Still planning on squeezing in a skiing trip this season? Forget the French Alps and seek out Saint Lary and Font-Romeu in The Pyrenees, instead. Adrian Shedden reveals why these new kids on the block might just be THE family alternative to the likes of Val D’Isere, Chamonix and St Anton (aka the established Alpine Old Guard)
- 1 Let the sun shine!
- 2 Cutting-edge snow-production and piste maintenance
- 3 All-round terrain for all
- 4 DC Livepark
- 5 Off-piste, touring and speed riding
- 6 Relax in SensOria and St Thomas les Bains
- 7 Cuisine de Bigorre – not just cheese and potatoes
- 8 Traditional trendy
- 9 The Maison de l’Ours and Four Solaire d’Odeillo
- 10 Great value for money
Let the sun shine!
Far from the foggy white-outs of the Alps, “Font-Romeu gets over 300 days of sun a year” says Laurent Garcia of resort operator Altiservice. Saint Lary is reputed to deliver over 2,000 hours of sunshine each year as well.
Cutting-edge snow-production and piste maintenance
So with all of this sunshine, when does it snow? Answer: every day (as long as it is cold enough!) In both Saint Lary and Font-Romeu, Altiservice boasts some of the best snow-production facilities across Europe, covering the majority of their pistes. Acknowledging a slight deficiency of snowfall compared to their Alpine counterparts, Altiservice have also invested heavily in piste maintenance. The Altiservice pisting arsenal includes the market-leading piste groomer ‘The Beast’ (which will soon offer rides in Font-Romeu for kids and adults alike), to ensure a corduroy-carpet of snow.
All-round terrain for all
Altiservice have invested €3.5 million to install new covered ‘magic carpets’ and wide beginner to intermediate areas, such as ‘Pla d’Adet’ in Saint Lary and ‘Arelles’ in Font-Romeu. These allow easy access to some of the resorts’ more challenging pistes, which include reds and blacks – though the majority of pistes will be most suited to beginner/intermediate level.
For experienced or budding freestyle riders and skiers alike, the DC Liveparks in both resorts are good travel destinations offering a unique experience developed to serve the demands of the evergrowing freestyle culture. With video cameras, set off by a unique chipset in a sticker on your helmet, on the various kickers, boxes, rails and a multitude of other features at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels recording a run that is easily editable with music and transitions at DC-livepark.com.
Off-piste, touring and speed riding
For the more experienced skiers and riders, there are plenty of opportunities to head for the heights and go off-piste or touring – though Altiservice haven’t yet been able to develop snow production technology that covers the off-piste!
And if that doesn’t get your adrenaline pumping, the combination of paragliding and skiing known as ‘speed riding’ provided for in the ‘Glacier’ area of Saint Lary might just be your bag. You might even catch yourself on the silver screen at the annual International Freeride Film Festival!
Relax in SensOria and St Thomas les Bains
Too much action? If you’d rather pamper yourself than get pumped up, or just need a bit of ‘R&R’ following a hard day on the slopes, why not try the thermal baths, massages, and other wellness treats at SensOria in Saint Lary or Saint Thomas les Bains – they’re around a 15 minute drive from Font-Romeu.
Cuisine de Bigorre – not just cheese and potatoes
True to their unique cultures, both resorts feature a plethora of delicious local treats such as the famous Porc noir de Bigorre (actually from a black piggy!), la garbure (a scrumptious winter soup) or succulent jamón ibérico from the Spanish neighbors together with pur brébis cheese and vin rouge de Languedoc. All in all a very satisfying and slightly more sophisticated alternative to the tartiflette or fondue that form the traditional staple of the French Alps.
Of course, Alpine aficionados might point to the glitz and glamour of resorts like Val D’Isere or St Anton. While you might not see the latest Prada or Dolce & Gabbana on display (with accompanying poodle in purse?), both resorts retain tradition and sophistication, reflected in the maintenance of the local architectural styles and ample shopping opportunities.
The Maison de l’Ours and Four Solaire d’Odeillo
If, after all the skiing, relaxing, shopping and eating, you still have the energy, visiting Bingo the Bear (yes, an actual bear in a ski resort!) at the ‘Maison de l’ours’ in Saint Lary or the world’s largest solar furnace at Odeillo should keep the kids, both young and old, entertained and educated.
Great value for money
Finally, there’s the price… For all of the above, you can expect to get great value for money. For example, a six-day adult lift pass for Saint Lary costs €175 (compared to €220 for Val D’Isere). Accessibility is also excellent with flights from all major UK airports with Ryanair and Easyjet to Pau, Tarbes, and Toulouse. If you get a 6 am flight from London to Tarbes, you can be on the slopes of Saint Lary by mid-morning. By that time, you’ll probably still be waiting at the baggage carousel at Grenoble on your way to the Alps!
So while they might not have quite made it to the world stage of ski resorts, if you want a fun, family-friendly and diverse, traditional alternative to the overrun Alps, it’s time to give Saint Lary and Font-Romeu a try. If snow cover is still a worry, listen to Laurent Garcia who says: “We can easily produce snow, but the Alps cannot produce sun!”