Cauterets & Saint Lary Review




Discovering the French Pyrenees….. At Last


Patrick Thorne has been a full time, year round, professional ski writer for 25 years. Nicknamed “The Snow Hunter” he has managed to locate some 6,000 ski areas in 80 countries and for the past decade has published a weekly bulletin of stories from ski resorts all around the planet, notching up more than 5,000 reports.  


He has written a dozen books on skiing, received several awards, had his work translated in to more than 20 languages and was named “One of 20 People To know in Ski” by The Times. Read more about Patrick Thorne in his review of La Rosiere. 


Patrick is also news editor for ‘ In The Snow’ the UK’s most read ski magazine.


The French Pyrenees, I’d heard about them over the years but they never quite made it high enough on to my resort wish list for me to actually go there.  Like most Brits I’d been to Andorra quite a few times over the past few decades and I’d even visited a few destinations on the Spanish side of the southern European mountain range that is actually home to more than 50 from the three countries, the majority of them on the French side.


I’d seen resorts on the French side appear in the big tour operator’s brochures, and one of my good friends, Jean Macrae the pioneer snowboarder, actually worked for Thomson in the French Pyrenean resorts of Cauterets and St Lary back in the early 1990s.  She was still going on about how great they were, two decades on.  Then Olivier Lepoureau of specialist French tour operator Ski Collection started telling me I really NEEDED to see the French Pyrenees, that not doing so was in fact a major omission in my knowledge of world skiing, so I finally got the message and packed my skis and started.


Things started well before I even set off.  I discovered there were a number of airports I wasn’t familiar with but which the low cost airlines were keen to fly me too.  Better still they placed me less than an hour from the resorts I was heading to.  Pau and Tarbes-Lourdes were wonderfully convenient and wonderfully empty as everyone else was heading to Geneva in February, paying more to get stuck in traffic – score one to the French Pyrenees.   Toulouse was the bigger city choice, slightly more distant but a bigger choice of flights.


So getting to Olivier’s first recommended resort, Cauterets, was easy and arriving there was a pleasant surprise.  Having done little advance research my expectations were fairly low.  From my time in Andorra and Spain I’d expected a rather tame and rather bleak mountainscape of rolling hills lacking any woodland to break the monotony, while Cauterets itself, I thought, would probably be just another ski resort.


So, “quelle surprise!” as I drove in to the village and found myself driving up a street that was nothing like I’d ever seen in a ski resort before, but very like somewhere in Paris.  In fact, I soon learned, that the remarkable Boulevard Latapie-Flurin dates from exactly the same era that Baron Haussmann was redeveloping Paris in the late nineteenth century.  That was when Cauterets was really making its mark as a famous spa town and so it was that having driven in to this little Pyrenean Village, I found myself promenading up a grand Parisienne avenue.



The other point I should make here is that the mountainscape was not what I had expected either, the French side of the Pyrenees are much more rugged, pointy and generally spectacular than the Andorran/Spanish areas I had seen, things were looking good.


On the slopes Cauterets offers a mid-sized ski area with a 700m vertical, virtually all above a snowsure 1800m (and indeed the resort does have a reputation for its powder, thanks to precipitation laden clouds depositing their loads upon it when they hit the mountains).  There are a dozen, mostly easy and intermediate runs up above the tree line to whizz about on, along with an excellent terrain park and several steeper challenges, the longest trails are 6km long.  To add to the feeling of quality, uplift was almost all by high speed quad and six-seater chairs.

Next morning dawned bright, it was early March and the snow had gone from the resort but, I was assured, it was still, “winter in the mountains” above.  Again initial impressions were good, the lift operators has broken with the usual French tradition of buying the domestically made POMA lifts and spent on the Mercedes of ski lifts, Austrian-built Doppelmayr, when they upgraded their gondolas which runs from the heart of the village to the base of the slopes.  So it was a nice smooth ride up to where, yes, winter awaited.


Back down in resort guests can benefit from Cauterets’ long history, spa traditions and year-round tourism business which essentially translates in to good shopping, a great choice of restaurants, and the chance to enjoy spa treatments.  We stayed in Ski Collection’s popular Balnéo Aladin which combines hotel and apartments in one very central building which contains a busy leisure centre complex with indoor and outdoor pools, Hammam (steam room), sauna and solarium and offers spa services.


