Francophile Jane Bolton is MD at Erna Low Ski Holidays. She’s been selling holidays in Europe and Canada for the past 17 years, and has recently added another ski region to her list of favourites: the French Pyrenees. Here, she explains why this underrated region works so well for inexpensive short breaks.
What are you looking for in a ski weekend? Quick transfers? Ski-in, ski-out accommodation? Characterful mountain towns? Reasonable prices? If any of these are on your hit-list, then it’s time to consider the ski resorts of the Hautes Pyrénées.
1. Transfer times can be blissfully short
Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrénées isn’t exactly the busiest airport in France. Yes, its place on the pilgrim trail to Lourdes means there are plenty of flights in from the likes of Italy, Belgium and the Czech Republic. But the only airline flying directly to it from the UK is Ryanair. To work with its schedule, your ski weekend will have to run from Saturday to Tuesday.
But look how close it is to the mountains.
There are four ski areas within 45km (28 miles) of the runway. Five more are within 100km.
Of course, if it’s blowing a blizzard, those 45km might take three hours to drive. But on any normal day, you’ll have just had time to argue about which French radio station to listen to, when – taa-daaaaaa – it’ll be time to stop the car and unpack your luggage. We’re talking an hour, tops.
And if you don’t fancy hiring a car yourself, there’s a shuttle bus service that links with both the inbound and outbound flights at Tarbes to whisk you into the resorts.
If Ryanair’s schedule doesn’t work for you, then much larger Toulouse airport should be your target. From the UK it offers flights from Bristol, Heathrow and Gatwick with easyJet and BA. Transfer times are longer: but not unreasonable by Alpine standards. The nearest ski lift is 1hr 45mins in the car – roughly equivalent to driving from Geneva airport to Verbier in Switzerland.
2. There’s some scintillating skiing on the doorstep
South of Tarbes, the Pyrenees lurch skywards, and throw up some mighty peaks – including the 2877m Pic du Midi, the 3023m Pic de Lustou and the 3192m Pic Long. So it’s no wonder that this part of the range is the setting for some great skiing – as well as stirring scenery. None of the local ski areas is especially large by modern standards (Le Grand Tourmalet is the biggest, and claims 100km of pistes). But there’s more than enough skiing in most of them for a short break.
Treats in store for intermediates include the long and scenic run called Les Bergers in La Mongie (one of Welove2ski’s ten best pistes in France), the flattering reds and blues of Peyragudes, and the short sharp blacks of Saint-Lary. Meanwhile, off-pisters and ski tourers will be longing for a crack at the Pic du Midi above La Mongie – home to plunging chutes such as the Couloir des Poubelles.
Here’s a wee taste of the Pic du Midi, from Youtube.
Freestylers won’t feel short-changed either, especially if they target the highly-rated Oakley Park in Cauterets.
3. It can really snow here
When it comes to natural snowfall, the Pyrenean climate can be a bit feast-or-famine. But when the blizzards do blow in, oh my…
In recent winters there have been some big dumps. Back in January 2013, for example, La Mongie was hit by 1.5m of snow in three days (see above). Last winter saw blizzards of similar intensity. The picture below was taken at Saint-Lary-Soulan on February 24.
You’d be mad to expect snowfalls like this. The French Pyrenees can’t match the snowiest resorts in the Alps for average snowfall. But they do seem to get the really big storms more often than the Alps – in part because they’re in the firing line when big low-pressure systems pile in off the Bay of Biscay. No-one wants to arrive in the middle of a blizzard, of course. But wouldn’t it be great to turn up, just after the roads had re-opened, and the ski areas had been secured against avalanches?
4. The snow cannons are waiting if Mother Nature doesn’t deliver
Recent winters have been snowy in the Pyrenees and the last disappointing season was 2010-11. But if you’re worried about the white stuff, target Saint Lary, which has 290 snow cannons, covering 45% of the ski area, Peyragudes, whose 240 guns provide snow for 70% of the pistes, or Le Grand Tourmalet ski area (shared between La Mongie and Bareges) which as 244 guns covering 30% of the area.
Bear in mind that all the Pyrenean ski areas are set at a middling height by European standards, with most of the skiing in the 1300-2500m range. That means the snow won’t be immune from spring thaws. Plan your trip in January or the first half of February for the best chance of soft, grippy snow – or get ready to go at the last minute in March if there’s been a dump.
5. You get a choice between characterful and convenient
One of the best things about the Hautes Pyrenees, is the local flavour you get if you stay down in one of the valley towns, such as Cauterets or Saint-Lary-Soulan. These are low-key, characterful places, which make a living as spa towns as well as ski resorts: and they’re a canny choice of destination if anyone in your party fancies soft-pedalling on the skiing, and kicking back in a giant Jacuzzi.
But if all want is to pile out of the front door in time for the first lift, and ski your legs to jelly at sundown, then you’ll find plenty of piste-side accommodation – for example in La Mongie, Peyragudes and Saint-Lary 1700.
6. You’re never far from a spa
The Hautes Pyrenees are bubbling over with state-of-the art spa and wellness centres. There’s Sensoria at St Lary Soulan, Cieleo at Bareges, Les Bains du Rocher at Cauterets, and Balnea at Genos. Some are virtually next door to the ski lifts, others are only a short drive. Each is a lovely, relaxing place to kick back after a day on the slopes. You can try a Thai foot massage, toast yourself in a sauna, soak in a giant Jacuzzi bath, or simply stretch your muscles with a swim. Whatever: visiting at least one is going to add an extra dimension to the trip.
