Wednesday 20 June 2018

Andorra: High-class bed and board on a ski trip to remember

 

Snowboarders check their bindings on the slopes of Grandvalira
Snowboarders check their bindings on the slopes of Grandvalira
Louis driving a skidoo in Grandvalira
The jacuzzi in the snow at Hotel Piolets Park and Spa
Dog sledding in Grandvalira

Louis Furney

The journey began with my usual so-fashionably-late-I-nearly-missed-my-flight, but a delayed departure meant there was time for that important Dublin airport ritual; the Burger King XXL bacon double cheese burger.

Thus nourished I felt prepared for the two-hour flight to Barcelona where I caught a coach to Andorra. This is the longest part of the trip, and with a break for lunch and the stops to deposit people at different resorts, the journey to Grandvalira took almost five hours. Yet it was very comfortable, the team very friendly and the journey up into the Pyrenees  was beautiful. Andorra had recently had its largest snowfall in seven years and there is no light quite like sun reflecting off snowy mountains.

My destination was the village of Soldeu and the Hotel Piolets Park and Spa. I had been allocated one of its newly refurbished rooms which was very spacious, a gorgeous mix of clean and modern, a very chic bathroom attached to a bedroom with ski lodge wood finish and underfloor heating. I set off to join the rest of my group, all of whom had travelled from the UK.

It felt rude to us to not see what this beautiful little village had to offer in terms of night-time activities, but it had been a long day so after a quick scout we made our way back through the snow drifts to ready ourselves for the morning.

Skiing holidays always involve early starts, and day one is about getting suited and booted. Literally. It was great to be able to do this in the hotel and the seven-minute walk to the ski lifts was equally handy. At the lift we were greeted by a member of the Crystal ski holiday team who in turn introduced us to our ski guide, Ray. Heights are not my thing, so in the cable car I tried to keep my mind from focusing on the fact that we were in a metal box suspended by a steel cable many metres above the ground.

While my companions were all skiing, I had chosen to snowboard. This was something I had got good at when I was 10, but in the intervening decade, opportunities to practice had been rare. The large amounts of very fresh snow made for challenging conditions, and super powdery conditions down red and black slopes coupled with the fact that I am not particularly skilled led to some very choice falls.

After I had finished bruising both my body and my ego, it was time to head back and enjoy some of the more gentle recreational activities the hotel had to offer. A spa hotel is always a luxury but on a snow sports holiday it is almost a necessity. From the cold of the weather to the heat of trying to extract yourself from yet another fall, there are many stresses on infrequently used muscles so a sauna is very welcome.

It also has to be said that there are few greater pleasures in life than an outdoor heated pool in the snow.

Once our troubles had been soaked away it was time for dinner which, as breakfast had been, was freshly prepared in front of us and with enough selection to suit absolutely everyone.

Apres ski is as much part of a ski holiday for many people as the actual sport so after dinner we felt it was time to really embrace the culture and head to The Harp, the Irish bar down the road from the hotel. Soldeu is small so nothing is too far away. The Harp is well known for its live music and the staff are Irish. From the village at night you could see across the valley to the slopes being criss-crossed by lights of the snow ploughs. It was like a strange robot army preparing the pistes for the next day.

That next day it felt as if Andorra's culture may have nearly gotten the better of me. There are two ways to beat the queues, one is to go before the crowds, the other is to go after them. I opted for the latter, enjoyed a very leisurely breakfast and instead of rushing off to the mountain returned to the spa with a plan to hit the slopes after the early morning rush. This tactic worked a treat, there was no wait at any of the lifts.

I'd like to say I had planned to visit the neighbouring village of El Tarter but I can't. What I can say is that by taking the wrong fork on a run meant I did visit the neighbouring village of El Tarter and very nice it is too. But that is the great thing about ski resorts, you can just catch a lift back up to somewhere you recognise and make it home via the scenic route.

Grandvalira is in the eastern valley of Andorra and it is the largest ski resort in the Pyrenees and one of the 30 largest in the world. With over 210km of runs it offers something for everyone. January can be one of the coldest months and it is really important to bring thermal underwear. This was especially the case when we got the chance to go on a skidoo.

The Activity Centre in Grandvalira offers dog sled and skidoo trips which is a lovely way to see the forests and pistes. The two-people sleds pulled by dogs could be very romantic if you were with the love of your life and, depending on your view of romance, skidoos have potential too.

Romantic or not, the skidoo tour, where a guide leads a little convoy, two people per vehicle and you take turns driving, is excellent fun. It was -14, snowy and magical, but my feet, and driving thumb, felt like they were going to snap off. The Hotel spa called again.

Andorra is famous for its tax-free shopping. The shops in Soldeu are limited so serious shoppers just need to hop on one of the local buses for the short trip to the capital, Andorra la Vella, where there are bargains to be had. Catalan and Spanish are the official languages but English is widely spoken.

Grandvalira caters for a very broad range of skiers, the hotel was lovely, the food fabulous and the staff really helpful and nice. Blame the skidoo thumb, but I managed to drop my phone behind a radiator and could not retrieve it. They did. With grace.

Although not a typical young people party ski resort, it is somewhere I'd love to return to.

Getting there

Louis travelled to Andorra with Crystal Ski. He stayed at the Hotel Piolets Park & Spa, Andorra;

central location, one minute ride to the gondola on the free non-stop shuttle bus. Two free spa entries per stay - with indoor pool, sauna, steam room and outdoor hot tub. Free gym

Soldeu and neighbouring El Tarter have some high-end accommodation, a peaceful atmosphere and access to over 200km of piste.

The Crystal Ski Winter 2017/2018 programme is now on sale. Find out more at www.crystalski.ie, call (01) 653 3500 or visit your local travel agent.

Depart March 18, 2018 for seven nights from €819pp, based on two sharing in a superior room with balcony.

Flight: from Dublin to Toulouse (approx 2.5hrs)

Transfer: Toulouse-Andorra

(approx 3hrs)

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