Nestled in the heart of the midi-Pyrenees, and just two hours from Spain and Andorra, lies the picture-perfect French spa town of Ax-les-Thermes. Comprised of three ski areas in the Ariege department (les Campels, le Saquet and Bonascre), it's an ideal place to experience great skiing, hiking, wellness treatments, night skiing, sumptuous food and even a treasure hunt.
What to do
Ski of course! Choose between 36 ski slopes, more than 80 km of trials and kiddie, beginner and freerider slopes. If you're visiting out of season, you're still spoilt for choice. At the time of visiting, the ski season hadn't officially opened, so we donned our walking boots and hiked along the well-marked trail towards les Campels. There had been a light powder fall the day before - not enough to ski on, but plenty enough to build a snowman and have a snowball fight.
The views from the town and atop of the mountain are breathtaking, (as is the climb), but there are plenty of comfortable road-side picnic areas provided for when you need to rest. Just remember to take along a packed lunch: out of ski season, only a handful of shops and restaurants are open. Refill your water bottle from the flowing streams, fresh from the source.
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Where to stay
Hotel de Chalet is situated on the banks of the Ariege and smack bang in the town centre. With panoramic views of the Teich thermal park and the river, it's an ideal location if you want to be at the heart of the action. Rooms cost from 60 Euro. (logishotels.com/en/hotel/hotel-le-chalet-3269)
If you prefer to cook your own meals, or are travelling with children, so your night-time adventures are limited, try the Domaine de la Vallee d'Ax (booking.com; +33534145822). With an outdoor pool, view over the mountains and a well-appointed kitchen, you've got all you need for a comfortable stay.
Where to eat
There are many restaurants dotted around the main square of the town. We ate our body weight in baked Camembert at Le Grand Cafe, (1 Avenue Delcasse, 09110, Ax-les-Thermes, Tel: 33 5 61 64 67 16) a restaurant straight out of a French movie, complete with chandeliers, indoor and outdoor seating (heaters are set up in winter) and carafes of local wine.
Off the tourist track, head over the bridge and around the corner to La Table du Sud-Ouest (8 Rue Rigal, 09110, Ax-les-Thermes, Tel: 33 188.8.131.52.31). Extremely friendly service and excellent value for money, a delicious three course meal costs around 14 Euros (children's two-course menu 10 Euros). The owners are immensely friendly and helpful; they even opened their doors outside of trading hours after taking pity on our starving expressions.
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After a hard day's skiing or hiking, head to the recuperative thermals baths in the town centre. While the skiing in Ax is not to be missed, people have originally been travelling to Ax for centuries to cure their ills in the thermal waters. Originally used by the Romans, the mineral water is claimed to treat rheumatism, skin diseases, and other maladies.
A large, airy building, there's two outdoor heated pools, and one large indoor pool, complete with fountains, jacuzzis and hidden areas (be aware of the amorous couples taking solace in these corners!). The indoor baths are based on ancient Roman practices: a frigidarium, a caldarium and a vaporarium. Upstairs, and off-limits to children, are a sauna and steam room, which is accessible from both indoor and outdoor pools. Treatments are also available if booked in advance.
Cost: From 17 Euros for two hours. Children aged 5-15 years must be accompanied by an adult. 14 Euros for two hours. (Visit bains-couloubret.com for opening times and prices.)
Don't miss: If your feet are throbbing after a hard day's work, head to the town square, slip your shoes off and slide your feet into the newly opened thermal foot spa. Tourists and locals alike mingle here in the early evening, before heading off for an apres ski.
Vallees D’Ax Tourist Office. Open every day during the winter season, 08:30 – 19:00. Telephone: +33 561 646060. Visit ax-ski.com
- Closest airport: Toulouse-Blagnac (120 km).
- Train: SNCF railway station in Ax-les-Thermes. Direct rail connections with Paris, Toulouse and Barcelona.
- Autoroute: A62 then A66 to Pamiers. Road: N20.