Pleasantly surprised in Andorra

22nd March 2014, by Abi Butcher

Pascal the former Belgian downhill racer shows me the ropes in Arcalis

Pascal the former Belgian downhill racer shows me the ropes in Arcalis

Last Monday I “checked-in” on facebook while waiting for my flight at Gatwick. “Heading to the mountains,” I wrote, though neglected to mention I was actually going to Andorra. Call me shallow, but it doesn’t have the best rep and I felt faintly underwhelmed by the prospect of four days scouting around this tax-free, largely mountainous country wedged between Spain and France.

There are three main mountain villages in Andorra — Pas de la Casa, Arinsal and Soldeu — though skiers are increasingly chosing to stay in the smaller villages dotted lower down the valleys and in the capital, Andorra la Vella. Thanks to a masterstroke in organisation by, who seem to be able to sort anything, I was based in Arinsal for two nights, skiing Arinsal/Pal and Arcalis, then on to Soldeu for a final day.

Arinsal and Pal are linked easily by a quick cable car

Years ago, Andorra was known as a boozing spot, a cheap and cheerful ski destination with underwhelming skiing. Since then it has been trying to “drag its reputation out of the pub”, as one local put it, and become more upmarket. As I arrived at my hotel in Arinsal, groups of lads clutching bottles of San Miguel and sporting horrific sunburn did little to dispel my fears that nothing had changed and I went to bed feeling a little gloomy.

The rest of my visit, however, put paid to any preconceptions I had. A day skiing in Arinsal and Pal showed just how well this area is set up for beginners and intermediates. Vallnord, the company that runs the mountain, has poured money into these resorts as well as nearby Arcalis, so the lift system is up to date, snow cannons covering some 60% of the terrain and natural snow still in abundance — surprising considering the warm conditions last week. This year they have employed Marcus Uptod, a ski instructor here since 2006, to co-ordinate the British instructors and ensure Brits are getting the right instruction and value for money. Half of the instructors in the Vallnord ski school are now native English speakers, Marcus said, and the season seems to have been going well — British and Irish skiers are up by 25 per cent this year.

This was my first experience of skiing in the Pyrenees, beautiful in the sun

The skiing itself is mainly suited for beginners and intermediates. There are a couple of blacks but they’re not exactly hair-raising, and although there was no off-piste I was surprised how well the snow has stayed here and how good a condition the pistes are in still. There is no getting away from the fact that the village is ugly, with an array of pubs offering €2 Jagerbombs, but there are some quieter places to enjoy a nice meal — Restaurant Xalet does finer dining and Surf is well-known for its Argentine steaks. Cisco’s, a tex-mex joint literally carved into a wall, has an additional, entirely vegetarian menu — even including tofu rosti (which I didn’t try). But it was all cheap — €1.50 for a coffee, €9-12 for a main course — really unpretentious and I had the overwhelming impression that this friendly place really wanted visitors here.

The free bus from Arinsal to Arcalis is very easy to take from the centre of town

The next day, however, was the real treat — skiing in Arcalis. A 45-minute free bus took me to the freeride capital of Andorra. Tucked away at the head of a long valley with no accommodation at its base, Arcalis shares a lift pass with Pal/Arinsal. The slopes were quiet and although the marked runs are mainly reds, there is more off-piste terrain than you can shake a stick at. This place is home to El Dorado, a qualifier for the Freeride World Tour — which might show you how seriously the skiing here is taken.

Pascal, a former member of the Belgian ski team, was the perfect guide for a morning, and we tore around the place, tucking down couloirs, looking at great rocks, cliffs and cornices that you could jump off (ACL injury prevented me from doing so, sadly) and generally enjoying fabulous spring snow. Though another day of 18c temperatures, there was plenty of it left — this area faces north and north-east, with much of the skiing in the shade until later in the season.

One of the more gentle couloirs in Arcalis

The on-mountain dining can be a bit unexciting in Andorra, but a lovely restaurant to stop at is the Refugi les Portelles, owned by the very friendly David Alonso who owns a freeride shop in Sornàs, one of the pretty stone villages on the road up to the ski area base.

The blacks in Arcalis are never groomed, and they are steep and bumpy. There are two large freeride areas, with their own piste map, in which you can more or less ski anywhere — with great, gentler parts for people learning to ski off-piste. They’re unpisted, but they are patrolled and Pascal told me proudly that only one person had died in an avalanche in this area since skiing started here.

The fun to be had in Arcalis really converted me to Andorran skiing

Onwards, that afternoon, to Soldeu. By this time I was thoroughly enjoying my visit to Andorra and couldn’t wait…more in the next blog.

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