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Pyrenees ski road trip - James Cove, French Pyrenees
Monday January 11, 2016 - Email this article to a friend

We are back on the road visiting 3 resorts in 3 days in the French Pyrenees; Font Romeu, Les Angles and Ax3Domaines. We saved the best till last. UPDATE

DAY THREE

When you are travelling in the mountains in the winter I have some advice - do not use a sat nav unless it has a winter setting.

You ignore this advice at your peril.

We left the resort of Les Angles for the short drive to Ax les Thermes after a day's skiing.

We expected it would be a little over an hour by the main road but our sat nav offered a shorter route. 

With no snow forecast and clear sky we thought it would make a more scenic drive.

The trouble is that the first four mountain passes we were advised to cross were shut in the winter.

A large red sign with the word 'Ferme' greeted us on each occasion.

We worried there would be no mountain pass open in the winter and we would carry on. And on.

The fifth one offered a green sign with the word 'Ouvert' - we breathed a sigh of relief.

But the road immediately lost its white line in the middle and became somewhat narrow. Soon it was down to a single track.

Not to mention the potholes.

On each bend we expected a car to come speeding round the corner, and shunt us into the valley a long, long way below.

Sat Nav short cutSat Nav short cut - Photos c/o AWE365

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 'road' was literally cut through the rock.

Sat Nav short cutSat Nav short cut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With a steep drop on the side.

But fortunately no vehicle came screeching round the corner - what other idiots would be on a road like this?

Sat Nav short cutSat Nav short cut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrived safely in Ax les Thermes after a 2-hour+ drive. We were late, but we had made it.

And we were alive.

I slept well that night.

I had driven through the beautiful French spa town of Ax les Thermes many times on my way to and from Andorra that is deeper into the Pyrenees.

Each time I wondered what the skiing above the spa town would be like. 

The lift up didn't seem to lead to anywhere terribly promising.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesHardly inspiring

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I became more hopeful as I saw the camper vans at the main base station - ski bums are not attracted to a resort unless there is good off piste terrain.

And there was an overnight dusting of fresh snow.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesGetting better

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then had an experience much like Harry Potter on Platform 9 & 3/4s or the children as they stepped out of the back of the wardrobe in the Nania books.

A mountain paradise unfolded the higher the lift took us.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesMid-station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesHeading higher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesHeading even higher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The figures for the resort are fairly standard - 80kms of slopes and 37 runs.

But they do not tell the whole story - far from it.

I can say without any hesitation that Ax3Demaines is the best 'new' resort I have discovered recently.

And I have been to 50 or so resorts for the first time in the last few years.

Not least because my expectations about the resort were modest and hopes for good snow non-existent.

I was utterly wrong on both counts.

There was full snow cover up top and 5cm of fresh snow gave us just enough to make some sweet turns.

This lift goes to the top of the resort at 2,305m.

And just look at the terrain.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesTop of the resort - 2,305m

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My guide for the day was Jacques Murat from the tourist office.

Not your average tourist office employee.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesMonsieur Murat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the top of the resort people were heading off piste on to some safe-looking terrain.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesLooking OK?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Worth a go do you think?" I said to Jacques, who knows the resort like the back of his hand.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesYours truly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And with that he was off.

"Follow me," he yelled.

So I did.

Photo c/o AWE365Cranking over off piste

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My fellow rider was Luke Rees from the adventure web site, AWE365.

Personally I love being out with snowboarders, on or off piste, and Luke was no exception. 

He also took some of the photos for me.

Luke Rees, AWE365Luke Rees, AWE365

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesFreeride

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesWoosh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacques seemed to spend most of his time in the air or riding switch.

Ax3Domaines, French Pyrenees'Going backwards' in my language

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"You are pretty good for an old guy and your technique is very good.  Best of all though you have a young spirit in your heart and it shows in your skiing style," Jacques said to me.

"Shame you weren't born a few years later as you would have hit the freeride craze like me and been rather good at riding the mountain," he added as he shot off again.

I took it as a compliment and my 57-year old legs found a new lease of life.

Others had the same idea as there was a bit of powder to be had.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesLight pow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesTaking some air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I passed a guy well away from the marked runs starting to build a kicker.

