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Adrenaline rush on a Hautes Pyrenees roadtrip
Tapping into the active family holiday market and prompted by an increasing interest from British families in the Hautes Pyrenees, tourism bosses there have developed a bespoke Pyrenees Family Roadtrip service. The website - where you can book your family mountain adventure - boasts that every day will be different for you and your children - with majestic landscapes, astounding discoveries and sports activities on offer. With promises of so many stories to tell, we hit the high road this summer to experience one of the itineraries for ourselves.
DAY ONE - LOUDENVIELLE
After the 700-mile drive from Calais - via Le Mans, Bordeaux and Pau - we arrived at the starting point for our Pyrenees Family Roadtrip, the pretty valley town of Loudenvielle. We were staying in Les Isclots B&B, which is a charming, authentic stone Pyrenean property overlooking the lake.
Hosts Véronique and Pascal were on hand to welcome us personally. They have five bedrooms and there is a very well-equipped shared kitchen for guests to use. Our accommodation was two top-floor rooms, which worked really well as we could leave the doors open and operate it almost as a family suite. With a maximum of only 15 guests possible, it is an intimate and friendly maison d'hotes. Breakfast was simple but tasty with homemade jams, including a delicious apricot and lavender blend.
We were here to experience some e-biking along the Neste du Louron river in the capable hands of instructor Daniel Soncourt from Bike In Louron. Daniel runs the biking operation during the summer months and is then a ski instructor in nearby Peyragudes during the winter. He clearly has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Loudenvielle area.
We rode for around three hours, starting out initially on picturesque flat sections along the banks of the river. It was the perfect place to get to grips with the brilliant e-bikes and to play around with the power settings, to get a feel for how much pedalling assistance each level gives. But it wasn't long before we needed to use the power settings in anger. Daniel led us up a few short but steep inclines and then came the downhill sections. Time to get to grips with balance, suspension and breaking as we descended twisty, turny routes that were littered with protruding rocks and chunky tree roots.
Our session wasn’t without a few tricky moments - Ollie used too much front disc brake on one descent and flipped over the handlebars. While Gayle lost balance through the trees and ended up with a cut and bruises to her leg after landing on a broken branch. But neither incident dampened our enjoyment of the riding. The ebikes offer such flexibility of assistance - with a simple push of a handlebar-mounted button - that as a group of differing ages and fitness levels we were all able to ride together.
The downhill sections were particularly fun as the front suspension forks pumped away absorbing the rocky bumps with ease. But here balance was key - keeping the pedals horizontal at three and nine o’clock to avoid them snagging on anything.
After returning to the town centre and waving Daniel au revoir, we were more than ready to take our saddle-sore bodies off to one of Loudenvielle's top visitor attractions. The Balnea Spa - fed by thermal waters - is the perfect way to ease any biking aches and pains. We indulged for two hours in plunge baths, jacuzzis, sensory pools, saunas and (the family's personal favourite) three outdoor pools with rising temperatures and a spectacular mountain backdrop. No trip to Loudenvielle is complete without a visit to the Balnea Spa.
Refreshed and revived, the small town square was bustling in the evening. One of the most popular restaurants looked to be L’escapade so we grabbed a table. The staff were friendly and attentive, and the food tasty and delicious. 16-year-old Seb particularly enjoyed his duck main, while younger brother Ollie tucked into a hearty tartiflette. My Burger Biscan topped with Spanish chorizo and Gayle's duck and mushroom tagliatelle met with an equal amount of approval.
DAY TWO - AINSA
Well fed and rested, it was time to turn up the adrenaline dial a little with a trip across the border to Spain for some Pyrenean canyoning.
The drive to Canyon d’Anisclo takes just over one-and-a-half hours from Loudenvielle via Arreau, where we met up with our guide Frederic Ratio who runs his own mountain guiding company called Esprit Montagne.
We were told to look out for a little green van by the church - rendezvous a success we drove in convoy through the Aragnouet-Bielsa tunnel to the ochre-coloured land of Aragon and a bridge over the Rio Yaga. This was to be the finish point for our adventure - the start was up a mountain road that narrowed into a dusty, rocky track. We rode in Frederic’s van and chatted - “I’m from the Pyrenees” he said when I asked him does he feel more French or Spanish living and working on both sides of the border.
Frederic handed out the special canyoning wet suits, with reinforced knees and bottoms, which we squeezed ourselves into with differing degrees of elegance! Canyoning involves travelling through a canyon using a variety of techniques including walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping and swimming. With water temperatures of 10-14°C even in August, the wet suit protects you from both the rocks and the water.
