The ski is the limit in Andorra

The ski is the limit in Andorra

The idea of a skiiing holiday always left Michelle Darmody with a cold feeling. But an adventure in Andorra made her appreciate all it has to offer.

Each year, when it came down to it, I always chose a warm, adventurous holiday over skiing. 

Strolling on a sun kissed beach seemed more attractive than a cold mountain and an interesting food offering was always a factor in choosing a destination. 

I have visited beautiful Alpine villages in the clear, warmth of spring, hiking the green meadows after the snow had melted and the soft brown cows, with their clinking bells, had replaced the Après Ski crowd. 

A ski holiday just never featured; it was not something I thought too hard about. 

So, when the chance to take this ski trip with arose, I had to scramble to find warm socks, borrow ski jackets and search for something called salopettes.

Andorra is an unusual little country; it is a small independent principality nestled in the mountains between Spain and France. 

The principality mainly consists of three low valleys, it had a long tradition of goat farming until someone noticed the steep snow-covered hills were good for skiing. 

Now the economy is rooted in skiing, as Andorrans welcome an influx of winter sports enthusiasts each year. 

Today it is ranked among the top 15 countries in terms of quality of life of its citizens. The tourism industry is bolstered by the principality’s tax-free status. 

This means there is no duty on goods. As you cross the land border with Spain and start driving towards the capital, Andorra La Vella, luxury car dealerships, alcohol and perfume shops line the road.

This year Andorra hosted the skiing world cup. Before it began, they spent large sums updating the ski facilities, from lifts to snow machines. Now if the weather does not oblige the machines will keep the runs white. 

This investment makes a trip to Andorra an increasingly good choice.

There are several ways of getting to Andorra from Ireland, one of the easiest being through Barcelona, from there it is a three-hour drive to the border. 

As we got nearer our destination the branches of the trees were heavily laden with snow, dipping to resemble ferns unfurling and the countryside was increasingly white.

Soldeu, one of the resorts we visited, is very convenient, you are literally sleeping at the end of the run, which means there is a very short walk from your bed to the base of the lifts each morning.

The whole area surrounding Soldeu is called Grandvalira and there is 200km of skiing to be accessed with the one lift pass; 170km of these runs are deemed easy or intermediate, which makes it an excellent place for those not so steady on their skis; ie me. 

I did not get to bear witness to them but heard from others that there are challenging black slopes and engaging off-piste fun to be had further into the resort.

Andorra previously did not enjoy the same wealth as its neighbouring countries so does not have the picturesque, mountainside towns that France or Switzerland boasts. 

But what it lacks in charm it makes up for in convenience, the hinterland of each of the Grandvalira villages is surrounded with well serviced, confidence building slopes. 

The ski is the limit in Andorra

We visited in high season and after all the works that have been completed there were never any large queues for the lift and instructors had time to focus on the group as we tentatively ‘snow ploughed’ and fumbled about. 

For many the getting started was ok it was the stopping that was a problem. The best piece of advice I got on the first day was to look up, “you end up where you look, so if you keep your eyes to the ground you end up there”. 

The instructor was right so after holding my head up high and gaining confidence I made it down my first Green slope. It was a proud moment.

When you are on a skiing holiday it is nice to get well fed to replenish yourself after a day of strenuous exercise. 

Refugi de Pessons is an atmospheric restaurant located high in the mountains above Grau Roig, in a remote location by a lake. 

It generally serves lunch, but you can book dinner on request. Getting there at night is an adventure, guests are ferried up using a mechanical Ratrac, which is a huge cumbersome snow plough that trundles up through the darkened woods. 

The glowing light from the lodge at the top becomes visible as you rise through the mountain paths. On arrival a glass of wine and the smell of a wood fire were welcome. 

Oysters are a speciality and it serves some traditional Andorran dishes and excellent meats charred over burning coals.

Back nearer the base of the mountain, in Soldeu, is a restaurant called la Cort del Popaire, stepping through the door is like stepping into an old Alpine film set, it is intimate. 

I was imaging fondue and bulbus wine bottles encased in straw, the food was not far off, we were served hearty European dishes. 

The ski is the limit in Andorra

There is a large open fire on the back wall where you can see the chefs cooking. Normally they are very busy in the evenings, so it is best to book in advance.

There are your more standard self-service restaurants dotted on the slopes which serve up pizza and a buffet of carbohydrate heavy foods to sustain the hungry skier. 

There are also some champagne bars for a tipple, and with the tax-free status the branded champagnes are considerably cheaper that elsewhere in the Pyrenees.

As each day went by the instructor pushed our abilities a little more, encouraged us gently to become braver. 

I progressed to the Blue slopes and relished the challenges and the increasingly beautiful views as we took steeper lifts further up the mountain. 

One evening, satisfyingly tired, I took a trip to the Caldea Thermal Spa, in Andorra La Vella. It is ideal for a post ski soak to ease the aches and pains. 

It is said to be the largest spa in Europe and has Turkish steam rooms, Indo-Roman baths and outdoor lagoons. Pas de la Casa and Arinsal are two other villages in the region. 

Pas de la Casa is definitely the party town where bars will serve you buckets of beer and dangle you upside down as you drink. 

This is not my idea of fun, particularly after a long day of trundling down powder covered hills. I welcomed the quiet of Soldeu. 

Relaxing on a terrace with a glass of wine in hand, looking back up the slope, tinged with pink in the waning sunshine, as the last of the stragglers whip down to the base of the mountain, I thought skiing might be the holiday for me after all.

The ski is the limit in Andorra

Top tips

  • Andorra is not part of the EU in terms of data roaming.

  • Sunscreen is a must, even though it is cold, the glare from the snow and the fact that Andorra gets sunny days all year round, make it a necessity.

  • If you visit before Christmas, you can stock up on all your gifts in tax-free shops in Andorra La Vella.

  • Creches take children from 1 to 4

  • Chemists are well stocked and very reasonable.

  • Remember to bring your passport or id when hiring your ski equipment.

  • Helmets used to be the preserve of the experienced skier but now they are ubiquitous and advisable, you can hire them at any rental shop.

  • Although it is well signposted there is an app you can download to help you navigate the Grandvalira area.

  • Catalan is the official language but quite a few people also speak Spanish and you can get by with English.

    Michelle travelled to Andorra with operate a ski programme to the Andorran resorts of Soldeu, Pas de la Casa and Arinsal. Prices include return flights from Dublin with 20kg luggage allowance, return transfers, accommodation for seven nights on a half board basis.

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