The dining selection is indeed superb, we enjoyed filling, authentic rustic cuisine in one of numerous central restaurants for lunch, and then gourmet cuisine prepared by Michellin starred chef Julien Canton at the wonderful L’Abri du Benques restaurant (+33 (0)5 62 92 50 15) on the edge of the village. 


Chef Canton’s restaurant is in fact on the road up to yet another attraction for Cauterets the Pont d’Espagne.  This high altitude Nordic sports Mecca contrast with the main alpine ski slopes as it is in a thickly forested area on the Spanish border.  There is one more chairlift and a couple of downhill slopes here but most people are here to snowshoe, cross country ski or just have fun as a family with their toboggans, it has a wonderful atmosphere. 


And so after too short a stay it was on to Saint Lary, a large, traditional Pyrenéan resort at 830m linked by road or by another modern gondola to altitude stations (and the base of the ski runs) at La Cabane (1600m), larger Pla d'Adet (1700m) and Espiaule (1900m), making it one of the most important ski centre in the French Pyrenées.


The village, located in the heart of the Pyrenees and the Aure valley, and opening out towards the sloping hillsides of Gascony, existed for thousands of years before the arrival of snow sports.  It is located on a route used for thousands of years by merchants and pilgrims and referred to in Roman reports.  Today it has a relaxed way of life with well preserved architecture.  On the slopes however, facilities are more up to date, with new lifts and snowmaking added recently.


Before skiing came along the resort was famous for its healing waters, which contain sulphur and sodium. These thermal springs have been renowned since antiquity and are still accessible today.  The Saint-Lary Thermal baths located in a park at the centre of the village offer state-of-the-art facilities and a new canyon themed spa opened more recently.


Again the people were friendly, the slopes sunny but snowy, the dining excellent – particularly at L’Authentique Vignecois, a rustic establishment two minutes from the resort centre which specialised in copious amounts of local fish and meat, including the black pigs that were enjoying life in a small field right next to the gondola base station, I gave them a knowing wave as I headed back up the slopes next morning.


St Lary's skiing is spread across three sectors totaling 100km (63 miles) with and an altitude range of 1700 to 2515m, with large areas of the slopes with machine made snow when required.  Much of this terrain is covered by snow making.


Saint Lary 1700 "Pla d'Adet" at the base of the slopes is dedicated to family and beginner skiing with the Snow Garden, toboggan run and "Kidpark", a fun snow sports park for budding skiers aged six to twelve years old.


At Saint Lary 1900 "Espiaube" there is a greater emphasis with longer and tougher runs.  These include the famous Mirabelle piste, at 3.6 km (2.25 miles), it's one of the longest runs in the Pyrenees with a vertical drop of 700 metres.


The highest skiing is at Saint Lary 2400 where there's mogul and slalom stadiums, a snowpark complete with PA system and a halfpipe


There was another bright, modern, spacious apartment complex to stay in through Ski Collection here too.  Les Arches was well placed a short walk from the resort centre and from the gondola and had a good little spa centre and useful services like wifi.


So, the French Pyrenees, what had I learned from my trip and what’s different to the Alps?


I left the region with almost entirely positive experiences to reflect on (OK, the SAT NAV did take me 20km up a closed-in-winter mountain pass at one point but that was my fault for not checking the small print on the map!).  Most of the people I had met were genuine locals who loved the area and had lived there all for most of their lives, not just arrived for the ski season to make some cash.  So there was a lot of real enthusiasm and real people.  There was also a pleasantly relaxed attitude too, perhaps because we were down in southern Europe, it was easier to feel like you were on a real holiday.


It’s probably connected to the above but it was easier to buy a good meal for less money than in the Alps too, indeed I was told that Andorra and Spain had fared so well from tourist spending over the past few decades that the Andorrans and Spanish now popped over to France to ski and shop for less, rather than the other way round as it once was.


The skiing is, of course, less extensive than in the big Alpine regions, but for my needs and those of most less-demanding Brits it was very good indeed, and for my holiday overall, the easy access to the region and the other advantages I’ve just listed, more than compensated for a bit less piste


In short, I’m going back!


Patrick Thorne 2009

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