Most Brits skiing in the Pyrenees head straight for Andorra. But beyond the principality's duty-free delights are plentiful empty slopes and superb towns. Mike Higgins reports

I've long suspected that one of the decisive factors for UK skiers when choosing a winter holiday destination is cheap booze and fags. How else can you explain the fact that Andorra, the duty-free principality high in the Pyrenees, last winter attracted more winter-sports enthusiasts from the UK than the US, Canada and Switzerland combined?

Admittedly, Andorra's reputation as a downmarket and rather rowdy ski destination is outdated - you can, with a little effort, get away from the British party animals to find good skiing and improving facilities. But perhaps because of Andorra's notoriety in the UK ski market, much of the rest of the Pyrenees, from Barèges-La Mongie in the west to the Neiges Catalanes in the east, remains relatively unexplored by British skiers.

What distinguishes skiing in the Pyrenees? Perhaps it's easier to say what it is not. For a start, the range's mountain towns and villages bear little resemblance to the typical purpose-built mega-resorts of the Alps, with their winding lift queues, congested pistes, €10 hot dogs and bland, Euro-kitsch styling. Whether on the French or the Spanish side, Pyrenean resorts tend to be smaller, cheaper, less busy and rewardingly characteristic of the local region.

This may not be the case for long. The healthy second-home property market on the French side of the Pyrenees has, in part, ensured that the 400km length of the range is well served by the low-cost airlines: the airports of Biarritz, Pau, Toulouse, Carcassone, Perpignan and, in Spain, Girona and Zaragoza, are all within two or three hours' drive of the nearest resorts. A few British tour operators do provide packages to the Pyrenees, but perhaps the best way to experience the extent of the Pyrenean resorts is to organise your own fly-drive trip.

The Neiges Catalanes, for instance, in the Pyrénées-Orientales, is a charming network of nine stations an hour-and-a-half's drive south-west of Perpignan and centred on Font-Romeu. It and the neighbouring Mont Louis, complete with its own Vauban fort, are small, handsome towns.

The largest of the Neiges Catalanes stations, Les Angles, has just 30 pistes stretching over 40km, and if you spend more than a day at each station, you'll be repeating runs. But no station is more than 20 minutes' drive from the next and there are good, free parking facilities at most.

Each station has its own ambience: the gentle, ambling slopes of Font-Romeu itself suit families best; Les Angles offers the most variety; Puigmal is where the cool Spanish riders like to hang out; but my favourite is Cambre d'Aze, with its high tree-line and panoramic views of the valley below. Few of the pistes at any of the Neiges Catalanes stations are long or very demanding, but they are well maintained, with plenty of artificial snow cannons. And, unless you're there during the school holidays or weekends, they're deserted by Alpine standards. The cross-country skiing in the area is excellent, too, and there are some wonderful outdoor thermal baths 10 minutes back down the valley towards Perpignan.

As you'll swiftly discover, skiing and boarding in the Pyrenees, particularly on the French side, is at least a third cheaper than in the Alps: an adult's six-day, low-season pass for the Neiges Catalanes' nine stations costs €132/£90 (Val d'Isère, by comparison, is €193/£130). Gear hire, mountain restaurants and cafés are similarly better value. As for accommodation, to generalise across different areas and seasons is difficult - but between £200 and £300 will get you a week's B&B in a traditional, comfortable two-star hotel; expect to pay from £500 for a two-bed apartment.

These prices apply in the Domaine Tourmalet, the Pyrenees' largest ski area, with 99km of skiing over 69 pistes. Here, in the central Pyrenees, the area's main resort towns, La Mongie and Barèges, try to have it both ways, offering a considerable ski area while attempting to hang on to some local charm. La Mongie is modern and purpose-built, but up and over the Col du Tourmalet (of Tour de France fame), Barèges is quite different, a 14th-century spa town and the second-oldest ski resort in France.

Further down the valley and less enclosed than Barèges is Luz St Sauveur, a mountain town with a few perfectly good bars, restaurants and hotels. (Though it's probably apparent by now, it's worth emphasising that if your idea of après-ski is dancing on tables till dawn in your ski boots, the Pyrenees is probably not for you.)

You may have heard reports that the snow is not very reliable. Historically, this is true, as the range lies 500km south of the Alps and, thanks to its stronger sunshine record, the snow can turn to "Pyrenean porridge" come the afternoon. But last season the Pyrenees had the best snow in Europe, and its resorts have got off to a promising start this season, too.

