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High Time - The Pyrénées

High Time - The Pyrénées

Whether you’re a confirmed skier, or simply feel like getting away, a break in the mountains could be the perfect way to beat those winter blues... 

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One of the advantages of life here in western France is being within easy reach of an incredible range of scenery, and a wealth of activities to enjoy, whatever the season. Not surprisingly, skiers and snowboarders have always viewed the approach of winter very differently from those who have yet to be converted. But now, even non-skiers have plenty to enjoy in newly revitalised resorts, many of which have HandiSki facilities and equipment, allowing disabled skiers to enjoy the mountains. In recent years levels of accommodation have also improved beyond recognition, to satisfy ever more discerning visitors. Many hotels and self-catering apartment developments now include things like indoor swimming pools, fitness suites and luxury spas as part of their offer, even in ski areas which developed above already fashionable thermal spa towns.

So where do you go? From a regional perspective the Pyrénées are an obvious getaway destination, particularly after last season’s truly epic snowfalls (and given substantially lower prices than in the Alps). The drive down past Bordeaux is also a breeze, and is now followed by a welcome stretch of autoroute bypassing the once tedious road between Langon and Pau, gateway to the resorts of the Hautes-Pyrénées. Among the best known is Cauterets, a long established spa town with a surprising 25,000 visitor beds. It also attracts increasing numbers of skiers, who can hop on a high speed gondola lift direct to the ski area right from the heart of the town, close to ski hire shops and sales points for lift passes. Once up there the skiing is around a huge bowl well above the tree-line (so you’re not about to get lost) but with some surprisingly steep terrain, amid satisfyingly dramatic scenery. The town itself is relaxed rather than lively, but has friendly bars and plenty of day-to-day services, while the historic thermal spa – les Bains du Rocher – has been updated with the emphasis firmly on family fun and relaxation. As a bonus, drive a few kilometres up the valley and you’ll be rewarded with a very different experience at Pont d’Espagne, which offers cross-country skiing, a couple of downhill runs plus nature walks amid the hauntingly beautiful, unspoilt scenery of the Parc National des Pyrénées.

Across the valley from Cauterets (and close enough to combine the two, if you’d like more variety) is Luz Ardiden, whose ski terrain feels more varied than that of its neighbour, and with a welcome sense of escaping from it all. The only downside is a lack of on-mountain accommodation, so you have to drive or bus up and down each day, but it’s well worth the effort, and if they ever manage to link the two areas Luz will suddenly come of age. For now, though, it remains something of a find, as is Luz Saint-Sauveur down in the valley, which offers accommodation in a traditional, low key setting - plus Luzéa, an elegant thermal spa.

Another big name ski resort hereabouts is La Mongie, which sits below the 2872m Pic du Midi (accessible by a two stage cable-car from the village) and is linked with the old spa town of Barèges. Between them lies the 2115m Col du Tourmalet, of Tour de France fame, plus 100km or so of shared ski-terrain to suit most skier levels, and the sensation of covering some real distance. Highlights for us, though, are the away-from-it-all runs among the forests above Barèges. Downsides? La Mongie has its loyal fans, but won’t suit everyone, mainly due to the time spent heading along the narrow valley on chairlifts. The purpose-built architectural style also looks dated, although efforts to facelift things are now paying off – and if you feel like some après-ski relaxation, then 30min away down in Bagnères de Bigorre you’ll find Aquensis, a big, stylish spa/aqua centre with naturally-heated pools, waterfalls and even a second rooftop swimming pool with a glass floor.

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On the other hand, if you prefer traditional village charm, then look no further than Saint-Lary Soulan. Being another spa town, it attracts visitors in all seasons, and in winter you’ll be skiing alongside French families happily returning to the mountain where they laid their first tracks. Recent investments have seen Saint-Lary’s venerable cable-car joined by a high speed gondola lift which whisks skiers to 1700m for safe novice areas and lots of terrain for intermediates, much of it hidden until you begin to explore a little. The highest lift reaches a respectable 2,515m, and there’s a snow park plus cross-country pistes. The real find, however, is the Refuge de l’Oule, an authentic mountain auberge hidden away beside a frozen lake among protected pine forest and accessible only on skis or by chairlift.

