Sunday 24 September 2017

Andorra: High slopes without the high prices

Ski holidays

Night on ski and snowboard resort Pas de la casa, Andorra with ski lift, snowfall and illuminated village.
Night on ski and snowboard resort Pas de la casa, Andorra with ski lift, snowfall and illuminated village.
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It’s small in size, but big on fun. Andorra captured the heart of skier Kevin Doyle, who struggled to keep up with the partying pace...

Andorra is not a place you end up by accident.

Tucked away in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, we often think of the microstate as little more soccer minnows. A team that Ireland has never lost to.

But at this time of year there is every reason to learn a little bit more about the principality. I spent a week getting up close and personal with the sixth smallest nation in Europe and in particular its slopes.

Winter in Andorra is all about making it from piste to party and shop to spa.

After a slow start to the snowy season, the week before my visit saw several fresh falls that left a base of around 50cm of packed power on the lower slopes of the Grandvalira range, rising to 100cm in the higher areas.

So it was almost as good as, it gets and tourists were arriving by the busload.

My group of seven landed in the resort of Pas de la Casa on a Sunday afternoon, having flown from Dublin to Toulouse and taken a three-hour bus ride up the mountain.

We checked into the Frontera Blanca apartments, a two-minute downhill walk from the chair lifts. Rooms can cater for up to six people, but in reality any more than four grown men with ski gear is probably pushing the boundaries of personal space.

The town is a mish-mash of Haribo-filled supermarkets, ski stores, restaurants and pubs. There is everything you might expect of a lively ski resort with the added benefit that Andorra doesn’t really do taxes. You can pick up 200 cigarettes for €30, while perfume is also a steal.

But most people in Pas de la Casa are there for two reasons: Grandvalira’s 210km of zig-zagging runs and the apres ski.

The wide slopes are newbie friendly with gentle runs into the area’s main towns, includ- ing Soldeu and El Tarter.

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Andorra's slopes have something to offer everyone.

Andorra's slopes offer something for everyone...

Beginner lessons take place in the morning and cost from €131.50 for 15 hours over five days. Lifts open at 9am and run until 5pm, except on Thursday when the flood lights come on and you can ski or board until 8pm. From my experience of other resorts in Austria and France, it’s safe to say that queues for the lifts in Andorra are not nearly as long.

In fact, most of the time there was no wait at all.

The snow cannons are put to work most days but you still can’t beat the early morning powder after a night of flurries. That’s why it’s important to measure your apres ski. ‘Pas’, as the locals call it, is the sort of place that bring a good man or woman down – and I don’t mean on skis.

You can come off the piste at 5pm and stay partying until 5am if you’re so inclined. Don’t be put off by the fact that two of the main bars are ‘Irish’. You will inevitably end up in Paddy’s and The Dubliner at some stage if you’re looking for live music, while clubs such as Billboard and Underground are where you’ll find the cheesy hits and frantic dancing.

I usually shun ‘organised fun’, but Topflight reps for the season, Stephanie and Chloe, are very convincing about their menu of activities including a table quiz involving paper airplanes.

If it’s not already obvious, it’s worth making the point that Pas by evening/night is mostly populated by Irish, British and French tourists with stamina to burn.

Families or those looking purely for skiing would be best advised to stay in Soldeu or El Tarter where things are a bit quieter. In both those towns creche facilities are available from €46 a day, while the older children can go to lessons or ‘snow garden’.

Those who do want a bit of a complete break from the snow at some stage should consider a 45-minute bus trip to the capital, Andorra la Vella, for €6.10.

It’s akin to a mid-size Irish town like Athlone or Tullamore and all the well-known brands are on sale in the stores. It’s estimated that there are 40 shops in Andorra for every inhabitant.

But for something different pay a visit to the Caldea Thermal Spa. Admission is around €35 and you can relax in one of its many saunas, Jacuzzis or baths. The outdoor lagoon is the perfect spot for a sunset at the end of a week of muscle stretching in Pas.

Weather permitting, the Grandvalira slopes will remain open until April 12 with a string of events planned, including the arrival of the fastest skiers in the world for the FIS Speed Skiing World Cup in late February and the Alpine Skiing European Cup Finals in March.

Andorra might seem off the beaten track but that’s part of the charm. A little country with a lot to offer.

Getting there

Kevin travelled to Andorra with award-winning Irish ski company Topflight (topflight.ie). It’s offering deals for the Frontera Blanca Apartments, inset, with March 22 departure for €440 – a saving of €30. Other dates available. Book onine, call 01 240-1700, drop into your local travel agent.

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