right-hand side of the road on our 635-mile scenic route to the Aosta Valley.
A beginner skier, my suitcase started out with a modest ski jacket, pants, thermals and fleeces, but with no luggage restrictions it quickly morphed into an entire season’s wardrobe of winter outfits.
My husband, an expert skier with all the gear, was able to pack his professional kit into the Ranger Wildtrak’s large flatbed without the hassle of having to lug it around an airport, and, better yet, having to fork out for excess baggage charges.
With 30 miles to the gallon, a fuel (diesel) capacity of 80 litres, and a 3.2 engine, we certainly looked the part as we pulled up to the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone for our crossing to Calais.
Our road journey along the A26 through five tolls (total cost 480 Euros), took us through the French cities of Reims and Lyon, enroute to Chamonix, one of France’s oldest and most popular ski resorts.
As we crawled up the mountain under a light dusting of snow, our 18in alloy wheels got their first taste of icy roads ahead of the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
Almost as majestic as the mountain itself, the 7.2-mile-long tunnel connects Chamonix with the chic Italian ski resort of Courmayeur and our charming, chalet-style hotel, Auberge de La Maison in Entreves.
At 1,224m, Courmayeur sits at the foot of Mont Blanc, which at 4,810m, is the highest peak in the Alps. A unique location with breath-taking scenery, skiers can go off piste among jagged peaks, glaciers and giant rock formations or choose from more than 20 blue and black runs of pure white snow.
Non-skiers and holidaymakers need not miss out though. The gondola or cable car will transport visitors to one of the glacier terraces where you can enjoy a 360-degree panorama of the most famous alpine peaks, including The Matterhorn, Gran Paradiso and Switzerland’s Monte Rosa.
Needless to say, I started out on the baby slope with Italian tots who were born with ski boots strapped to their ankles. Desperately trying to stay balanced, I kept my eyes on the horizon as advised by Antonio, my saintly ski instructor.
Managing not to take a tumble, I carefully made my way down the slope in snowplough formation, perhaps not the most elegant of techniques but it kept me upright.
On day two, spurred on by Antonio calling out to me, “You’re a natural!” I’d managed to negotiate the chairlift to the Stadio Slalom at 2,000m and, under his watchful eye, snowploughed and skied my way down the slope to Chiecco’s mountain restaurant for a well-deserved lunch.
Perfect for poseurs who love nothing more than to sunbathe half-naked on deckchairs with their boots planted firmly in the snow, this delicious suntrap serves a full spread of the best Italian antipasto, breads, sausage, meats and homemade spaghetti and ravioli.
With full bellies and a wonderful feeling of achievement, afternoons were always more leisurely than the morning’s adrenalin rush. After a shuttle ride back to the hotel, we enjoyed a relaxing sauna to help relieve tired, aching muscles.
Delighted to step into a heel, rather than a binding at the end of the day, I put my foot down on the Ranger Wildtrak’s accelerator and drove the three kilometres into the centre of Courmayeur.
The town’s main cobbled pedestrian street, Via Roma, is a hub of designer boutiques, trendy bars, restaurants and ski shops, with plenty of apres-ski temptations to keep us there late into the night.
We shopped for wines and cheeses, enjoyed cocktails in Bar Roma, dined at La Poste, and hit the dance floor until 3am at Courmaclub.
Needless to say, we felt a bit like we’d been tangoed when we were woken early the next morning by the noise of heli-skiers, getting an express lift to the highest point of the mountain.
Before we waved goodbye to the Alps, we filled the truck with gourmet treats including cheeses, sausage, olive oils and wines - a perk of unlimited hand luggage. And with my feet firmly encased in cosy winter snow boots, we drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel to begin the long drive home.