Olivier Lepoureau has been skiing in the Alps for 40 years but it was only five years ago that he discovered the French Pyrenees. Immediately taken with the area’s cute villages, and large, modern ski areas he set up Pyrenees Collection to introduce the British to a wintersports region that’s little known beyond south-western France.
While the Alps might get most of the attention, the Pyrenees have a lot more to offer than most skiers realise. The French side is mainly north-facing, so it normally offers the best snow-cover and skiing conditions.
Obviously, the higher the better, so places like Piau Engaly (which has skiing going up to 2526m) are a good choice. Elsewhere, in recent years some areas have invested heavily in snowmaking, which, combined with expert grooming, has kept things open between snowfalls.
There are some very reasonable flights to airports such as Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees, but driving here offers a lot more flexibility and the area isn’t as difficult to get to as you might imagine. After all, many people include an overnight stop-off when driving to and from the Alps, and you can easily break your journey along the way.
Then there’s the relaxed ambience, combined with a genuine friendliness both on and off the mountain.
If you like to wallow in a pool or Jacuzzi at the end of the day then you’ll enjoy the Pyrenean spas – in fact the area features France’s greatest concentration of thermal spas.
Some of them date back to the 19th century when what is now the wellness industry developed during the Victorian era. Places like Cauterets, Bareges, Saint-Lary Soulan, and Luz Saint-Sauveur were stylish spa towns long before the arrival of ski tourism.
I’m not saying it’s better here than the Alps, but everyone needs a bit of variety, and if you think these aren’t proper mountains then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. As well as decent piste skiing there’s a lot of good off-piste, the surroundings are truly beautiful, and you’ll be amazed by the prices, too.
Here’s my pick of the best of Pyrenean skiing:
The biggest ski area in the French Pyrenees, Tourmalet (if the name sounds familiar, think Tour de France) is in the Hautes Pyrenees department, halfway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It is made up of two resorts, Bareges and La Mongie.
1250-2350m, 50 lifts, 120km of piste
The ancient spa town of Bareges is the second oldest ski resort in France (the oldest is Chamonix). It is set in a steep and narrow valley, 48km from Lourdes, which has its own airport: Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees. Toulouse is just over two hours’ drive.
The biggest ski area in the French Pyrenees is linked with La Mongie and the two bases share 120km of piste accessed by 50 lifts. The terrain is particularly suited to intermediates, with attractive tree-lined slopes above the town.
The main mountain here, the Pic du Midi, is most famous for its iconic observatory on the 2877m peak. The first use of the mountain for research purposes began here as early as 1774. In 1963, NASA funded a telescope to take pictures of the moon’s surface in preparation for the Apollo missions.
The Pic du Midi is also the leading freeride venue in the Pyrenees, with some spectacular descents. You can stay the night here, star gaze over a gourmet dinner, and make fresh tracks with a guide at sunrise.
The non-skiing activities in the resort are limited, apart from the Cieleo Spa which has sulphuric water for aches and pains. However, the restaurants serve good local food – especially if you are keen on duck!
Stay: Hotel le Central is a contemporary boutique hotel on the main street beside the river, located close to the ski hire shop and bus stop.
1250-2350m, 50 lifts, 120km of piste
La Mongie is in a sheltered setting below the 2115m Col du Tourmalet. The downside is the appearance of the purpose-built resort. It’s certainly no beauty and I can name lots of more visually attractive ski villages, but families will appreciate the value and the easily-accessible ski school facilities.
The skiing is in an open bowl. Although it’s best suited to confident intermediates, it also provides confidence-boosting pistes for the less experienced. The resort is popular with snowboarders, too.
Lunch in the village at La Mama Italian restaurant provides a pleasant surprise: pricing for food and drinks here are as down-to-earth as you’d expect in the Pyrenees.
Nightlife is minimal compared to the Alps, lift queues are almost non-existent on weekdays (although there can be queues at weekends) and prices are low.
Stay: Tourmalet is a recently-built residence in the heart of the ski resort, south-facing towards the Pic du Midi and the slopes of the Grand Tourmalet ski area.
1300-2500m, 21 lifts, 35km of piste
Not far from Tourmalet is Cauterets, a traditional Pyrenean town that later developed into a ski resort. The town’s prosperity began with the 19th-century fashion for thermal spa treatments. Back then, a tramway from nearby Pierrefitte brought rail travellers from the pilgrimage centre of Lourdes 30km away. Today’s visitors arrive by road or by flights into Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrénées Airport.
Cauterets is the most snow-sure resort in the Pyrenees and its 36km of groomed terrain is set within the Cirque du Lys, a vast bowl bounded by the twin peaks of Soum de Mauloc (2074m) and Soum de Grum (2657m). This means that wherever you’re skiing you’ll be in the same surroundings. The pistes themselves – even the blues – are often pretty steep. The Oakley Freestyle Park has some unique features such as a ride-able chalet roof.
