Monday 16 September 2019

Andorra: The ski's the limit

Slip, sliding away: Winter sports on the snowy slopes of a ski resort in Andorra, where skiing in the stunning landscape is life itself for residents and visitors alike
Slip, sliding away: Winter sports on the snowy slopes of a ski resort in Andorra, where skiing in the stunning landscape is life itself for residents and visitors alike
Peak retail: The city centre of Andorra la Vella is bustling with shoppers, many of whom are attracted by low VAT on cosmetics
Eilis dressed for the slopes of Andorra and their generous amounts of snowfall

Eilis O'Hanlon

There were two main reactions from friends and family on hearing that I was off to Andorra to go skiing.

The first was: "Why do you want to go skiing again?"

Some people just don't get the appeal. Why, they say, would anyone choose to hurtle down a slippery mountain on a couple of sticks, hoping not to crash into anything only, having reached the bottom in one piece, to go right back up and do it again? They've got a point.

You're out in the snow when most sensible people would rather be indoors. You ache in parts of the body that you didn't know existed. Why would anyone willingly put themselves through that ordeal?

Well, all I can say is that the world is divided between people who know for a fact that skiing is what God invented mountains for, and people who are just plain wrong and should keep their opinions to themselves.

Not that I'm dogmatic about the whole subject or anything.

The other frequently asked question was: "Why go back to Andorra?"

It's not simply that they don't understand the appeal of returning to the same place year after year, but that they don't understand why you'd go to Andorra at all. Some didn't even realise it was a genuine country.

Even those who have heard of it are sometimes fooled into thinking that there's no point going because it doesn't have the glitz and glamour of resorts in the French or Swiss Alps.

But that's the beauty of it. A week's skiing is not like any other holiday. You don't want to go sightseeing. Those little luxuries which make a relaxing summer holiday aren't so important.

All you want to do is ski for as many hours a day as your tired legs can manage.

And that's exactly what Andorra provides. It seems to have been designed purely to facilitate an existence devoted to skiing. It's not a nice addition to life, in Andorra skiing is life.

The economy is rooted in it, which is perfect for Andorrans because that means they can make a living from what they love doing. How many of us can boast that?

Nestled high up in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, this small Principality punches way above its weight when it comes to winter sports. At just over 180 square miles - or 468 square kilometres, for the more European-minded among you - it has undoubtedly made the most of what nature has given it, which is a landscape every bit as stunning in parts as more famous destinations, with generous amounts of snowfall. It certainly snowed regularly during the week that we were there, which added atmosphere to the whole winter wonderland experience.

No wonder I set off with such excitement to spend the first day on the slopes with my grown-up daughter - even if my instructor did look about five years old. Perhaps that's the real sign of age.

Not when the policemen look younger, but when the ski instructors don't appear to have hit adolescence yet, but are still far better than you'll ever be.

The aforementioned daughter, I am afraid to say, is a self-confessed coward. How I ever persuaded her to take up skiing in the first place must surely rank as one of life's great mysteries.

But learn to ski she did, even if she didn't embrace it to quite the same extent as me; and since it had been a few years since her last trip, she was feeling a bit rusty.

Thankfully, that wasn't a problem.

The reason was that, this time round, we stayed in the town of Soldeu, which is part of the Grandvalira ski resort. Here, there are more than 200km of ski runs, with just over 170km of these deemed "easy" to "intermediate", ie, not terrifying in the slightest.

We managed to ski only a fraction of these pistes during the week, so it's no exaggeration to say that visitors are spoiled for choice.

Better still, the runs in this resort are all lovely, and extremely well signposted, though admittedly that didn't stop me getting lost one day and wondering how on earth I was going to return to civilisation.

Mountains can be scary places once you lose your way, but that's also part of the appeal. A frisson of danger adds to the thrill.

I particularly enjoyed Gall de Bosc. Its sheer length - five miles in total - and the fact that you don't need to deviate from the route on to more technically challenging runs at any point makes that one particularly satisfying for less daredevil skiers such as myself.

There are also plenty of places to stop, so your legs can recover, or, if you need refreshments, there are numerous cafes dotted along the mountain.

The good thing about this run is that it's an achievable goal by the end of the holiday, even if you started out as a beginner, which gives a great sense of achievement. Skiing is all about hitting those goals.

My daughter and I stayed in Hotel Piolets, which is in the centre of Soldeu and just metres from the gondola station that takes you to the top of the mountain. This makes it the ideal location, because what you want is the maximum time skiing and the minimum time spent getting about from one slope to another.

With everything in Andorra geared towards skiing, equipment hire shops are liberally sprinkled throughout Soldeu, meaning you also don't have far to walk to get kitted out with the necessary gear.

Don't do what we did, which was to go to a faraway hire shop and then have to carry all the heavy equipment back up a hill to the hotel.

Remember to bring your passport too. The day we hired our equipment, our passports were promptly taken off us.

The man in front, clearly not accustomed to being deprived of his documents, asked: "Do you keep them somewhere safe?"

Yes, he was told firmly, before the woman filed them away in a blue, flimsy cardboard box which she called a "filing cabinet".