Last season’s snowfalls made just about everywhere 100% skiable (and actually buried a ski lift or two) but if you still want a snow-sure resort then head further up the valley from Saint-Lary to Piau Engaly, which at 2300m offers the highest altitude skiing in the Pyrenees. It’s right beside the border, too, so attracts lots of Spanish skiers who appreciate the superior snow quality of the north-facing French slopes. Piau is not only a fun place, with some great cruising terrain, but the tourist office offers bargain ski-and-accommodation deals, if you’re happy to avoid weekends. The vibe is upbeat and friendly, and the innovative architectural style succeeds in blending into the beauty of the setting.

Similarly family-friendly is Peyragudes, created in 1988 by linking the terrain of two ski villages on opposite sides of a substantial mountain and an administrative frontier, Peyresourde being in the Hautes-Pyrénées, while Les Agudes sits in neighbouring Haute-Garonne. The resulting name might not be familiar yet but the mountain is already known to millions of James Bond fans worldwide as the location for the famous opening ski-chase sequence of ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’. Skiing both sides of the mountain allows you to find good snow conditions both morning and afternoon, and the modern, high speed lift system makes getting around a pleasure. The scenery is sensational, too, and a few minutes’ drive will take you to Balnéa, an elegant yet friendly thermal spa complex in a lakeside setting in the Vallée du Louron, a family activity centre with a range of accommodation.


PLAN B: The Auvergne

Ever skied down the side of a volcano? Probably not, but in the Auvergne you can do just that, and have something to tell your friends. While far from snow-sure, when conditions are good somewhere like Le Sancy (source of the Dordogne river), which combines the ski areas of Le Mont Dore with neighbouring SuperBesse, offers accessible family skiing in a unique setting. There’s solid value too, including child-rate lift passes for over-60s. An historic spa town, Le Mont Dore appeals to traditionalists, but even modern SuperBesse is just a short drive from the atmospheric medieval village of Besse, so both offer more than skiing. Finally, when snow conditions are good, then a little further south in the Cantal NW of Aurillac, is Le Lioran with 60km of groomed terrain up to 1850m and extensive snowmaking capability.



If you’re a non-skier, or simply feel like trying something different, snow-shoeing gets you to places even off-piste skiers don’t get to see, and modern lightweight equipment allows you to enjoy your surroundings with minimum effort. Another traditional way of exploring mountain forest trails in near silence is ski-joëring – being towed on lightweight skis behind a horse or pony. If you’re already both a skier and a rider, you’ll find it a lot more intuitive than it sounds, but if not then you’ll soon pick it up, or you can travel like a frontier trapper behind a team of sled-dogs. Alternatively for petrol-head thrills try snowmobiling at night, negotiating snowy woodland tracks with only your headlights for guidance. Not that seeing mountain scenery need be physical.
A sensational cable-car ride from La Mongie will take you to the Pic du Midi, where you can even overnight to catch both sunset and sunrise.

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SKI AREAS: – Cauterets & Pont d’Espagne – Barèges, La Mongie & Pic du Midi – Hautacam – Luz Ardiden – Peyragudes – Piau Engaly – Saint-Lary Soulan – Le Mont Dore, SuperBesse

For expert insight for skiers and anyone planning to enjoy the mountains of France see:

THERMAL SPAS: – Aquensis (Bagnères de Bigorre) – Balnéa (Vallée du Louron, nr Peyragudes) – Les Thermes du Mont Dore (Auvergne) – Les Thermes de Luz St Sauveur (nr Luz Ardiden) – Les Thermes d’Argelès-Gazost (nr Hautacam) –Sensoria (Saint-Lary Soulan) – Les Bains du Rocher (Cauterets)