We still faced a 20-minute downhill walk into the canyon to our starting point - a part of the canyon with some flat rocks and a deep natural pool. It was our very first time trying canyoning and so Frederic encouraged and cajoled us into learning how to jump properly - straight like a needle with arms by our side looking straight out in front.
I discovered to my cost that if you look down towards the water as you jump, your nose and chin will take the full force of the impact as you enter the water. From a ledge six metres up, I was left with soreness and some redness. I quickly learnt my lesson.
Our 4km route downstream took around four hours including a lovely picnic lunch on the rocks. We went at a leisurely pace, probing Frederic as we went about the canyon and his life guiding it. Throughout our meander we leapt off rocks of differing heights and what made it a particularly special family experience was there was always a height you could feel comfortable leaping off.
Seb loved stepping off the eight metres rocky outcrops, while Ollie found six metres perfectly enjoyable. And for mum and dad - well we were happier at around the five metre level. Funny how with age you seem to develop a greater fear of heights and leaping into the unknown!
But it wasn’t all about leaping into natural plunge pools that have been carved from the rock by centuries of raging water. We slid down narrow rapid sections, carried like wriggling, oversized fish, headfirst into pools of churning water. Then there were parts requiring us to slip down on our bottoms through narrow gaps between massive boulders - emerging beneath small waterfalls that you could hide within, treading water for a few moments, concealed behind a wall of water. And in the calmer sections we were able to float along with the current, marvelling at the narrowing canyon walls that soared high up above us.
We began the canyoning journey with a degree of trepidation - an obvious fear of the unknown. But after emerging at the end point, where the river widened and the terrain flattened out, each one of us had beaming smiles across our faces.
A short drive down the road was our home for the night Hotel Pena Montanesa. A real gem of a hotel - an easy to find roadside location, beautiful mountain views from our spacious family room, a lush green garden and pool area and a restaurant where we enjoyed a wholesome and tasty breakfast and dinner. There is also a spa with full length windows - which you pay extra for - that looked very inviting but we didn’t have time to indulge in it.
Instead we headed to the medieval hilltop town of Ainsa, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Sobrarbe. The original stone houses, many retaining the authentic old wooden front doors, are connected by a maze of cobbled streets. A place to wander around, enjoying a warm evening stroll and taking some family selfies.
Before heading back to the hotel we stopped at Bar Carrasca on the sun-drenched main square. It was a recommendation of our canyoning guide Frederic. He said it was the perfect spot to enjoy a chilled glass of Somontano Blanco, the locally produced wine. As we sat and watched the world go by, we toasted Frederic for guiding us through the canyon and to here. A perfect family roadtrip day in the Hautes Pyrenees.
DAY THREE - LA MONGIE & PIC DU MIDI
Heading back through the tunnel to France again, it was time to follow the route of one of this year's Tour de France stages. On the road up to La Mongie and Col du Tourmalet - the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees at 2,115m - we stopped off for a brief taster session at Les Vertiges de l'Adour - a via ferrata site set in the trees around an impressive waterfall. We had a quick go at the zip wires and vowed to return when we had the hours needed to tackle the full via ferrata course - which finished with a challenging-looking vertical climb up metal staples drilled into the rock face to the side of the waterfall.
But our sights were set even higher. Before you reach Col du Tourmalet you enter the ski resort of La Mongie, which is the gateway to the Pic du Midi observatory. The foundation stone for this astonishing feat of engineering was laid at 2,877m in 1878. Now 140 years on, the collection of observatory domes and huge communications mast, is a remarkable place to visit and marvel at.
A family ticket is €98 (included in the all-inclusive family roadtrip itinerary cost) and it is worth allowing enough time up there. There are cafes and plenty of things to do - including walking out along a 10-metre pontoon to stand over nothing but thin air - so you can easily lose a good few hours. Make sure you take a hoodie or jacket - even in summer it can be cool at the top and we arrived into thick cloud that made it even chillier.
It is a very popular destination - we arrived at around 2.30pm and faced a queue of just under an hour at the cable car station La Mongie. So be prepared for a wait to get up. But the 360° views across the Pyrenees are worth it. We were amazed to discover you can also stay the night and stargaze, plus ski down from the observatory in winter - both activities now added to our family to do list!
Back in the car it was time for the drive up and over the Col du Tourmalet. We happened to be there less than a week after Chris Froome and the rest of the Tour de France peloton had scaled it on their bikes. There was a steady stream of amateur cyclists making their slow and steady way up to the Col and at the pass itself the tour markings were all still visible - with fans’ having daubed their favourite riders’ name on the baking tarmac. Among the paintwork was one less than welcoming message for the Team Sky riders - Sky go home - it read.
