What else can you do in a ski resort that doesn’t involve skiing – apart from going to town on the local culinary fare? Yes, I know it’s what most people want to do when they head for the slopes, but it’s also fun to have an afternoon off and explore the surrounding area.
When it comes to the white stuff, the Alps and its world famous resorts tend to get all the press, while the Pyrenees – and resorts such as Cauterets – simply do their thing season after season, welcoming visitors from Spain, France and other countries all year round.
And I can testify that this understated but well-rounded resort is definitely worth a look, especially if you like the sound of a mild, Mediterranean climate, enviable snow record and the Le Cirque du Lys ski area, a natural bowl with 40 kms of runs and 11 cannons for guaranteed snow all season.
The weather when we visited in March was simply stunning, in fact it was almost too hot – to ski anyway. To put it in context, the last time I hit the slopes (in Switzerland) it was -18c, this time round it was a balmy +18c.
Cauterets is an elegant Belle Epoque style spa town that’s not your average commercially tinged resort; there’s not much nightlife, just a few good restaurants and brasseries, sitting alongside mainly hotel style accommodation.
Our base for the weekend was Le Lion d’Or, a characterful, family-run hotel with an excellent reputation and just 100m from the main ski lift. Built in 1840, the minute you arrive you feel at home, and the rooms are traditional yet equipped with all mod-cons, including speedy wifi.
While the breakfasts are fantastic (dine outside on the patio when it’s sunny), I also recommend booking a table at the hotel for dinner – the food is local and plentiful, the wine flows freely and you’ll be treated like a family member.
Another great place to dine of an evening is La Cabane du Bois Joli (4 rue de Verdun, 65110 Cauterets) – this gem of a restaurant features wooden decor adorned with cosy sheepskin rugs, as well as traditional food and wine, local specialities and friendly service.
For those into ski / spa breaks – or even if you are just into spas, a must visit is the Bains du Rocher. Along with the obligatory in/out pool with its naturally heated thermal water, therapeutic jets and awesome mountain views, upstairs there’s a treatment space with a comprehensive menu and therapists who are skilled but don’t speak much English (just saying).
I enjoyed a facial and seaweed body wrap, which sorted my skin and aching muscles out following a day on the slopes. It involved lying on a heated bed that got rather warm; however the wrap is quite cold in places so you may want to be toasty. There are also yoga classes throughout the week. Day tariffs start at 17 euros.
Continuing the wellness theme, a rather unique treatment can be found nearby, but you may want to skip this bit if you’re squeamish…
The latest buzz in the area is the Bee Mindfulness meditation courses founded by Catherine Ballot Flurin, a pioneer of organic beekeeping in the Pyrenees and the owner of 1.6 million plus bees.
This slightly bonkers meditation ritual, suitable for all the family, involves sitting with your hands smeared in honey, while the bees forage for nectar. The idea is that you listen, learn and focus on your breathing, feeling the vibrations of the bees. For more information, visit www.ballot-flurin.com.
Cauterets may be small but when the sun is shining, it’s a delight. Grab a table for lunch at one of the village cafes and soak up the Vitamin D and the atmosphere. We enjoyed a croque monsieur al fresco at Le Royalty, which is opposite the main square and a great place for people-watching.
One afternoon we slipped on our snow shoes for a guided walk in the stunning and prestigious Pont d’Espagne, which was once a passage through the mountains into Spain, and is a short drive from the village. Verdant green forests, waterfalls, fields sprinkled with wild flowers and of course lots of fresh, crunchy snow to walk in, this is a must when visiting Cauterets.
Many local and indigenous species are protected in the Pont d’Espagne, thanks to the area boasting National Park status, and during our walk we spied – with the help of our guide’s zoom camera lens – the remains of a hoofed animal, two wild boar foraging and eagles a-plenty.
So don’t worry if you’re not big on alpine sports, there’s so much to do in and around Cauterets during the winter that bombing down a mountain is certainly not obligatory – although you’ll probably be unable to resist the lure of all that snow…
Pyrenees Collection (0844 576 0176) offers the 3*boutique hotel Lion d’Or from £74pppn on half-board basis. For more information on the area www.lespyrenees.net and www.bains-rocher.fr for spa details.