Photo by Aoife Shanahan
Nestled between the Spanish and French borders, just a three-hour drive from Barcelona, lies the principality of Andorra. This land of high mountains and narrow valleys boasts the best ski slopes in the Pyrenees and a number of resorts that cater for all levels. Formerly small mountain villages, these resorts have seen huge growth thanks to ski tourism and have joined together in recent years to form two large skiing areas—Vallnord and Grandvalira.
The area of Grandvalira covers 1,926 hectares and is divided into six different sectors, the main ones being Pas de la Casa, El Tarter and Soldeu. An efficient lift system transports skiers and snowboarders around the area’s 210 km of slopes—the largest skiable domain in the Pyrenees—and artificial snow guarantees more than 60 percent of the area. www.grandvalira.com
Pas de la Casa
Right on the French border, Pas de la Casa sits at an altitude of 2050m, with the highest lift reaching 2640m, making this the highest resort in the Pyrenees. Thanks to its unbeatable location, Pas enjoys excellent snow throughout the season. The slopes cater very well for beginners and aspiring intermediates and, for those looking for more of a challenge, there are also a few feisty black runs to be found. The town is lively with a thriving bar scene.
This is the only sector of Grandvalira that isn’t residential. Grau Roig has just one hotel and a large car park. It’s a great resort for families, as everything is close together. There is a good progression of slopes from beginner to intermediate, and for experienced skiers, there are some fantastic red and black runs. Snowboarders can head to the small board park and half pipe.
Set a on a steep hillside across the valley from the ski area, Soldeu is the best-placed resort to explore Grandvalira. The Soldeu ski area has excellent beginner and intermediate terrain with lots of easy trails to enjoy. The town is set on a busy road, and what it lacks in charm it makes up for in the variety of hotels, apartments, restaurants and shops.
1.5km along from Soldeu is El Tarter. Up on the slopes, the Riba Escorada area is specifically designed for beginners. If you want to take your skiing or boarding to the next level, the snow park in El Tarter is the perfect place to go. Small and quiet, El Tarter town has good accommodation centred around a high-speed gondola and a handful bars and restaurants.
The ski area close to Canillo is one of Andorra’s most beautiful spots and is accessed from the town by gondola. The slopes here are great for families and beginners. Smaller and quieter than Pas and Soldeu, Canillo still has a good choice of hotels.
Like Canillo, there are no in the town itself. The Funicamp gondola—until recently the longest in Europe, at 6.1km—takes skiers right up to Solanelles, the highest point in the resort and a place of breathtaking views. Encamp is located just 5km from the main shopping area of Andorra la Vella.
Vallnord covers the Arcalis and Arinsal-Pal ski area. The two resorts are a considerable distance apart but have been joined up by a cable car and boast a total of 93km of pistes. www.vallnord.com
Arcalis has 1092 acres of terrain and over 30km of pistes. This resort is well suited to advanced and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. North-facing, with steep slopes and spectacular valleys, it enjoys excellent snow conditions. It also has the longest run in Andorra for beginners—the 8km Megaverde—and some easily-reached freeride areas. A wifi connection is also available throughout the sector.
Where to stay: Ordino is one of Andorra’s prettiest towns, with an old centre that has retained its charm despite the influx of tourists.
Pal and Arinsal
Pal and Arinsal form a single resort linked by cable car and they share a single ski pass. The resort is particularly suited to families, beginners and early intermediates. More advanced skiers will get bored very quickly here. The Pal area of the resort is very wooded and green with wide slopes, whereas the Arinsal area has few trees. Snow reliability is assured and piste maintenance is good. Intermediate skiers should go higher, where there are some steep red pistes.
Where to stay:
Arinsal: This is a lively town with lots of bars and restaurants.
Pal: The village of Pal is quiet and picturesque and has escaped much of the development that has taken over other resorts. There’s direct access to the ski area by gondola from the town.
La Massana: Approximately 4km from Arinsal, La Massana is also lower key than Arinsal, with just a few bars and a variety of supermarkets, shops and amenities. A gondola runs from the town centre up to the Pal ski area.
Almost as many people head to Andorra to shop as they do to ski. Although the principality has introduced a sales tax of 4.5%, it’s still much cheaper than its European neighbours (in Spain VAT is 21% on most goods and services), making it a true shopping haven. Duty-free stores are located all over, with the largest concentrations found in the capital and small towns close to the Spanish and French borders. Andorra la Vella is the number one shopping destination, packed with stores and shopping centres selling everything from perfume, jewellery and electronic goods to big-name fashion brands. Pas de la Casa and Escaldes are also popular shopping haunts.
Located in the town of Escaldes and boasting over 6,000 square metres of pools, saunas, jacuzzis and treatment spaces, Caldea is Europe’s largest mountain health spa. Fed by mineral-rich thermal waters, which are kept at a constant 32ºC, this is a wonderful way to wind down after a hard day on the mountains. Open every day from 10am til 10pm (and until midnight on Saturdays). A three-hour general entrance costs €37. You can sign up for additional treatments, from body scrubs to massages. www.caldea.com
Other snow sports
Andorra is packed with snow activities for non-skiers. At the Adventure Activities Center in Grau Roig (Grandvalira) you can reserve a variety of activities. In Vallnord, both Arinsal and Pal offer a number of snow sports.
Mushing: Enjoy spectacular landscapes while driving a dog sled through the mountains. The sleds seat two people, and you can either take it easy while a guide drives or literally take the reins yourself.
Snowshoes: The art of snowshoeing has been around for thousands of years and is now a fast-growing winter sport. It’s simple, burns a ton of calories, and allows you to take in the breathtaking mountain views at a more leisurely pace.
Snowmobiles: The Pal sector has a permanent circuit for snowmobiles, with a descent through the woods to the Setúria valley.