“Blue skies and sunshine, fields of sunflowers, watermelon, shrimps and saucisson, picturesque mountain scenery and lazing on sandy beaches.” These were some of my lasting memories of a summer staying with my French exchange, Laurence, in South West France thirty years ago. When we saw the list of destinations being offered by the newly launched Pyrenees Collection we wondered whether to stay in the mountains, by the Mediterranean or on the Atlantic Coast. In the end we decided to visit all three destinations!
Our adventure began in Portsmouth taking the overnight Brittany Ferries crossing to Caen. The advantage of this crossing is that it gives you an early start in France on empty roads. The drawback is the short night’s sleep on the sea. Just as you are settled into a deep snooze in your cosy bunk, it is sunrise and the Brittany Ferries wake up music is playing!
A reunion in Montauban and the journey to Saint Lary
We opted for a scenic drive to the Pyrenees via the Dordogne. On the second day of our journey we had a happy reunion with Laurence and her family in Montauban, near Toulouse, and enjoyed a lovely French lunch of many courses. Laden with gifts of regional wine and homemade paté we were off to our first destination, St Lary.
For those who love mountain scenery but not the windy roads with precipices that sometimes come with it, St Lary is a perfect choice. It is an easy drive on a straight road from the motorway exit to the village, which has a pretty historic centre with a range of cafes, restaurants and shops. We stayed in Residence L’Ardoisiere, in a quiet location at the edge of St Lary, where you can sit on your balcony taking in the mountain views whilst listening to the sound of the river rushing by.
Saint Lary and Loudenvielle spas
Being a spa addict, it had not escaped my attention that the Pyrenees are well known for their thermal baths. We warmed up with the Sensoria Spa in St Lary village which is family orientated and consisted of a lazy river with Jacuzzis, bubble beds and massage jets. We then moved on to the amazing Balnea spa at Loudenvielle. During our two hour visit we enjoyed trying many Jacuzzis and massage jets with the children, in the large pools open to all. Then it was time to venture out into the sunshine to relax in the warm adult only Japanese baths whilst listening to tranquil music.
The Roman baths centred round a superb steam room. From there we plunged into the frigidarium before moving on to another set of atmospheric Jacuzzis. On another visit to Loudenvielle we took a pedalo out on the Lac de Génos and spent time at the Ludeo open air pool and waterslide.
Pic du Midi Observatory and Les Grottes de Medous
One of the highlights of the week was a cable car ride up the Pic du Midi from La Mongie which is around an hour’s drive from St Lary. The two stage cable car ride up to the Pic du Midi Observatory at 2877m was very smooth and the mountain scenery was stunning. At the top we took in the panoramic views and visited the laboratory museum. We also enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the reasonably priced restaurant. We asked the waitress if she knew of any good caves in the area and she recommended Les Grottes de Medous near Bagnères de Bigorre.
On arrival at the car park for the caves, our first impression was that it was a slightly eccentric set up in the grounds of a rundown chateau. As I reached the ticket desk, I was amused to hear the French employee whistling Jerusalem! We followed our guide into the caves and were pleasantly surprised to find some fantastic stalactites and stalagmites. When we were at the deepest part of the tunnel, the guide said the stalactites would only fall in the event of an earthquake and apparently there are occasional mild earthquakes in the region!
The famous town of Lourdes is also easily accessible as a day trip from Saint Lary. We were glad to have the chance to visit some of the churches within the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes and it was fascinating to see the large number of pilgrims there. We also took the funicular railway up the nearby Pic du Jer from where there are lovely views of Lourdes and the surrounding countryside.
After experiencing beautiful scenery, culture and thermal spas in the Pyrenees, it was time to leave for our next destination, the Mediterranean coast. As we drove along “L’Autoroute des Deux Mers” south of Toulouse, I was pleased to see there were still plenty of sunflower fields. Realising that the historic city of Carcassonne was only a couple of miles from the motorway, we decided to stop there for lunch. We were able to park just outside the medieval city walls and once inside the fortress, the first restaurant we passed, Maison Pech, turned out to be a good choice. The menu included delicious salads, omelettes and pizzas and the most extensive list of speciality teas. Some members of the family enjoyed going round the castle and taking in the views from the high battlements, whilst others pottered round the cobbled streets, listened to Spanish buskers and explored the shops.
