For some reason, the French Pyrénées isn’t the first ski region that springs to mind for British skiers, yet it has impeccable credentials. Access to resorts is easy with three international airports (Tarbes-Lourdes, Toulouse, Pau Pyrénées) within a two-hour drive. Lourdes and Toulouse also operate ski resort shuttle buses. And if you like to relax, you’re never far from a thermal spa in one of the picturesque villages or towns. Finally, and most importantly, the skiing is great and varied. With 14 ski resorts to choose from, your biggest challenge is deciding where to go. We took a road trip visiting three resorts over a long weekend.
Flying into Lourdes, we quickly picked up our hire car (don’t you love small airports?) and a scenic 90 minutes later we arrived at St Lary Soulan.
Saint-Lary is just 20km from the Spanish border and one of four resorts in a 247-km ski area with 166 pistes. Neighbouring resorts Peragudes, Val Louron and Piau-Engaly are all within easy reach and all have their own thermal spas. St-Lary was the first resort to sign up to the Durable Development Charter focusing on minimising their environmental impact. Today, its infrastructure is 100% powered by green energy.
The bustling town is perfect for browsing the local produce and craft shops. We wandered the streets on a sunny March afternoon before a visit to the Sensoria Nuxe Spa connected to our hotel. As well as some chill-out zones, there is a family area which was full of happy kids. In fact, Saint-Lary is a ‘Family Plus’ resort offering a great family experience including a kids snow park and the Patou park adventure trail for 6-12 year olds.
Aux Balcons 19 Rue Vincent Mir
After exploring the slopes of St Lary, we headed to Grand Tourmalet, the largest ski area in the French Pyrenees. We stayed in La Mongie for its easy access the Pic du Midi – our first destination.
The Pic du Midi was originally a weather observation station and is now “dedicated to the exploration of the universe.” At 2,977m it is the highest observation platform in Europe and has panoramic views across 300km of mountains. The 15-minute cable car trip from town reaches what is now also a restaurant, museum, planetarium and a very exclusive hotel with just 17 rooms sleeping no more than 27 people a night. The rooms were built for the engineers and researchers and whilst not luxurious, they have some of the best views in the world. In December 2013, the station received International Dark Sky Reserve accreditation and is officially one of top 10 best places in the world to stargaze. I have to agree. Sunsets are stunning too.
The village of La Mongie, at 1800m, provides easy piste access. For Tour de France fans, this is where you have the opportunity to ski over the famous Col du Tourmalet which was pretty amazing (I’d never manage it on two wheels). The piste map is clearly marked with last returns so you can explore as far as the typical Pyrenean village of Barèges with confidence.
Our last stop was Cauterets, sitting in the heart of the Pyrénées National Park. The town became famous for its thermal spas at the end of 19th century, attracting a cosmopolitan crowd of artists and writers. The town has a casino and many bars and restaurants and is a mix of modern and traditional Pyrenean architecture.
There are two ski areas: Pont d’Espagne for cross-country, snow-shoeing and walking, and Le Cirque du Lys for downhill. The Lys-Village cable car whisks you from the town centre to the ski area of 22 pistes and a snow park — not the biggest, but it has something for all levels.
After skiing, we enjoyed the naturally hot spa water in the Les Bains du Rocher spa, with indoor and outdoor pools, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam baths, massage areas…a glorious way to finish our weekend away.
Le Lys (at the top of the Lys-Village lift)
The Pyrénées offered a completely different feel to the Alps and I’d highly recommend a visit. The snow was excellent, the food offered more than your usual Alpine staples, and also, it was great value. I’ll be going back.
www.tourisme-hautes-pyrenees.com For information on many different packages combining ski and other experiences such as spas and snow shoeing
www.tourisme-hautes-pyrenees.com/Neige/Toi-Moi for romantic breaks
Kate stayed at:
Saint-Lary Soulan: Mercure Sensoria (4 star) www.mercuresensoria.com
Cauterets: Lion d’Or (3 star) www.liondor.eu
Pic du Midi: Reservations for overnight stays from €204 pp based on 2 people sharing.