Skiing in the French Alps is so spectacular that it’s easy to overlook all the other ski resorts in France. The Pyrenees are the obvious and very attractive alternative, but not the only one.
Les Angles in the Pyrénées Orientales, once a simple farming village, has become a much-loved ski resort for people living in Perpignan, Toulouse and even Barcelona. David Mias, the resort’s Communications Manager, is genuinely enthusiastic about it. “Because the village is at 1,600-2,000 metres and the top peaks are only at 2,400 the pistes run between the trees, making it very beautiful. It’s almost like Canada in that respect. It’s very pretty, pedestrianised and, because Les Angles is on a plateau, the whole village is ski-in, ski-out. All the pistes are accessible from the heart of the village, where all the accommodation is situated. Also, we are blessed with the climate, we have sunshine all year round and we get lots of snow. So you ski in the sun.”
Clearly, David is one of those blessed with a job he loves. Just below the village is a large lake which provides endless activities for visitors, all year round. “Underice diving (‘la plongeé sous glace’) is very popular during the winter season, as is dog sledding,” he says.
Les Angles has 65kms of downhill pistes, a fully-equipped surf park, a zone for free-riders, and the learner slopes are close to the village and accessible on foot, so families can watch children learning to ski. It also has hot sulphurous baths and a zoo containing wolves and bears which can be seen playing in the snow.
“Increasingly, people enjoy snow holidays with a range of activities rather than ski holidays, pure and simple. We offer all sorts of other outdoor activities, cinema, and of course lively nightlife.”
The Pyrenees is home to Catalan culture so you can expect lots of cheese, meat, charcuterie, and home-made jams. And instead of tartiflette, you’ll be seduced by baked Camembert served with potatoes and charcuterie.
“We’re not interested in providing skiing on an industrial scale,” says David Mias. “We’re a little bit out of the way, and don’t get coach parties. We have 56kms of downhill pistes and our snow ploughs and snow canons work hard to maintain them all season. We offer a fully rounded mountain experience. Visitors only ski on four days out of six, and usually for only five hours a day. We have all sorts of other free activities and it is a very authentic experience, family orientated.”
One example is the communal barbecues. “We have picnic rooms in the mountains, where you can leave your coldbox in the morning. Then you go off skiing, while we light the massive barbecue and make sure it’s ready for lunchtime, so skiers can come and barbecue the contents of their cold box for free. You won’t find that in the Alps!”
Laurent Garcia, from the Peyragudes Tourist Office says the main difference is the proximity with Spain. “The Spanish influence is evident in the warm welcome, and especially in the gastronomy! You’ll find Spanish bodegas and tapas as well as cassoulet and duck. And we have a long tradition of thermal spas built using natural hot water springs.”
Off the beaten piste
If the Pyrenees are not on your doorstep, there are smaller ski stations dotted across the country, many of them only known to locals. The advantages of seeking them out are numerous: it is low-key, lift passes are cheap and you can take a picnic lunch. There is no pressure to wear top brand sports clothes, use new equipment or even know how to ski. As for looking trendy on the slopes, arriving in a Porsche, or having to duck the paparazzi, forget it. You’re more likely to end up discussing cheese-making with a local farmer.
One of the least known is right down south in the Gard, a convenient drive from either Montpellier or Nîmes. Prat Peyrot (on Mont Aigoual, Massif Central) is situated just a couple of kilometres above the traditional Cévenol village of l’Espérou. The station rarely opens before Christmas, but when it does, the cottage ski industry springs into action like dessert flowers blooming in the rain.
You will find no coaches or souvenir shops, but a bright selection of equipment hire shops facing the tobogganing slopes. Hire prices are blissfully low, and up the hill, you’ll be pleased to find that the full price adult lift pass is a modest 20 euros per day. It is not the Alps; there are no black runs, just a couple of dozen red, blue and green slopes, many winding between the trees. The Chamonix dare-devils would be bored rigid here. There is no loud pop music, no DJ sets, but you can snowshoe across the slopes to inspect the Mont Aigoual weather station.
At lunchtime, people open their cold-boxes or cram into the noisy, cheerful self-service cafeteria for massive plates of chips. And once the lifts are closed for the day, you might be able to find a drink in l’Espérou but it’s not certain because most people hit the road straight away, leaving the ski station peacefully dreaming in the snowy night.
Another resort right slap bang in the centre of France, Sancy (also in the Massif Central) is within driving reach of Bordeaux, Paris, and Lyon and has three interlinked ski stations (Mont Dore, Super-Besse, and Chastreix-Sancy) which offer 100kms of downhill pistes.
Snow isn’t always guaranteed, however, which means there’s an incredible range of other activities on offer, including Nordic skiing, snowshoes, fat bikes, ice-climbing and fun snow villages for all the family. You can also do dog-sledding, ice-diving of even try fishing through a hole in the ice, Inuit-style.
All of these resorts are great value, less crowded than the Alps, and can be booked last minute when there’s been a good snow dump. Because they are easy to get to, they are ideal for a skier who wants to go regularly for a long weekend – and there are half-day and two-hour lift pass deals, which make it possible for people living nearby to go skiing just for the day, or even just for the afternoon!