Rarely can a group of hardly more than a dozen skiers have seen such a welcome. It wasn't quite The Beatles returning from conquering the US, but there was a sizeable crowd of people on land adjoining the terminal at Huesca airport, halfway between Zaragoza and the Pyrenees; and a man did scurry across the airport apron to the arrivals area, struggling with a television camera still attached to its tripod.
Those of us who had flown in for a skiing holiday on the inaugural flight of the new, weekly service from Gatwick found it a bit perplexing. Should we expect to have microphones thrust into our faces? Would we be travelling on an open-top bus to Formigal, our ski destination? Were we properly dressed for a mayoral reception?
We needn't have worried. The media were there to welcome the aircraft, not us. Huesca's almost-new airport had already seen international arrivals, from Portugal; but our flight was the first regular service from a really foreign country. The news crews did discuss interviewing the British skiers about the flight, I was told later, but they thought there might be language difficulties. Too right. If they had approached the Wood family, their best bet would have been to talk to four-year-old Lily: having learnt a few words from the Spanish-speaking cartoon character Dora the Explorer, she is almost fluent by our pitiful standards. Instead, they interviewed some of the nine Spanish passengers from our Monarch flight.
Were they skiers? No. The Gatwick-Huesca service is operated by Monarch for a Spanish company, Pyrenair, which sells some seats on the aircraft, mostly in Spain. But Pyrenair chartered it on behalf of Aramón, the public/ private partnership that owns Formigal and a couple of other resorts in the Spanish Pyrenees. The new link is run primarily to offer clients of UK ski companies such as Crystal and Neilson much better access than well-known airports such as Zaragoza and Barcelona.
Aramón's investment in the flight is part of a concerted marketing effort to attract UK skiers back to Formigal, which was a steady seller in ski brochures in the 1980s and early 1990s and has since seen much investment. Does the resort have what it takes to satisfy UK skiers? Monarch's luxuriously empty Airbus, on which 23 passengers had the run of 150-odd seats, suggested not; but we were in Formigal, during Christmas week, to find out.
The resort has four ski zones, all lift-connected, running up a broad valley oriented roughly east to west. The skiing lies predominantly on north-facing slopes, which maintain their snow even during the sort of sunny, late-spring weather we enjoyed at Christmas. Nevertheless, the many ridges along the valley mean that one moves quickly from shade to sunshine (and back) on the higher slopes; and the lower slopes are sunny for much of the day.
The nearest zone to the largely purpose-built ski "village" of Formigal, and the largest of the four, is above the Sextas base. Here the main face offers mostly intermediate terrain, some of it fairly steep, though up at the top are some black runs which earn their rating primarily because of infrequent grooming and occasional, northern-aspect iciness. The nicest part of the zone is a dead-end stub of a valley which has several runs off drag-lifts that climb towards the south-east; quiet and snowy, it lacks nothing except trees – which are notably absent from Formigal's slopes, though they descend to 1,500m from a high point of 2,250m.
The nature of Formigal's topography is such that skiers can journey across the bases, starting from Sextas – whose main, eight-seat chairlift first heads along the valley and then does a sharp left turn, as if the engineer started work holding the plans the wrong way round – and continuing via Sarrios and Anayet to Portalet. This is not one of those ski areas where you go up and down the same faces; rather, you travel into the unknown, with the drop off each top lift-station promising something new below.
Only Anayet delivers much sense of place, because it has a substantial lodge offering all the normal facilities of a major lift-base, including the longest beginners' "magic carpet" that I have ever seen. Neither Sarrios nor Portalet (near the French border) are really more than lift stations. But right at the end of the journey – possible via blue, red or black routes – is a remarkable spot. At the top of Portalet's final lift, deep in the mountains, is a spectacular Pyrenean panorama, the rugged, brown mountains – their faces too steep to hold the snow – thrusting up from the white slopes.
