A snowboarding holiday in the French Pyrenees is a unique experience, and Cauterets is as far away from the commercialism of the French Alps as you can get.
Cauterets can easily be reached by flying out to Lourdes from Stanstead, but I was travelling with fellow journalist Luke Rees from AWE365 and it was more convenient for us to fly to Toulouse from Heathrow. Once there we picked up our hire car and started our road trip with a three hour drive down to Cauterets.
We started making headway south and away from the hustle and bustle of Toulouse, our pleasant and relaxed drive took us through rural French countryside, quaint towns and winding mountain roads.
The closer we got, the more excited I became; after all, the French Pyrenees was where Xavier De Le Rue, the best freestyle rider in the world, learnt his craft alongside his brothers. The whole family are legendary around these mountains.
With only 1% of skiers/snowboarders in the French Pyrenees being British, you may want to touch-up on your French as English is not widely spoken. The resorts are delightfully unfashionable and unpretentious, with many of the local skiers donning ski suits from the 80’s or 90’s which was great to see.
Cauterets is a small spa town which is typically French in architecture and heaped in history. A popular haunt for celebrities and politicians during the early part of the 20th century, this is now a quiet town with not much going on after the slopes close.
Road Trip Day 1 – Cauterets (1,730 – 2,450 m)
The main ski area is reached by a 12 minute ride in a Gondola from Cauterets. This is actually one of two ski areas that make up the piste-district Cirque du Lys, but the other ski area is mainly for snow-shoeing and cross country skiing; not something we fancied tackling on a snowboard!
This small and compact ski area has been formed around a Basin and since all runs lead to the same place, it is almost impossible to get lost – even for me. In total there are only 36Km of slopes which form 22 runs with 12 ski lifts (4 of which are drags).
Unfortunately, the weather had set in and we had incredibly bad visibility the whole day we were there, so couldn’t enjoy it as much as we would have liked. This also meant that Cauteret’s large snow park (Oakley Park) was also closed which was a shame as I have heard so much about it, and is claimed to be one of the best in France. We couldn’t even see the features, but apparently it has a boardercross which I absolutely love, a wall ride and also the usual rails and pipes.
Having said all that, we did make the best of the situation and enjoyed the long crêtes blue run that weaves around the top of the basin and then down to the top of the Gondola station . It is also great for families with excellent facilities and two dedicated beginner areas near the top of the Gondola with covered conveyor belt lifts.
There is limited off-piste options and only a couple of black runs, so not much to hold the attention of advanced snowboarders/skiers for more than a day. It is an ideal resort for beginners and next level intermediates will enjoy crafting their skills on un-crowded slopes.
As with the whole of the French Pyrenees, there was a comforting understated and relaxed feel to the resort, with little or no queueing for ski lifts.
Lunch was at the restaurant by the top of the Gondola. Canteen style, they had a good choice of local dishes including black-skinned pork and duck featuring heavily on the menu. I went for the unusual Duck chilli which I enjoyed and would have again; you wouldn’t find that dish anywhere on the Alps!
We did brave the weather and venture out again after lunch, but with the visibility being worse and the snow turning to rain, we decided to call it a day and head for the spa. Well, Cauterets is a spa town so it would be rude not to!
Les Bains du Rocher – Cauterets
Les Bains du Rocher Spa is located conveniently near the bottom of the Gondola and behind Hotel The Lion D’or.
There is a very pleasant warm indoor pool that has various jacuzzi sections, but the main feature is the outdoor pool that you access by swimming through from indoors. The cold air hitting the lovely and warm temperature of the water causes billowing steam that rises from the pool.
There are amazing views of the mountains from the pool and it was awe inspiring watching the sunset and moon rise above the snow covered mountain top, whilst relaxing in the pool.
It was a great way to end the day and to relax our aching muscles from our first day boarding, and although we really enjoyed the experience, it was quite basic and not as luxurious as I would have expected from a Spa town.
Hotel the Lion d’or
We stayed at the Hotel the Lion d’or, which was quite basic but friendly and pleasant enough. The rooms are traditional and quite small but are comfortable and clean. The bathroom was also compact but had a decent shower with constant hot water. Unusually, the toilet was segregated separately from the bathroom, but some would appreciate this added quirkiness to the charm of the hotel.
Breakfast, as we found across the French Pyrenees, was as basic as you can get with cold meats and cheese, bread/croissants and jam, yogurts and a slim choice of cereals, with no hot-food selections. Not that I was expecting a Full English, but the choice of eggs and bacon are always favourable.
With a narrow street in front of the hotel and a carpark that seems permanently full day and night, parking can be a bit of a problem.
One great aspect of the hotel is that if you exit the hotel from the back, it gives you quick access to the main gondola up to the slopes.
To summarise, Hotel the Lion d’or is a traditional, well-run, small hotel with no thrills, but with very friendly staff who are very attentive and accommodating.
We did find a nice local bar near the hotel, but we found Cauterets to be very quiet; a vast contrast to it’s hay day 100 years ago. Off course, this will be ideal for those who do enjoy the peace and quiet, especially if you have a young family. For me though, it was a little too quiet.
Food and drink were very reasonably priced and a far cry from the extortionate prices of the popular resorts in the Alps.
Cauterets as a ski resort is small, quirky and delightfully uncommercial. Ideal for young families, it will not keep the interest of advanced skiers or snowboarders for more than a couple of days.
The town is quaint and a million miles away from the commercially built-up monstrosities that litter many French resorts in the Alps. With a sense of real history that seems to seep out of the very brickwork of the buildings. This will delight some, but the quietness and lack of Apres Ski will not suit everyone.
For the first day of our road trip across the French Pyrenees it was an enjoyable experience and set us up for the rest of the week.
22 slopes – 36Km
2 Gondola lifts
5 chair lifts
4 ski lifts
3 conveyor belt lifts
2 Dedicated Beginner Areas
1 French Ski school