Little Andorra offers a winter wonderland
With excellent skiing on the slopes of the Pyrenees, bargains in the shops and lively apres-ski, Alison O'Riordan finds great things come in small packages
People may tell you Andorra's nothing but skiing and shopping and they would be correct. My two favourite pastimes, rolled into one mini country wedged between France and Spain, made me the happiest person on the piste.
There really is something addictive about the winter wonderland experience; I just can't seem to get enough. Feeling the fresh snow and listening to the silence coming from the woods as one flies down a slope is just invigorating. I go every year without exception and the highlight to date was my trip to Andorra, which gave me an even bigger appetite for the sport.
My skiing buddy Sarah and I flew from Dublin to Toulouse last January, where we began what we initially thought would be a painful journey but which turned out to be a delightful three-hour scenic drive through the countryside to the compact resort of Soldeu on the north side. The small but busy village is set in the heart of Andorra deep in the Pyrenees mountain range. All our ski passes, ski hire and lessons had been organised during the transfer so we were able to hit the slopes on arrival. The staff in the ski shop could not have been more helpful on our first day.
Our hotel for the week was the luxurious four-star Sporthotel Village which enjoys a superb location facing the slopes and lying at the foot of the gondola ski lifts. The hotel is furnished in an elegant, rustic style, offering an impressive ambience from the moment we entered the front door. We knew we were in for many a long evening of mulled wine by the fire.
The Andorrans have spent a fortune on the ski-lift infrastructure in recent years, so it was just a short walk in ski boots to the top of the station each morning where we were then whisked up the mountain in a couple of minutes. As it was the early January low season the queues for the ski lifts were minimal. Ski school was available either in the mornings or afternoons, Sarah and I opted for the afternoon sessions to allow us to practise in the mornings but, to tell the truth, this didn't occur all that much as there were a few late starts after lengthy apres-ski activities on the previous nights.
The pistes in Andorra cater for all abilities -- myself and Sarah were in different groups but we were kept entertained by the English-speaking instructors from the ski schools who made things as easy as possible for us. There are plenty of options for lunch and ski breaks in Soldeu and neighbouring villages El Tartar and Cap de le Pasa for the more adventurous. However, we decided to give this a miss and reclined in the comfy couches of our hotel with a book some afternoons following the gruelling workout.
Nothing gives you a bigger appetite than falling down a mountain for four hours a day and so we were happy with our half-board option, which turned out to be a real winner. There was an enormous buffet breakfast in the mornings and dinner in the evening was quite the occasion as we dressed up and raced into the restaurant to be greeted by a a buffet of bewildering choices of food for all tastes and waiters who waited on us hand and foot.
One day we decided to lay off the ski option with an excuse of sore limbs and opted for the complimentary spa in the hotel called the Sport Wellness Mountain Spa. We really enjoyed the afternoon of pampering after days of jetting down slopes at top speeds, to the detriment of our shins.
Having renewed our energy in the spa we were all set to descend on the shopping capital, Andorra La Vella, the tax haven. Offering over 2,000 shops -- more than one for every 40 inhabitants, the area had us in a shopping frenzy. The likes of Mango, Benetton, Zara and others had some very good winter sales which we capitalised on. Sarah, queen of sales, purchased a dress for €6, which I got a great kick out of. However, I was recently told that her boss mistook it for a creation by international fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg whose hallmark is the wrap dress. And so it was egg on my face, so to speak. Luckily for Sarah she missed getting charged excess baggage by the skin of her teeth.
Andorra has a good selection of nightlife options but in early January the town was less populated than usual, which suited us after the Christmas celebrations in Ireland. If you are looking for a livelier time, I would opt for late February or March to experience the real apres-ski in the village.
Our last night proved to be good fun as we had raced against our instructors that day and a lengthy prizegiving ceremony of broken English and jokes from the week followed.
If you want a healthy, active, fun-filled holiday for all the family, you can't beat skiing in Andorra. With the current economic uncertainty, prices have dropped considerably and it's an ideal time to book for next year. I certainly will be!
Directski.com has a week's half-board ski holiday in Soldeu, Andorra, from €609 per person, including Dublin flights and transfers. A week at the four-star Sporthotel Village costs from €909 with breakfast, dinner, return flights from Dublin and transfers. Visit www.directski.com or LoCall 1890 201 205