There is plenty of time to admire the view, if you are unlucky. For this is the "bus stop" for an unusual ski-lift: a tracked vehicle that is used during the night to groom the pistes spends its days shuttling up and down a fairly gentle slope, towing two lines of skiers gripping long cables. I only had to wait about five minutes for it, but that was long enough to inspire gratitude for the endless loops of chairs that journey up most ski slopes. Unfortunately, the appreciation of the great natural beauty visible on either side during the ride was compromised by the diesel fumes emerging in front.
Marked on the piste map as "ski ratrak", this lift saves skiers from dropping to the valley floor on the route back, and also provides access to Pipos, a superb, narrow, winding descent rated as a red run. If you wait a few minutes at the top, to allow the 40-odd skiers dragged up with you to disperse, you can have this exceptional run to yourself.
Almost as exclusive is the Cabaña de la Glera, a charming (at least inside) mountain-hut restaurant alongside Pipos. The trophy restaurant of Formigal's slopes, it can accommodate just 18 diners inside. They are served a fixed-menu lunch which includes thick soup and salad, meats and hams, and a selection of desserts, all prepared by an engaging Argentine chef called Pedro Arieu. The four-course meal costs €45-50 per person, without drinks. For a more special occasion, the restaurant opens at night to cater for groups of eight or more, who are conveyed up from the Anayet base in a tracked vehicle. The cost of dinner is a bit special, too: €110 per head.
The skiing at Formigal passes muster. The area is small by Alpine standards, though with 137km of pistes, it is the biggest in Spain; and it is best suited to intermediates, though heli-skiing is available locally. Nevertheless, it is adequate for a not-too-strenuous week, and pleasant enough – except when 9,600 skiers hit the slopes, as they did on the Saturday after Christmas.
Formigal's problems lie elsewhere. The resort management has some curious Spanish practices. For example, the two lavatories at the busy Sextas base – whose lifts have a combined uplift of 6,400 skiers per hour – were closed on successive days for cleaning at the peak time, during lunch. This was no more than an irritation when the small lavatory upstairs was being cleaned; but when the main one downstairs was closed, leaving just a single cubicle for each sex upstairs, the result was a long, very uncomfortable queue.
The management lapses at our hotel, the Aragon Hills, were more extraordinary: how does a four-star hotel run out of butter for two days? Most problems could be attributed to the recent withdrawal of the hotel operating company; but there can be no excuse for a ski hotel failing to provide a single hook in its bedrooms on which to hang damp skiwear.
Those issues were not what made Stanley, almost three years old, say "I want to go to London" every day. His objection was that Formigal remains too Spanish for young British visitors. Restaurants – including the one in our hotel – open at 8pm, seemingly fine for Spanish children but two hours too late for ours. The staff at the nursery booked for him had equivalent language skills to ours: they spoke no English, he speaks no Spanish. Stanley spent 90 minutes in the nursery, and refused to go back. None of the kids in Lily's ski-school class spoke English. And, finally, the smoking ban doesn't work as it does in the UK. In the café/bars where we ended up eating the evening family meal, it doesn't work at all.
It does seem embarrassingly parochial to say that Spain has to change its ways to attract British skiers. But the fact is that we are spoilt by the ski destinations of France and Austria. We go in such numbers and spend so many nights (by comparison with the continentals) in the resorts that it is simply good business sense for them to have English-speaking staff who know we take milk in our tea. It will probably just take a rather critical mass of British skiers to start changing things in Formigal. Crystal and Thomson have 100 clients going there next month at half term. That should help.
Huesca is served by Pyrenair (00 34 902 106 400; pyrenair.es) from Gatwick.
Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256) offers a week's half board in Formigal from £499 per person in the three-star Hotel Nieve Sol, including flights from Gatwick to Huesca and transfers.
Aramón (aramon.co.uk), the owner of Formigal, is offering free ski passes for adults and children for the rest of this season, except at half term.
Formigal: 00 974 49 00 00; formigal.comReuse content