With 40 km of downhill pistes Cauterets far from the biggest resort in the region, but there was plenty to keep me, Alex and my “very competent skier” children happy for a couple of days.
The main ski area is in the Cirque du Lys above the town, accessed by gondola and ranging from 1730 metres to 2450 metres, with stunning views. It’s also home to France’s longest magic carpet (350 metres – and pretty whizzy) so it’s brilliant for beginners. There’s also an Oakley Freestyle Park – one of only two in France – with a distinctive O-shaped rail as well as jumps and more conventional rails. The kids loved the jumps – I love the difference in their style – Toby – slick – Livi – windmill. Still, if I did it, it would probably be me – broken leg again.
The weather had been pretty warm when we visited but despite this, the slopes were beautifully groomed (albeit a little slushy by the end of the afternoon) and there were next to no bare patches. Cauteret prides itself on having very few snow cannons so what you are skiing on is almost always real snow.
There are a couple of simple, very reasonably-priced cafes at the top but no accommodation or even a ski hire shop – all of that is in the village. We had a “formule” burger lunch at La Tartinerie for around half the price we’d paid for sandwiches on an Alpine glacier a couple of weeks earlier. There’s also a safe, segregated sledging area with its own magic carpet so you don’t even have to walk back up.
A separate area above the Pont d’Espagne has 36.5 km of cross-country ski trails and 6km of snow-shoe trails, a 7km drive or shuttle ride away. There’s a refuge in this area for people who want to take a real trek and spend the night.
Cauterets is a world away from the purpose-built 70s tower blocks often found in French resorts. Originally a spa town, much of its architecture is from the Belle Epoch era and immaculately restored and maintained, and there’s also an old wooden station.
The Bains de Rocher spa is now “thermoludique” rather than medical – it has indoor and outdoor naturally-heated thermal pools with massage jets and various jacuzzis, as well as an upper floor with a sauna and large hammam. Children over the age of 6 months are welcome – they even provide arm bands – but despite this it was calm and relaxing when we visited on a busy Saturday. Children are also not allowed on the upper floor.
We stayed at the Lion d’Or, a quirky, very friendly hotel which has been run by the same family since 1913. It’s close to the centre of town and the main gondola with a little bar, a table d’hote restaurant and lovely old skis, ices-skates and antique wooden objects dotted around the place. Breakfast includes homemade cakes and jams. Prestige rooms are ideal for families as they have a separate sitting room which can be converted to sleep up to two children – it even has its own TV.
The town has pretty streets with the usual ski resort shops to browse as well as several selling berlingots – artisanal boiled sweets which were originally made to take away the sulphurous taste of the water for those who were in town to take a cure. Today they come in a wide array of flavours and colours and some shops run tastings and fabrication demonstrations.
There’s a wide variety of restaurants in the town – as well as a fantastic table d’hote menu at the Lion d’Or one night we also ate at Le Royalty, a family-friendly brasserie in the historic and recently renovated Esplanade des Ouefs. Service is quick, the kids loved the mocktails and the food ranges from pizzas and burgers to traditional dishes such as tariflette, followed by a huge array of crepes and ice creams. And just outside, there’s an antique carousel.
For bad weather days there’ an ice rink, a cinema and a newly renovated pool.
Cauterets is easily accessible from Toulouse (around 2 hours 40 minutes’ drive) and a lovely resort for a bit of weekend ski and spa, or an entire week for beginners.