Finding mountains to ski on in Europe is not difficult. It is home to the illustrious Alps after all. Of course the Alps are where most dream of skiing, but Europe has another fantastic mountain range called the Pyrenees and some may argue that the Pyrenees offers a less crowded, less expensive and better family experience then the Alps. Having just moved to Barcelona, all I keep hearing about is the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees creates a natural border between Spain and France and there is excellent skiing to be had on both sides. Naturally, I have been anxious to experience the Pyrenees – on either side!
While chatting about ski vacation plans on Twitter, I happened to meet Penny from the Adventure Creators. We got to chatting, which led to an email where we chatted some more and then we even jumped on the phone. Penny has been living in the French Pyrenees for over 12 years and is an outdoor enthusiast and expert in the area. She invited my family up to explore the French side of the Pyrenees and she built us the ultimate winter adventure!
Bagnères de Luchon
Getting to the French Pyrenees took about 4.5 hours from Barcelona, but what an incredibly beautiful drive. The last half hour of the drive is up a windy mountain road which is where you actually cross the border into France (my son made us stop, so he could be in two countries at once). This road lead us to the small French town of Bagnères-de-Luchon or what most just call Luchon. Luchon is 2,000 years old and was made famous by the thermal baths that were discovered back in 25 BC. Over time the town became known as a spa village and attracted many important people and famous guests. Fast forward to the 1920’s when they opened up the Superbagnères ski resort with access to the top of the mountain, then by a small train and now a gondola.
Where to stay in the French Pyrenees
The small town of Luchon does not have large resort type lodging with the extra amenities you may be accustomed to if you are coming from North America. The accommodations are smaller hotels and a bit more modest, but what they may lack in amenities they make up for in history and charm.
The Adventure Creators secured us a family room at Hotel Aquitaine, which is just a few short blocks away from the main street with all the shops and restaurants as well as the Superbagnères Ski Resort gondola. The hotel sits right across from a small park where we could see the swans swimming in the pond and where we would take our dog for walks daily. Yes, the hotel even accepted our dog!
Our room rate included two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was a typical continental style breakfast with fresh bread, jams, cheeses, meats, fruit and yogurt. While we wanted to explore other dining options, we ended up eating dinner at the hotel more than we thought because the food was so fantastic! Not only was the food fresh, healthy and delicious, but the owner of the hotel was very kind to us and the service from his staff was excellent as well.
We enjoyed going down to dinner each night. It felt like going down to our own family dining room where our private chefs prepared our meal. Other guests joined us of course, but it was never crowded and we even sat at the same table each night. We brought a deck of playing cards to dinner to keep the kids entertained and all of us off our electronic devices, we felt right at home!
Skiing in the French Pyrenees
We visited two ski resorts while in the Pyrenees– Peyragudes and Superbagnéres. Our first day we headed to the Peyragudes ski station which was about a 20-minute drive from Luchon. It was a gorgeous drive.
We rented our snowboard gear at Peyragudes Sports with very little communication and a lot of hand gestures because we do not know any French, but the guys at the shop were very nice and extremely helpful. We spent the beginning of the day just getting our snowboard legs on and taking it easy, but once the kids were warmed up we found a nice run we all enjoyed and stuck to that most the day!
Since we were there a bit later in the season and the weather was so warm, the snow was not heavy, but I enjoyed having the sun on my face and the views of the mountains were gorgeous! We stopped for lunch and had the typical burgers and french fries while soaking up the sun on a nice terrace at The Mirtilles. This spot felt very much the same as any other North American resort. Families were taking a break, meeting up with their kids from ski school and everyone was kicking back enjoying a nice cold beer taking in the beautiful day up on the mountain.
We got to the top of Superbagnères by catching the gondola up which was a five-minute walk from our hotel, right in the center of Luchon. It was a long ride to the top, but once we arrived it was a short walk up to the rental shop where we picked up our gear for the day. Before we hit the slopes we sat and enjoyed some coffee and crepes, because when in France why not start the day with a Nutella crepe?
This area was swarming with kids and families starting ski school for the day. It is here where we found ourselves having lunch later as well. I felt the options for dining were a bit limited. We found our way over to a long run on the backside where we played for most the day. It was away from the crowds and had much better snow coverage.
Both resorts are extremely kid-friendly, but I preferred snowboarding at Peyragudes, mainly because the snow conditions were better and it also felt a bit more modern. There were also more dining options and places to lounge and sit. It was nice to just walk and hop on the Gondola for the Superbagneres, but I actually enjoyed the drive out to Peyragudes. On this route we were able to see a bit more of the countryside, and the small villages that are nestled in the hillside always fascinate me.
