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There are undaunting beginner areas, easy to get to powder with gentle gradients to make it accessible for all the family, fun snowparks, plus some steep pistes and challenging blacks to keep more advanced skiers amused.
Our message is simple; you should take your family skiing to the French Pyrenees because you will not be disappointed. We spent February half term there with great snow, very few queues and have returned with a host of memorable shared experiences.
Our base for the week was the valley town of Saint-Lary, which is 730 miles or 11 hours from Calais. It is an easy drive down and past Bordeaux and we broke the journey up with an overnight stay in a Novotel in Le Mans. Peage tolls work out to be around £90 each way, while supermarket diesel was at £1.07 per litre at the time.
And we did the trip in a new Kia Optima Sportswagon GT Line estate car – it had a range of around 650 miles on a full tank and delivered 38mpg across the whole trip. Pretty good when you consider this included long stretches of motorway cruising at 80mph and plenty of accelerating and braking as we drove up mountain roads.
Being an estate there was bags of room. We managed to fit four pairs of skis, four boot bags and big clothes bags inside the car – and still we did not feel cramped in the cabin. The Kia was also rammed with tech - cameras, parking sensors, an excellent touchscreen satnav screen, remote boot opening (a godsend when returning to car with skis and poles) and smart cruise control that uses radar to brake if you get to close too the car in front on the motorway.
The town of Saint-Lary is a bustling place with a main street characterised by attractive grey stone buildings. And being on the natural border between France and Spain, you should head to Le Gros Minet tapas bar for buzzing atmosphere and superb gambas.
You should also taste the local bakery delicacy – Gateau a la Broche. It is made from a pancake-style mix that is turned and baked on a spit to form a Christmas tree shaped biscuity treat.
The main street was just a short stroll from the recently-renovated Pierre & Vacances Residence les Rives de L’aure. We were in a one-bedroom apartment that was comfortable and had all the necessary self-catering kit. It was an excellent holiday home for the week with good quality beds and free Wi-Fi for up to five devices.
The apartment was also just across the river from the gondola lift, so getting up to the start of the ski area each morning was easy and did not involve a long walk or the need to squeeze on a bus. And next door was Sensoria Rio – a spa pool attraction fed by the thermal waters and created to feel like a mountain canyon. A two-hour family pass is around £35.
New skiers or snowboarders are well catered for in a dedicated beginner area where the gondola and the cable car from the town arrive up to. From here the Bouleaux chair opens up the rest of the delights of Saint-Lary.
We skied for three days and never tired of the runs or felt we were repeating ourselves. We loved the 3.6km Mirabelle red that takes you top to bottom in the Espiaube zone of the resort. Les Trois Guides restaurant halfway down is also a good spot for a hot chocolate or a hearty lunch.
Seek out the Corneblanque button lift – but watch out it is long and very steep at one point. This gives you access the outer edge of the ski area and the Pyrenees National Park at Le Vallon. At the end of the Bastan red run is Lac de l’Oule and the Refuge de l’Oule restaurant. It is a very popular lunch spot and the best advice is to get there as it opens at 12 noon to get a table.
The red run down is good, but be prepared to pole or even walk the last few metres because it is ever so slightly uphill. There is only one lift back up from the Refuge – it is an old and slow two-man chair, so if you get your timings wrong you can get stuck in a big post-lunch queue.
If you get fresh snow – as we did on the Wednesday - then head straight to the area served by the Corneblanque, Arrouyes and Glacier button lifts. There are great blues and reds here but more importantly you and your children can criss-cross between the pistes practising your powder skiing without worrying about steep gradients.
Seb, aged 14, says: "I felt really inspired by the beauty of the Pyrenees landscape. All the resorts had their own special character - like Piau which felt fun with the snow park, the off piste bits between the runs and the little jumps and bumps alongside the pistes. The apartment we stayed in was comfortable and having free Wi-Fi was good as I could post skiing photos and videos to my Instagram. The tapas place had a cool atmosphere and the food was so tasty - you should try it if you go to Saint-Lary. We sat at the bar and the staff were funny and friendly."
Ollie, aged 12, says: "I loved being in the Pyrenees. There was a really good range of skiing to do there. One of my favourite days was in Val Louron because the snow conditions were very good and I was able to find bits to practice jumping and trying to land 180s. Also after skiing that day we went to the thermal spa - the outdoor hot pools were amazing but also there was a pool where you lay back with your ears under the water and could hear relaxing music.
"The snow park in Piau was good fun to play around in. There were lots of different jumps and boxes and they weren't too big so I could practice lots and lots. All the resorts felt very friendly and welcoming. It's a very good place to ski with your mum, dad and brother."
A 40-minute drive from Saint-Lary is Peyragudes. It has a similar number of runs – mainly blues and reds - as Saint-Lary. We enjoyed an excellent day’s skiing here and were particularly taken by how wide open the ski area is. There are some good long leg-burner pistes, with most runs being wide for children to enjoy practising their parallel turns on.
The red Panoramique - as the name suggests – offers terrific views across to neighbouring Pyrenean peaks up to 3,174m. And the blue Piste 007 is worth taking in just for the photo opportunity. It has been renamed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, which filmed its opening sequence at the Altiport at Peyragudes.
Off the mountain road towards the tunnel to Spain, you will find the ski-in ski-out Piau-Engaly. It has funky-looking circle and crescent-shaped resort buildings constructed to blend in to the natural setting. It is 25 minutes from Saint-Lary and although it only has 39 pistes it feels much larger.
The views from Pic du Piau at 2,600m are impressive and from the top of chair you should try the red Parc run that sweeps you down around the edge of the resort’s ski area. Grande Bleue is another good cruisy piste from top to bottom, which gives you options to drop onto the steeper Kamikaze red and Myrtilles black runs.
Piau-Engaly also boasts the Edeneo spa on the edge of the ski runs where you can chill in relaxation pools whilst watching the skiers go by.
For another day ski, we drove the 25 minutes to Val Louron. It is a small ski area that packs a hidden punch. There are only 20 runs and no hands-free lift pass gates to worry about.
First impressions suggest this is the perfect spot for beginners or if you are taking your young children on their first skiing holiday. It is not a resort overlooked by daunting high mountains. As a friendly learning environment, Val Louron ticks all the boxes.
But when we started exploring the rest of the resort, we discovered some beautiful reds – such as Aubepines and Rhododendrons – and cruised around all day long with smiles on our faces. It is a charming little resort, with deceptively good skiing.
And in the valley below Val Louron is another hidden gem. The Balnea Spa at Loudenvielle has a series of themed areas all fed by natural thermal waters. There is a fun indoor main pool area perfect for families, while outside are three heated pools that increase from 33, to 37 and then 40C. You can relax in them looking out over snowy mountains – we found it the perfect end to our family skiing roadtrip around the Hautes Pyrenees.
A day pass for a family of four to ski Saint-Lary is 140 Euros. In Peyragudes it is 95 Euros, Piau-Engaly is 88 Euros and Val Louron is 93 Euros.