Andorra has come a long, long way since the days it had a reputation as Europe’s cheap and cheerful bargain basement ski destination.
It does remain highly affordable but on the mountain the rickety old drag lifts are long gone, replaced by some of the world’s most advanced high-speed, high comfort chair and gondola lifts and down in the ski villages what were once rather rough and ready resort bases now have something of a Little Switzerland feel to them with some very smart hotels and restaurants to enjoy.
Similarly where once there were half a dozen little ski centres to choose from, now there are two giant areas (albeit with one divided in to two sectors), including the biggest in the Pyrenees, Grandvalira, with more than 200km of runs spilling out over the French border. Down in resort formerly fairly basic apartment offerings have been replaced by some very swish four and five star hotels, complete with spectacular spas.
Don’t get me wrong. Andorra is still fun, friendly and affordable. The sun is still shining, the snow is still great and the value remains top-notch. But the quality has moved up tremendously across the little principality sandwiched between France and Spain over the past few decades.
It has had to really. It’s not quite right to call Andorra a victim of its own success, but successful it has been and market forces have driven up real estate prices in the ski centres meaning establishments that could once operate on a shoestring, now need to turn a decent profit by raising their game.
Andorra also remains Europe’s capital for affordable and full on apres-ski, along with being a shopper’s paradise still (it remains a duty-free destination to which the French and Spanish drive up with empty cars and near-empty fuel tanks to fill their vehicles with tax-free petrol and consumer goods before returning home). It’s also still a great place to learn to ski, or improve your skills, with friendly but efficient ski schools run by Brits or instructors from countries like Australia and New Zealand.
Pas de la Casa
Pas de la Casa has always been Andorra’s party central destination and remains so to this day, but it can equally well accommodate families and also has a reputation for maintaining some of the best snow conditions in the whole of the Pyrenees – located above 1700m it’s the highest ski centre in the principality.
The name Pas de la Casa (literally Pass of the House) derives from the days when all you would have found here was a shepherds’ hut which served as a landmark for travellers crossing the River Ariege to enter Andorra from France – the village sits right on the border.
Pas de la Casa is the highest of six different villages which have been connected by lifts and ski runs to form the Grandvalira ski region. This is the largest ski area in Andorra, the Pyrenees and is indeed one of the biggest in the world with 210km of runs served by an enviable fleet of fast six-seater chairlifts and gondolas to whisk you comfortably back up the slopes. Hard to believe that wehen a local business man, Francesco Viladomat, started the area 60 years ago in 1957 there was just one simple drag lift.
There’s a huge choice of bars, restaurants and night spots here – about 100 in total at the last count in fact. Because there’s so much competition, prices are generally kept down and service standards up. So usually it’s a win win.
Among the most popular dining choices at present are Rapid Pasta for, well, unsurprisingly given the name, their Italian dishes, but they also serve Mediterranean specialities and are known for the vege options. Equally self-explanatory Oh Burger Lounge which scores highly for everything from service and food to cleanliness and wifi signal. But there are dozens more to choose from.
Most establishments double as bars, sometimes with dancing. Some are more bar-scene than restaurant. El Marselles is somewhere down the middle, known for its friendly service and great atmosphere and the Underground Sports Bar and Grill has a long maintained reputation for food, drink, sports TVs and overall vibe, it’s one of the most popular in Pas.
Arinsal is a long standing British favourite that is part of Andorra’s other big ski area, Vallnord. Vallnord is not quite fully lift-linked but is in two sectors, Arinsal and Pal in one, Arcalis/La Masssana, a few miles away, marketed as a snowsure freeriding destination, the other. Lift tickets here cost a little less than for Grandvalira, and you can pay less still if you just buy a pass for the Arinsal sector only.
Arinsal also has quite a strong party town reputation but it is also strongly promoted as a family friendly destination and has particularly good on-snow fun-learning areas for children and excellent ski schools for adults too.
It’s also very close (three miles) from Andorra’s capital La Vella, home to the magnificent public spa and swimming complex and an estimated 2000 shops, most selling duty free consumer electronics, alcohol and all the other things you find in the airport departure lounges.
There are about 50 bars and restaurants in the resort and a great range from budget burger bars to some very upscale gourmet options, but still without the price tag such places would be charging in the Alps.
Borda d’Erts has a great reputation for its high calibre regional cuisine whilst Hunters Sports Bar & Grill gets also universal praise for its burgers, pizza and overall apres ski scene with the novelty that it specialises in Peruvian dishes and the host will sometimes perform card tricks. What more could you ask for?
Growing up alongside the main street through Andorra, Soldeu has in many ways been the biggest success of all the ski villages in Andorra over the past 20 years.
Located at the heart of the Grandvalira ski area and historically the driving force behind its creation, Soldeu is where flagship international ski competitions are staged, the part of the Andorran snow sports scene that the locals are most proud of.
Although there’s still plenty of family friendly accommodation, affordable dining and lively bars (if not quite the number of establishments nor the party reputation of Pas de la Casa these days), it’s in Soldeu that you walk up the main street past the plush Sporthotel (four star) and super luxurious five-star Hermitage with its incredible spa.
So you can base yourself in Soldeu for a normal ski holiday, but it’s also the place to check in if you’d like to splurge on a little Andorran luxury. The Glassbar 1850 in the Hermitage hotel is a top choice for sophisticated drinks and has a small but lovely terrace with wonderful views.
Getting more down to earth Fat Alberts is one of the most popular party-bars in town with a strong reputation for good beer, excellent food (the ‘all you can eat ribs’ are particularly popular), friendly service and stonking apres ski entertainment including some top notch live bands.
Words by Patrick Thorne.