Andorra: A snowboarder tries skiing in Grandvalira and Vallnord
Size really does matter
Andorra now offers over 300km of varied pistes, says snowboarder Ciara Kelleher, who gives skiing a try in the principality.
A cursory Google search on Andorran ski holidays reveals a myriad of contradictions.
Reviews more than a year old are full of reports of cheap booze and "British lager louts", while newer ones reference the investment in new lifts and snow canons, and claim it's a decent alternative to other tried-and-trusted European options. With so much difference of opinion, I was left with a growing sense of fear that I might have made a big mistake in my choice of snow holiday for the season.
The choice of destination wasn't the only unusual thing about this trip for me. Having been a snowboarder for 15 years, I had finally given in to pressure from skier pals. After the first day or two, the barely hidden looks of annoyance when you have to strap in and out of your bindings at every chair lift start to wear thin.
Plus, I told myself that at 30 years of age, it was probably time to try something that didn't encourage me to dress like a teenage boy. So, taking full advantage of the fact that there was another beginner in the group, I booked into a few ski lessons and yet packed my snowboard as a security blanket, "just in case".
Following a big investment in new lift systems, and despite its compact size, Andorra now offers more than 300km of hugely varied pistes, served by 99 lifts across two large domains, Grandvalira and Vallnord.
As they say, size really does matter. One of the best things about Andorra is that it's so small that no matter whether you have chosen to stay in Grandvalira or Vallnord, you can easily travel to the other for a day of exploring new pistes.
We took full advantage of this, splitting the week between the two areas.
Our first day on the slopes was my first day on skis. Arinsal, in the Vallnord domain, turned out to be the perfect place to learn. With plenty of space on the baby slopes, and a conveniently located restaurant half-way down for breaks, I was soon (shakily) parallel turning and felt confident enough after lunch to join the rest of the group to tackle some blue slopes.
I was quite chuffed that I seemed to progress pretty quickly and was really impressed with the variety of beginner-friendly pistes. With the promise of other great resorts just 30 minutes away, we decided to head to the free-ride Mecca of Arcalis on the second day. I had fully intended to ski again, but with clear-blue skies and great conditions, the lure of the board on some great runs was too hard to pass up.
Arcalis seems to be a bit of a hidden gem, boasting the longest green run in Andorra, and surrounded by some of the best-looking off-piste that I've ever seen, means that there is something to suit all levels.
The decision to visit Andorra allowed us to get the most out of our trip in terms of value for money. My usual tiny apartment with bunk beds was swapped for a half-board with Crystal Ski at the gorgeous four-star Princesa Parc hotel in Arinsal and the Piolets Park in Soldeu.
Bars and restaurants are also much more affordable with a round of drinks (four Coronas and four Jagers) coming in at around €20.
Secondly, we were able to enjoy a few added extras, and half-way through the week we decided to treat ourselves, and our aching muscles, to some R&R at the Inúu thermal spa in the Caldea complex. If there's any better feeling than watching the sun set from an outdoor hot tub high up in the mountains, I have yet to find it!
Waking on the last day to fresh snow after a heavy night of snowfall meant that the board won out again and we spent a brilliant last day in the Grandvalira area, which has benefited from huge investment in both lifts and snow canons in recent years. With more than 210km of slopes and a group of varying abilities, the Crystal Ski app proved invaluable with its 'find my friends' functionality!
One of the best things about Andorra is the food. As a vegetarian, I'm usually stuck with melted cheese with a side of cheese on ski trips, but Andorran cuisine is a totally different experience. Taking influence from French and Catalan neighbours and adding some distinctly original twists, the food is out of this world. Less stodgy than typical mountain food, it's characterised by Mediterranean flavours and caters well for veggies and coeliacs.
You can't leave Andorra without a trip to one of the traditional Borda restaurants. If there's one thing I've learned here it's that the country may be small, but the food is always huge. In Andorra la Vella head to L'enoteca for perfect pairings of upmarket local food and wine, or Moli dels Fanals in La Massana for traditional Borda cuisine (and the best gin and tonics!). Both offer plenty of options for vegetarians and coeliacs.
We split our week between Arinsal and Soldeu, staying at the Hotel Princesa Parc in Arinsal and the Hotel Piolets Park in Soldeu. The beds in the Princesa Parc were honestly the most comfortable I have ever been in, getting out of bed each morning was a real struggle even with the mountains right outside my window! I've been on ski holidays before where it really didn't matter where you were; you just felt that you were in 'the mountains'. Andorra is different.
In particular it was marked by a real sunny feel, characterised by a lack of the pretentiousness that you often encounter in other ski resorts. I can't wait to go back.
I might even ski again.
Crystal Ski Holidays (crystalski.ie) fly every Sunday to Andorra, into Toulouse (France) airport. The season starts on December 20, 2015, with the last week in the snow being March 27, 2016.
Prices start from €475 for a week at the 3-star Apartments Sant Roma (self-catering) in Arinsal; €729 at the 3-star Hotel Soldeu Maistre (half board); €765 at the Hotel Princesa Parc (half board); and €879 at the Hotel Piolets Park (half board). All prices quoted are for the weeks January 10 and 17.
Sunday Indo Living