The descent from the Col was breath taking. We passed the redundant chair lifts of the Grand Tourmalet ski area, which had only grazing herds of cattle for company, as the road wound its way down to the valley town of Argeles-Gazost...and the promise of more adrenaline tomorrow.
DAY FOUR - ARGELES-GAZOST
Our base here was Hotel Les Cimes a family-run, traditional lodgings with friendly and helpful staff. Online reviews suggested the hotel has quite a reputation for its food. The dinners were sumptuous - high quality presentation on the plate with wonderfully fresh flavours in the soups, mushroom tarte and fish mains. Les Cimes was one of those traditional French hotels we have always driven past wondering what they are like to stay in. So we are really glad to have stopped this time and found out.
Argeles is a brilliant base as there is so much to see and do within short drives from the town. One of these is in the direction of Cauterets, in the heart of the Pyrenees National Park. From here you can access the waterfalls around the stone bridge of Pont d'Espagne. There's a car park nearby, leaving only short walk to the bridge and its impressive cascades.
But our focus was on more action. We were booked in for a rafting session with Gaves Sauvages on the Gave du Pau river. We travelled a 5km stretch of river over the course of two hours. The river level was pretty low but for Seb and Ollie, who haven’t done rafting before, it was an easy and gentle introduction to white water.
Nothing more than grade two in the rapid sections, but enough to get splashed and churned about in the eight-man raft we were in. Also the calm stretches of the river were perfect for sliding off the raft into the cooling water to float along in our buoyancy vests enjoying the scenery. It also gave the boys a real sense of how fast flowing mountain rivers are.
Our guide Sebastien was great fun too - a professional competition kayaker who now owns his own kayak shop down the river in Pau.
He had a good sense of humour and reeled in the various children onboard with his straight face comments of not knowing what he was doing as we steered towards a frightening looking weir! Right paddle, left back paddle he cried frantically (and jokingly) so we narrowly missed rafting over the weir, which had a three metre drop the other side. Instead we went backwards down a canoe shoot on the left hand side of the weir, to everyone’s relief and delight.
DAY FIVE - HAUTACAM
One the morning of our departure from the Hautes Pyrenees we headed up for one last thrill-seeking activity - an hour or so riding Deval scooters. The location was the ski slopes of Hautacam - a small self-contained ski area that in summer is festooned with herds of horses, sheep and cows ringing their bells as they graze the pistes.
We were meeting our guide Lionel Fort of Mont N Roll by the roadside picnic tables just outside Artelans Soulin, one of those classic hamlets on the road up to Hautacam. Leaving our car there we jumped in Lionel’s red van that was towing a trailer full of what looked like scooters on steroids.
These deval machines come complete with full disc brakes, front suspension forks and fat off road tyres. Our route back down to the picnic tables was part road, part grass and part steep rocky paths through the trees. Riding the scooters was terrific fun - up there with canyoning as our favourite activity of our family roadtrip in the Pyrenees. Once you are descending and balancing on the footplate, it is really easy to get a feel for the brakes (remembering the rear brake in France is on the right handlebar) on the easier road and grass sections.
Mastering your balance and when to brake and when to let the scooter freewheel was essential for the tricky narrow downhill paths towards the end. Here you need soft knees, a determination not to brake too much and a little bit of courage. Looking forward to anticipate the rocks and best route down was also important - spend too much time looking down at your feet or the front wheel and you will soon be in trouble.
Nine kilometres and 800m vertical metres later we were done with the scooters and with our short Pyrenees Family Roadtrip.
For four and a bit days we dipped our toe into what a Hautes Pyrenees family roadtrip can offer. We discovered amazing drives, spectacular scenery, exciting activities and attractions, but most of all a warm and friendly welcome. Throughout our roadtrip we got revved up but also found relaxation. We loved the experience and as a family we are determined to return for more.
FACTFILE: An eight-day summer Pyrenees Family Roadtrip experience starts from £2,700. The price includes eight nights in chambres d’hotes and hotels on a half-board basis. Plus activities such as mountain scooter descent, quad-bike ride, family entry to Balnéa spa centre, canyoning in Spain guided by an experienced instructor, rafting, a visit with the shepherds or tree-top adventure park and via ferrata, Pic du Midi by cable car, guided horse-riding, guided e-biking, a pass to Cauterets-Pont d’Espagne (parking, cable-car ride from Puntas and chairlift to Lac de Gaube), 20 mountain bob descents and entry to the Pyrenees Animal Park. At this price, for a family of four it works out to be £84 a day - which we think is pretty impressive value for money.