En Famille in the French Pyrenees
Vanessa Fisher and her young children are seasoned family skiers but this year they decided to avoid the better-known resorts and try somewhere new – the French Pyrenees. See how they fared here:
As a family of skiers, we have been lucky to ski peak weeks (both new year and half term) in many different countries – Switzerland, the Italian Dolomites, Austria, the French Alps, and this year for the first time at half term in the French Pyrenees.
It’s always hard choosing the best resort, there are just so many factors to getting a family ski holiday right!
This season with many French regions/departments having the same holidays as almost the whole of the UK I was nervous to re-visit some of the better known resorts that we have been to before, anticipating lift queues, traffic queues, transfer issues and so on.
Last summer when looking at flights for this peak February half term week, flights down to the Pyrenees were coming in at around £200 per person (via Toulouse), at least £200 per person less than flights to the Alps. As a family we prefer to travel reasonably independently and we knew we would want to do a few day trips so we were happy to rent a car and make the transfer to resort on our own.
Last summer at the same time as looking at the flights, we’d also just returned from two nights in a village called Saint-Lary-Soulan (St Lary). We had explored the gateway to the Neouvielle reserve and dipped our feet into chilly Lac Oredon, eaten nougat from the open fronted shops in the village on the way back down from the national park and loved our short visit to the Hotel Mercure Saint Lary.
I was keen to go back to that region to ski. Pre-kids I have skied in the Pyrenees a few times at Bareges and La Mongie – the area known as Grand Tourmalet, but the Aure valley in which St Lary sits was an area I wanted to discover. So we booked back into the hotel, our first ever full-week hotel treat as a family! We are serial apartment bookers – the prospect of a week of not thinking about what to cook for kids’ tea was beyond exciting!
How did we get to St Lary?
We took direct flights from London Heathrow to Toulouse, just under two hours; we rented a car at the airport plus winter tyres, and remembered to pick up our pre booked snowchains as there was some snow in the forecast.
St Lary sits at just 830m so there is no steep access road to negotiate; most of the transfer to resort (1 hr 45) is on the A64 autoroute, then it is just 20 minutes short drive up to the village. The main car park (free) is directly outside the hotel -there are a few spaces under cover at the hotel but these were taken when we arrived late on the Sunday evening.
Kit ready and First morning
One of the most important things I’ve discovered on a family ski holiday is to get organised before your first morning skiing- unpack everything and get all your childrens’ clothes in piles ready to put on for breakfast- thermals, socks, salopettes, and then extra layers plus jackets and next to that gloves, neck buffs, goggles/helmets. (You can find a list of all the garments you need by clicking HERE.)
The ski rental shop was closed when we had arrived on the Sunday evening but, as I had pre-booked the childrens’ skis, on our first morning the rental equipment was ready for us, there was no queuing and we were all buffet-fed, kitted up and ready to head to the telecabine by 9.45am! An absolute joy in terms of logistics was seeing that the telecabine (bubble lift) was situated directly opposite the hotel, with the lift pass kiosks alongside.
Exploring the Mountain
It’s not possible to see the extent of the ski area of St Lary from the village, and on our first day in a mix of low cloud and fresh snow we didn’t really get a chance to discover the area fully. From the top of the telecabine, where you emerge at an area called Pla d’Adet (1700m), we dropped straight down to the little green run/path to the new six man chair ‘Bouleaux’. This whisked us up the side flank of this first mountain. We could see to our left there were a few lifts serving a selection of blue runs directly above Pla d’Adet, but these runs looked busy with the first skiers of the day and ski school groups and our plan was to traverse over to an area where we could see a bubble lift to give our little possie of children some protection from the chilly weather.
After an easy blue traverse (Corniches) and a lovely path down through some trees where the visibility was better, we made it to the Portet bubble (1900m). It’s a throwback to the egg bubbles of old but, out of the wind and snow, we had happy kids! We found lovely powder under the Soumaye chairlift which we connected to from the top of the bubble, with the children being able to safely dip in and out of the powder just to the side of the red Mirabelle piste.