We shrugged as we handed in our passports, knowing that we were probably doing an unusual thing, but doing it anyway.

Mercifully, the system worked on this occasion because they were returned to us safely at the end of our holiday.

The hotel was comfortable, with friendly, helpful staff, and excellent facilities, including a swimming pool, gym, jacuzzi and sauna. However, the food sometimes wasn't so hot - temperature-wise.

I thought perhaps this was because I'm vegetarian, but I asked meat eaters at the same hotel what their experience was like and they confirmed it was similar. We spoke to the rep who said we weren't the first to point out the food's temperature.

The interesting dilemma, he explained, is that the Spanish eat their food cooler than we do, and hotels in the region by and large cater for their Spanish guests.

They'd had microwaves installed so we could heat the food up. Yet, as we discussed, food will cool down, but it won't reheat, so we had no idea why they just didn't serve the food at a higher temperature and let it cool naturally.

We quickly got over this tiny niggle. Our room was very pleasant and we had a balcony which looked out on to the mountain, and the whole place was nice and quiet and warm and clean.

As I say, there's no need on a skiing holiday for any fancy extras, but there are plenty of activities to do at night, including tobogganing and - everyone's favourite - tubing.

Basically, you're each given a huge rubber ring; you sit inside it, and then some poor travel rep is given the unenviable task of pushing you downhill at breakneck speed.

Instructions are scant, but, to the accompaniment of much spinning and screaming, we all managed to stop more or less on target, before picking up the rubber ring and making our way back up the slope for another go.

Dusk fell, followed quickly by dark, and then we were ushered over to a cafe and given food and drinks. It was all very civilised; adults and children alike enjoyed it.

Another thing not to forget when visiting Andorra is the compact, agreeable capital city - the highest in Europe, apparently.

Too often when you go skiing you're captive in small resorts, with little to do when off the slopes except eat and drink. Shops can be limited in range and expensive.

In Andorra la Vella, there's a properly bustling, cosmopolitan city centre with attractive shops. If you want to take a break from skiing, you can happily spend a few hours here, wandering round the old town, or indulging in some retail therapy.

Cosmetics are a big deal in Andorra. Since the Principality developed as a tax haven, there's very low VAT on all products, so things are a lot cheaper than they are at home.

They also have a great array of familiar high street stores, such as Mango, H&M, and so on. Good advice would be to leave some space in your suitcase lest you go mad and then have no room to bring them back.

Every time you go skiing, it's a different experience.

That might not be a particularly profound observation, but it's true nonetheless. You fall, you get up, you fall again. But you always have a great laugh.

Yes, you're tired, and sore; yes, you promise yourself that as soon as you go home you'll put in more training so that, next time, it won't be so hard on your feeble little body, and you'll be as strong and lithe as a native.

It's all about finding your own level, and then squeezing as much out of the experience as you can before the time's up and you're forced back to your ordinary, snowless reality.

I've accepted that I'm never going to be the sort of skier who hurtles down black slopes without a care in the world, but that's another of the many beauties of skiing. It doesn't matter. You're not competing with anyone. You're just doing it for the exhilaration.

Andorrans are to be envied for finding such a joyous and life-affirming way to pass their days.

We should all be so lucky.

Getting there

Eilis skiing.jpg
Eilis dressed for the slopes of Andorra and their generous amounts of snowfall

Eilis travelled to Soldeu, Andorra, with Topflight, the award-winning ski tour operator which has been voted Best Ski Tour Operator for 21 years in a row. She stayed at the 4* Hotel Piolets.

Prices for the Hotel Piolets start from €759 per person sharing based on travelling in March.

Prices include return flights from Dublin, transfers, accommodation for seven nights on a half-board basis, 20kg baggage allowance, taxes and the services of the Topflight representative in resort.

For further details call Topflight on 01 240 1700, visit or contact your local travel agent. Grab a bargain, Topflight’s 5 Day Ski Holiday Sale starts today!

Take Three: Top attractions

The Caldea Spa

Other spas are available, but everyone who visits the region invariably ends up raving about the Caldea Spa in Andorra La Vella, so it would be a sin not to try it out. It’s Europe’s largest, and boasts Turkish steam rooms, Indo-Roman baths, indoor and outdoor lagoons and an Aztec-inspired pool, and the thermal water is said to be among the warmest in the Pyrenees. De-stressing has never been so luxurious.

Snowpark El Tarter

If snowboarding is your passion, then the snowpark at El Tartar, a few miles west of Soldeu, is a must. Part of the Andorran Government’s effort to attract younger tourists, the park hosts many international snowboarding competitions, both for professionals and amateurs, during the winter season. There’s also a triple line of kickers (whatever that means...) and a giant air bag, which no doubt helps if all that jumping goes wrong.

Palau de Gel

Much of the nightlife in ski resorts is geared towards adults. Pub crawls and night clubs are the norm, which isn’t ideal if you’re bringing children. One solution is to head a little way down the road to Canillo, where the Palau de Gel offers ice skating under music and lights. You can even try your hand at curling — basically bowls on ice — and there are plenty of reasonably priced packages that will include dinner.

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