A child's first ski trip in the French Pyrenees
My wife and I travel to the spa town of Cauterets in the Hautes-Pyrénées for our boys' first ski trip
Hiking, cycling, skiing and nature-watching may be the major tourism draws in the Pyrenees – the mountain range that runs for 430km between Perpignan and San Sebastian, drawing a saw-toothed line between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe – but the region is also the geographical equivalent of comfort food. If you're hankering for a holiday that's rooted in local culture, easy to navigate and free of pretension, you'll find it here. In place of big-brand international supermarkets, coffee shops and hotel chains are ancient meadows, traditional stone farmhouses and small businesses run with love.
For my family there was one other compelling attraction of an Easter break in the French Pyrenees: it promised the perfect ingredients for a first family ski trip, with a good snow record, warm weather, good deals on ski passes and accommodation and plenty to do off-piste (there was a chance, after all, that our two young boys wouldn't take to skiing).
Watch the video of the trip, including the journey by train from London to Toulouse:
Just over ten years ago I wrote a short feature in the Guardian about an 18th Century inn in the Pyrenees, and wrote: "The Pyrenees may be less popular than the Alps but they're no less dramatic and for me they tick all the boxes for a festive green break - fresh mountain air, family-sized crepes and an unassuming atmosphere where no one gives a vin chaude whether your sunglasses match your salopettes. And what they lack in altitude, they make up for in low-impact mountain activities."
A decade later, we found the same is still true. Basing ourselves in the historic spa town of Cauterets in the Hautes-Pyrénées, two hours' drive from Toulouse, meant we would be able to tap into all the benefits of a town (rather than a more ski-focused resort) since the town is not directly on-piste but connected to the slopes by a 12-minute cable car ride. Enjoying warm sunny weather during our visit we duly headed up to the slopes each morning fully kitted out for the Narnia-like temperatures higher up then zipped back down to the town each afternoon to enjoy hikes, swimming and trips to the local play park in warm, flipflop-friendly sunshine.
What to do on-piste Cauterets's ski bowl, the Cirque du Lys, benefits from its high altitude (the peak is 2,415m) and north-facing orientation to produce reliably good natural snow cover. Our visit, in a year when the Easter holidays were relatively late and during a long period of blue-sky conditions, meant that the snow wasn't powder-perfect for more advanced skiers but our two small first-timers knew no different (and, we guessed, were happier in the sunshine than they would have been in chillier, snowier conditions). In fact, we felt the 'stickier' snow at this time of year made learning slightly easier for them.
We booked private lessons for the boys on two mornings while we went off to explore some of Cauterets' 36km of pistes (despite the sunshine 80% of Cauterets' pistes were open during that first week of April), and these worked well. Our three year-old asked to duck out of lessons on the second morning in favour of a few runs on the nursery slopes with his parents (and a cup of hot chocolate) but, under instructor Clement's gentle guidance, our four year-old enjoyed the skiing so much that he asked to join a group class on our third morning and happily swooshed off to meet them.
The Cirque du Lys is also home to an impressive terrain park, a designated sledging area and a fully staffed, bi-lingual crèche, the Mini Club; we paid for a couple of hours in the latter one day so that we could do a few longer runs on our own and the boys were perfectly happy there, drawing and playing with toys.
One other benefit of travelling during the Easer holidays is that Cauterets offers good deals on the last couple of weeks of the season for lift passes and ski hire (family ski passes normally cost from €176.40 for two days but are free for children during this period) so it's a good time to test the water with beginners. We kept our skis at our hotel as it was close to the cable car station but we could have paid a few euros to leave them overnight at the hire shop (just below the cable car station) if our accommodation had been further away, or slightly more to leave them with the ski concierge service at the top of the cable car station (a useful service, with small children, if you don't want to carry two extra pairs of skis back to your accommodation each day).
Finally, for on-piste snacks and meals, the Restaurant Le Lys, up at the top cable car station, has recently been renovated in industrial mountain style (think white metal bistro chairs set against timber-clad walls) and makes a great spot to grab lunch or a hot chocolate overlooking the slopes. There's a nice nod to local cuisine on the menu, too, with a range of local craft beers from the Brasserie des Gaves, organic beef burgers from regional farms and garbure (a local slow-cooked duck stew) served in miniature cast-iron casserole pots. If your budget doesn't stretch to eating out the space also includes a large indoor picnic area with tables, chairs, microwaves and panoramic windows looking over snowy peaks.
What to do off-piste Much grander than its small population of 1150 suggests, with majestic belle époque hotels, thermal baths, a former casino and an immaculately preserved wooden railway station (now used solely by buses), Cauterets owes its impressive architecture to its thermal springs; in the mid-19th century a flood of wealthy spa tourists prompted a flurry of development.
Apart from eating out (see below), shopping and trips to the town's play park, we spent most of our afternoons indulging in some restorative après-ski in the town's Bains du Rocher, a spa complex with indoor and outdoor pools. Surprisingly family-friendly, with a dedicated toddler pool, this was a hit with everyone. Particularly the outdoor pool where, at one end, we could sit in a circular hydrotherapy tank, peacefully soaking up its balmy bubbles and views of the mountains, while the boys spent what felt like hours playing in the jets of water around the tank as though they were on a water park ride.
