As a destination to ski Pyrenees is probably not high on many skiers must-do lists. There are no big interlinked ski systems, high altitude resorts, exclusive hotels or celebrity endorsements. Glacier skiing areas do not exist and you won’t see any famous ski racers because the World Cup circuit does not go there.
However, what the region lacks in big name fire power it more than makes up for in other ways. This is an area of unspoilt mountain scenery, dotted with traditional villages that still have a rustic charm. If you ski Pyrenees will get a taste of real France with small family run hotels alongside local cafes and bistros offering traditional cuisine – all at prices no longer seen in bigger resorts.
Despite the lack of extensive ski systems there is still enough to keep most skiers happy – the more experienced can enjoy mountain hopping from a single base or a relaxed multi-centre holiday. Families and those less adventurous can enjoy some excellent quality slopes with reliable snow cover.
Our modest ski Pyrenees safari took in four resorts: Saint-Lary-Soulan, Cauterets, Bareges and La Mongie – the latter two combining as the Grand Tourmalet ski region – plus the Pic du Midi. All are within about 90 minutes of either Toulouse or Lourdes airports – both destinations also well worth exploring in their own right.
Saint Lary is a pretty, traditional resort with a cosy centre of local shops and small hotels. We stayed a few minutes walk away at the Mercure Sensoria, a pleasant modern hotel and although part of the functional Mercure Group was one notch up from the usual chain offering. Located just a hundred yards or so from the main ski lift it is also linked by an underground walkway to the Sensoria Spa (read our review here).
With Saint Lary resort altitude at just 800m you won’t always find snow in the valley, but no matter, a quick gondola brings you straight up to the main beginners and ski school area Plan d’Adet at 1700m. From here there is much more skiing than you expect with over 100km of piste that extends over two peaks and valleys. To many, skiing the Pyrenees somehow suggests a ‘second best’ of modest peaks and rolling hills. On the contrary here you are quickly into spectacular high mountain peaks and stunning scenery.
Over from Plan d’Adet, Espiaube has plenty of mixed level cruising whilst above at Saint Lary 2400 the skiing is of a quality you would find in any major Alpine destination. The resort however recognises its family appeal and as such ensures that every lift usually has a beginners route down as well as a more advanced alternative.
Our next stop, Cauterets, is a little farther to the west, and where St Lary offers traditional charm, Cauterets oozes Belle Epoque style, with evidence all around of its heyday as a fashionable spa resort some hundred or so years ago.
The Hotel du Lion d’Or was our base for the next few days – a perfect family run small and historic inn (read review here). Although we are close to the resort centre it was just a two minute stroll to the gondola leading up to the main ski area, Cirque du Lys.
This is a big open bowl with a selection of lifts and pistes that radiate from its heart. Beginners and families will adore the convenience and although better skiers will the enjoy varied terrain they will find it limiting after a day or two. A bonus is 100% snow reliability – the cirque is a natural snow-trap backed up with plentiful snow cannons that ensure a season that extends until the end of April.
It is just forty minutes from Cauterets to the Grand Tourmalet. This is the biggest linked ski region in the French Pyrenees, where 100 km of piste and 34 lifts connect the small traditional village of Bareges to purpose built La Mongie. Stretching over a ridge and a series of smaller valleys there are a good variety of slopes that extend up to 2500m.
As with the other resorts the skiing on offer is limited for better skiers but is the best in the region and with some spa down-time and maybe a day trip elsewhere it should be enough for a very pleasant weeks holiday. Bareges is pretty, although somewhat small, with the excellent Cieleo Spa an added bonus (see review here). La Mongie is larger and a perfect base for families and beginners who are willing to trade the dubious 1970’s aesthetic for ski convenience.
Before leaving the Grand Tourmalet we take a trip up the Pic du Midi. This two part lift is accessed from La Mongie and is well worth the ride for the spectacular panoramic view from its 2800m peak (skiing from here is possible for advanced skiers with a guide) plus an interesting museum that tells its long history as a ground-breaking observatory. If you have deep pockets there are a few rooms where you can stay overnight to view the stars plus the mountain top sunrise and sunset.
Just a few miles down from the ski area we round off a hugely enjoyable safari with the thermal waters in the cathedral-like space of the Aquensis Spa (see review here). Thoroughly relaxed we step out into the heart of the Bagneres-de-Bigorre where we enjoy a local French meal in the cobbled streets.
Ultimately this is what the Pyrenees is all about – authenticity. Enjoy the skiing and the spas, but above all soak up the local atmosphere and take a journey back to a place where time moves just a little more slowly.
CELLOPHANELAND* were guests of Hautes-Pyrenees Tourism
St Lary skiing visit www.saintlary.com
Cauterets skiing visit www.cauterets.com
Grand Tourmalet skiing visit www.grand-tourmalet.com
Pic du Midi visit www.picdumidi.com
For information on the region – summer or winter – visit Hautes-Pyrenees Tourism