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AX LES THERMES
Ax les Thermes isn’t a name on every skier’s hot list. But it should be. After all, Ax has gained fame for its thermal springs. While in cycling circles it's always remembered for the spot where Chris Froome took yellow on his way to his first Tour de France title.
But it’s hardly on everyone's radar when it comes to a family skiing. This is a shame because this French Pyrenean town is the gateway to 80km of skiing hidden away between 1,400 and 2,300m.
And it is a proper hidden gem, because you wouldn't know it's actually there at first sight. The town is on the valley floor so you need to take a 10-minute gondola ride up to Plateau de Bonascre, which is the base for the ski area that spreads up and out in front of you. There’s actually a collection of apartments, rental shops, bars and restaurants here but staying down in town would be better for families.
The skiing is spread across three areas - hence the ski resort calling itself Ax3Domaines - and there's a really varied mix of long, undulating runs and enticing off-piste including gentle gradient powder to help you hone your skills. And the majority of the skiing is set against a backdrop of pine forests.
The runs that criss-cross Domaine du Saquet provide superb skiing. Mainly blues but with some reds and a black - you will have serious fun zipping around this area. It’s also home to a snow park and Le Louzat – a terrific spot for lunch offering tasty, affordable burgers and gorgeous views out over snowy Pyrenean peaks.
If you prefer a little more leg burning skiing then head to Domaine des Campels. Here you’ll find runs that seem to go on and on, twisting and turning down undulating terrain. A real chance to let rip and feel your edges as you carve up the mountain.
Here too is the chance to locate some fresh snow. One off-piste area with a gentle gradient – which would be perfect for my children to practice on – became my personal favourite.
Take the Rebenty chair up and then drop off the left-hand ridge immediately after you’re off the lift. A couple of turns and a traverse later and you’re standing, looking out over a pillowly plateau with just enough slope to allow for some perfect powder turns. You re-join the blue Savis piste after and can then stick on the afterburners. For families starting out off piste it’s the perfect terrain to learn.
A six-day lift pass is €179 for adults and €134 for children. While a family pass gives you a 10% discount on these prices.
After a full-on day up top, you might fancy soaking your tired legs when you’re back down in the town. You can’t miss the impressive Les Bains Du Couloubret right in the centre. There’s a selection of indoor and outdoor thermal pools, plus a steam room and sauna. The hot spring water that feeds the baths is naturally 72°C, but it's cooled to around 38°C.
You can top up your ski pass to include two hours consecutive access to the thermal baths, which does offer a 10% saving on buying a separate entrance ticket. If you don't want to pay but want to enjoy the healing properties of the sulphur waters in Ax then fortunately there are four open-air pools around town where you can take off your shoes and socks and bathe your feet for nothing.
Wander around town and you'll be drawn by its friendly, chilled out charm. This is not a nightlife skiing destination. This is a living and working Pyrenean town with a warm authenticity to match its famous waters. You could easily spend a week here and not tire of the skiing or thermal waters.
Getting there is easy. Toulouse airport is around 1.5 hours away by hire car and Easyjet go there from Gatwick airport. And the modern Chalet d’Ax self-catering apartments are an ideal family base a short 10-minute stroll from the town centre. The well-appointed apartments are available through Pyrenees Collection, the specialist arm of Peak Retreats. Prices start from £147pp for seven-nights in a one-bedroom apartment that sleeps four.
Font Romeu is a low-key resort that’s perfect for beginners and intermediates. It’s further east of Ax so you’d be better flying to Perpignan (1.5hr transfer) or Barcelona (2.5hr transfer) rather than using Toulouse as your gateway airport.
The town of Font Romeu comes across as very real and you sense life would carry on whether or not there was a ski resort above it. It’s home to a collection of giant mirrors that concentrate the sun’s rays into an experimental solar furnace that produces temperatures in the region of 3,500°C. Plus it has a high altitude athletics training base, which is a favourite of Olympic champion Mo Farah once the white stuff has gone.
The skiing is reached after a short gondola ride up from the town centre. Immediately outside the gondola arrival station is a beginner zone which doesn’t require a lift pass. So very young children and beginners could spend their first few days here. In total the ski area has 52km of pistes and what makes Font Romeu so appealing is there’s nothing daunting about the resort. Wide open runs, sunny position, no exposed high altitude skiing.
Lift pass prices are €37 a day for adults, or €32pp for a family day pass (which is the usual daily child rate). A six-day adult pass is €185 or €160pp for a family pass.
The highest point is Roc de la Calme at 2,213 and this is my favourite part of the resort. Lots of reds, but because they are short and not too steep, very manageable for intermediate skiers. It’s also home to a snow park (packed with great looking kickers and boxes), an air bag and ski-cross course.
Font Romeu may not be overly high and is a bit of a sun trap, but the snow conditions can be maintained thanks to an impressive network of snow cannons. The resort enjoys low humidity which means the cannons can manufacturer really good quality artificial snow even at 5°C, when most other ski areas need temperatures to be freezing or below.
Away from the skiing and if you have a hire car, it’s well worth the 20-minute drive down to Llo to take a dip in the thermal sulphur baths at Bains de Llo. There are three outdoor pools as well as some indoor ones, all fed by natural spring water that is between 34-39°C. Adult entrance is €11 and children are €8.
Pyrenees Collection offers self-catering apartments in Le Pic de l’Ours. The property is just a few paces over the road from the main gondola station so it’s brilliantly located. The rooms are spacious and well-equipped and the bathrooms look like they’ve been recently refurbished. Seven nights in a one-bed apartment that can sleep four people starts at £150pp for the first week of the Easter holidays.
Staying in Font Romeu you can also take the short 25-minute drive to neighbouring Les Angles. As with many smaller resorts, talks are ongoing into the possibility of linking the two. It would need a gondola to be built in an eco-zone but it would create a terrific combined ski area.
Les Angles feels slightly larger scale than its near neighbour. In fact it has 55km of runs spread across four zones – secteur Pla Del Mir, Bigorre, Jassettes and Balcere. A daily adult lift pass here is €37, while a child costs €33. Six-day passes for adults are €185 and €165 for children. But families who book four passes get a €100 discount on the total price. The resort also allows you to pay for passes in three instalments online.
Les Pelerins is the main gondola lift located near to the historic old town and just across the road from the beginner area with a covered magic carpet. Les Pelerins brings you out onto an appropriately named plateau area of almost flat greens. But from here you head left to Pla Del Mir, which enjoys the morning sunshine so it’s a good place to start your day and warm up your legs. On windy days it’s also the place to head for some sheltered runs.
The views are also worth stopping for. The valley and Lac de Matemale flatten out below you and in the distance stand the Spanish Pyrenees. This zone is also home to an animal park – a ski resort with its own off-piste zoo strikes me as a real novelty, but also a great place to visit with children.
The more challenging ski terrain is found in the Bigorre and Balcere sectors. Plenty of red runs with some decent descents, albeit still relatively short in length. And if you’re bombing around with children, watch for some of the drag lifts that start with a fairly hefty yank.
Balcere also offers some fun off-piste diversions through the trees, which are easy to dip in and out of from the pistes. There’s also a freeride zone from the top of Mont Llaret, which as 2,376m is the highest point in Les Angles.