Being a small principality, Andorra, in the Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain, has seen a rise to become a major player in the winter sports industry. It is no longer seen as your budget trip away, although there are some great deals to be had.
With a reputation for attracting a younger, livelier crowd, a ski holiday in Andorra is best suited for beginners and intermediates that want a good time both on and off the slopes. With the added benefit of being a duty free state you can save on alcohol, cigarettes and designer clothes whilst there.
Today Andorra claims to have the most sophisticated lift network in Europe, part of which has now outgrown the principality’s borders and is extending in to France this season.
Growth of the ski resort
Andorra has invested heavily with high-tech new lifts at all of its ski areas. The miracle of the shrinking ski area numbers has resulted from that success as smaller ski areas grow bigger and merge together.
Pas de La Casa, Grau Roig and Soldeu – El Tarter are all linked together, which has meant improved access and greater ski conditions. More places will be linked, as Andorra is becoming a superb ski location.
At the moment only Ordino (Arcalis) is left standing alone, for now, although it too offers a host of high speed detachable four and six seater chairs and has joined Pal Arinsal in a joint marketing a lift ticketing operation under the banner Vallnord.
So now Andorra has only two resorts and it may not be long before even these are joined. Officials in Andorra’s resorts speak of a time when skiers and boarders will be able to access one huge ski area from almost any town in Andorra (which would be handy to escape the ever more congested narrow valley roads!).
Pal Arinsal offers a combined trail length of 63km (39 miles) of runs served by 30 lifts, with a combined total of 30,400 skiers per hour. The cable car that links the two runs, between Coll de la Botella at 2067m and Port Negre at 2489m, a distance of 2376m. The Doppelmayr-built lift, the first of its type in the Pyrenees, has a journey time of six minutes and can carry 50 people per car, offers spectacular views, and has a capacity of 500 skiers per hour.
The new lift represents the culmination of a huge investment in the area which has seen the installation of four new quads, a high speed gondola linking Arinsal to its resort base and the upgrading of trails, snowmaking and most other aspects of the two ski areas, now officially one.
Soldeu added a new access gondola to Canillo, following the addition of three new high speed six-seater chairs the year before. Canillo is the resort’s fourth base as it takes up even more of the 20km (13 mile) road leading from La Vella in to France. The chairs link its snow-sure and sunny slopes to those of neighbouring Pas de la Casa – Grau Roig, they currently operate the highest number for a single ski area in the world for that lift type.
In European measurement terms the Soldeu – Pas de la Casa terrain expands to 186km (118 miles) of full lift-linked skiing. The combined uplift figures are more globally understood and equally impressive: 58 lifts with a combined uplift of over 80,000 people per hour, more than Aspen, Vail, Whistler and even some big European resorts like Courchevel and Chamonix.
There has recently been four and five star accommodation been constructed in Andorra, alongside these resorts are superb leisure complexes and great shopping experiences.
In La Vella, the spectacular Caldea ‘Thermoludic Centre’ has been constructed. It is a exciting building to view with fantastic mirrored glass crystal spires. It has a health centre with spas and pools and everything you would want from this sort of facility. Canillo is another good choice as it is one of the larger villages and has an excellent indoor sports centre, Andorra’s national facility, including swimming pool and an ice rink.
The increasing number of access points to the slopes is also seen as a key way of tackling the Principalities main problem, traffic. A victim of its own success, each morning the roads are full of cars in a snaking traffic jam up the steep sided valley from La Vella to the ski areas. Strategists have already calculated the maximum number of cars that can be crammed in to the road space, limited by the minimal amount of level ground in the country, before the principality grinds to a halt.
That time doesn’t look to be too far off, especially as Andorrans themselves, reportedly generally at the wealthier end of European living standards, tend to buy the biggest SUVs available. Plans to tackle the problem include an extension of the Spanish rail system in to Andorra itself – making it more tempting for Spaniards, who make up the lion’s share of Andorra’s market, to consider using public transport.
Snow conditions are also a little different from those of the Alps. The southern European sunshine can beat down very warmly by the middle of the day, perhaps getting into double figures Celsius. This temperature is quickly reached from normally overnight sub-zeroes, and rapidly returns to around freezing as soon as the sun drops behind the mountains in the late afternoon. Combined with the high altitude and north facing slopes, this means that the slope surface shows few signs of deterioration from such a heat blast.
The proximity to the Mediterranean makes a morning ski and an afternoon swim in the sea a reality, a special treat for the last day before you hop on the plane perhaps. Then again the slopes and lifts are still busy at 5pm if you want to save sea swimming for the summer.
One of the problems Andorra has is that it has no airport on its own territory and guests have to arrive from Toulouse in France or Barcelona in Spain, both a three-four hour drive. There has been talk of the construction of closer airports for many decades but nothing has yet been built.
A major bonus for English speaking visitors is the fact that the Andorran ski schools employ large numbers of Australian, Kiwi and British BASI qualified instructors to teach at all levels. Whatever the ESF in France may tell you, this undoubtedly leads to a different attitude to teaching – more friendly, more relaxed and generally more enjoyable than the norm elsewhere in the Alps. Children and first timers seem to benefit especially.
Andorra offers all skiers great value for money, in comparison to other destinations it always comes out in the top three for value, although prices are rising 10% per annum, a higher rate than any of the Alpine regions. That being said the duty free status that is on offer enables resorts to some of the cheapest dining and drinking experiences at ski resorts in the world, petrol is also a lot cheaper than in other destinations.
There a plenty of top quality ski retailers who offer brilliant prices which are unbelievable, often lower than many end of season sales. Andorra La Vella is a fantastic location to shop, and also enjoy a night out.