Road trip in the French Pyrenees

PlanetSKI has been in one of the great undiscovered ski areas of Europe; The Hautes Pyrenees. Undiscovered by the Brits that is. We have just skied 5 resorts in 5 days. Phew.

The Pyrenees has a raw, untamed and barren feel about it. It is a huge mountain range stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean, separating northern and southern Europe.

It is something more akin to what mountain ranges should feel like rather than the overly commercial areas in some parts of the Alps.

The Pyrenees is altogether different.

When the idea of skiing in the French Pyrenees came up I jumped at the idea as I have been wishing to visit for a while.

I have skied extensively in Andorra and dipped into Spain, but never skied on the French side of the border.

There are a couple of dozen resorts and the main ones  are under an hour from each other – Saint-Lary, Bareges, La Monjie, Cauterets and Peyragudes.

I also had the misconceived idea that the resorts would be small and I might tire of them quickly – they are not and I didn’t, but more of that later.

So an idea was born – a road trip. Five resorts in five days.

DAY ONE – Saint-Lary.

The road into the resort of Saint-Lary is a twisty narrow affair along the valley floor. On several occasions we had to give way to oncoming traffic as the roads are not wide enough for two vehicles to pass.

There were old farmhouses dotted around and in the villages people scurried around with baguettes under their arms going about their daily business.  It was early morning and time already seemed to be going at a slower pace.

It felt like Provence or the Dordogne before the tourists discovered it.

Except the backdrop was snow-covered peaks.

Saint Barthelemy de Mont

Saint Barthelemy de Mont. Image © PlanetSKI

I had been up since 6.00am driving from neighbouring Andorra – I reported on my visit to Andorra in an earlier blog – it was going to be a hard act to follow.

Driving, packing and unpacking were about to become part of my life.

First stop in Saint-Lary was the Intersport rental shop that turned out to be owned by the parents of the triple World Champion snowboarder, Freeride World Tour winner and Olympian, Xavier de le Rue.

I have met him numerous times in London, Verbier and on stages of the Freeride World Tour.

He was born and grew up in Saint-Lary and developed his passion on the slopes above the village.

At the shop there was no filling in of forms on a computer, handing over e-mail addresses, postcodes or mobile numbers. They didn’t need my height or weight. Just a chat about my ability what I liked my bindings set at. I enquired when it had last snowed, the temperature and the forecast.

I had a pair of great skis in my hands within a couple of minutes.

The family business

The family business

Once up the mountain I was expecting a small and gentle ski area – charming but with few real challenges.


In fact over the next few days pretty much all my preconceptions about the Hautes Pyrenees proved to be inaccurate. I love having prejudices torn up.

The mountains were big.

Peaks of the Pyrenees

Peaks of the Pyrenees. Image © PlanetSKI

There was some great free-ride areas in Saint-Lary to compliment the 100km of pistes.

It was the size of a small to medium size resort in the Alps with terrain to match.

My fellow skiers were interesting too.

I haven’t seen so many one-pieces ski suits in years – here they are not worn as fashion items but simply because the owners have had them for years and they still do the job.

It is all about the skiing here in the Hautes Pyrenees.

The lunch was also wonderfully old-fashioned; not just what was on offer, but the price too.  At La Cabane restaurant the plat du jour with dessert was €13.

Both were exceptional.

lTime for lunch

Time for lunch. Image © PlanetSKI

The lifts were slow by the standards of the resorts in the Alps and there were many pomas, but for me it is all about the ride down and not the ride up.

I do not grumble about lifts and have a pet theory that skiing would be better, cheaper and more akin to how it should be without all the 6-person gondolas and quads with heated seats criss-crossing the mountains in every direction.

I know I am in a minority though.

The ride up may have been slow but the runs down were anything but.

Saint-Lary is a hugely impressive ski area.

The area has not only produced Xavier de le Rue and his brother, but it was at the forefront of snowboarding 20 years ago when half the French team came from the Pyrenees.

Snowboarding in those days was an outsiders sport and it appealed to the rebellious and individual mentality of those from the Pyrenees.

The locals are fiercely proud of coming from here.

I empathised with them immediately.

St Lary

St Lary. Image © PlanetSKI

British voices are few and far between. It never used to be the case as many of the major operators came here – but the attractions of the Alps lured people away and British business dried up.

That is changing as the British tour operator, Ski Collection, offers package holidays to the area. I take my hat off to the company and hope it succeeds in this corner of France.

On the first day of our whistle-stop road trip, dinner was at a charming farmhouse where one of the local specialities was on offer, Black Pig.

In fact that was all that was available in various guises and cuts.  As with lunch it was exceptional.  And good value.

I returned to my apartment to unpack. I hadn’t bothered earlier in the day as we wanted to get on the slopes as quickly as possible.

It was 10.30 pm and we were off tomorrow morning at 08.00 am to head to Peyragudes.

My discarded ski gear was on the floor. There seemed little point in putting it in the wardrobe – it was to become a theme of the trip.

I pulled on my PJ’s, gave my teeth a cursory brush and fell into a deep sleep.

Something told me I was going to enjoy the next 5 days.

Over the course of the next few days James will be watching the French National Ski Championships in Peyragudes, staying the night at the Pic du Midi observatory at 2890m – sleeping amoung the stars and then skiing down after breakfast. He will be skiing in the resort that has had the biggest snow depth of any resort in Europe this season- Cauterets.

He will also fall in love.

Do check back for his account of the trip.

Fact Box

James Cove was travelling with the British operator, Ski Collection, which is the only mainstream company offering package holidays to the region. For further details see – www.skicollection.co.uk

For more information about holidays in the Pyrennes see – www.pyrenees-holiday.com

In Saint Lary stay with Ski Collection at 4* Le Clos Saint-Hilaire – Saint Lary that is located in a quieter area outside the resort centre and benefits from gym and sauna. Prices from £97pp for 7 nights, self-catering based on 5 sharing a 2 bedroom apartment (sleeps 6) and includes return Eurotunnel crossings with free FlexiPlus upgrade. Accommodation only option available. See here for further details

For the spirit of the mountains