Over the top of the Soumaye chair, as we discovered on our following clearer days, the area opens out and three drag lifts access some wonderful cruising blue and red runs. These pistes were almost empty which the children loved. If only we’d have had a picnic with us, there was an idyllic little sectioned-off picnic area here too.
We didn’t try the steeper Isard drag-lift on the opposite side of the valley as we didn’t want to have children falling off the button lift. Talking of which… on our visit to the Lac de L’Oule refuge, our youngest didn’t quite make the steeper Corneblanque button lift, although he did make it high enough to ski down on to the lovely red L’oule run through the trees to lunch.
On our first day in the cold and wind, the Trois Guides restaurant was perfectly placed at the bottom of the Soumaye chair, connecting to the blue ‘tortes’ path back to the Lita chair and on to the bubble lift home. We had delicious local garbure soup – huge chunks of ham in thick vegetable soup and the bambinos were happy with steak-hache frites, all served by friendly waiters to our table in the eaves of the building, which we loved. At approximately 10 Euros per head including drinks this was good value.
On our second sunnier day we discovered the ski area over the back of the Soumaye chair over to the Glacier poma lifts and on down to Refuge de L’Oule. This little restaurant has stunning views above Lac de L’Oule. It is self-service restaurant but fairly quick to serve despite the small queue and plenty of space to sit outside in the sunshine.
We especially loved the slow 2-man Lac chair which connects skiers back in to the ski area after lunch. Non skiers or small people with tired legs can miss the red run down to the refuge (not to mention the steep poma-lift to access it) and simply download onto the chair a while, crossing pretty waterfalls en-route.
Tired legs and Spa fun
Skiing with children is always a juggling act – do too much and you can put children off skiing. We have always let the children stop either for hot choccies during the day, especially when it is very cold, or at the end of the day when they have had enough – whilst making sure they try and do a good few runs to get the most from the lift pass costs too! So it is important to have some non-ski fun in a resort too.
In more purpose-built resorts, children can easily just play in the snow or go sledging, but where the resort base is lower – as in St Lary – you need to have some non-ski activities to hand.
Most of the Pyrenees resorts have their own spas, using the thermal waters. In the past and to an extent now these are used for treating medical issues such as asthma and rheumatoid issues but most of the fun is now to be had in the recreational spa facilities in each resort.
Sensoria Rio (adjoining our hotel) is a series of caves with toasty bubbling whirlpools and geysers where the children happily played hide and seek, despite the apres-ski bathers!
There is also a real snow ice rink in the centre of the village but the pool proved more popular.
Would we go back to the Pyrenees?… plus Peyragudes and Piau Engaly
St Lary isn’t a huge ski area (around 100km of slopes including a fun park) but there was plenty to discover in our four days of skiing there. What we loved in addition to St Lary was taking two different road trips. With the rental car piled high with skis and boots, first of all we drove 30 minutes up the road to ‘Piau Engaly’.
This quirky looking high altitude resort, the highest in the French Pyrenees, sits at 1850m – it did have the hair pin bends to access it and we agreed it would be a hairy drive after fresh snow. But with the forecast settled, we had a quick drive up and a brilliant days skiing.
We especially loved skiing ‘down the valley’ to the Mouscades chair lift via one of the N’PY Moov fun slopes, a series of fun rollers created for the resort. Looking up the valley we could see ski tourers heading up the Vallee de Badet and over in to Spain.
On the other side of the resort the Grande Bleue run – an impressive 1000 metre-plus blue run – is just perfect for families.
Our second road trip was to another ski in-out resort – Peyragudes. This resort, 40 minutes away by car was busy, but the queues at each lift were relatively small and my youngest found a green run ‘grand traverse’ which we must have explored a good ten times, having fun on all the little lumps and bumps on the way. By contrast, the Vallee Blanche looked like it would satisfy more expert skiers, but this was closed on our visit due to lack of snow.
finally, we really enjoyed a visit to the ‘Balnea’ spa in the village below, at Loudenvielle. A spa with a view and… in the hottest of outdoor pools at 40 degrees… a child free quiet zone. It was a blissful five minutes alone, and definitely worth going back for!