The surrounding peaks are among the highest in the Pyrenees, which accounts for some of the largest annual snowfalls (averaging around 5m) in the whole mountain range.
The restaurants here are cheap and serve local cuisine, but the nightlife is fairly quiet. The main attraction is Les Bains du Rocher spa centre, which has a 150sqm circular pool and an even bigger outdoor lagoon, the whole complex heated by natural thermal and mineral-rich springs.
Cauterets’ other claim to fame is its cross-country skiing, a bus-ride away at Le Pont d’Espagne, which has 36.5km of loipe.
Stay: The 19th-century Hotel du Lion d’Or is situated in the town centre, the rear/upper entrance a 100m level walk from the gondola and right opposite the Bains du Rocher. It offers spotless rooms that are tastefully decorated in individual style.
1700-2450m, 29 lifts, 100km of piste
Saint-Lary is close to the Spanish border, and conveniently located an hour’s drive from Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees airport. It is in fact not one but three villages: Saint-Lary village (830m) which is the compact and authentic Pyrenean village at the foot of the slopes. Saint-Lary 1700 (or Pla d’Adet) and Saint-Lary 1900 (Espiaube) both have wonderful views and also provide bases for skiing.
Saint-Lary village (or Saint-Lary Soulan) is the sort of place where you’ll find unspoilt stone-built houses and small country inns rather than big brash hotels and concrete apartment blocks. It’s a four-minute walk from the village to the cable-car which takes you up to Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet, the more modern ski station.
The ski area is much bigger than it looks on the piste map, with 100km of groomed runs for most levels. The south-facing, more advanced runs are located between the peaks of La Soumaye (2370m) and Cap de Long (2450m) with some good terrain. Highly recommended is a run down (or on foot or on the Lac 2-seater chair-lift) through pristine forest to the Refuge du Lac d’Oule. It’s a magical spot, with a sunny terrace overlooking a dammed lake.
To work off lunch there are some exhilarating long steeps. Sarrats, in particular – graded black on account of some steeper sections – is a good option for anyone looking to progress from blues and reds.
The Col du Portet Snowpark is a reknowned freestyle area where you can try boardercross, a sport created by the De Le Rue brothers (snowboard champions of the resort) on a blue run known as De Le Rue’s Line.
The resort has a good spa called Sensoria which has been designed to look like canyons with waterfalls, geysers, whirlpools and underwater jet sprays. Near Saint-Lary village are the thermal baths which are now dedicated to health cures.
Stay: Hotel Les Arches is situated near the church, a few minutes’ walk from the town centre and the cable-car. The rooms are functional but with comfortable, with large beds.
1600-2400m, 17 lifts, 60km of piste
Some 60km of pistes are on offer here. But it’s the quality rather than the quantity of the skiing here that’s impressive. This well-designed, purpose-built ski area has a state-of-the-art lift-system planned around high-speed chair-lifts, with a handful of drag-lifts and two magic carpets serving the beginner areas.
The ski area, which is close to the Franco-Spanish border roughly halfway between Toulouse and Zaragoza, was created in 1988. Born of a marriage of two villages on opposite sides of the mountain, Peyragudes is also an amalgamation of their two names – Peyresourde and Les Agudes.
When they built Peyragudes, the powers that be were determined to avoid the mistakes of the ’60s and ’70s, and they’ve done a great job. It’s all in the details: such as lifts rather than flights of steps from the car parks to the front de neige – very welcome when you’re wearing ski boots and carrying skis!
From Peyresourde 1600 the Privilege chair takes you up to the Crêtes du Boum Belvedere, from where you can ski into the next valley for the long drop over into the smaller village of Les Agudes 1600. Almost all the groomed terrain is graded blue or red, with some steeper, albeit wide, runs. At the bottom, the Cap de Pales chair-lifts take you back up to the Crêtes du Boum.
The careful blending of landscape and pistes means that wherever you ski you get the feeling you’re going somewhere, rather than experiencing more of the same; skiing here feels like an adventure. The pistes themselves are interesting too, with swoops and few straight sections, so you’ll actually want to repeat them – particularly the long red run to below Les Agudes known as the Vallee Blanche.
Stay: Residence Les Jardins de Balnéa (in the Vallée du Louron, a 20-minute drive away) is at the edge of the Balnea gardens in the centre of the valley village with access to ski stations, a lake and a myriad of other activities, not least the Balneo spa centre.
1420-2600m, 9 lifts, 60km of piste
Piau Engaly offers the highest altitude skiing in the Pyrenees, with almost 750m of vertical between 1860m and 2600m. The surroundings are part of the Parc National des Pyrénées, giving it a wild beauty.
It’s a car-free family resort about an hour’s drive south of Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees Airport (90min from Pau) next to the Spanish border, so Piau attracts cross-border skiers coming to enjoy the better snow quality of the north-facing French slopes. It is also just down the valley from Saint-Lary.
