With a legal drinking age of 16, duty-free shopping and rock-bottom package deals, it’s little wonder the ski resorts of Andorra earned a reputation for getting on the piss rather than pistes.
In the past eight years, though, the Pyrenean principality sandwiched between Spain and France has thrown £110m at its mountains. Swanky new lifts connect previously divided ski areas, snow parks are good enough to attract freestyle events sponsored by the likes of Burton and an emphasis on grooming and snow canons meant that, even in the middle of Europe’s recent snow crisis, much of Andorra remained open for business. And the best news of all? It’s still relatively cheap.
A little history
According to legend, the land of Andorra was originally given to its residents after they helped Christian soldiers make safe passage through the Pyrénées. Eventually, the Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia (the first language of Andorrans is still Catalan) gained power and the country became a Princedom. After much dispute with France a power-sharing arrangement was agreed upon in 1278 and today Andorra has two princes – the Bishop of Urgell and the French head of state, President Jacques Chirac.
Thanks to its isolation, Andorra has a fairly quiet history. The country remained neutral during World War II and only entered the United Nations in 1993, when its co-princes ceded power to a prime minister. Attracted by the country’s mountains and duty-free status tourists have been supplementing the local population (today, 73,000) since the 1950s and tourism remains the lynchpin of the economy.
Three seasons ago, ski resorts Pas de la Casa-Grau Roig and Soldeu El Tarter realised they’d be stronger together and joined, creating the sixth largest ski area in Europe. The resort of Canilo has also come to the party, and there’s another access point to the area from the town of Encamp, thanks to a new gondola (the longest in Europe – it takes 17 minutes to get to the top). Though top of the range, with runs – wide and sweeping, narrow and tree-lined – to suit everyone, the focus on skiing and snowboarding has not come at the cost of what happens after. Pas de la Casa, just by the French border, is dubbed the party resort, and Soldeu more than holds its own – rowdy Fat Alberts and the more mellow T-bar come recommended.
A brand new 1.2km-long tunnel has made access to Andorra’s other ski area much easier this season, adding to the introduction of a lift pass that covers both the Arinsal, Pal and Ordino-Arcalis resorts. The first two are joined by a cable car and, generally, Arinsal is regarded as the ugly sister to pretty Pal, though Arinsal boasts the highest vertical drop in Andorra. It’s a short drive to the attractive Ordino-Arcalis area, but more than worth the effort if you’re an experienced skier or snowboarder. The runs here are the toughest in Andorra and the off-piste possibilities seductive, particularly if you can afford the services of a helicopter. Arinsal is the heart of the nightlife, with favourites Rocky Mountain Bar and Surf.
Worth a look
Andorra La Vella
The capital of Andorra doesn’t link to the slopes, but it’s a haven for those who prefer to shop. The booze is duty-free so you can pick up a bottle of Finlandia vodka for a fiver and low tax on consumer goods means the likes of Zara and Mango are cheaper. Designer goods are heavily discounted too.
When you’re shopped out, head to Europe’s biggest thermal spa – the one that looks a bit like a futuristic cathedral – to unwind. Inside you can choose between a grapefruit pool, Turkish hammam, Roman baths (complete with a plunge pool so cold you won’t struggle to heed the 30-second maximum) and more, while outside in the lazy river or rooftop jacuzzis you can watch the steam rise off the water, half obscuring the building’s looming glass and metal spire. •
• For more information contact Ski Andorra (+ 376-805 200). The Ski Andorra pass (€157.50-€168) allows visitors to ski in all of the resorts for five days. The nearest airports are Barcelona and Toulouse.