Cap d'Agde (Mediterranean Coast)
We then drove on to the Mediterranean resort of Cap D’Agde in the Languedoc Roussillon region. Having enjoyed a stay in Cap D’Agde with Laurence’s family all those years ago, I was keen to go back there with my children and to take them to the Aqualand water park, which had been the highlight of my previous visit. We stayed in a semi-detached villa at the newly built Residence Nakara, situated on the edge of town and a short walk from a pleasant sandy beach. The complex included an outdoor pool and a superb restaurant.
We were fortunate to pick an unusually quiet day for our visit to Aqualand. Whereas we had expected to relax on sun loungers whilst the children hurled themselves headlong down steep slides, we were soon unable to resist joining in the action. We braved the Black Hole and the Rapids and then found ourselves being led backwards down the plug hole on the large Tornado slide. We all had a great time and the children insisted on returning for a second visit.
Biarritz (Atlantic Coast)
Whilst the main attraction of the Mediterranean coast was the sandy beaches and warm shallow waters, we were keen to spend a few days in Biarritz on the Atlantic coast to experience proper waves and sunsets. Biarritz still retains its air of elegance and we were pleased to discover that our comfortably furnished apartment at Residence Haguna was only a five minute stroll from the famous Grande Plage. As we walked towards the beach and passed the historic Hotel du Palais, the outdoor restaurant looked most enticing for a romantic evening meal overlooking the sea. We were quickly brought back to reality by the children reminding us that all they wanted to do was paddle in the sea and have a takeaway pizza on the beach! Later on we enjoyed a drink in a smart beachfront café whilst taking in the most spectacular sunset.
Biarritz had an exotic feel during our stay with temperatures in the high 30s. The locals became even more exuberant and impatient on their “motos”, and teenagers were jumping off high ledges into the sea to cool down. We headed to the Vieux Port to Restaurant Le Corsaire which was recommended by Pyrenees Collection. The set menu was excellent value and we all enjoyed meals of freshly caught fish followed by home-made chocolate mousse. Some members of the family then climbed the lighthouse to see the amazing views at the top, whilst others opted to take the leisurely “Petit Train” ride round the local sights.
As we reached the end of our stay in Biarritz, our minds turned to the journey home via the Santander to Portsmouth ferry crossing. Whilst we’d remembered our second red triangle for driving in Spain, we had forgotten to post our cards with French stamps on, resulting in an immediate detour off the motorway at St Jean de Luz to find a post box! The drive in northern Spain took us through the foothills of the Pyrenees and a series of tunnels near Bilbao before a short journey along the coast. Whilst we had planned to visit Santander, once we were within sight of the only ferry to England for a few days, we opted to stay in the port to ensure we didn’t miss it!
Santander to Portsmouth on the Pont-Aven ferry
The twenty four hour crossing on Brittany Ferries Pont-Aven was a fantastic experience and certainly one we hope to repeat. Once we had waved goodbye to Spain and explored the ship, we headed to Le Flora Restaurant for dinner. As we were taken to our table, we passed the extensive seafood and dessert buffets and kept our fingers crossed for calm seas. We watched night fall over the sea whilst we had our meal and we enjoyed listening to the on-board pianist, who could just be heard over the sound of happy chatter in the restaurant. As we paused at Le Fastnet bar for a drink, we heard a familiar tune and noticed our son had decided to take a cheeky turn at the grand piano, receiving a round of applause at the end.
There was a full programme of entertainment taking place elsewhere on the ship including a magic show and singing. Other on-board facilities included a cinema and a small pool. In the morning we went back to Le Flora restaurant for the breakfast buffet. Later on we enjoyed relaxing on the deck in the sunshine, watching the Isle of Wight come into view.
As we entered Portsmouth Harbour, we asked our daughter where she’d like to go next summer and the reply was: “The Alps, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean and Biarritz followed by a two week cruise.” If only!
For more information on family summer holidays to the French Pyrenees, please visit Pyrenees Collection's website, email email@example.com or call the friendly team on 0844 576 0176.