Andorra has long been favoured by tourists from Britain for its skiing holidays. DAMIEN NOWICKI jumps on his snowboard to discover some fine slopes and spectacular scenery.
My expectations of a good snowboarding trip are dented when I arrive in Barcelona to find the skies are clear, it’s a balmy 18C and I’m beginning to sweat furiously in my winter coat. I may be a recent convert to winter sports, but Andorra is just a few hours away and even I understand that snow plays an important part in the whole process.
We’ve driven only a short distance north from the Mediterranean coast to the Pyrénées when the terrain begins to change. Suddenly the road passes through a tunnel and, as if we passed through some hidden portal dreamt up by Enid Blyton, everything has transformed. In this hidden valley, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, all the ski gear suddenly makes sense.
Arriving in the principality of Andorra feels something like entering a secret country. As we work our way through the narrow passages that punctuate this strip of mountains on the border of France and Spain, it becomes easier to understand how the people who choose to make their homes here have been able to maintain the principality’s independence since it was formed in the 13th century. Roads, churches and homes are crammed in, and it’s hard to imagine just where the national rugby and football teams find the space to play.
There’s plenty of space on the top of the mountain, though, and before long we’re putting all that gear to good use. Skiing is, unsurprisingly, the national sport and children are encouraged to take it up with very cheap lift passes and free equipment hire.
Andorra is most definitely a country that revolves around the travel industry and winter sports. Despite having a population of only about 60,000, it has an extra visitor accommodation capacity of about 35,000. Taking into account all the Spaniards who keep apartments in Andorra, or who stay with friends and relatives, it is estimated that the population doubles throughout the peak ski periods.
Andorra has long been a favourite destination of British skiers, accounting for almost 15% of the island nation’s market. The principality’s popularity was built largely on the back of its close proximity to the UK, reliable snow but mild climate, enthusiastic nightlife, highly affordable prices and budget accommodation. In recent years, a massive programme of investment by the resorts has begun to challenge the ski-field’s reputation for modesty.
The various locales, which for many years were busy competing with each other, have been wrapped together thanks to some large-scale investment, creating three super-sites: Vallnord in the north-west, La Rabassa in the south, and the largest, Grand Valira, in the east. Recent developments at Grand Valira are even set to make it possible for you to ski right over to the French border. If you want to keep going, just make sure you remember to take your passport.
Meanwhile, good transport links, including the Funicamp railway to the Pas de la Casa area, have reduced travel times, faster ski lifts have cut back on waiting times and more luxurious hotels have attracted a more discerning clientele. But while Andorra is no longer the cheapest ski resort in Europe, it has been able to remain affordable thanks to its unbelievably low taxes. You won’t necessarily save a lot of money on your accommodation or ski pass, but one area where Andorra is almost impossible to beat is the bargains to be had in its shopping precincts.
With tax rates far lower than the rest of Europe, perfume, jewellery, clothes and electronic goods are at bargain prices. And that’s not to mention the cheap cigarettes (each carton is bundled with a ‘gift’ that is worth the cost alone) and alcohol (expect to pay little more than €5 for a bottle of premium vodka). The only thing stopping you from returning from your trip with truly unhealthy quantities are the customs limits at the border.
Grand Valira is easily the largest of the regions and features more than 193km of groomed terrain from six key access points. There were, at last count, 108 marked runs, two terrain parks and a mogul stadium. A ski pass system that has been unified in recent years means that for a single fee you can now have access to the whole resort, including Pas de la Casa, Grau-Roig, Soldeu/El Tarter and Canillo/Forn.
If your accommodation isn’t quite on the mountain, it’s still very easy to get to the resort town of Soldeu thanks to an 18-minute trip in what is claimed to be the longest gondola ride in Europe. From Soldeu, take the gondola for a five-minute trip over some breathtakingly steep black-rated slopes and a view back to the enormous series of hotels that face the mountain.
There you arrive at Espiolets, a big, beautiful flat stretch some 2250m up. With a good range of eateries, from cafeterias to first-rate restaurants, and pleasant views over the gentle snow-covered hills in all directions, this is a good place to rest and refuel.
For a relative newcomer to the sport such as myself, this section of Grand Valira had a perfect range of runs. The flat stretches at the central base of Espiolet are an outstanding place to fine-tune your technique or to take some lessons. The long, wide green slope was within close range of all the facilities, not at all crowded and was well serviced with button and rope lifts.
Even better was the enormous range and variety of blue intermediate pistes, whether you prefer the wide and open spaces and amazing views near the top of the mountain at Tossal de la Llosada, or the windy, tree-lined runs down the front of the mountain, opposite the bases of Soldeu and El Tarter.
There’s also plenty here to offer the more advanced boarder, with black and red runs in abundance and three snowparks, including a 120m half-pipe. At the very least, there’s something rather satisfying in cruising across a narrow bridge right up to the very front of the spa and hotel complex at Soldeu.
• For more information on winter sports in Andorra call + 376 805 200 or see www.skiandorra.ad.