Thursday 30 October 2014

Andorra: Shopping and skiing heaven

EILIS O'HANLON

Published 22/10/2012 | 06:00

Andorra's slopes have something to offer everyone.

ANYONE who still thinks skiing is too dangerous should console themselves with the fact that Andorra has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. They couldn't all be living to a ripe old age if they were crashing into trees every five minutes.

Not that they would crash into trees. They're all far too good at skiing. Children are given free lessons by the government practically from the moment they emerge from the womb. A fulfilling life on the slopes is seen as the birthright of all Andorrans. Just keep out of their way when those kids hit the slopes, because they don't take any prisoners.

Perched high in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, Andorra is a place that has effortlessly made the best of what nature has given it. Add some serious snow to the mix, which the principality has in plentiful supply, together with thousands of snow cannons to take up the slack when the weather doesn't do its job properly, and all the ingredients are in place for the perfect skiing holiday. It's no wonder Andorra has become a playground to the rich and sporty.

Of course, a zero-income- tax policy doesn't hurt either ...

The main resorts are in Arinsal, Soldeu and Arcalis. Having spent some time in each, I really couldn't say which is best. Perhaps because I'm not an expert skier and my requirements are simple. Can I get up the mountain without too much effort? Yes. Can I get down the mountain in one piece? If that's a yes, too, then I'm content.

In each of the resorts, the slopes are varied, catering for all levels of ability, from gentle nursery slopes for those starting off to more demanding runs for the more practised. More importantly, they're all well-equipped with moving ropes and carpets and all sorts of stuff to pull you along rather than having to physically shuffle your way to the top of each slope. Trust me, this is a godsend. Even the gentlest of slopes can feel like Mount Everest when you're trying to get up them with awkward heavy boots and unwieldy skis.

Even when the slopes get more difficult, the runs are all of varying lengths allowing the eager, but not necessarily proficient, skier to fit in a reasonable amount of skiing in relatively easy conditions even after the lessons have ended. Because Andorra is small, it also means the main resorts are fairly near each other and the ski passes are interchangeable between the resorts. If you're so good that you don't need lessons, you can do the whole resort in a week. Ten million visitors a year come to do just that, which is some endorsement for a country which is less than half the size of Louth (Ireland's smallest county, fact fans!)

The food on the slopes is good, too. In Soldeu, we ate in La Cabana which is a bright, modern, airy restaurant with a great range of dishes, from meat on the grill to stir fries and salads. In Arinsal, a place called 360 Degrees North was our destination. It looks like a greasy spoon -- and in Ireland it probably would be -- but in Andorra it's anything but. The food on offer even managed to satisfy grouchy vegetarians like myself, not always the case in continental Europe. There's more of a Spanish feel to the local cuisine than French, which goes for the whole place actually. With a sizeable Portuguese minority also in residence, everything from the architecture to the people bear an indelibly Iberian stamp.

There's a great range of places to stay as well. In fact, it can be tough choosing between the resorts or the centre -- but even if you can't afford to stay in the very grand Sport Village Hotel, do go in for an envious gawk around at all the wooden panelling and chandeliers. Well, we can dream. We stayed in the Hotel Prisma, which is very central and ideal for larger groups or families. Some of the rooms sleep up to six people, which helps the pocket. It's also right on the edge of the main shopping street.

Away from the slopes, Andorra has plenty to offer the exhausted skier. The Caldea Spa is located in the capital, Andorra La Vella, and really is the last word in luxury. There are outdoor and indoor jacuzzis, Turkish steam rooms, saunas. The thermal spa is worth a visit; after a hard day's skiing on the slopes, there's nothing like it for easing aching muscles and joints.

Once recovered, what else is there to do but indulge in some equally soothing retail therapy, too? Even if it wasn't for the skiing, Andorra would be worth visiting for the shopping alone. The main street in the capital is gloriously long and peppered with high-end designer stores and more familiar high-street chains. The only reason I didn't add another pair of boots to my already self-indulgently generous collection was because they didn't have my size, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Cosmetics and perfume shops are also in ample supply, as are shops selling electronic equipment, and all the shops stay open late, too, to facilitate the skiing.

Thankfully, you don't have to be rich to enjoy Andorra's low-taxation economy either. Shopping is VAT-free. A lesson there for the Minister for Finance, perhaps?

Andorra may not spring immediately to mind as a skiing destination, but I would really struggle to find a single bad thing to say about it. It has just about everything that Austria and the French Alps have to offer, only without the forbidding price tag. In the past few years, it's also enjoyed some of the best snowfall in Europe. I'm reliably informed that it's great for summer holidays, too, with golfing and extreme sports a particular speciality. One day I'd love to find out for myself, and there's no higher recommendation for a holiday than coming home already dreaming of a return.

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