For the past few decades the Catalan region of Andorra has been characterised as a downmarket ski destination with a wealth of tacky resorts, duty-free booze and budget hotels. In more recent times, however, Andorra has had a £100-million face-lift in the hopes of attracting a more affluent skier. I decide to give the tarted-up Andorra a chance. Worst-case scenario, if skiing in the Pyrenees doesn’t meet alpine standards, I can ease my sorrow with a glass or two of Rioja and nibbles of tapas.
Consequently, after five hours of travelling, via Barcelona, I arrive in Soldeu, the birthplace of skiing in Andorra and the highest inhabited village in the Pyrenees.
Go on, spoil me. I’m staying in Soldeu’s first five-star hotel, the Sport Hermitage, built in 2006 and already popular for its casual brand of luxury, prime position opposite the lifts and the four-storey spa. The décor of the hotel’s public spaces is contemporary, swathed in glass, and, at the same time, comfortingly traditional, with warm terracota and slate flooring, and resin-scented wooden panelling. I move hurriedly on to the spa, which boasts, among other things, 18 treatments rooms and a giant colour-changing pool. Here guests can enjoy a full underwater massage, finishing off with relaxation in the outside pool with a mountain view. The floor above is dedicated to saunas and steam rooms, and another floor up are Jacuzzis, with temperatures varying from 26 to 34 degrees C. I opt for a Mountain Spirit Revival massage, a bath slick with pine tree oil to tone the skin, and an aromatherapy massage with choice of essential oils. A bargain at £39 for an hour’s indulgence.
In my room, any residual stress lifts away, in the clean, calm space. There’s a separate living room and bedroom, and a Jacuzzi in the mammoth bathroom. Best of all is the balcony, a chance to inhale the crisp air and soak in the mountain scenery.
All that relaxing is exhausting and it’s time to do or die: I step out for a night on the town. Will Soldeu come up trumps or will the streets ring out with shouts of ‘lager, lager, lager’? Instead of drunken scenes of fisticuffs and stags wearing only a Christmas hat, I find a stylish, some might even say sophisticated, place to eat – the Sol i Neu restaurant. Only a few minutes away from the hotel, traditional dishes are plated up with Spanish flair, and the Catalan cream (similar to crème caramel) is a near earth-moving experience. The night ends in the vibrant The Villager, for a couple of digestifs.
After a legendary night’s kip, and several courses from the breakfast buffet, I am ready to don my skis and test Andorra’s slopes. This is only my third attempt, and the two planks I’ve been armed with are a tad unruly, but even I can see the potential for covering plenty of varied terrain in the Grandvalira area. The new 63 lifts-system links Soldeu and neighbouring El Tarter with the once rival resorts of Pas de la Casa/Grau Roig on the French border. There are 186km of trails and tree-lined runs to explore, and even some off-piste that you can access by snow cat (when the conditions are up to it). Excellent for beginners, with blue pistes winding back down to resort, there are also reds and some (easy) blacks for intermediates and cruisers. The top-notch park should keep any teenagers or Peter Pan types amused for the duration.
Although Andorra (like much of Europe) received a slating last winter for the lack of the snow, Grandvalira is one of the most snow-sure resorts in Europe, with north-facing runs keeping the slopes from turning into one big slushie. Grooming and a good natural snow record, along with 40 per cent snowmaking coverage help to keep you in the white stuff. I ride the Espiolets gondola to 2250m, over wooded trails. The nursery slope and ski school are located at the top, where I give myself a gentle re-introduction into the art of skiing – and falling. I pinch myself when I find the snow in good condition – largely thanks to the expanded snowmaking. The cherry on the cake is that the sun is shining, as it does for around 300 days a year. Sun and wind-burnt cheeks aglow, I head to Fat Albert’s, a cavernous pub, good for après-ski tipples and beats. As I sup my beer, I am already transported in my mind’s eye to the next bubbly soak back at the hote
Getting there: low-cost carrier Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) Stansted to Barcelona £100 return (December). easyJet (www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick to Toulouse about £150 return. British Airways (www.ba.com) from Heathrow to Barcelona. Transfers from both cities take 3 hours
High-end: Ski Wild Mid-range: Neilson (www.neilson.co.uk) Budget: Panorama (www.panoramaski.com)
Season dates: mid Dec-early Apr Vertical Drop: 2,560m-1,710m Terrain: 193km Snowmaking: yes Lift passes: from E34.50 per day, E182.50 for six days (low-season)
Eating/drinking: the town has a wide choice of places to eat – everything from takeaway to five-star silver service, and plenty of bars for the après ski. The nightlife is frenetic all season with popular venues such as Village Bar and Fat Albert’s.
Good morning: Bon dia Good evening: Bona nit Thank you: Gràcies Do you understand English?: Entén el l’anglès? I don’t understand: No ho entec
Highlight: Large ski area joins with Pas de la Casa resort Bummer: the hotel charges you £8 for use of flip flops – bring your own What’s new? In 2006/07 46 new snowmaking guns were installed, and an old chair replaced with a six-seater. Online: www.sporthotels.ad, www.skiandorra.ad