7. Prices are refreshingly reasonable
Take for example a three-night short break from January 16 in a self-catering apartment in the Residence Les Rives de l’Aure in Saint-Lary-Soulan. At the time of writing, the apartment costs £67pp (€95), based on four sharing for three nights. Return flights to Tarbes-Lourdes with Ryanair start from £50pp (€71, including a checked-in 15kg suitcase), and three days’ car hire with carrentals.co.uk starts from £19pp (€27) for an intermediate car (four sharing). Obviously, you’ve got your lift pass, fuel and food to pay for on top of that. Probably ski hire, too. But still – it’s not what you’d call expensive.
Once you get on the mountain, prices are very reasonable too. A coffee will set up back €1.50-1.60, a bowl of soup €6, a dish of the day at lunchtime €10-12, and a “demi” of draft beer €3-3.30.
Interested? Here are the four resorts to target.
Lourdes airport: 45km/45mins
Toulouse airport: 208km/2hrs 15mins
1730-2415m, 11 lifts 36km of piste
Cauterets is a pretty spa town, wedged between steep-sided hills. But jump on the Telecabine du Lys, and soon you’re in another world – dominated by the pyramid peak of the 2657m Soum de Grum.
This is the setting for the Cirque du Lys ski area – which has the highest snowfall average of the four resorts featured here (it gets 5m a season, which is more respectable than by Alpine standards). The terrain’s steep and holds its snow well: and is a great setting for a day or two of high-speed action, either on-piste or off.
Freeskiers will probably want to stay longer, thanks to the highly-rated Oakley Freestyle Park. So too sybarites – who will be tempted by the waters at the 2500m2 Bains du Rocher spa. But for anyone who wants to get some more skiing miles under their belts, it’s good to know the lifts at the Grand Tourmalet are less than an hour’s drive from here, just beyond Bareges.
Stay: try the Lion d’Or, an antiquey and beautifully-kept three-star hotel, five minutes walk from the Telecabine du Lys. Or target a self-catering apartment at Le Domaine des 100 Lacs.
Lourdes airport: 47km/70 mins
Toulouse airport: 181km/2hrs 11mins
1400-2500m, 39 lifts 100km of piste
If non-stop intermediate-friendly skiing is the goal, then La Mongie is the place. Not only is this purpose-built resort set in the midst of the biggest network of pistes in the area – Le Grand Tourmalet. It’s also the starting point for the cable car to the 2877m summit of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, home to several of the most high-rated off-piste descents in the Pyrenees (see point 2, above).
For freeriders, this is a must-ski mountain, provided of course they hire a guide and give themselves a few days’ of weather insurance – just in case high winds shut the cable car.
The purpose-built ski village won’t win any awards for its looks, but it’s cleverly laid-out, so nowhere is far from the skiing. It’s the kind of place you can stash the car for the weekend, and get lost in the lift system: which serves a range of easy pistes immediately above town, and more challenging descents in the Super Bareges sector. You might enjoy the prices in the restaurants too: in La Mama, for example, a fondue for two costs €15.20, and the dish of the day at lunchtime is €10.
Meanwhile, more gastronomic fare comes courtesy of Chez Louisette, a gorgeous old lodge above the village of Bareges. Among its many home-made treats is a an aperitif flavoured with poppy seeds and orange (and some very strong vodka). I went there one evening, and we sat in front of a roaring fire, ate a ridiculous amount and then met the very lovely Louisette and her family.
Stay: new for the 2015-16 season, the Pierre & Vacances Residence Pic du Midi has its own pool, and larger-than-average self-catering apartments. Or try the inexpensive, and recently-refurbished hotel Crete Blanche in the middle of the resort. Expert off-pisters might also like to spend at night at the top of the Pic du Midi: the observatory there takes paying guests.
Lourdes airport: 80km/65mins
Toulouse airport: 159km/1hr 45mins
1700-2515m, 33 lifts, 100km of piste
Accommodation in St Lary comes in two flavours. You’ve got the traditional spa town in the valley, at 830m, home to the Sensoria spa and wellness centre. Then, higher up the mountain, lies St Lary 1700, which is purpose-built and offers ski-in, ski-out convenience. There are two lifts linking these bases, and beyond them a sizeable, 100km-stretch of pistes, which will suit a mixed group of both intermediates and more advanced skiers. The Sarrats black in particular is a treat – as is lunch at the Refuge du Lac d’Oule (though you must get there early to be sure of a table).
Stay: if you base yourself down in St Lary Village, you can dip in and out of the Sensoria spa after skiing. Here, the Residence Les Rives de L’Aure has self-catering apartments and its own pool, and is just 100m from both ski lifts. The three-star Hotel Christiania is up at 1700m, and offers gorgeous mountain views, functional rooms and an open fire in the dining room.
Lourdes airport: 90km/80mins
Toulouse airport: 159km/1hr 55mins
1600-2400m, 17 lifts, 60km of piste
Peyragudes is the most high-tech of the Hautes Pyrenees resorts, with fast lifts, and 240 snow cannons, covering 70% of the pistes. The ski area has been formed by the union of two ski villages – Les Agudes and Peyresourde – on different flanks of the same mountain ridge. It offers some excellent intermediate-friendly skiing, in just the right quantity for a short break. For the Pyrenees, some of the runs are exceptionally long, too – in particular the 4km Vallée Blanche (although the lowest sections of this can be sketchy if there’s been a thaw).
Stay: the Peyresourde side of the ski area is the place to stay. It’s home to the most modern accommodation, and a new spa and wellness centre, Spassio. Spa-lovers will also want to drive to the lovely Balnea wellness centre, down in the valley at Loudenvielle.
If it’s self-catering apartments you’re after, try Les Hauts de Peyragudes, a residence with its own indoor pool. It’s set in the suburb of Balestas, a two-minute bus ride from the lifts. Or try L’Ancienne Poste, down in the valley at Avajan; a cosy, chalet-style lodge run by British ski instructor James Dealtry.