"Bon journee!" he wished me as he carried on shoveling.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesHappy building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacques and I took off again.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesSweet turns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the time we reached the resort's iconic orange chairlift I needed a rest as my legs ached.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesRelaxing again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love old lifts that go slowly so you can soak up the mountains, contemplate the day's skiing and wonder how much pleasure it has brought to how many people over the years.

Time seems to stop on these long-serving lifts.

But the resort is not full of old lifts - far from it.

It has 17 in total but there are substantial plans for the future with new lifts, new areas and upgrades.

A new access gondola is planned from down in the valley to complement the single lift from Ax les Thermes.  

The resort approached the lift manufacturer, Poma, to build the €20m lift and Poma said they would be interested in doing it for a share of the future revenue.

Negotiations are ongoing, but if this happens it would be a world first.

Normall a lift manufacturer sells a lift outright.

Also new is this. 

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesShape of things to come

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a way of making snow whatever the temperature.

It is made inside the lorry where it is below frezzing and then pumped out.

There are only 5 in the world and Ax3Domaines has one on lease.

"With the poor snow so far this winter it has quite literally saved our season," Jacques told me.

Here on PlanetSKI we will have a full news story on the new technique later.

"It's a shame more British do not know about Ax3Domaines and come here as we have so much to offer," said Jacques. "Around 4% of our guests are from the UK and we hope to change that, but it is difficult," he added.

I could only nod in agreement.

On both points.

Currently the UK tour operator Pyrenees Collection offers the resort and so does Zenith Holidays. 

The resort is in talks with Ski Weekends and Erna Low and I can only recommend it.

I wondered if I would have a better day this season.

Ubdoubtedly yes, but it was the best so far and I have already been in over a dozen resorts.

Thanks Jacques.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesOld meets new

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesBest day of the season - so far

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The town itself is a spa town and I had been planning a visit to the thermal baths in the afternoon. 

That could wait as I wanted, or rather needed, to carry on skiing this mountain.

And I had a plan to sample the thermal waters of Ax les Thermes.

I mentioned earlier how I'd driven through it many times to and from Andorra. 

I should have said 'We' as I did it with my wife and young children over a dozen years ago.

They were 4, 7 and 9 at the time.

We always used to stop and have a paddle in the communal bath and a sandwich. It became something of a tradition and broke the drive well.

I recreated it for old time's sake.

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesLiving the life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ax 3 Domaines, French PyreneesHappy days!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I left my third resort in three days on my road trip in the Pyrenees I looked back to my first night on that short and uncomfortable sofa bed in Font Romeu (see the start on my trip on Day One below).

I would have given my right arm to be back there again with the last three days ahead of me, rather than behind.

One thing is 100% certain.

I will be back to this part of the French Pyrenees.

Soon.

And I recommend others to visit it too.

Whether the family resorts of Font Romeu or Les Angles or one of my new favourite freeride areas - Ax3Domaines.

DAY TWO

Next stop Les Angles.

It is just a short 25 minutes drive from the resort of Font Romeu - my first day is described lower down this article.

There are plans to connect the two resorts by a new ski lift, but more of that later.

We went on tarmac.

Les Angles, French PyreneesOn the road again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The resort is bigger than Font Romeu with 45 slopes and 55kms of pistes.

It looked impressive, and unusual, as we arrived.

Les Angles, French PyreneesNot your average ski resort

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And beautiful once up on the slopes.

Les Angles, French PyreneesYours truly on the Pyrenees slopes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is short on natural snow at the moment in the Pyrenees.

80cm has fallen this winter in Les Angles - this time last year the figure was 2.5m.

But the snow cannons are doing their job.

Les Angles, French PyreneesPumping it out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But not everywhere.

Les Angles, French PyreneesMountains shrubbery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My guide for the day is Gregory Potage.

Les Angles, French PyreneesPointing the way

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He taught in Chatel in the French Alps for a few years, but moved back here a dozen years ago.

"Chatel is so much bigger with access to the 500kms of slopes of the Portes du Soleil, but here is a very special place. The people are friendlier and they have time for you," he said to me.

 "It is not just a pay and go ski experience, but something more genuine altogether," he added.

