Andorra is snow country. A kingdom of just 500 square kilometres, this tiny country in the Pyrénées is a privileged enclave that has it all. Mountains of pine-forest and snow, shops with heavily discounted prices, luxury – but af fordable – hotels, plus a huge range of leisur e activities for all tastes and pockets.
The ski season is long and you can enjoy the shopping and spas all the year round. Vallnord has three different ski slopes that you can use by paying for just one ski-pass: Pal, Arinsal and Arcalis comprise literally kilometres of slopes and plenty of facilities so you have everything at your fingertips for your white winter holidays. It’s snow time!
WHEN winter comes, not even the laziest amongst us can resist getting away and hitting the slopes. Skiing attracts the young and old alike, because it’s not just a form of exercise. Heading for the mountains in the snow is also about finding peace and quiet, good food, breathing in clean air and spending time with family and friends.
Andorra has a long-standing skiing tradition and this activity is the country’s main attraction – a country that lives mostly off tourism both in summer and winter. These days there are two main skiing zones – Grandvalira includes the slopes of Pas de la Casa, Grauroig and Soldeu el Tarter, linked together by mechanical ski-lifts.
Vallnord encompasses the slopes of Pal, Arinsal and Arcalis, the first two joined by ski-lifes and the third accessible by road, although you can use all three with just one skipass (forfait).
Vallnord seeks to offer a vast range of activities in the snow, never forgetting to offer facilities that all the family can enjoy. To this end, every year they improve and expand their tourism activities, with particular emphasis on skiing, this being the biggest attraction of all.
But this doesn’t mean those members of the family who are not into skiing have to suffer – taking into account that the majority of trips to Andorra are for more than three days, the range of choices of activities is vast and there are plenty of options for leisure and relaxation for everyone.
Feeling at home
Finding accommodation in Andorra is very easy because there are plenty of hotels at every price, from the most economical for groups who want to stay together in an aparthotel through to five-star luxury establishments at the foot of the slopes.
Additionally, don’t forget that Andorra is an entire country and so if you want to get away from the madding crowds you can seek out a tiny rural village to stay overnight. Without a doubt, Andorra la Vella, the capital, is where the majority of the people and the accommodation are found, as well as the shops of course, but the remote villages that you see from the road as you wind your way up the mountains are perfect for guaranteed
rest and relaxation.
Escaldes, La Massana, Ordino and Erts are examples of some of the small villages full of charm where you can enjoy tailor-made accommodation and be close to the slopes. The majority of these villages retain their original Alpine structure with cobbled streets, stone houses and slate roofs.
The inhabitants are easily spotted by their marked accent, a cross between catalán and French, and the village bars are great for enjoying local wines and dishes typical of the country, which are mostly based on meat, particularly pork.
Well cared-for snow
When the economy of an entire country depends on the snow, all hands are on deck and every effort is made to maintain and protect it. In Vallnord, the snow is cared for all year round because, even though the skiing season only lasts five months, the rest of the year the area has to be maintained and the ground prepared for the winter.
Now, the ski season is in full swing and the quality of the snow on the ski slopes is impeccable. Skiing fanatics know that in the best stations a good covering of snow is available from day one and that they won’t have to go hiking for miles lugging their equipment with them – and Vallnord is one of those ski stations where the snows are guaranteed.
From La Massana, once you’ve left the car in the indoor car park, you enter a telecabin that takes you to the slopes. With your ski-pass, or forfait already in your hand, you have all you need – just take your pass to the nearest machine and all the slopes are at your disposal.
Arinsal and Pal have a total of 63 kilometres of slopes divided into numerous sections for all levels – from ‘green’ ones, the nursery slopes, through to the Freestyle and Freeride for the more experienced and adventurous, and even a slalom.
All of this, which is offered in most ski-stations, wouldn’t make a difference if it wasn’t for the fact that the slopes were as well looked-after as they are in Vallnord.
Pal-Arinsal, like Arcadís, have a total of 320 artificial snow machines, which guarantees optimum density of the white stuff at any moment throughout the season.
If you go skiing in Andorra you’ll enjoy good weather, since the average lowest annual temperature is –20ºC, the ideal temperature for the best snows.
The slope-cleaning machines prepare the surface every night and an extensive team works throughout the day to put up signposts and keep the area maintained at all times. There are staff on every ski-slope who control the flow of people and help those with less experience, and it is not uncommon to see other employees flying down the slopes themselves to check that the surface is at its best and correctly signposted, reporting on any changes that crop up such as possible difficulties, uneven ground or patches of ice.
Ski-schools and baby clubs
When you’re travelling as a family, something that is fairly frequent among tourists who visit Andorra, you have to take very much into account the well-being and entertainment of everyone – that’s why in Vallnord there are nurseries in every ski station for children aged one to four. At the foot of the slopes, but well-protected from the cold, the youngest members of the family will be thoroughly looked after by professionals whilst their
parents and older siblings hit the slopes.
For those who need a little more action and want to play as much as possible, there are also three ‘snow gardens’. These are designed with children from four to 11 in mind, who do not want to go skiing but nevertheless can amuse themselves and enjoy the snow in other ways, learning to appreciate the beauty of it while they play.
When the grown-ups have finished their ski-lessons or practice and are ready to meet up with the little ones again, there is plenty of fun in store for the whole family. The classic sleighs are the most economical choice, but at the same time fun, dynamic and educational since sliding down snowy slopes both helps coordination and provides exercise at the same time.
Other activities to enjoy with the kids are mushing (sleighs pulled by huskies); snow-bikes, jumps, walking with racquets on your feet, flying low in a light aircraft to admire the panoramic views and, in general, just about anything you can imagine to enable you to enjoy the snow and the mountains in all their guises.
