A little piste of heaven in Andorra

Our man (second from the left)
Our man (second from the left)

A friend of mine, who had never been skiing and was genuinely curious, once asked me: “What’s the big attraction of a ski holiday?

I mean, it seems all you do is wake up, eat, ski in the morning, have lunch, ski in the afternoon, go for après-ski drinks, eat and drink some more in the evening – and then sleep?

It’s hardly the best holiday ever.”

For those of us who are fond of the occasional sojourn to the slopes, here’s the big attraction: You wake up, eat a sumptuous breakfast, ski all morning on pristine slopes, have a spot of lunch, ski some more in the afternoon, go for après-ski drinks (and some of the best craic you will ever have), eat and make merry some more and, eventually, fall into the cosiest of well-earned slumbers.

And, in my opinion, it IS the best holiday ever, I told her.

She soon went on her first ski holiday and has become addicted ever since.

You see, that’s the thing about skiing; it’s all about the experience, and that’s difficult to gauge by just reading words on a page.

And, having spent years going to the Alps, I’ve only recently discovered the joys of skiing the pistes of the tiny principality of Andorra.

If you’re one of those ‘expert’
skiers – you know, the type that spend their free time brushing up on adrenalin-pumping acrobatics just in case 007 needs a stunt double in an upcoming Bond flick – there’s a chance you might get bored after a few days.

For everyone else – beginners, improvers, intermediates and really, really good skiers – you couldn’t pick a spot more perfect.

Andorra is the mysterious bit between France and Spain, high up in the Pyrenees, yet easily accessible from Barcelona airport. The tiny country only covers about 181 square miles and has a population of just 85,000 people (speaking mainly Catalan, for the multi-linguists among you).

Apart from the skiing, the country seems like some sort of utopia.

There is no unemployment, a virtually zero crime rate, and Andorrans have the fourth-highest life expectancy in the world. It must be down to the healthy life and all that time the fiercely proud locals spend skiing – but it could also boil down to the hearty and healthy grub available here, and the fact that its denizens know how to enjoy life.

It’s also a duty-free paradise for shoppers and, let’s face it, there’s not many of them left within Europe’s borders.

The country is a snowy paradise with over 300km of slopes and Grandvalira, with 210 kilometres of slopes in the north of the country, making it the  largest skiable area in the Pyrenees. There is also Vallnord, the family resort with 93 skiable kilometres, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. 

One lift pass now gets you access to Pas de la Casa/Grau Roig and Soldeu/El Tarter, so there’s no danger you’ll run out of runs to discover.

We stayed for a few nights in Arinsal, and finished off in Soldeu. Arinsal has to be one of the best resorts I’ve ever seen for beginners and improvers, with a slew of nursery slopes and green/blue runs to help you get going. In fact, I’m planning on bringing a gang of beginners there early next year.

Soldeu is slightly more upmarket and has a greater variety of runs for those more accomplished, but, whichever resort you choose, you won’t be disappointed with what’s on offer – and the sheer bang for your buck you get.

There is a seemingly endless array of pursuits to try in Andorra: snow walking, snowmobile rides, ski paragliding if you’re feeling a little adventurous, or you could always opt to stay in an igloo hotel (warm partner advised – or at least warm, fleecy PJs).

If that idea floats your boat, there’s the Hotel Igloo in Grau Roig, Grandvalira. This hotel, made entirely from ice, disappears in spring. The suites all have thermal sleeping bags and animal skin blankets, and there is also a jacuzzi and restaurant. If you can’t manage to get romantic with your better half here then don’t bother checking your pulse – you obviously don’t have a heart.

There is also the novel pursuit of husky sled rides. Those with a little more adventure can try ‘joring’ – which is essentially where huskies pull you along on your skis.

Airboarding is also a good option, where you zoom downhill while face-down on a blow-up mattress that you can steer. It’s guaranteed to end in tears… of laughter.

And then there’s the food. If you’re on a salad and Ryvita diet, your jaw will drop at the size of the plates of food on offer. But remember, you’re burning up all those calories during the day, so it’s guilt-free.

Andorran cuisine can be characterised as traditional mountain food, with top-quality ingredients from the mountainside or from local hunters, yet there is also a touch of innovation that makes typical dishes unexpectedly exquisite.

What really stand out on the menu are: mountain trinxat – a shredded cabbage and potato frittata with pork; escudella – a hearty winter broth normally reserved for special occasions; flame-grilled or stone-cooked meat; trout cooked any which way you like and quality Andorran meats with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.

As I said, it’s healthy, warming fare that you can’t fail to be satisfied with. The only problem is the deserts are just as good, and my trusty old salopettes aren’t getting any roomier.

Recommended eateries are Moli dels Fanals in Sispony, Restaurant Borda Popaire, La Llar de L’artesa and the superb Bar Restaurant Refugi dels Llacs dels Pessons – where we had lunch on a frozen lake. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but that seems apt for a restaurant.

I will freely admit, the craic in the Andorran bars was the best I’ve ever had skiing, bar none (no pun intended). Each tavern just seemed to be thronged with people who were up for some fun. The ones I visited on my trip totally lacked the pretence and one-upmanship that a lot of the bars in the ‘top echelon’ Alpine resorts reek of. No, going for a well-earned pint here was the pleasure it’s supposed to be.

We also visited an outdoor ‘ice bar’ one evening. It was super hip and trendy – but delightfully devoid of poseurs – featuring a packed crowd all head-nodding to the latest tunes. However, I’ll admit that, after an hour or so, I longed for the cosy surrounds and blazing fires of the aforementioned taverns. I’m not saying I’m getting old, but I’m not as young as I used to be.

We travelled with Crystal Ski – who recently won the Best Ski Operator award for 2015 – and they’ve come up with the brilliant Crystal Ski Explorer app, which lets you track your ski buddies, keep check on your own progress, offers you recommended routes and gives you snow reports and resort guides too. It beats relying on a crumpled up and soggy ski map while out and about on the slopes.

So, you might fancy a little pampering for your tired muscles while there? In Escaldes, the Caldea Spa Complex is Europe’s largest. It resembles some kind of futuristic cathedral, and it’s an excellent spot for a bit of soothing relaxation after your exertions. Fed by hot springs, its heart is a 600sqm lagoon kept at a constant 32°C.

There’s also lots of other pools, plus Turkish baths, saunas, spas and hydromassage. The whole lot is included in your three-hour entrance ticket.

I spent an hour in the maze-like pool alone, investigating the vast array of water-jets and gazing across the capital city while soaking in the outdoor heated pool it feeds into on the roof. 

All in all, I really can’t recommend skiing in Andorra highly enough. As my recently converted ski buddy remarked after their first foray to the slopes: “It’s like the ultimate playground for kids and adults alike.”

That about sums it up. So, go on, release that inner child. :

For all prices and information about skiing in Andorra and other resorts, just visit wwwcrystalski.ie

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