Standing at the top of a gentle but inviting couloir, I watch my guide, Pascal, a former member of the Belgian ski team, link neat turns in the spring snow.
Dropping into the chute behind him I take turn after turn, delighting in the perfect pitch of the slope, blazing sunshine and easy skiing. There has been no significant snow in the days before my visit, but we have spent the entire morning off-piste popping off little cliffs and drop-offs, skiing stretch after stretch of spring snow — how apt that it happens to be ‘International Happiness Day’.
But this delightful skiing and expert guiding isn’t in Val d’Anniviers or Chamonix but Arcalis in Andorra, a country once more commonly associated with serious partying than serious skiing.
The irony is that I had to virtually drag myself here — loaded with preconceptions and hearsay, the prospect of skiing five days in this small, duty-free country sandwiched between France and Spain in the Pyrenees had not filled me with joy.
More fool me. Arcalis is a gem; a small area that shares a lift pass with, and is linked by free bus to, the more beginner areas of Arinsal and Pal. Arcalis has no accommodation at its base, which helps keep the crowds down and I didn’t queue for one lift all day. But that might change soon…
Already on the map for skiers ‘in the know’ for its El Dorado Freeride competition, now the Freeride World Tour has also announced it will be holding a stage here next February. Off-piste, cliffs, couloirs and the world’s best freeride skiers and boarders? All this is certainly a turn up for the books and proving my preconceptions very wrong.
Rewind two days and I wasn’t so sure. Being a bit of a ‘discerning skier’, Andorra has never been top of my list. And as I checked into the four-star Princess Parc hotel in Arinsal, my heart had sunk. Queuing for the hotel restaurant buffet was a group of lads clutching bottles of beer, their faces bright red from skiing in the sunshine without using sunblock. In the event, no drunken behaviour materialised and my fears were unfounded.
The next morning, the mere sight of some serious off-piste skis in the hire shop lifted my spirits, as did the spectacular views from the top of the mountain — not to mention the equally stunning value of the €1 coffee I enjoyed on a cafe terrace.
Arinsal and its linked area of Pal don’t have extensive skiing — just 63km — but the snow coverage is good, both from natural means and artificial. The lift system is modern too, making it perfect for intermediates and beginners, a market for which Andorra has always been known.
What’s more, as part of its drive to bring back a quality British clientele, Vallnord, the company that runs the mountain, has employed 50 per cent English-speaking instructors, with one dedicated to customer service.
Sold on Soldeu
Everywhere I go, people want to impress on me how Andorra is changing, and although Arinsal has a nice atmosphere, and I experience no rowdiness, I’m not completely convinced until I experience Arcalis and then Soldeu, Andorra’s biggest and most upmarket resort.
Eleven years ago, the lift company Grandvalira linked Soldeu-El Tartar and Pas de la Casa-Grau Roig, creating the biggest ski area in Southern Europe. It has now encompassed Canillo and offers 210km of pistes.
Pas de le Casa still caters for the party crowd and, by keeping them there, Andorrans hope Soldeu can punch its weight internationally. Yes the resort is not pretty, set on a steep hillside and spread along a sometimes busy road and yes, it still contains an Irish pub, but after two days’ exploring, even I’m sold on its worth.
Several quality restaurants have opened in the past few seasons, such as the Sol I Neu and Cort Popaire, which serve traditional Andorran and Catalan fare, and Spanish tapas bar Taverna de la Iaia. A handful of new hotels have popped up too — most notably the five-star Sporthotel Hermitage with its huge spa and recent membership of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group.
The ski area is set across the narrow valley from the town, and has benefited from heavy investment in the past few years. With more than 200km of linked pistes, Grandvalira ranks up there with the likes of Ischgl in Austria and Les Arcs in France.
The week before I arrived, in March 2014, Soldeu hosted the FIS European Cup Finals, and for the past two years it has hosted European and World Cup ski racing. In 2017, it hosts the FIS Ski World Cup. The benefit of this for ski punters now, is that as a result of pitching for this business, Grandvalira’s lift system is modern, quick and efficient and snow-making covers 65% of the pistes.
Last year was the second vintage year of snow in a row for Andorra, and the week I visited, there was so much of the white stuff that the lift map at Espiolets was almost buried. But despite the week recording the highest temperatures of the season — a consistent 18C each day — the grooming was immaculate.
We didn’t come across any rocks or bare patches during our journey to El Tartar then Campillo via the stunning ‘rossinyol’ run, taking a peek at the new freeride area from the top of Pic d’Encampa before heading up to Coll Blanc. From there you can peer over to Pas de la Casa and the border with France.
The pistes were uncrowded and offered easy skiing, with some lovely long runs — the highest spot is 2,560m — and although the sunny temperatures forced us to stay on-piste, my guide Gordon Stand pointed out various hotspots for powder hounds.
By early afternoon the south-facing slopes were becoming sugary, so we stopped for a breather and ridiculously thick hot chocolate in the Restaurant del Llac des Pessons in Grau Roig.
Last season the Granvalira ski school set up a Freeride Centre, buying a range of fat skis and avalanche equipment and employing 10 mountain guides to run off-piste courses for more experienced skiers.
Add to that the food and accommodation options and it all begins to stack up to a seriously attractive proposition. Just hopefully not to the lager louts of the early naughties, when it cornered 14 per cent of the British ski market.
The Andorrans put a stop to that era themselves: “Bars were made to close earlier and it became an offence to be drunk in public,” explains Fiona Dean, Honorary British Consul in Andorra.
And it seems to have worked, with the Andorra that I discovered deserving to be taken seriously by the discerning skier. The locals are friendly, the food is good — and good value — and some of the skiing is clearly world-class. The fact that you have to search a little to find it is half the fun.