‘You’re going where?’ No-one has heard of the ski resorts we are about to hit; even seasoned skiers don’t recognise a single name. You would think our trip was to Kazakhstan. Yet we are simply headed to the Pyrenees.
I’m not surprised, though. With the exception of those in Andorra, Pyreneen ski resorts sit quietly under the radar. But last year, en route to the Alps, I struck up a conversation with a French skier. He had visited some of the smaller French resorts in the Pyrenees and his eyes glistened when he spoke of them. ‘It’s different there,’ he told me. ‘Very relaxed. And sometimes the slopes are so quiet you can have the mountain to yourself.’ Who can resist?
There are 38 ski resorts on the French side of the Pyrenees alone. The fact that knowledgeable tour operators like Ski Collection and Zenith Holidays feature them is reassuring, and you can travel overnight from London by train and get extra time on the slopes. Our first destination, Ax-les-Thermes, even has a station in the village.
On good Thermes - Ax-Les-Thermes
Our voyage begins with a 4.30pm Eurostar to Paris and then a taxi across to Gare d’Austerlitz. After dinner at a restaurant opposite the station, we catch the 10pm Corail Lunea sleeper train and watch Paris slip away as we head south. The gentle rocking of the train soon has us asleep, but the next morning, as our train arrives at Ax-les-Thermes station just before 7am, I wonder if we’ve made a huge mistake.
Arrive by overnight train into Ax and you might doubt that you have arrived in a ski resort at all. We see no snow on the ground, and an initial stroll reveals a lovely village square, but none of the usual signs of a ski resort – no clatter of ski boots and no ski hire shops or clothing stores in view.
However, lack of snow in Ax village is normal, as the altitude is a lowly 800 metres. The ski and snow action happens higher up at Bonascre, accessed by cabin lifts a three-minute walk from the village centre. Ax is famous for its thermal water, which runs steaming along the streets’ gutters. Indeed, the village has a huge public spa and we promise ourselves a steaming bath of thermal water that evening.
But will there be any decent skiing first? At Bonascre there are ski hire shops and restaurants but still most of the mountains remain hidden from view. We ascend further by gondola.
At the top, we spill out onto the pistes and the ski area finally reveals itself. There are enticing runs in several directions, and we speed off. There are so few people that when we ski past a couple of skiers stopped at the side of the piste we slow down to exchange waves. With the mountain so empty, it would seem rude not to. We aren’t in a huge ski area, but what the terrain lacks in mileage it makes up for in empty space. There are rolling reds to blast down and blues to sweep, and empty slopes mean carefree whoops of delight.
In the evening, the spacious village spa, Les Bains du Couloubret, is a revelation, with vast, pillared pools and mini-waterfalls that massage your back. The village has delightful restaurants such as La Petite Fringale, but none of the evening bustle you usually find in ski resorts – clearly, it isn’t just the Brits that haven’t discovered Ax; the French seem not to have done either.
Font of wisdom - Font Romeu
Our next resort, Font Romeu, is a mini-paradise for beginners with an extraordinary, extensive lattice of gentle green runs straddling the terrain like a huge web. It is rare to see something like this, and it must be very reassuring for nervous adults and wonderful for little children, giving plenty of room to gently improve over distance with no sudden steep surprises. It seems there are no queues here either; just happy faces.
Within the 43-kilometre ski area there are only 500 metres of vertical, but there’s just about enough to keep intermediates entertained, with blues, reds and twisting black runs such as Championnat, Record and the Bouton d’Or, and a sunny snowpark. At the top of a chairlift I hear the rare sound of British voices – a family on holiday. ‘What do you think of this resort?’ I enquire. ‘We love it – this is our second time,’ is the response.
After a morning tearing down reds and blacks, we search out something to eat. Font Romeu is one of the oldest resorts in the Pyrenees, and we are hoping there will be some rustic restaurants on the slopes. But there are none to be found. Rather, the set up on the slopes is buffet-style aimed more at families with children.
In the village, it is a different story, with restaurants such as La Table des Saveurs serving up regional treats such as tenderly cooked duck with turnip. Nearby, the easygoing L’Ermitage does a camembert rosti and chestnut-glazed tiramisu and becomes a lively social hub in the evenings.
