News from the snow
Half a dozen of Andorra’s ski villages, including the best known resorts of Pas de la Casa and Soldeu, share a common ski area called Grandvalira. This is the name by which the ski resort prefers to be known – like a giant French resorts such as La Plagne and Les Arcs – one ski area with ,multiple base villages; however decades of being separate ski resorts mans many people still call the area by individual resort village names like Pas de la Casa and Soldeu. But however important the name may seem to marketing people, the reality is that the experience is the same. Whichever village you stay in you’ll have access to a very big ski area, indeed now one of the world’s 50 largest as well as the biggest in the Pyrenees, and with some of the planet’s most up to date lifts too. These now straddle the border in to France as well as taking up a large swathe of North Eastern Andorra itself. The different villages are of course of different sizes and have different facilities, but the lift pass issued at each covers the full ski area between them all. Andorra itself is a tiny duty free principality in the southern Pyrenees. It’s a country ideally suited to snowsports with its high snow sure mountains and almost Mediterranean. Its ski areas have seen constant development for many decades, growing from “Cheap and cheerful” in the 1970s and 80s to be increasingly sophisticated in the 1990s and since 2000 with modern lift infrastructure, ever expanding ski areas reaching world-class dimensions and resort bases moving up market. Grandvalira came about in 2004 when the previously fiercely competitive resorts of Pas de la Casa and Soldeu, which had spread their ski areas across the mountains to meet each other, finally buried the hatchet and became a single ski area – Grandvalira. It has six key bases or access points, including Pas de la Casa, Soldeu, El Tarter, Grau Roig, Canillo and Encamp. The largest of these is Soldeu which sits between Pas de la Casa and El Tarter. Soldeu is a typically lively, high value, friendly Andorran resort with a larger than average ski area. The biggest investor in skiing in the Pyrenées during the 1990s, the resort added a new eight seater gondola for the 1996/97 season and new hotels. Then for 1999-2000 the resort again made a huge investment with three new six seater chairs together with a second eight seater gondola. It continues to invest as part of Grandvalira today. Soldeu is a modern, dynamic resort set in dramatically picturesque surroundings. First rate for bumps and moguls - Soldeu is a regular venue for freestyle mogul comps. The base at El Tarter is more traditional and many visitors choose to stay in the town of Canillo, 4km (2 miles) down the valley which has the lion's share of the 'off slope facilities' in the area. Access to the resorts is simple with the Funicamp (mountain cable car) making the journey from Encamp, Andorra's most central village, in 14 minutes up to the slopes - a journey which would previously have taken four times as long on a winding mountain road. As well as being one of Andorra's most popular ski resorts Pas de la Casa is also a border town - the gateway into the country from France. The name Pas de la Casa (literally Pass of the House) derives from the days when all you would have found there was a shepherds' hut which served as a landmark for travellers crossing the River Ariege. Nowadays it is a busy border control manned by customs officers checking on the numerous visitors who come here either solely for the duty free shopping or to enjoy the variety of snowsports on offer. It is popular with the young French and Spanish too who frequently make the border crossing to enjoy the unrestricted nightlife in this unique Catalan snow-filled Tijuana. The skiing at 'Pas' was first developed in 1957 by Francesco Viladomat, a local businessman, it started with only one draglift and gradually grew with more lifts introduced every year. Until 1976 the station was on one mountain only, the Peak of Envalira; by the 1980s it had spread to Monmalus and the Peak of Cubil up to the area of Cercle de Pessons and the Cortals d'Encamp. Until the 1950's Andorra's economy centred mainly on the summer pasturing of sheep and cattle and the harvesting of tobacco, rye, olives and grapes while industry was limited to processing these products and the production of handicrafts. Since then tourism has taken over as Andorra's main source of revenue, exploiting its scenic mountains and recognising the massive potential for wintersports. Due to the lack of customs duties and low or non-existent taxes, Andorra has become an important international centre of retail trade attracting millions of shoppers from all over Europe to its duty free haven. The 1990's brought dramatic changes to Andorra and its massive financial investments have brought Andorra's sports facilities, both on and off the mountains, firmly into the 21st century.