Another popular excursion was the nearby Pont d'Espagne, where you can walk along a well-marked trail though beautiful protected forest to an ancient stone bridge connecting France and Spain (and then stop off for an ice cream on the terrace at the rustic hotel beside the bridge).
One afternoon we also drove down to the Parc Animalier des Pyrenees, in nearby Argeles-Gazost. An alternative, seven-hectare zoo, it houses around 120 species and focuses largely on smaller animals native to France including vultures, wolves, otters, ibex, roe deer and marmots (though there are also some larger animals like bears and lynx, and some creatures from French Guiana such as squirrel monkeys and red ibis birds). For a more immersive experience the parc also has two lodges where visitors can stay overnight: one looks out over the bear enclosure and is just for couples, the other sleeps four and looks out over the wolves. At the smaller end of the animal scale, the parc is also home to a giant insect hotel so grand we dubbed it the chateau des insectes.
Where to stay
The Hotel Lion d'Or is a true one-off, a small-town French hotel that's family-owned (in this case the fourth generation of the Lasserre family) and moderately priced but operated with flair. Set on one of Cauterets' more modest streets its windows are framed by cheery blue shutters, its wrought-iron balconies decorated with carefully tended windowboxes and its rooms furnished with antiques, collectables and toile de jouy fabrics rather than factory-made hotel furniture.
As there were four of us, we stayed across a little lane from the main building, in an apartment. Decorated in the same style as the hotel bedrooms, and with access to all the hotel facilities, this had the added benefit of a self-catering kitchen. The Lasserre family live and breathe hospitality, welcoming us with freshly picked lilacs and a loaf of homemade gingerbread cake when we arrived and making up beds that felt as close to sleeping in a nest as is humanly possible, layered with sheets, duvets and eiderdowns that could be added or removed to suit.
Though we made the most of our self-catering kitchen during our stay we did have one breakfast in the hotel, and one dinner, and both were just right for ski trip indulging – excellent home cooking served with care, in generous amounts.
For dinner, we started with a blueberry liqueur, served over ice as an aperitif, before making our way through a creamy vegetable soup, a stellar tartiflette with green salad, pan-fried trout topped with almonds and homemade meringue with fresh blueberry coulis and whipped cream (or, to the boys' delight, vanilla-speckled ice cream with mini smarties and homemade star biscuits).
Breakfast was no less princely – a buffet of homemade cakes, homemade yoghurts, gateaux mytrille (a local speciality rather like a giant blueberry muffin), apple and cinnamon compote, homemade jams, eggs, cheeses, rich hot chocolate and 'merveilles' – little rectangular doughnuts dusted with icing sugar and made to Grandmother Lasserre's special recipe.
Where to eat
If you're self-catering you'll find everything from cheese and charcuterie shops to bakeries, specialist wine stores, an organic grocery, a small market and numerous shops making the berlingots (boiled sweets) that Cauterets has long been associated with. Le Refuge du Sens is another must-visit. A dainty chocolate shop higher up the same street as the Lion d'Or, it sells delicious Valrhona chocolates plus a homemade version of Nutella.
For sit-down meals, we tended to make the most of our apartment's kitchen and eat in more than out since most local restaurants don't open until 7pm and, especially after a day on the slopes, that was too late for our under-fives. One place that bucked that trend was La Creperie Basque, two doors up from the hotel, a gorgeously retro spot run by the indefatigable Jeannine and open all day (for slightly more upmarket crepes we also liked the town's Creperie du Molleau.
Other hits in Cauterets included Giovanni Pizzeria, for simple wood-fired pizzas, the Jardin d'Oh! for soups and gourmet hotdogs and Chez Gillou patisserie for giant blueberry tarts.
For a decadent dinner out, we hired a babysitter through the hotel and drove down the road to L'Abri du Benques, a smart but relaxed restaurant in a magical waterfall setting on the road to the Pont d'Espagne. Order chef Julien Canton's three-course 'flavours of the southwest' menu and work your way through elegant plates of smoked trout with bitter herbs, ham with baked endive and beef served, dramatically, with a side of bone marrow.
Or drive down the valley in the other direction, to Le Viscos, in Saint Savin, for classic French cooking and charmingly old-fashioned hospitality. Chef Jean-Pierre Saint-Martin's take on garbure – a meaty terrine served with a tiny, pretty, salad - is a world away from the conventional rustic stew. And don't miss his Noir de Bigorre (pork from a rare breed that's endemic to the Pyrenees) - a huge, slightly pink chop topped crispy ham and served with an ambrosial, creamy sauce and a dainty little train of pasta parcels stuffed with truffles.
Getting there By train from London to Toulouse via Eurostar and TGV, then hire a car from the station at Toulouse (avis.co.uk). The apartment at the Lion d'Or costs from €800 per week for four people (hotel-cauterets.fr).
Disclosure: Richard Hammond and family were a guest of the Cauterets and Hautes-Pyrénées tourist offices. Voyages SNCF provided the rail tickets for two adults from London to Toulouse. Richard has full editorial control of the review, which is written in his own words based on his experience of visiting Cauterets in the winter of 2017. All opinions are the author’s own.