PUBLISHED: 17:08 12 November 2012 | UPDATED: 12:02 28 September 2015
On the lookout for a ski holiday with a difference? Eve Middleton sampled the peaks of the Pyrénées for a characterful take on the classic winter sports break
The mantra ‘bigger isn’t always better’ might have been invented for Saint-Lary; this resort, which grew up around the traditional mountain village of Saint-Lary-Soulan, is set in the Aure Valley and encompasses three main ski altitude areas: Saint-Lary 1700, Saint-Lary 1900 and Saint-Lary 2400. Wending its way past wooden buildings and charming hotels, the village’s main thoroughfare is lined with open-fronted shops where artisanal producers and traditional food suppliers sit comfortably alongside restaurants and bars in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
After a trip to the ski rental shop – conveniently located next to the main cable car linking the village to Saint-Lary 1700 – the snowy heights of the Hautes-Pyrénées beckoned. Although I learnt to ski as a child, my annual trips to the slopes now tend to be preceded by a certain amount of adult trepidation, so I was glad that the three areas offered a variety of runs suitable for all levels.
Taking the cable car from the village and stepping off at Saint-Lary 1700 proved a case in point. Here the Pla d’Adet area helps newcomers and beginners to find their snow feet with a section dedicated to families. As well as the nursery slopes and a ski garden for the little ones, there is a ‘kidpark’ for six- to 12-year-olds and a toboggan run, all of which is set out under the resort’s Famille Plus Montagne label (see panel on page 58).
I set off on L’Escalette, the new blue piste linking Saint-Larys 1700 and 1900. The snow was exemplary – maintenance teams swing into action as soon as the slopes close for the night and an array of snow guns is on site, so there is no risk of a day off the pistes due to poor coverage. Saint-Lary 1900 was ideal for my intermediate level and I was soon eschewing the shuttle buses to Saint-Lary 2400 in favour of stretching my ski legs. Snowboarders will love this sector – stopping at the foot of the snowpark had me marvelling at the twists and turns of those tackling the rails and moguls (bumps) set up for the purpose. Although there were different levels, including ones for skiers as well, I preferred to relax in the sun in a deckchair at the foot of the snowpark and take in the panoramic view of the Néouvielle massif. Also known as the DC Livepark (of Converse DC shoes fame), the area features sensor-activated cameras, so if your helmet bears a free sticker of authentication from the resort, you can check your feats in videos automatically uploaded on to the DC Livepark website.
Saint-Lary’s playground feel extends to cross-country ski slopes and snowshoeing areas, as well as ice-skating and paragliding, but I decided to head off for some après-ski activity at the Spa Sensoria. Saint-Lary’s relaxation centre and former cure for rheumatism and respiratory problems is fed by salted thermal springs which, according to the health-conscious receptionist, were “rich in silica sulphide and silica sulphate, with a lightly mineralised and slightly alkaline pH value”. I nodded intently, but within minutes of relaxing in the whirling pools was soon putting the theory into practice as the warm waters eased my aching muscles. There are four sections: Sensoria Rio (a series of pools set out in the form of a canyon); Sensoria Forme (where natural waters are used for water massage, jet showers and baths); Sensoria Beauté (beauty salon); and Sensoria Fitness (fitness classes and gym facilities).
It would have been easy to spend the whole evening at the spa, had it not been for a growling stomach. I had been expecting the usual Alpine fare of the cheese, potatoes and bacon variety, but was pleasantly surprised to discover a different mountain cuisine. Tucking into a delicious garbure (a stew-like soup with cabbage, carrots, beans and pork), it was easy to see why porc noir de Bigorre is king in Saint-Lary, as shown in a main course of the tenderest pork belly. The rare-breed black pig crops up in various guises in the cuisine, as do haricots tarbais, a variety of thin-skinned white bean proudly bearing the Label Rouge quality standard. Finishing with a slice of gâteau à la broche, a cake cooked by pouring batter slowly on to a rotating spit in front of an open fire, I turned in for the night, happily satiated from my time in Saint-Lary.
Some 200 kilometres to the east of Saint-Lary, and an hour and a half from the Mediterranean, Font-Romeu/Pyrénées 2000 has an equally distinctive character, along with 300 days of sunshine a year. The resort overlooks the border with Spain in an area where Catalan culture effortlessly combines French and Spanish influences. There are 43 runs for downhill skiers and snowboarders here; keen to discover the resort, I set out for a day’s skiing to explore the landscape.
The main cable car from Font-Romeu takes snow lovers to Les Airelles, the first of four sectors that make up the resort. This beginners’ and family space has the Famille Plus Montagne label and offers the usual nursery slope features (ski garden and mini-slalom), as well as moving walkways for children apprehensive about button lifts and a log cabin featuring a display about local wildlife.
I headed to the area of the resort known as La Calme – in keeping with its name, the spectacular surroundings had a soothing influence as I clipped on my skis. Set at the peak of the resort, it afforded a magnificent vista across to the snow-capped tip of Mont Llaret. Further to the east is the Pic du Canigou which is an important symbol of Catalan culture. During the Feux de la Saint-Jean on the evening before the saint’s day on 24 June, inhabitants hike to the top of the mountain and light a fire before descending with flaming torches to light more fires in their own villages.
The slopes are wide, welcoming and immaculately maintained, as shown by the 500 snow cannon across the resort. Font-Romeu’s La Calme sector is home to the only other snowpark and DC Livepark area in the Pyrénées – equally as impressive as its Saint-Lary counterpart, it sits next to the Bellevue blue run, but I was content to admire the experts from a distance.
Taking the shuttle bus back to Font-Romeu, I listened as French, Spanish and Catalan languages intermingled around me. Alongside downhill skis stashed in the luggage rack, I spotted cross-country skis – there are 111 kilometres of tracks here – and snowshoes, and learnt that the resort offers a range of alternative winter activities for anyone wanting a break from the pistes.
Needing to relax after my day on the slopes, I drove to the Bains de Saint Thomas, 20 minutes away in Fontpédrouse. Cut into the mountainside, the natural sulphur waters here are at a constant 58°C – settling in to one of the three outdoor pools at a more manageable 37ºC, I let the jets work their magic. The baths can be reached on the renowned petit train jaune de Cerdagne, an emblematic mountain train painted in the colours of the Catalan flag,
The return journey involved a detour thanks to an intriguing sight I had spotted on my first approach into Font-Romeu – gently glinting in the morning sun, several mirrored panels stood facing an enormous, futuristic curved mirror structure, like something out of science fiction. It turned out to be the Héliodyssée solar furnace, erected several decades previously to harness the power of those 300 days of sun a year and now operating as an educational visitor centre.
Never knowingly underfed, I turned my attention to gastronomic matters and happily the Catalan influence was clear at the dinner table, with dishes from both mountain and sea. Nibbling on freshly toasted bread smeared with a garlicky tomato paste and drizzled with olive oil, I pored over a choice of fresh fish, vegetables and hand-reared mountain livestock which proved just as enjoyable when they were swiftly dispatched at the table. My meal was rounded off with a crema catalana dessert, confirming that with a Catalan character all of its own, Font-Romeu makes a special winter getaway in the Pyrénées.