Families will love the large beginner area, and long green and blue slopes are reachable from the bottom of the station. The Pic de Piau chair takes you up to 2528m for a run down Grande Bleue which, at around 8km, is the longest blue cruise in the Pyrenees. Perdrix is a steep red, which leads into blue terrain and a choice of red runs.
Piau is also renowned for its freeride areas, located as it is in the heart of a natural amphitheater of 3000m peaks.
Two freeriders run an unusual high-altitude bio snack bar here, Le Daily Cieux, which provides tasty, nourishing food with a difference. It’s reached by the Campbielh chair-lift which whisks you up to the Col du Cantoural at 2170m.
Stay: A new slope-side three-star hotel will be opening for the 2015-16 season with 32 bedrooms.
1450-2100m, 11 lifts, 22km of piste
Located in the middle of a nature reserve, with east-west facing slopes, the sunny ski area of Val Louron has beautiful views, good snow-cover, and is an excellent destination for beginners. The unspoilt valley houses some lovely little villages such as Avajan, Bareilles and Vielle-Louron, constructed from stone, wood and the local valley slate.
Good food is of great importance to the locals and there is consequently wide range of restaurants and farmers’ markets in the area that sell local produce. Don’t miss Gateau a la Broche, which is a layered cake cooked on a skewer.
Stay: L’Ancienne Poste is a recently renovated, chalet-style lodge in the peaceful village of Avajan. The resorts of Val Louron and Peyragudes, as well as the famous Balnea Spa are a short drive or bus-ride away.
The weather in the Pyrenees-Orientales or Eastern Pyrenees is affected by the Mediterranean, making for a warmer climate than elsewhere in the range. There is also quite a Spanish influence, with the border nearby and – pre-1659 – much of the area used to belong to Catalonia.
1600-2200m, 52km of piste, 21 lifts
Font Romeu is the largest ski area in the Pyrenees-Orientales, 19km from Perpignan (200km from Toulouse). The small family ski area has terrain going up to 2200m. The slopes are set on a plateau that mainly suits beginners and lower intermediates, and are located a 4km bus-ride from the village centre. The sunny location and mild climate can make early and late ski holidays unreliable.
Reputedly one of the biggest snow-making operations in the Pyrenees, Font-Romeu’s snow-cannons cover some 50% of the slopes. There is also a good terrain park here.
Stay: Le Domaine de Castella is 300m from the centre of Font-Romeu’s lively centre with its numerous shops. The cable-car with its 10-minute journey to the ski slopes of Font Romeu Pyrenees 2000 is 600m away.
1600-2400m, 21 lifts, 55km of piste
Located 92km from Perpignan and 178km from Toulouse, the village of Les Angles is set high on the Capcir Plateau in the Pyrenees-Orientales. The resort is at the foot of the slopes, in fact it’s the only one of the older resorts in the Pyrenees with ski slopes descending right into the village.
Above all, Les Angles has managed to retain its authentic character whilst at the same time providing everything one expects of a modern ski resort. Some 60% of the skiing is above 200m with trails cut through pine forests as well as on wide open pistes. Beginners have 14 green runs and 9 blue, so it’s a good place to learn the sport. Snow-cannons cover 70% of the terrain.
Stay: Residence Prat de Lis is at the foot of the ski slopes, close to the ski-lifts and ski school, and 300m from the resort centre.
The Ariege department is in the central Pyrenees, next to Andorra, its highest peaks visible from Toulouse. It is one of the most unspoiled regions of France.
1400-2400m, 17 lifts, 80km of piste
This is another attractive old town with the skiing set above it – this time in three areas. As you can guess from its name, Ax-les-Thermes is most famous for its thermal baths – Les Bains Couloubret – with around 60 sulphurous hot springs (25-78°C). The waters were originally used by the Romans and it is claimed that they are able to treat rheumatism, skin diseases, and other maladies.
Stay: Family-run Le Chalet is centrally situated in the resort. With contemporary decoration throughout, this gastro-hotel is close to the Bonascre gondola that accesses the Ax 3 Domaines ski area.
A Few Others
La Pierre Saint-Martin is a family destination in the Pyrenees Atlantiques, providing relaxed skiing for beginners who also want to try other activities such as tobogganing, snow-shoeing, mountain biking on snow, snow-tubing and big airbag. It has 25km of piste, accessible by 11 lifts.
Gourette, also in the Pyrenees Atlantiques, is a friendly village set at the foot of the 31km of slopes. It has 14 lifts, and gentle descents alternating with a few slightly more challenging pistes.
Luz Saint-Sauveur is a charming medieval village in the Hautes Pyrenees where you can ski three slopes of up to 2500m in altitude: Aulian, Béderet and Cloze, with 60km of piste serviced by 12 lifts.
Luchon-Superbagneres is in the Haute Garonne, directly accessible by an eight-minute cable-car ride from the town of Luchon, and a 90-minute drive from Toulouse. Its 32km of slopes are divided into three areas with 15 lifts, offering skiing for all levels.