One of the big draws of the resort is the sun, as well as the snow. In the valley at Odeillo there is a massive solar centre, Heliodyssee, 15 minutes away by free shuttle-bus. The building is incredible – with a huge 40-metre high mirror made up of panels that concentrate the sunlight 40,000 times over.
The museum underneath has guided tours (in French), which demonstrate on a smaller scale some of how the sun’s power can be concentrated and harnessed. At one point, the guide holds a piece of wood in front of a light-bulb that has a convex mirror behind it, and asks me to flick the switch that turns the light bulb on. When I do this, the concentration of the light bulb’s rays causes the wood to burst into flames. Heading back to the slopes the next morning under deep blue skies, sun cream is the first thing I pack.
Getting Lary - St Lary
Fortunately, the village itself is an emporium of charming streets lined with shops selling regional produce – jams, hams, cheeses, breads, pates, which make this place heaven for self-caterers. The pride of this is the organic pork that comes from the black Bigorre pigs that live in the village in winter and roam the hills in summer. In the centre of the village, there is a real buzz, with restaurants and bars, and a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere.
The next morning, the sun reveals a huge snowy playground – a wonderful blend of slopes and accessible powder. We start off next to the black of Sarrats, then weave in and out of the powder fields around the twisting red slope of Mirabelle. Next is the Balcon de L’Oule, with slanting powder fields dotted with pine trees. We come to the Parc Nationale de Pyrenees, a protected nature reserve, overlooking the vast Oule Lake, which lies in the valley between two impressive mountains, the 3,092m Pic de Neouvielle and Pic Long, 100 metres taller. The view stops us in our tracks.
Hidden away in the valley, we find the Refuge L’Oule, a gorgeous lunch spot, where you can also stay for €38 a night, half board. The afternoon is spent doing run after whooping run in the powder under the Tourette chairlift, before heading back via Combes d’Aulon, a special area where runs are left unpisted as a natural freeride zone. Glorious.
The snow is pummelling down again and our guide, Rob Mason of Mountainbug, straightens us out on the Pyrenees’ snow record. ‘There’s a myth that the Alps gets more snow than the Pyrenees, but when you compare them over the whole season that isn’t so. It snows more consistently week-to-week in the Alps, but the Pyrenees actually gets more overall annually. The maritime climate here means the temperature range is more variable so you are unlikely to be able to ski in powder conditions for weeks afterwards. But fresh and often is better anyway.’
With tree branches laden with snow and powder billowing up around us the moment we leave the pistes of Barages to coast down little paths in the woods, there are certainly no complaints about the conditions.
Over lamb and roast vegetables at the unpretentious Laquette restaurant, sat around a huge wood-burning stove, Rob talks us through the piste map. Although there are plenty of challenging runs, 22 green and 21 blue runs connect beginners with all five sectors that make up the total ski area.
Towering above the area is the 2,782-metre Pic du Midi, a hulk of mountain atop of which sits a famous astrological observatory. We take the cable car up to experience a night at the observatory. There’s a guided tour (in French), followed by dinner at the restaurant, but the most wonderful thing is seeing the sunrise over the mountain range.
But now we are in a hurry. It has snowed overnight again and with the sun threatening to break through, we take the cable car down to La Mongie to meet another guide for the day, Tony Brousse. As the visibility clears, Tony shows us some of the areas that make the resort great for off-piste, first with an epic run down from the Pic du Midi mid-station. Powder billows in front of us as La Mongie’s village grows in size before us as we descend. Later we dart down Le Couloir des Burettes, between the stunning surroundings of tree and boulders.
Lunch, at the L’Etape du Berger restaurant, proves as memorable as the morning’s skiing. Eccentric owner Eric Abadie famously arm wrestled members of a visiting English rugby team a few years back – and won.
That evening, as we get ready to board the overnight train back to Paris, we take a final glance up at the Pic du Midi. The Pyrenees can give you some wonderful experiences and a mountain to yourselves. And that is something too good not to share.
By train Depart London St Pancras 16:30, change Paris, take 21:53 Corail Lunea, arriving Ax-les-Thermes station at 06:48. Adult return rail fares, with a place in a six-berth couchette, from £124. Book with Rail Europe (www.raileurope.co.uk)
WHERE TO STAY
Daniel stayed at Grand Tetras residence. Prices from €250 per person per week self-catering, based on two sharing: 0033 5 61 65 86 00,
Skiable terrain 90 kilometres of pistes
Number of lifts 17 lifts
Percentage of runs 25% beginner slopes/55% intermediate/20% advanced
Highest point 2,400m Le Rebenty
Vertical drop 1,000m
snowpark yes (but very small)
cost of an adult lift pass for a week €135
MUST DO The 850-metre vertical descent from the top of Tute de L’Ours to Bonascre; the public spa, Les Bains du Couloubret: 0033 5 61 02 64 41, www.bains-couloubret.com
TOP TIPS La Boutique de la Ferme stocks regional specialities – great for gifts before going home.
