August 2002: Andorra guide

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THE MOUNTAIN is extensive but Andorra has a reputation for being suitable only for beginners and intermediates. However, some Eu70m has been spent in recent years on upgrading the lift systems in all resorts, and piste-grooming is superb.

But it still draws the crowds. Because, apart from Bulgaria, which attracts 1,000 Irish skiers annually) Andorra offers the cheapest commercialised skiing on the planet.

First come noisy Spanish and more subdued French families from Barcelona and Toulouse. They are joined at Christmas and February half-term by their Irish and English counterparts dressed in whatever they have cobbled together for the trip.

They are attracted by three- and four-star hotels costing the same as a lift poass would in a plusher resort, with flights and transfers included. Even in high season a six-day lift pass and equipment rental, and tuition can be got cheaply.

Andorra is still our biggest skiing destination, followed by Italy and Austria. Visitors shop for duty-free bargains in a country which, in recent years, has developed a sexy image as indecent-Ibiza-on-Ice.

Teens and 20s from Toulouse descend on the resort at weekends for a cut-price release from the strictures of home life.

And then there are the 20-somethings who lay on the Balearic beaches by day during summer and lay up for the winter in Andorra.

Pas de la Casa together with linked Grau Roig is the biggest and best ski area. Its 33 lifts and 100km of piste are enhanced this winter by two new major lifts and a new cross-border circuit. But sadly, it is no closer to solving its dispute with neighbouring Soldeu/El Tarter. A lift link between the two does exist, but has remained closed for most of the past couple of seasons.

The rivals, who originally fell out over common land-grazing rights in the 18th century, still fail to agree on revenue-sharing in the 21st. But Soldeu has greatly increased its ski appeal by building a new eight-person gondola up to El Forn, as well as two new chair-lifts. At the other end of the tiny country, Arinsal has established a cable-car link to its second ski area of Pal.

For most of its beginners and improvers, the resort’s big advantage over many of its Alpine counterparts is its ski school.

Some 110 of its 170 instructors are native English speakers. There is no substitute for learning in your own language.

The technique taught is a sound blend of British, Canadian and New Zealand and it is imparted in a friendly manner.

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