Beginner skiers like to start small, the gentle slope, the uncomplicated lift, and the unsteady snowplough.
And they don’t come much smaller than Andorra.
The resorts dotted along the valleys suited beginners who liked their skiing undemanding and their drink cheap. Duty free status added to the lure. The accommodation was of a decent standard and the prices could beat everyone.
Andorra rested in its mountain stronghold, emperor of the green slopes and prince of the blues, as if the drowsy trans-humance existence it had enjoyed until the 1960s had been replaced by another, as the sleepiest slopes in the business.
It didn’t seem to notice while Livigno stole its nightlife status and Bulgaria stole its ski boots as the cheapie ski school for beginners. Then came a disastrous lack of snow in 2006-7 ( a heavy snowfall in April came too late to save the season). Revenue plummeted by 20pc. It was time to hit the panic button.
All has changed. Andorra’s resorts upped their game. High end hotels with spas and saunas began to pop up in the valleys of the traditional centres, Soldeu, Encamp, and Arinsal.
That was not enough, particularly as prices began to move faster than the facility upgrade. But the last four years have seen the tiny principality make its most determined reach for the clouds, with the linking up of 192 km of piste across the six sectors of Soldeu, Canillo, El Tarter, Grau Roig, Pas de la Casa and Porte des Neiges.
Nowadays you can ski across the French border and back, chair after chair, lift after lift, as the clouds disappear below you. It has an impressive repertoire of descents. The nearby French resorts will be linked up by 2011.
In Soldeu the sights are set on the family market. Beside the ski-schools and restaurant plateau you can bring a team of huskies for a spell binding run through the forests and return through the woods on skies with your newly issued husky driving license in your ski pants pocket.
Skidoo options are pleasanter, flatter, and less risky and circuitous than the options in surrounding resorts and elsewhere in Europe. Young children can rejoin their parents below after taking a gentler course down. In the Grandvilara 29km of slopes are graded for beginners, 135km for intermediate and 39km for experts.
Arinsal has a less comprehensive link up, but one that will bring the average family beyond the entry level of former years, as they descend to Pal and remount the gondolas or take the bus back to their resort. Here 19km of the slopes are graded for beginners, 35km for intermediate and 9.5km for experts. Nearby Arcalis, reached by bus and skiable on the same lift pass, offers a higher proportion of slopes in the principality graded for the expert skier, 14km in all.
This is the new Andorra. Except that the old Andorra lingers in people’s minds. The number of ski visitors from Ireland went into decline, those from Britain halved, and it took a fire sale (if that is the appropriate word amid the snowflakes) in the 2007-8 season to fill the empty plane seats and beds.
The 2008-9 season will be a test of how well Andorra can get its message across.
The Andorrans had two ingenious devices to avoid their getting involved in any of the great scraps that caused cannon (of the gunpowder rather than snow variety) to roar in the valleys below. One was granted by God and the movements of the earth’s crust, virtually inaccessible mountains that lay snowbound for much of the year.
The second was to have two princes share sovereignty, one a Bishop in Spain and the other the ruler of France, originally kings, then emperors, then presidents. Sarkozy is the latest prince of Andorra and they smile at the thought. The structure sound medieval and it is, until 1992 there was no elected assembly to make decisions.
But it served the tiny principality well – half the size of Co Carlow with one and a half times the population at 77,000.
Since the Muslims were driven out by Charlemagne, nobody has bothered to invade Andorra until the tourists came with skis and poles, and left satisfied with what they found: cheap bars, unchallenging slopes and warm hospitality.
Prices in the bars have crept up, but before people complain they seem to rush towards the higher prices and the trendier drinking spots.
Darby O’Gill’s in Arinsal was sold for u3m a year ago and transformed into an après-ski Valhalla with the utterly meaningless moniker of the Derby Irish Bar. It serves the dearest pint in town at over u5, and a forest of TV screens relays English soccer to the party animals. It is packed.
On the slopes, the trials and tumbles of the snowplough learners are captured by video cameramen who return to show the spoils of the day in the pubs along the winding main street in the resort and adjoining arteries – Cisco’s, Quo Vadis, El Cau, offering a hazardous black slope of booze for the thirstiest après-skiers.
The resort eateries compete for the passing trade, the classy 360, the superb sample of local cuisine in Monterail, the tourist-designed Mexican, Chinese, in house hotel restaurants serving mountainous buffet food, and, right at the foot of the gondola, the iconic Surf – serving some of the best Argentinean steaks north of the Rio Grande.
The key to Arinsal’s unique atmosphere is that this is the most Spanish of resorts, lacking even the French flavour that flows into Soldeu like a mountain fog. The instructors here are locals or have come from Chile and Argentina, returning to the Andes for the season in their surreal world of perpetual winter.
The pistes are short, flat, wide and comfortable for small children. Beginners can mount a six man, ski across a plateau and ascend a scenic four man lift to the top of the resort, where Spain lies to the right, Andorra’s pristine beauty to the left and the great wide path to Pal straight ahead. People who had never fitted ski to boot a few days earlier can leave with a feeling of accomplishment.
Outside of town the 25-minute ski ride to the capital reminds us of the benefits of self-rule outside the EU. The duty free that lured former visitors is still proclaimed on every street sign. The streets of the capital are lined with shops offering 200 cigarettes for u16, bottles of vodka for seven euro, and MP3 players that average a tenner a gigabyte of memory.
The transfer times to Gerona or Toulouse are scenic but long, three and a half to four hours meaning early morning departures for the tired skiers at week’s end. As you wait for the bus in the darkness the air is still fired up with the revellers of the night before returning to their bases. At the border the Spanish policeman walks through the bus aisle, and spot-checks anyone returning to the EU with more than their regulation 200 cigarettes or litre of spirits.
It resembles life as it always has been for the independent principality except for one huge difference that has only become apparent recently.
Little Andorra has started to think big.
- Adventure activities include helicopter rides around the valley (u58), snowboard sampler sessions for skiers (u25), archery and rifle shooting (u20), cross-country skiing (one day pass u3), paragliding (u134), amphibian vehicle rides through the slopes (u103), skidoos (u35-u69), adventure circuit (u30), paintball (u30), mushing with husky dogs (u30), ski bikes (u38.50), igloo building (u30), sledge rental (u5) and walks with snow shoes (u20 in Soldeu, u38.50 in Arinsal)
- A Disney snow club has been created in the Pyrenees for the first time in the Soldeu resort area, offering children extra perks.
- The five-day multi-resort Andorra ski pass, available for non-consecutive days, offers visitors access to local museums,
- Grandvalira (Soldeu and five other sectors) offers 193km of skiing and 67 lifts. Six day ski passes cost u196 for adults and u141 for children up to age 11. Fifteen hours of group lessons cost u108 for adults, u100 for children.
- Vallnord offers 63km of skiing and 30 lifts in the Arinsal/Pal sectors and 28.5km of skiing and 13 lifts in the Arcalis/Ordino sectors. Six day ski passes cost u160.50 for adults and u134.25 for children up to age 11. Group lessons cost u107.50 for adults and u89 for children.
- After a snow shortage in the 2006-7 season there has been a huge investment in snow cannons, there are now 1,065 in Soldeu and its five related sectors, 40 in Pal-Arinsal, and 80 in Ordino-Arcalis.
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