Typically lively, high value, friendly Andorran resort with a larger than average ski area. The biggest investor in skiing in the Pyrenees during the 1990s, the resort added a new 8 seater gondola for the 1996/97 season and new hotels. A skiing link with Pas de la Casa and Grau Roig was completed in 1997/98 and has been subsequently improved. The two areas finally issued a joint lift ticket - Grandvalira - for the first time for the 2003-4 season. Investment for 2000 included three new six-seater chairs, immediately placing the resort in the world top five for numbers of this type of lift at the time. Soldeu is a modern, dynamic resort with picturesque scenery surrounding and the only ski area with ISO 9000 quality award status, a lot of competitions are organised each season and there are some first rate mogul/bumps slopes. The second base at El Tarter is more traditional.
The lift link to Pas de la Casa and Grau Roig opens up 200km (125 miles) of terrain best suited to intermediates. Expert skiers have eight trails to choose from and a drag lift serving the off piste terrain of Pic d'Encampadana. Here you will find a snowcat operation, unique to the Pyrenées, bringing off-piste powder to those who want it. It may be unique to the world in that the service is offered free of charge to lift pass holders without supplement. The resort announced a huge investment in new lifts and other infrastructure improvements for the millennium season. Soldeu built three new six-seater chairs all located to service the large snowfields above the treeline directly above Soldeu and neighbouring village of El Tarter. The lifts accessed 8 newly created trails (5 blues and three reds) adding 11km (6.5 miles) of terrain. A new quad, Les Solanelles also accessed some of these new trails and creates and also improves the link over to Pas de la Casa and Grau Roig.
An eight seater gondola links a third base village, Canillo, into the system, running from a base at 1500m up to 2100m where a new complex, El Forn, is being developed to include nursery school, ski school and restaurant. A quad then takes you further up to 2465m. A beginners area is also serviced by a short slow quad - North American style. The area also features a new drag lift and two new runs (blue and red). Soldeu's ski school manages heli-skiing excursions, snowcat and off-piste ski lessons if you need them and can also offer telemark and snowboarding tuition.
Slopeside day care and ski school for children is offered from the panoramic restaurants at Riba Escorada and l'Espiolet, unfortunately there's currently no facility for under threes. Children aged three to ten can join ski school which has friendly, multi-lingual teachers, specially trained to teach kids and with a good reputation for both professionalism and fun. Off the slopes the friendly family restaurants and the ice stadium and swimming pool complex at Canillo make this a good family choice.
Although not a gourmet's paradise, there are several dozen restaurants in and around Soldeu, mostly offering good value fayre and a mix of international flavours, including French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian and of course Andorran. For pizza the Fontanella is particularly popular and the Xalet Sol I Neu is well known for quality, service and value. Other good value options include Esquiador and Cort Popaire.
Pas de la Casa has an 60+ restaurants offering a variety of cuisine which is mainly Catalan, French, Spanish and English. Several of the bars serve excellent tapas. Tapas are a Spanish delicacy, they are like our starters and theres a huge variety of them. They can be made up from any type of meat, fish, or vegetables. Calamares, or squid as popular tapas, many people mistake them for onion rings until they taste them!
La Raclette is popular with couples looking for a quiet candlelit meal, the menu is varied and very reasonably priced. The Underground Bar is well recommended for its lively apres ski atmosphere and has a fast food restaurant as well. Later in the season when the mediterranean climate kicks in you should try a unique Andorran form of cooking - the slate barbecue; vegetables and meat are grilled on a large heated slate prepared with oil and seasoning. Most picnic spots have suitable cooking places set up, as well as tables and benches; the pine smoke gives the food an extra-special taste and greatly sharpens the appetite.
The most popular haunts tend to follow an Anglo-American theme with names like the Aspen Bar, Pussycat and Fat Alberts. The El Duc discotheque is one of five helping to keep the action going through the night, with the Piccadilly Bar especially lively with a different theme every night of the week.
With 30 bars in Pas de la Casa holiday makers are spoilt for choice. Something for everyone depending on whether you want to relax over a quiet meal by a log fire or join the non-stop party scene. The Milwaukee bar, Billboard, West End, Pas 83 all have a lively atmosphere with music and dancing. The Underground Bar seems to be one of the most popular but all the bars have very reasonable prices. Most bars have Happy Hours starting as soon as the lifts close.
There's a half pipe and boarder cross and an additional natural half-pipe. For first timers the separate beginners areas and specialist ski school offer an ideal combination to get you 'boarding.
Pas de la Casa/Grau Roig's snowpark and half pipe Coma III in the Grau Roig area in the main meeting place for boarders and this is also where the new high speed 6-seater has been installed. Andorra is a country which has been welcoming snowboarders since the sport began to take off in the 80s. Consequently, many of the major surf and boarder cross competitions are held here.