Don’t forget that even though in the Iberian peninsula there are few ski-stations and very few months of snow, it’s great for kids to get to know what it’s like to live surrounded by the white stuff all day for most of the year.
From the age of eight, you can leave the children with a ski instructor for several hours. In each of Vallnord’s three stations there are schools offering skiing for kids, as well as all other types of winter sports. The 250 instructors are of numerous different nationalities, so you can choose one who speaks your child’s language or a language you want your child to learn or practice.
Those who only hit the slopes once a year normally prefer to have lessons to perfect their skiing or snowboarding techniques, whether they are alone or in a group. Regulars and those with more experience can choose an instructor who can show them new tricks, like skiing in virgin snow or Freestyle. For the more daring there are slalom circuits, which can also be hired.
Shopping and nightlife
For many, a day on the slopes – which lasts until 5pm – seems far too short and for other, less experienced skiers, it feels as though they’ve been shedding blood, sweat and tears for hours. But at 5pm, it’s time to go back to your hotels, replenish your energy levels with a nice warm cup of hot chocolate and hit the shops. Andorra has absolutely every brand of everything you might ever want to buy.
This tiny country in the Pyrénées used to be renowned as a tax haven and, even though this undeniable selling point is to all intents and purposes now relegated to the history books, there remains a shred of truth in it. In all the shops in Andorra you either pay less tax or they are simply cheaper, since the vendors make so many sales that they can afford to drop their prices – in fact, the shops of the capital are constantly overflowing with people.
It is fairly typical to come here to buy luxury products like perfume, jewellery, leather goods and designer clothes, even though these days it’s possible to buy absolutely anything, and always slightly cheaper than you’ll find it in Spain. Don’t hesitate to haggle over the price, because they’ll nearly always give you a ten per cent discount.
As one would expect, any goods with a connection to the mountains are omnipresent in these shops. You can find international brand names anywhere and some shops have so many specialist items that it’s easy to imagine they kit out the most intrepid explorers on their great expeditions.
From the latest Swiss Army knife through to scuba-diving tanks, if it’s not on sale in Andorra it probably doesn’t exist. The city, to the delight of shopaholics and the chagrin of the anti-capitalist, is just one giant shopping mall.
Skis and snow-boards, the trendiest skiing jackets, every type of boot, mountain bikes, sleeping bags... it’s the biggest and most varied sports’ shop window in Europe, and in contrast you’ll find vast electrical appliance retailers, perfume shops and tobacconists – and even chemists that sell cheap Viagra!
When you’re on holiday here with friends, there’s nothing better than making the night last for ever – the snow will still be there on the mountains in the morning and the young body can stand up to entire nights without sleeping because in the smallest of villages it’s worth going out to listen to music and indulge in a few drinks.
The bars here have their music on low enough that you can still hear yourselves think and chat and compare notes on the best ski-runs of the day. Night falls, and for as long as you can stay awake you can keep the party going and live it up to the maximum.
Perhaps you prefer a bit of relaxation at the end of a hard day on the slopes. In the Caldea therapeutic centre or the Ordino sports complex – the latter being brand-new – you can enjoy greatfacilities at very affordable prices.
A 25-metre swimming pool, sauna, paddle tennis and squash courts and more besides can be used for just five euros.
It’s worth popping in and taking a relaxing dip before your evening meal. The Caldea centre is more exclusive and, in addition to swimming pools with thermal waters, has a wide range of services including massages, chocolate therapy, wine therapy and bespoke beauty treatments – masks, peelings, anti-cellulite treatment and everything you need to de-stress and return home with new energy.
More info: www.vallnord.com
Pal and Arinsal stations
Location: Five kilometres from Andorra la Vella
Altitude: From 1,150 to 2,560 metres
Facilities: 30 ski-lifts, 300 artificial snow machines
Capacity: 35,700 skiers per hour
Slopes: Total of 63 kilometres. Five Freestyle slaloms, five green (nursery) slopes, 16 blue slopes, 16 red slopes, five black slopes, one Freestyle area, two Freeride areas, one Freestart area, one slalom area
Complementary activities: Mushing, snowmobiles for kids, jump, racquet-shoes, ski-bikes, helicopters, sleighs, archery, Tyrolean traverse, guided mountain tours and airboards
Restaurants: Self-service, snack bar with terrace
Ski-schools: Two, with 200 instructors
Baby Club: Two for children from one year old (as long as they can walk) to four years old
Snow gardens: Two for children from four to eight years old
Equipment hire: Five hire shops on the slopes
Parking: Space for 6,600 vehicles
Location: At 14 kilometres from Ordino and 22 kilometres from Andorra la Vella
Altitude: From 1,940 to 2,625 metres
Facilities: 13 ski-lifts, 76 artificial snow machines
Capacity: 16,510 skiers per hour
Slopes: Total of 26 kilometres. Five Freestyle slaloms, six green (nursery) slopes, six blue slopes, 11 red slopes, two black slopes, one snow park, one Freeride area, one sledge slope, one racquet-boot circuit, one snowmobile circuit
Alternative activities: Telemark, guided tours with racquet shoes, snowmobiles (day and night), rides in two-seater paragliders, helicopter rides and sports’ centre (swimming pool, fitness room, sauna, Turkish bath and other facilities).
Restaurants: Self-service, café-bar with terrace, snack bar with panoramic views
Ski-schools: With 50 multilingual instructors
Baby Club: One for children from one year old (as long as they can walk) to four years old
Snow gardens: For children from four to eight years old
Equipment hire: Hire shop at the foot of the slopes
Parking: Space for 1,500 vehicles