Andorra: Ski a natural high that's snow much fun
On the piste
Eilis O'Hanlon hits the slopes in Andorra... or the Principality of the Valleys of Andorra, to give it its much more romantic name.
Snow is relatively rare in Ireland. Cold, we can manage. That, we've got sorted. Sometimes we even do cold in summer. Snow, not so much. The prospect of experiencing some good, old-fashioned, proper snow is one of the main attractions of getting away to Europe in winter - though you can definitely have too much of a good thing.
When we went to Andorra to enjoy a week on the slopes in January, there was so much snow on the road that the transfer from Toulouse in southern France to our hotel took seven hours because the roads were closed and traffic backed up for miles due to drifts. It's a reminder that Mother Nature always has the last laugh, but it was all worth it. Everything comes to she who waits, and snow was the reason we were there, so why complain?
It was certainly a taste of things to come for the week ahead, which consisted of snow, more snow, and cold like I've never experienced before. One day the temperature up the mountain, if you took the wind chill into consideration, was minus 15 degrees.
That's some serious cold, especially when you're standing about while your ski instructor tries to explain how to turn with your knees. Or was it your hips? I was too frozen to hear.
"I never feel the cold," he announced happily as we stood in a blizzard later. But that's skiing instructors for you. They're a breed apart. As such, they tend to be hit and miss. This one, Jordi, a native of Andorra, was great.
"Tomorrow," he said, "I'm going to teach you to conquer your fear of speed."
This was on Day One. Good luck, mister, I thought to myself; but next day he was as good as his word. "Put your skis parallel, tuck your arms in, and face the slope. Forward!" he shouted. "Keep going until you feel like you're going to kill yourself, and then keep going some more. I want to hear you scream!"
Now I realise that this might not be everyone's idea of a good time; but if you've got the skiing bug, then you'll know that this derring- do is exactly what you want to hear.
I've never been a fussy skier - as long as there's a mountain with some snow on it, that'll do for me - but I do think Andorra (or the Principality of the Valleys of Andorra, to give it its much more romantic name) has something for everybody. It's dedicated itself to skiing, since it's a small country that doesn't really have an awful lot of other stuff going for it. Only 85,000 people live here, which isn't much more than Galway city, but it plays host to over 10m visitors every year.
Many come for the hiking in summer, because there's spectacular scenery all year round, or to enjoy the unique cultural atmosphere of a landlocked country that's half French and half Spanish; but it's the skiing that draws the vast majority of tourists.
We were based in Pal, in the Pyrenees resort of Vallnord, which, together with neighbouring Arinsal, is a popular destination for Irish and British skiers, with plenty of restaurants, bars and nightlife for those with the energy to party after a day on the slopes.
Personally, I just tend to crash. On my bed, that is, not on the skis, though that has been known to happen as well. Bruises are medals awarded by mountains. Wear them with pride.
Pal and Arinsal are linked by cable car, which makes getting between them very convenient, and there are all the usual blue, green, red and black slopes to suit various levels of skill, including one run, the Marrades, which boasts a difference of 1,000 metres altitude from start to finish, the biggest in Andorra, and brings you down into the centre of Arinsal.
The week we were there, we only got to ski in Pal and Arinsal, though there was plenty enough to do there to easily fill the days, but the other ski runs, especially at nearby Soldeu and Arcalis, are easily accessible too, and they're all covered by a single ski pass.
Arcalis is north facing, so keeps its snow until late in the season, and has the longest run for beginners in the whole Principality in the shape of the eight-kilometre-long Megaverde.
A word of advice - if you rent a locker at the top of the mountain for convenience, be aware that you won't be able to get to your equipment if bad weather closes that particular slope, and you'll have to rent new equipment for the day; though that's still fairly cheap.
One day, we couldn't reach Arinsal, because the snow was at its wildest, and even at Pal I felt like I was being pelted with nails as the hard flakes stabbed into my skin. Not the best feeling in the world, but again all part of the experience. In Andorra, this is second nature to them. So is going off piste, if you're up to that. There are always twigs and bits of trees growing out of the snow, so you have to keep an eye out for obstacles, but it was all good fun. That was my first experience of being a daredevil. Normally, I'm much more of a "Safety First" skier, so our instructor's confidence in our abilities had clearly rubbed off on us.
On the last day, we went to Pal again with the instructor. Finding that the chair lift hadn't been switched on yet, he went over to speak with the operator and came back to inform us casually: "They're deciding whether or not to dynamite the avalanche." Gulp. (I now know that this is standard safety procedure; it's how resorts manage snow conditions to make them safe for skiers.)
Within minutes, the chairlift was working and off we went. Up high to a place so quiet and empty under clear blue skies that it was almost if we were the only people on the mountain.
"What's that flag for?"
"Oh, it's an avalanche warning."
Hmm, I realised, maybe that's why the area is so deserted. Once again, I was reminded of how much faith you put in your instructor. If he says it's OK, it must be OK. And he was right - it was OK.
