SKIING THE FRENCH PYRENEES
25th March 2019 | Iain Martin, French Pyrenees
As part of our special series on Europe’s other mountain range we visit two of our favourite resorts in France: Ax3 Domaines & Les Angles.
It’s not often you can claim that you’re following in the footsteps of lepers.
But that’s what I was doing as I paddled in the thermal waters of Ax Les Thermes.
After a tough day’s skiing with your tootsies wrapped up in the hard plastic of a ski boot, there’s few things more pleasurable than soaking your aching feet.
What’s unique about skiing in Ax 3 Domaines in the French Pyrenees is that you can start soothing your toes as soon as you come off the mountain.
Ax produces the warmest thermal water in France at 77ËšC, coming up from 6000m below ground.
That’s mixed with cold water and fed into a heated foot bath right at the gondola base station in Place Saint-Jérôme.
As well as the modern foot bath, there are two other ‘bassins’, dating as far back as 1620 when the Roger IV, Count of Foix, created the Bassin des Ladres to help treat leprosy in soldiers returning from the Crusades.
These days the Bains du Couloubret draw visitors from afar to enjoy the three pools, varying from 33ËšC to 38ËšC in the different basins, plus a hammam and sauna.
Take your time and use all of your two-hour pass.
I loved this place so much I went twice in three days.
As wonderful as the spas are, it’s not just the thermal waters that Ax has to offer.
There is the small matter of the skiing and snowboarding.
Just over ten years ago a new gondola opened to link the town at 740m with Bonascre and the Ax 3 Domaines ski resort at 1400m.
The ‘3 Domaines’ concerned are the three different sectors of the ski area.
Covering three different peaks, Ax 3 Domaines ticks a lot of boxes.
In Domaine de Bonascre there are beginners’ slopes and a great kids’ area for younger children, while intermediates can cruise on blues through the trees.
Older rippers can enjoy a decent snow park in Domaine du Saquet, which also offers a mix of green runs for improvers and more challenging runs from the 2255m Tute de L’Ours.
There are options for more advanced skiers too.
The challenging black mogul run ‘Mur’ from Couillade de Llerbes starts from the highest point in the ski area at 2305m.
Traverse skiers right from this peak and there’s some exciting off-piste terrain in the Domaine des Campels, or simply take one of the long reds.
While you can stay directly in Bonascre, right on the slopes, the gondola is only 10 minutes from Ax Les Thermes and this charming Belle Epoque town is worth exploring.
The narrow, cobbled streets of the old town are full of excellent value restaurants offering a mix of Catalan-inspired tapas and traditional Pyrenean fare.
There’s a focus on local ingredients and true foodies will find the 15-minute journey to Maison Lacube in Les Cabannes rewarding.
The menu details every single supplier and shows their locations on a map with a maximum 70km radius.
PREVIOUS PLANETSKI VISITS
Last winter our editor, James Cove, and senior news reporter, Katie Bamber, visited the Pyrenees – using the overnight sleeper train.
They stayed in the French Pyrenees and then headed up to Andorra:
The second part of my Pyrenean adventure took me to Les Angles.
Also in the Ariège department and just over an hour from Ax.
Les Angles is a more modern resort, having only opened for skiing in 1964 with a single chairlift.
The base of the resort is high at 1650m – around the altitude of the centre of Méribel – yet all 55km of the slopes are below the tree line.
On a good weather day, this means wide and charming pistes through the woods, but if the weather closes in and the light turns, you can also ski in comfort with good definition thanks to the trees.
Les Angles comes into its own on days with good visibility.
Lac de Matemale is a stunning backdrop to the resort and makes it easy to keep your orientation and always know where you are.
Together with the large choice of cruisy greens, lazy blues and wide reds, this makes Les Angles an excellent choice for young families or groups of less experienced skiers.
And of course, in common with most ski resorts in the French Pyrénées, you can finish the day with a trip to a first class ‘balneo’ spa facility.
The Angleo Balnéo and Spa opened in December 2018 and is conveniently located right at the foot of the slopes.
A mix of indoor and outdoor pools with jacuzzis and jets are the perfect tonic after a day of skiing.
Kids will love the whirlpools and dedicated children’s area, while adults should take the time to admire the mesmerising whirlpool feature and stunning views from the outside heated pool.
The dedication to design in the Angleo even means that you can enjoy a view from the barrel sauna that looks out over the slopes.
From just €11 for a session, the Angleo is typical of the value that the French Pyrenees offer.
This isn’t the Alps – you’ll never feel like you need to take out a mortgage to have lunch on the mountain or dinner out in resort.
Flights to Toulouse (1h30m to Ax) or Perpignan (1h 30m to Les Angles) can offer incredible value compared with flying to Geneva.
Plus, there are fewer Brits around: you’re more likely to hear Spanish spoken than English.
So if you’re looking for something different and better value for your next ski holiday maybe it’s time to try the French Pyrenees.
Ian has done a series of snow reports from the French Pyrenees over the last few days that were featured in this PlanetSKI article.
Check them all out here: