An alternative to the Alps: the French Pyrenees

Words by Matt Hampton

Families, friends and thrill-seekers of every stripe will find something to suit in the six departments of the French Pyrenees. Take your pick from:

Skiing in Pyrénées-Atlantiques

Ski resorts are the main attraction here in winter: choose from Irary, Issarbe and Le Somport for cross country, and Artouste and Gourette for downhill. La Pierre-Saint-Martin has facilities for both. Relax afterwards at the new La Bulle spa in Eaux-Bonnes, located in a futuristic glass bubble in one of the spa town’s fine old buildings. The views from the pool are magnificent!

Skiing in Hautes-Pyrénées

The busiest area in the region for winter sports, the Hautes-Pyrénées is home to the Grand Tourmalet ski area and its mighty Pic du Midi, a mecca for off-piste skiers. Stay in either modern La Mongie, which offers yet more off-piste potential as well as more beginner-friendly terrain, or the smaller and more traditional Bargères, which offers cross-country skiing too. There are also balneotherapy centres in both resorts. Consider Cauterets and Hautacam for further cross-country and downhill terrain and spa centres. High-altitude Saint-Lary-Soulan has snow-sure skiing up to 2,515m thanks to its cable carlink to the higher slopes.

Don’t miss…

Val Louron’s 40th birthday party, 7-13 February 2017 Turning 40 in 2017? So is Val Louron! Join the celebrations and you get a free lift pass from Feb 7-13 – but only if you hit the big 4-0 in 2017. Bring your passport for proof and enjoy the resort’s 20 pistes – for free! (External link)

Le Grand Raid des Pyrénées Hiver, Saint-Lary-Soulan, 11-12 March 2017 In the winter version of the famous mountain race, trail runners depart Saint-Lary on one of three distances for a Grand Raid through the snow. Choose from 10km, 20km or 30km. It’s open to everyone but you need to register in advance (€12). (External link)

Pic du Midi Derby, La Mongie, 1 April 2017 Offering thrills and spills on a very big hill, competitors in the eighth Pic du Midi Derby must descend from the Pic down to La Mongie as fast as they can on either regular skis, snowboard, telemark or monoski. Expect good humour but a fiercely fought competition! (External link)

Skiing in Haute-Garonne

In the middle of the French belt of the Pyrenees, Le Mourtis, Luchon-Superbagnères and Peyragudes offer a mix of cross-country and downhill skiing as well as some of the most stunning scenery of the region. Superbagnères is – like the rest of the Pyrenees – a magnet for cyclists in the summer, and spa seekers come especially for its ‘vaporium’: Europe’s only natural steam room. And of course, while you are in the Haute-Garonne you have to visit Peyragudes for its new 007 piste.

Skiing in Ariège-Pyrenees

Situated at the gateway to Spain and Andorra, the three ski areas of Les Campels, Le Saquet and Bonascre are home to nine separate resorts/villages and two balneotherapy centres: Thermes d’Aulus-les-Bains, tucked away in the mountains, and Les Bains de Couloubret, in the natural spa town of Ax-les-Thermes. Ax 3 Domaines is one of the bigger resorts and a complete makeover for the 2016/17 season has created specially marked zones on the mountain, allowing you to choose from beginner areas, smooth and easy skiing among the trees and more challenging higher-altitude terrain.

Skiing in Aude

Where the mountains meet the rest of France, Aude sits in the newly created Occitanie region, a combination of the old Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées. Toulouse is the gateway and it could easily be combined with a gastronomic tour of the south of France, or in summer with the beaches of the Med. But come winter, the pretty resort of Camurac serves cross-country and downhill skiers with 11 snow-sure pistes between 1500 and 1800m.

Skiing in Pyrénées-Orientales

At the heart of the Catalan Pyrenees, where France and Spain exert equal influence, great snow equals epic views and good skiing. Font-Romeu Pyrénées 2000 is the biggest ski area, with two interconnected resorts and a fast, modern lift system covered by the same ski pass. Les Angles, too, has a great deal for skiers, not least its traditional village setting linked to high-altitude slopes. Both offer cross country skiing and natural thermal baths. Also look out for the resorts of Porté-Puymorens, Espace Cambre d’Aze, Capcir,Formiguères and Puyvalador.

Don’t miss…

Garosnow Festival, Cauterets (3-4 February 2017) and Gourette (11 March 2017) Techno booms loud across the piste as Garosnow unleashes the second two parts of the fifth edition of its slopeside music festival. General entrance tickets are from £15. (External link)