Intermediates will find plenty to entertain them in the Domaine Tourmalet, which extends from 1,400m to 2,500m - again, there are plenty of red and blue runs through the trees, the tree-line being higher than in the Alps. Those UK skiers you do see will often be families or ski-tourers attracted by the nearby Pyrenees National Park, which also has some of the most attractive cross-country skiing in the range.

So far, so cosy and traditional. But do the Pyrenees offer a little glamour and excitement? Yes, if you're prepared to look for both. There is much challenging off-piste skiing and boarding in and around the Domaine Tourmalet, which is all the less busy for having a local rather than international reputation. Then, for connoisseurs of steep skiing, the 2,877m Pic du Midi above La Mongie is the starting point for several terrifying descents. A recently opened cable-car connects the resort to the summit, on which there's also an observatory - if you are going to come down the hard way, you had better be twice the skier you think you are and in the company of a qualified guide.

For a slice of an altogether different Pyrenean high-life, however, you should head for the resorts of the Spanish Pyrenees. In particular, Benasque and Baqueira-Beret offer all the fur trimming you could wish for. Each lies in the central Pyrenees: Baqueira, in the Val d'Aran region, is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Toulouse; and further east, up the Esera valley, Benasque is about four-and-a-half hours. Though the villages leading up to it are appealing, the purpose-built resort of Baqueira is nothing special.

By contrast, the tiny satellite community of Baqueira-Beret, five minutes up the valley, prides itself on its handsome stone-clad hotels and chalets, one of which is the bolthole for the Spanish royal family. Intermediates, again, will find its 104km of pistes over three well-connected ski areas (1,500m-2,500m) particularly rewarding; experts, too, will find the resort's rather polite clientele tend to avoid the area's three unpisted itineraries.

The ski area of Cerler (1,500m-2,630m), above Benasque, is equally well maintained and served by decent lifts, if smaller, amounting to 52km of none-too-challenging pistes. But Benasque itself is much livelier, attracting the yuppie sets of Barcelona and Madrid, and mountaineers. The boutiques, apartments and bars that line its wide streets are attractively clad in local stone. Benasque is also a base for exploring, in snow-shoes and with a guide, the nearby Parque Natural Posets-Maladeta and the Esera Valley, which lies beneath the tallest mountain in the Pyrenees, Aneto (3,404m).

Be warned, though - prices in Baqueira-Beret and Benasque approach Alpine levels (a day's ski pass in Baqueira is €39/£28). And that's the main difference between the winter resorts of the Spanish and French Pyrenees: the range is Spain's primary snowsports playground, whereas for the French it's still regarded as a poor cousin to the Alps. This, for the UK skier or boarder in pursuit of a less hectic trip, is no bad thing. You'd better get there quickly, though: there may not be much coverage of the Pyrenean resorts in either the mainstream or specialist ski press, but the Brits are beginning to arrive. As a pisteur I was chatting to a couple of years ago in Puigmal explained to me, the Brits are beginning to turn up. How did he know? Because, he told me with a grin, when picking up skiers who had had a bit of a tumble these days, he was having to use his English occasionally.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) offers the most services between the UK and the Pyrenees. It flies from Stansted to Biarritz, Pau and Perpignan; from Stansted, Nottingham/East Midlands and Liverpool to Carcassonne Salvaza; and from Blackpool, Bournemouth, Luton, Glasgow, Liverpool, Stansted and Nottingham East Midlands to Girona. Toulouse Blagnac Airport is served by British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), Flybe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com), easyJet (090 5 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk).

VISITING THERE

Parque Natural Posets Maladeta, Aragon, Spain (00 34 974 55 20 66; www.benasque.com/parque.html).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Domaine Tourmalet tourism (including Barèges, La Mongie, Campan), Haute-Pyrénées (00 33 5 62 95 50 71; www.tourmalet.fr).

Neiges Catalanes tourism (including Les Angles, Puyvalador, Formiguères, La Quillane, Font-Romeu, Porté-Puymorens, Espace Cambre d'Aze, Cerdagne-Puigmal), Pyrénées-Orientales, France (00 33 4 68 30 12 42; www.neigescatalanes.com).

Benasque tourist information, Aragon, Spain (00 34 974 551 289; www.turismobenasque.com).

Baqueira-Beret tourism, Spain (00 34 973 63 90 10; www.baqueira.es).

Cerler Tourism, Aragon, Spain (00 34 974 55 10 12; www.cerler.com).

French Government Tourist Office (09068 244 123, calls 60p/min; www.franceguide.com).

Spanish National Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk)

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