After talking with Penny about our trip, she learned that I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so she added winter canyoning to our itinerary. My husband is adventurous but the idea of plunging into a freezing rushing river and clinging to icicles was not his idea of a good time. Not me! I was totally up for this! The morning of my canyoning adventure I admit to being a little nervous, not about the activity itself but for the fear of being really cold. However, my fears instantly disappeared once we arrived at the river’s edge, because winter canyoning turned out to be more Spring canyoning conditions.
The morning of my canyoning adventure I admit to being a little nervous, not about the activity itself but for the fear of being really cold. However, my fears instantly disappeared once we arrived at the river’s edge. My winter canyoning turned out to be more spring canyoning conditions.
My guide was professional and patient as we suited up and he went over all my equipment and how to handle the ropes. I should also tell you that I have done some waterfall rappelling in Costa Rica. I’m not new to activities that require me to be strapped in a harness. I think my guide was happy that I was experienced and not really all that nervous. We descended down into the riverbed and then continued going over a few waterfalls, climbing over and navigating along the rocks, then eventually getting in the water and floating downstream. I was completely protected (and dry) from head to toe, the only part of my body exposed was my face and for a few moments I shut my eyes and felt completely free. My body just drifted, unattached from everything. It was beautiful. When we got to the end, I was a little disappointed, because I just didn’t want it to be over.
THERMAL SPA BALNÉA
Getting out to the Balnéa thermal spa was a spectacular mountain drive, but as you can expect, a bit windy. My daughter got a little motion sickness. Be sure to allow time to drive slow.
We decided to go a bit early and have lunch at the restaurant right on site, which I highly recommend. The food was absolutely delicious. When we arrived there was a long line to enter the spa. We thought the line might go down once we finished eating, but that was not the case. The line was pretty steady all day.
We waited in line for about 20 minutes to purchase our entry, where we received wristbands and towels. American board shorts are not allowed, my husband and son had to purchase their stretchy biker short like swim shorts to wear. Definitely not a big deal but something to know before you go.
Lockers are provided for free and there are no cameras or phones allowed. This rule is totally understandable, but also the reason I have no photos. The thermal baths vary in temperature and one side of the spa is for young families and the other side is for adults and children over the age of 12. The baths are mostly inside but there are two large pools outside, where the temperature gets hotter the further you go in and around. There is also the typical jacuzzi, saunas and even an ice room. The facilities were very clean and this was a great way to spend a relaxing day off the slopes.
Snakesledge and Airboard
On the last day, we were scheduled for one last activity, the snakesledge and airboard. I have never seen either one of these anywhere else that we have gone for our ski vacations! This activity takes place at the base of the Peyragudes learning area making use of the magic carpet to get to the top of the hill.
The snakesledge is a multi-person sled that connects your seats making a train. You can link up as many seats as you want, we saw one group have about 10 seats connected. The person in the front is able to steer and turn you in the direction you want to go. While we were enjoying the snakesledge we kept seeing people fly past us on the airboards, so my kids were anxious to give those a try!
The airboards are inflatables that you run with to start and then lay on your belly as it takes you for a fast ride down the mountain. I did not attempt this, as I stood by watching and taking photos!
Au Revoir Luchon
It took us (okay maybe me) about two days to really get into the flow and vibe of Luchon. It was a very different ski vacation experience than I am typically used to, but I ended up loving it for its simplicity and authenticity. It was a unique way to experience not only a ski resort, but a small quaint town in France, some incredible French food and the beauty of the Pyrenees mountains. I even got a run in, which let me see a different part of the town and even more of Luchon. Thanks to my marathon training (hence the run), I even stumbled upon some beautiful French chateaus.
Adventure Creators designed the perfect itinerary for us. I cannot tell you how nice it was having someone else do all the planning and scheduling for us. It was so nice to just show up and be told what to do! Usually I am the one who creates our family itinerary and schedule. It can sometimes suck the fun out of the trip. It was nice not having to worry or think about anything, each day was planned and beautifully structured for us. It was almost like our family had a daily challenge or task to do and when we accomplished it without any hiccups or issues it felt like we won the day!
The Adventure Creators creates year-round adventures so if you are thinking about summer holidays, be sure to check out their summer multi activity holidays which are a real hit with busy, time-challenged families who have active tweens and teens. Penny’s personal touch and local knowledge are what can make your adventures in the Pyrenees effortless!
Disclosure: Some of our activities were comped for the purpose of reviewing and we received a media discount on accommodations. As always, my opinions are my own. When they aren’t you will be the first to know.