One adventurous couple share their passion for the great outdoors in the Pyrénées
When dreaming of a mountainside holiday in France, most people imagine spending a week or two in a cosy chalet, deep in the Alps. However, when it comes to mountain holidays, while the Pyrénées do not get as much attention as their more famous rival, it is their authenticity and unspoilt nature that led Penny, 53, and Andy Walker, 45, to choose this as the location for their adventure holidays.
The outdoor-loving couple decided to move to France in 2007; something that had long been Penny’s dream. “The idea of living in France had simmered away in the background of my life for years,” she explains. “When I met Andy in 2004, he soon bought into the dream. We were living in Sheffield at the time, and city life just wasn’t suiting us. Moving to France, with its lower property prices and so much more space meant we could afford a more relaxing lifestyle somewhere truly beautiful.”
However, it took the couple a few years to find their forever home; when they first moved, they overestimated the appeal of living in a remote location, setting their sights on an idyllic cottage at 800m altitude in Ariège.
“We made the mistake of buying in haste,” explains Penny. “The area we chose was beautiful – perfect for a holiday let – but wasn’t practical for day-to-day living or for the activities we found we wanted to do.
“I now recommend to those considering a move that they rent for a while first, just to get a real feel for their chosen area – to see what the realities of living there might be. There are always things you haven’t considered.”
TIME TO RELOCATE
Eventually, in 2012, the couple moved to their current location in the Comminges foothills of the central Pyrénées. “This time we thoroughly explored the area and rented for a while before buying and knew it was just perfect for us. We are 25 minutes from both the autoroute and the mountains so have the best of both worlds,” says Andy.
Here, the pair settled on a traditional stone farmhouse, in need of “some serious updating” and have taken on most of the work themselves. “We thought we’d be a bit further ahead with renovations by now,” admits Penny. “But what with work, our own sporting activities, we’ve little time to spare. That said, we’re making small improvements all the time.”
At the time of their move, the pair were running a booking service for B&Bs in France – ‘Stopover Connections’ – set up by Penny in 2000. “Starting the site gave me the chance to work remotely from any location,” she explains. “This flexibility brought me a step closer to my dream of moving to France.”
In fact, Penny’s site was one of the first reservation services for holiday accommodation on the internet. And when computer expert Andy joined Penny’s venture in 2004, the site went from strength to strength. “Eventually, in 2007, we felt we were generating enough income to move to France,” says Penny.
As they’d hoped, the pair were able to run the business for the first few years, while living their personal dream of an active, outdoor lifestyle in their free time. However, when the market became flooded with similar sites, the couple began to review their options.
“We still run the booking company,” explains Penny. “But we wanted to add another string to our bow. As well as having concerns about the flooded market and the impact it might have on our business, we also felt that because we’d lived in France for nearly 10 years, we had something extra to offer.”
“When people come on holiday, it’s difficult for them to know all of the opportunities that their chosen location might offer, let alone coordinate a trip on which they can both relax and engage in some serious adventuring. We set up ‘The Adventure Creators’ to provide the support and organisation that people need to make the most of their precious holiday time and have a really unique and exhilarating experience.
“We’re both very outdoorsy people – which is one of the reasons we moved to Pyrénées in the first place,” adds Andy. “Before we came, we were already seasoned climbers and fell runners, rode mountain bikes and hiked. Having lived in the Pyrénées for nearly 10 years at that point, we were now also keen on winter sports such as skiing, snow-shoeing (hiking with specially made snowshoes which enable faster progress through deep
People should really consider the Pyrénées. They’re wilder, more authentic, less populated and more accessible”
snow). We wanted to share our love of the activities available in our area with others.”
Another factor that prompted the formation of their new company was the fact that the Pyrénées are often overlooked in favour of the most famous of France’s mountain ranges. Having fallen in love with the mountain range, Penny and Andy were keen to encourage others to visit and discover its delights for themselves.
“Everyone goes to the Alps,” explains Penny, “but people should really consider the Pyrénées. They’re wilder, more authentic, less populated and more accessible. There’s a strong mountain culture with song and dance traditions, as well as an amazing array of wildlife from rare bearded vultures to a population of 37 brown bears!”
Those looking for a mountainside adventure might also be tempted to the Pyrénées by the comparatively low cost of staying and eating in the area. “I’d estimate the cost of a meal out here is about half that of the Alps,” says Penny. “Here you can get three courses with coffee and wine for about €15 a head.”
With Andy acting as “IT guru”, the pair soon set up a company website and, with existing knowledge of local guides, began setting up adventure holidays for customers of all ages and abilities. “As our service is bespoke, we can add in any activities people fancy trying, whatever their fitness level and whatever appeals,” explains Penny.
Since the business started, both Penny and Andy have also had the opportunity to try out new activities with their qualified guides. “Living locally means we can develop proper relationships with the guides we use – and only employ people who are properly qualified, insured – and, importantly, great at what they do,” explains Penny. “Our customers can be confident that guides offer the expertise and knowledge they need to experience something new and enjoy it to the full.”
Although she doesn’t lead tours herself, Penny often accompanies customers when possible, both to better inform them about the realities of an activity and to look after existing guests. “It’s great because I get to try new things, which also helps me to recommend sports and activities to customers. Plus, it’s good fun!” she says.
“Another sport I’m keen to try is the ‘airboard’ – a Kevlar-coated inflatable cushion with handles. You lie face down and literally fling yourself down a ski slope, steering it with your body weight. It’s very popular with teenagers, and there’s no great level of skill required – fantastic fun!”
As well as their bespoke ‘multi-activity’ packages, the couple have now developed a range of different holiday experiences to suit a variety of tastes.
“We now offer guided hiking holidays, horse trekking in the mountains, mountain biking, river sports and ski touring to name just a few,” says Andy. “There really is something for everyone.”
For those who enjoy a gentler pace of life, there are also more relaxing activities available. “There’s a lot of underground thermal activity here,” explains Penny. “There’s a system of underground cave galleries in Luchon from which the only natural hammam in Europe, the Vaporarium, has been created. Our clients also love the nearby Balnéa spa pool centre, with whom we have agreed special rates.”
Perhaps the only problem with the pair’s idyllic lifestyle is the fact that their thriving business means they have less time to spend on their own sporting activities. “We try to get out quite frequently on our bikes, go hiking in the mountains and take part in winter sports, but when things are flat out, our own adventures go on the back burner,” admits Penny.
“However, simply living in this beautiful location – with our Border collie, Taff (who is probably the happiest dog in the world) is an adventure in itself. It’s early days for our business, but we both have a real sense of excitement that it’s really going to thrive.
“Seeing customers experience something new, that they may never otherwise have tried, is a real thrill.”
“We now offer guided hiking holidays, horse trekking in the mountains, mountain biking, river sports and ski touring to name just a few”
Left: Adventure Creators offers mountain biking holidays Above: Penny and Andy’s home Below: The couple enjoying dining outside
Below: Hiking in the Pyrénées is a thrilling experience
Above: Penny is a keen cyclist
Traditional Pyrenean singers
The rugged beauty of the Pyrénées
Above: The Vaporarium (natural hammam) in Luchon