Ski Andorra

Andorra is an anomaly in Europe, a small independent state of little more than thirty villages and a capital, tucked away in the Pyrenees. For centuries it was cut off from the rest of Europe by high mountains and poor roads. But now it's a major ski holiday destination.

For centuries a Spanish bishop and a French prince (latterly the President of France) have been Andorra's titular “princes”- joint heads of state of this principality - but in reality Andorra was left to run itself, concentrating on farming and trading with its larger and wealthier neighbours on both sides of the Pyrenees. In the 20th century the first decent roads arrived and soon after came the great new European sport of skiing, which seemed ideally suited to Andorra's steep mountainsides and isolated villages. Andorra also had another attraction for skiers: it was VAT-Free and mostly Duty-Free, so alcohol, tobacco and electrical goods have always been cheaper than in almost anywhere else in Europe. 

And until the 1990s, this was the main force behind the 'cheap and cheerful' image of Andorran skiing. The mountains were not as high, the lifts were not as new, and the snow was not as plentiful as in the Alps, but everything was less expensive, the ski instructors were keener on speaking English, everyone was more friendly and the whole country was an enormous duty-free bar, so who cared if the pistes weren't very impressive?

From the 1990s onwards, howver, Andorra realised that cheap booze can only get you so far as a Winter Sports holiday destination. So massive private and government investment programs were channelled into the ski industry and individual resorts were linked together to create two large ski areas that were meant to compete on equal terms with anything found in the Alps.

Andorra's biggest ski area is Grandvalira. It has 210 km of skiing and snowboarding at altitudes of up to 2,560m among the mountains above a sequence of villages and towns. the most important of which are Soldeu (1,800m) and Pas de la Casa (2,100m). The others are Encamp (1,300m), Canillo (1,500m), El Tarter (1,710m) and Grau Roig (2,120m).  The individual resorts still have their own identities. Pas de la Casa on the French border is a brash, lively, fun, ugly but super-convenient party town. Soldeu is much quieter; parts of it actually look quite chic, but it lacks atmosphere.

The smaller ski area of Vallnord has more charming resorts. Overall it has 89km of skiing and boarding, but only 66km of these runs are around the linked resorts of Pal (1550m) and Arinsal (1475m), with lifts rising up to 2,560m. You can also access this Pal-Arinsal ski area by lift from the town of La Massana, down the valley, which is very much a town rather than a ski resort, but is arguably the most convenient base of all, because it's the closest not only to Grandvalira (most ski passes entitle you at least one days's skiing in the other ski area) but also to the other much smaller part of Vallnord - Ordino-Arcalis. Often simply referred to as Arcalis, this has Valnord's remaining 23km of runs. That does not sound much, but for strong skiers it's an important addition even though it's a bus-ride away, because this is where Andorra's highest and toughest skiing is, with lifts rising from 1,940m to 2,625m, and where the best snow is usually to be found. Arcalis is also Andorra's centre for freeriding and off-piste skiing. (You can't stay near the lifts, however, so you have to commute to and from the slopes).

And so has Andorra succeeded in taking on the Alpine ski resorts and beating them at their own game? Partly is the answer. The Andorran resorts tend to be sited at the same altitude as the major French, Swiss and Italian ski resorts, and significantly higher than most of the Austrian ones; and Grandvalira now has the same quantity of lifts and pistes as some of the major resorts in the Alps. But the lifts don't rise quite as high - 500m to 750m maximum verticals are all you can expect here, whereas there are plenty of places in the Alps with more than double this. This means there are less opportunities to tire out relentlessly keen, piste-bashing intermediates; and there is less tough terrain, on-piste and off-piste, for advanced skiers. In most years, not as much snow falls in Andorra as it does in the major Alpine centres, and the temperatures in Andorra are slightly warmer so less artificial snow can be made as well. Moreover in the drive to get big, a lot of the traditional Pyrenean charm has been lost. Pal and Arinsal might be two of the nicest ski villages in Andorra but no one would put them on a list of the top ten most beautiful ski resorts in Europe.

But perhaps we are being too snooty. Despite all its investment, the ski resorts in Andorra still tend to be cheaper than equivalent sized counterparts in the Alps. And for beginners, all the resorts are great places to learn to ski. And anyone who has purchased a round of drinks in a top Alpine ski resort will welcome the idea of a ski resort where your health, stamina and personal taste limit your alcohol-intake, not your wallet.


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Resorts

Arinsal, Pas De La Casa, Soldeu

Regions





Ski Resorts & Regions

  • Arinsal

    In recent years the twin ski areas of Pal - Arinsal and Ordino - Arcalis have merged to form Vallnord, a mini ski conurbation of 66 runs, 41 ski-lifts and 13 mountain restaurants served by just one Vallnord ski pass.

  • Pas de la Casa

    Best known for its cut-price stores and Club 18-30 atmosphere than for its skiing Pas de la Casa is both a ski resort and shopping centre.

  • Soldeu

    Soldeu is the ski capital of Andorra. Centrally situated in Grandvalira, Andorra’s biggest ski region, at a base altitude of 1,800m Soldeu is a charming village and vibrant ski resort, and considerably less boisterous than nearby Pas de la Casa.