Soon I had another lesson in trust as we came to what looked like a pre-fab cabin standing alone in the snow, looking like the cabin in Lost or the setting of a slasher movie.
Jordi told us to go inside, so naturally we did as we were told. It turned out to be a cable car. Presently the wooden contraption started sliding smoothly across the slope to the next part of the ski run. If this was back home, I couldn't help thinking, I'd probably run like the clappers if a man I barely knew suggested that I step into a windowless hut miles from anywhere. But there you are, holidays are for trying out new experiences.
It's also only when you try out manoeuvres that you learned on previous skiing trips that you see how much you've improved since last time. Take jumping. Any other time I've had to do a jump it's been straight back down onto my backside. Not this year. From such small victories are happy skiing holidays made.
Deserving of special mention is Hotel Palarine, our home from home for the week. Nobody really expects the food to be great when they opt for half board at a hotel, you just do it anyway to save money as part of an overall deal, but it's no exaggeration to say that the food at this family-run hotel in the village of Erts was absolutely superb.
They do themed dining each night of the week, so we had an Italian evening, which included pizza and lasagne and delicious soup; a Chinese evening, with pork and chicken dishes, spring rolls, fried rice, and vegetable noodles; and they also had an Indian night, my favourite. It's really gratifying to see a small hotel making such an effort to feed guests so well, with restaurant quality food, and definitely makes you want to return.
Each meal was a buffet, so you can be as greedy as you like, and, let's face it, you're always hungry after a day's skiing. My taste buds are tingling just remembering it.
The excellent online reviews of the hotel are a testament to how warmly previous guests have appreciated their stay; it's impossible to find a dissatisfied customer, and owners Graham and Maria couldn't be more welcoming or helpful. The drinks are very reasonably priced too, with a two-for-one apres-ski deal in the Oriental-themed Bambu bar, and there's regular entertainment. On the Thursday, a magician was going round the tables, keeping children and adults entertained.
Most hotels I can take or leave, but this is definitely one I'd want to stay in again.
It's also less than a 10-minute drive from here to the country's funky, bijou capital, Andorra la Vella. The old part of town, with its cobbled streets and stone houses, dates back to the 13th Century, but most tourists come here for the wonderful shopping rather than the sights. The Principality is famous for its low-tax bargains on everything from fashion to electronics, and there are generous opening hours.
Don't forget either to take a spin on the gorgeous Ferris wheel while you're there.
A borda is a traditional Andorran stone barn, often thatched, many of which now play host to restaurants serving rustic local cuisine in the Catalan mountain style. Mainly grilled meat, so it's no place for vegetarians, but 25 of them have now come together to make up a route for dedicated gastronomes wanting to sample authentic fare. The Borda D'Erts oozes with atmosphere and opens every day apart from Monday, which is a weekly holiday.
Snowshoe trails are the perfect way to experience the winter landscape. There are routes to suite all ages and abilities, either accompanied by a guide or just going alone, so you don't need to be super fit to take part. If you want, you can also combine snowshoe walking with igloo building or driving snow bikes. Downloading an app called Alpify means your exact location can be sent to rescue services in the unlikely event of an emergency.
Caldea claims to be Europe's largest health spa, and there's no reason not to take their word for it. There are over 6,000 square metres of inside and outside lagoons, jacuzzis, Indo-Roman baths, and more. Visitors can choose between relaxing in the main spa and getting a massage, or upgrading to the full "Wellness" experience for luxurious aerobaths and beauty treatments. Either way, it's the perfect way to get rid of those aches and pains.
Eilis O'Hanlon travelled with Topflight, voted Ireland's leading tour operator for the last 21 years, flying on a charter to Toulouse, with four- hour transfer to Arinsal, Andorra.
She stayed at the three-star Hotel Palarine, a friendly family-run hotel, with the Ski Bus just 50 metres away. She stayed on a half-board basis, with three-course buffet dinner.
A one-week Topflight holiday to the three-star Hotel Palarine costs €549 on the 6/13 March and €569 on 17 January which is when Eilis travelled. Price includes return charter flights, full luggage allowances, and one week's half-board accommodation. A six-day lift pass costs €179. Five days Ski School costs €122. Ski Hire is €69 and boot hire €38. You must have ski insurance, with winter snowsports covered included, to travel.
Arinsal is the VallNord ski region of Andorra and is linked to Pal and Arcalis. With 63 kms of slopes, Arinsal is an excellent beginner and family resort. Arcalis has great off-piste terrain for powder hounds!
Arinsal has great après-ski with excellent bars and restaurants, as well as great activities such as sleigh rides, toboganning, monoskiing and ski-biking. And of course Andorra la Vella, Andorra's capital is only 9kms away, with excellent duty-free shopping. While there, treat yourself to a visit to the Caldea Thermal Spa.
Call Topflight on 01 2401700, topflight.ie or your local travel agent for details. And pick up a copy of the New Topflight 2015/16 Ski Brochure. Out now!
Sunday Indo Living