BEST FOR Couples and families.
Tourist office: 0033 5 61 64 60 60, www.ax-ski.com
By train (via Paris) to La Tour de Carol; Adult return rail fares, with a place in a six-berth couchette, from £124. Book with Rail Europe (www.raileurope.co.uk)
Airports Perpignon, Carcassonne, Toulouse.
WHERE TO STAY
Daniel stayed with Ski Collection at the recently built, 4-star Le Pic d’Ours residence, close to the bustling resort centre of Font Romeu. Prices from £279 per person for 7 nights self-catering. Price based on 4 sharing a one-bedroom apartment and includes Eurotunnel return crossing for a car and passengers. (www.skicollection.co.uk; 0844 576 0175)
Skiable terrain 43 kilometres of pistes; 16 pistes green, 10 blues,
9 red, 9 black
Number of lifts 23 lifts
Highest point 2,213m Roc de la Calme
Vertical drop 500m
cost of an adult lift pass for a week €169
The long black run, Record; The large children’s learn-to-ski centre at the foot of the slopes; a trip to the Bains de St Thomas – a local spa dating back to 1900.
BEST FOR Beginners and families.
USEFUL CONTACTS Tourist office: 0033 4 68 30 68 30, www.font-romeu.fr ; Heliodysse 0033 4 68 30 77 86, www.foursolaire-fontfomeu.fr
Train station Tarbes, with overnight trains from Paris; Adult return rail fares, with a place in a six-berth couchette, from £124. Book with Rail Europe (www.raileurope.co.uk)
Airports: Tarbes (80km) or Toulouse (150km)
WHERE TO STAY
Daniel stayed with Ski Collection at the recently built, 4-star L’Ardoisiere residence. Prices from £261 per person for 7 nights self-catering. Price based on 4 sharing a 1 bedroom apartment and includes Eurotunnel return crossing for a car and passengers. (www.skicollection.co.uk; 0844 576 0175)
Skiable terrain 100 kilometres of pistes
Number of lifts 56
Percentage of runs 7 green, 26 blue, 14 red and 9 black
Highest point 2,515 metres
Vertical drop 915 metres
snowpark Yes, two
cost of an adult lift pass for a week €175
In the snowpark the resort has introduced a system where you wear an electronic identification tag, and as you enter a jump, two cameras will capture footage of your jump (www.dceurope-livepark.com); La Maison du Cassoulet – wonderful soups, huge salads; Sensoria a swimming spa is located in the centre of town –good for families (www.mercuresensoria.com).
BEST FOR Intermediates.
Tourist office: www.saintelary.com
Nearest station: Tarbes (60-min transfer) Adult return rail fares, with a place in a six-berth couchette, from £124. Book with Rail Europe (www.raileurope.co.uk)
Nearest airport: Tarbes (48km)
WHERE TO STAY
Daniel stayed with Ski Collection at the newly built, 3-star Tourmalet residence. Prices from £207 per person for 7 nights self-catering. Price based on 4 sharing a 1 bedroom apartment and includes Eurotunnel return crossing for a car and passengers. (www.skicollection.co.uk; 0844 576 0175)
Skiable terrain 100 kilometres of pistes
Number of lifts 36
runs 23 green, 20 blue, 22 red, 5 black
highest point 2,500 metres
vertical drop 1,000 metres
cost of an adult lift pass for a week Є197 (six days)
The 500-metre vertical, on a sweeping red run, from Pic du Midi midstation to La Mongie; lunch at l’Etape du Berger; watching the sunrise from the Pic du Midi observatory.
TOP TIPS Mountainbug, based in Barages, offer wonderful guiding and also have 3* catered chalet or hotel accommodation in Barages (www.mountainbug.com; 0033 5 62 92 16 39)
BEST FOR families and intermediates
Tourist office: www.grand-tourmalet.comfontfomeu.fr