The town itself feels more Spanish Catalan than French and it is just 30km from the border.

There are Catalan flags on the roundabout by the main lift.

Les Angles, French PyreneesVive La Catalogne!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was intrigued by the strong Catalan feel.

"We are half French and half Catalan here. The two are in our culture and traditions and though we may talk French we have the culture of Catalan," said a woman I chatted to at lunch.

Catalonia actually extends into France and up to Perpignan. 

Something I didn't know.

The laws made in Barcelona do not apply, it remains governed from Paris, but its traditions very much do. 

On the slopes I heard Catalan being spoken.

From the top of one of the highest peaks in the area, Mt Canigou at 2,784m, you can see Barcelona and the Mediterranean beyond.

Les Angles, French PyreneesMt Canigou in the distance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main talking point, either in Catalan or French, is the plan to link the two resorts of Font Romeu and Les Angles. 

It would need a simple lift as the slopes are very close and would create a significant ski area.

That's Font Romeu in the not so far distance - as seen from the slopes of Les Angles.

Les Angles, French PyreneesIn touching distance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However the area is in a National Park so environmental issues are important and may be tricky to overcome.

Most people think it will happen.

A completion date of 2020 is being banded about by officials from both towns who I spoke to. 

We shall see if it happens, but if so it would create a good ski area with complementary terrain.

Skiing is under threat here with several going out of business.

Pujmal has already shut while Pumorens and Cambre d'Aze are facing bleak times.

A link might well secure the future of the area and bring added prosperity.

At least to Font Romeu and Les Angles.

Already the British make up 5%-7% of the market but the area has hopes for the future and wants to build the British numbers.

To my mind it is a great choice and offers a real alternative to the Alps. 

But there are too many button lifts for the snowboarders.

Les Angles, French PyreneesLong lifts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The word that keeps springing to my mind is "authentic".

The people here do not come here for a few months in the winter to make as much money as they can and disappear - they live here. 

It is their home. 

The feeling rubs off in the hospitality to visitors.

It is not a money-making ski factory like some resorts in the Alps I could mention.

It is often a great bet in half-term week as the slopes are certainly less crowded than the resorts of the French Alps.

This year the area shares the same date as the British half-term week - but often it does not. 

And the main Spring break in France is at a different time from the UK Easter holidays. 

The area is excellent for families and well worth looking at for 2016/17 perhaps.

There is a dedicated nursery slope in town.

Les Angles, French PyreneesBeginner area

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Les Angles, French PyreneesLes Angles, French Pyrenees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sadly I had no time to look round the town, eat some tapas and soak up the atmosphere.

We were off to Aix-Les-Thermes for the third and final part of our road trip.

Apparently it has the biggest and best ski area and I have driven through the pretty spa town many, many times on my way up to the ski resorts in Andorra.

Each time I has passed through I vowed to ski there one day and now I am about to.

I wonder if it will live up to my expectations.

DAY ONE

To  be honest the trip didn't get off to a very good start.

I arrived late on Sunday night and slept in one of those small self-catering French apartments.

I am not too bothered about where I stay in ski resorts, but a bedroom would have been nice.

I slept (very badly) on what can best be described as a sofa in a kitchen.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesGood for bed and breakfast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then the WiFi could not be accessed - either on arrival or first thing in the morning.

When I did finally manage to get codes and permissions I got messages from friends in the Alps describing the huge amounts of snow that were falling.

There is precious little natural snow in this part of the Pyrenees.

The view of the main lift station at Font Romeu, across the road from my kitchen/apartment, did not inspire.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesHardly inviting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I went up and at the top the scene was transformed.

And so was my mood.

There was blue sky above the cloud and fog.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesFont Romeu, French Pyrenees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And even a bit of snow at the top.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesFont Romeu, French Pyrenees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Within just a few turns my grumbles had evaporated and my thoughts turned to other matters.

There was some skiing to be done in a resort I had not visisted before and indeed never heard of - Font Romeu.

It has more than 50km of slopes and sits in the Frech Pyrenees just a few miles from the Spanish border.

There is a big Catalan influence here.

I liked it immediately.

It is probably best suited to families and intermediates on a budget and I wondered why more British people haven't heard of the place.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesFamily orientated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"This is a fabulous ski resort with more British people discovering it," said the marketing manager for the resort, Jennie Lowe.

"Some come here with Pyrenees Collection that is the only UK operator offering holidays to the resort and others have holiday homes in the area and come up for the skiing," she said.

Lunch was served with a smile, something not always seen in the Alps.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesBon Apetite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And at a decent price.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesEasy on the wallet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The slopes were fairly gentle but with stunning views across one of my favourite mountain ranges - the Pyrenees.

For those of you familiar with Andorra it reminded me of Pal-Arinsal, but on a bigger scale.

There was some steep terrain too.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesPause for breath

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I rode the chairlift with Christophe Cullell from the ESF he mentioned something that made my ears prick up.

"90% of our runs have snow cannon coverage and because the air is so dry we can make snow at +5degrees with our TF10 new cannons," he said.

I decided to find out more.

The resorts has 535 cannons and they come in 20 different shapes and sizes.

120 can be on at any one time.

All are operated centrally from a main control station.

"We have 10% humidity as we are near the Mediterrean, but ski resorts in the Pyrenees near the Atlantic have 50-90% hummity so we can make snow even when it is +5degrees," said the head of snowmaking for the resort, Pascal Grau.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesPascal at work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is sad that resorts have to rely on snow making but they do nowadays, and so Font Romeu is taking advantage with state-of-the-art coverage.

"When the levels of natural snow started to reduce in the 1980s we decided to invest heavily in snowmaking technology and now it has paid off. Last winter 82% of our slopes were covered and now it is 90%," said the director of the lift company, Alain Luneau.

Saviours of the snowSaviours of the snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The TF 10The TF 10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another feature that caught my eye was this.

Free and secure ski storage up the mountain outside the main restaurant. 

No splitting of skis required and no worries that someone with light fingers may walk off with them.

You simply drop them into the rack.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesSafe and secure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then close the door and your lift pass locks and opens it.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesUnder lock and electronic key

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a neat idea that other resorts ought to look at.

The resort also has a huge snowpark and despite the lack of natural snow has some huge kickers.

And many snowboarders.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesFont Romeu, French Pyrenees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some appropriate music was being pumped out in the park: Suffragette City, Young Americans, Rebel Rebel and Jean Jeannie among others. 

It was a fitting tribute to the Thin White Duke whose death had been announced in the morning.

Fitting too as David Bowie was a skier when he lived in Switzerland.

There were a host of other activities that sadly I could not do in a day - dog sledding, cross country skiing and it has some first rate thermal baths.

"As well as the skiing and snowboarding we pride ourselves on the other activities we offer for those that perhaps don't want to ski all day and every day," said Jennie Lowe from the resort.

The town of Font Romeu itself is a pretty working town.

On first impression it has a feeling of an alpine town whose best days are maybe behind it.

But then the longer I spent the more it grew on me. It is a typically French town with its boulangerie and ornate architecture.

As I strolled round its streets after a day on the slopes I simply had the feeling of being in France rather than a chocolate-box alpine village.

Font Romeu, FranceFont Romeu, France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Font Romeu, FranceFont Romeu, France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the day ended this was my view of the lift station, and the surrounding peaks.

Font Romeu, French PyreneesLooking better

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow beckonsTomorrow beckons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of Day One I felt somewhat better than the beginning.

Next stop Les Angles.

On the road againOn the road again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fact Box:

Ski Font Romeu from £125pp. Stay at Le Pic de l'Ours in the heart of the resort amongst shops, restaurants and bars.

Ski Ax-Les-Thermes from £99pp. Les Chalets d'Ax is a recently built, modern residence located in the pretty spa village of Ax les Thermes.

Ski Les Angles from £76pp. Stay at Le Clos des Fontaneilles a recently built residence located just 600m from the slopes and the resort centre.

*All prices based on 7 nights 5 sharing 2 bed 6, inc Eurotunnel

For full information about the Pyrenees and much else besides then see the Pyrenees Collection web site here.

See here for the main PlanetSKI news page with all the latest stories from the world of snowsports.

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