Little Andorra's up there with the big boys

The Pyrenees: The principality's oldest resort, Soldeu, has had a facelift over the past decade. It's raised its game, says Margareta Pagano

It is early afternoon on 16 April, the sun is scalding hot, yet the snow is crispy after an overnight sprinkling of spring powder.

And here we are, sitting half-way to the top of the world, looking up at the French side of the Pyrenees, eating spicy Catalan sausage stew in our shirt-sleeves with sweat dripping down our foreheads.

The charming signora who runs the Refugi des llacs de Pesson certainly knows how to feed the skiers who find her farmhouse kitchen hidden away in the Grau Roig, some 2,350 metres high up the valley. The mountains around us are empty apart from a couple of off-pisters carving their way down from above the tree-line, where they had been dropped by helicopter, but the restaurant is packed.

There are a few end-of-season visitors like us, but mainly it's full of sleek, orange-jacketed men and women of the Belgian ski team, here for some last-minute training, as well as many of Grandvalira's ski-instructors who are now free to enjoy the last few days on their own before packing up until next season.

That's how we found ourselves here eating the best food we've had so far, and skiing alongside pros such as John H. The former builder from Liverpool had been our daughter's instructor for a couple of days and offered to ski with us to the refuge that he reckons has the finest food in the valley

Apart from the mortification of having a ski-instructor like John – he's one of a handful of top Grade 4 instructors – watching your every move, it was a great way to celebrate a week of endless sunshine and sublime end-of-season skiing. We stayed at the Hotel Himalaia, a homely place that has four-stars but should probably give one up, in Soldeu (pictured above), the highest resort in the Grandvalira and one of its sunniest – the name means Sun God in Catalan.

Soldeu is Andorra's oldest resort, but over the past decade or so it has had a facelift with a string of new and posh hotels, such as the five-star Sports Village and Sport Hermitage, while also upgrading the lift-system with big state-of-the-art gondolas and chair lifts. At the same time, Soldeu's ski-school has grown to such a level that it is now rated one of the world's best.

Six areas make up Grandvalira which, with its 193km of runs – including 21 blacks, 32 reds and moguls – stretches from Pas de la Casa, Grau Roig, Soldeu, El Tarter down to Encamp and Canillo, and there are plans to link up with French resorts over the border to the east. The Catalan families who own most of the resort, like the Calbos, have been investing millions in the infrastructure and, even when the place is at its busiest, there's never more than a two-minute wait for lifts.

Any notion that skiing in Andorra is for cissies is out of date. There's skiing to suit all appetites – the snow park with its half-pipes for a kamikaze 16-year-old son; gentler motorways for a still hesitant 18-year-old daughter, and challenging blacks which all of us could manage. My husband so enjoyed the freedom of having the runs almost to himself that we couldn't get him off the slopes until dark.

And then, it was only the lure of the pizzas at the Hotel Bruxelles, across the road from the Himalaia, that did the trick. Après-ski in Soldeu is catholic; an Irish and English pub with huge TV screens for the football, local cafés with delicious grills and even bigger plasmas – the Catalans make the Brits look like footie novices – and a smattering of trendy clubs that had just closed for the season when we were there.

By far our grandest evening was at the Sport Hermitage with magnificent lounge areas with wooden-carved walls and ceilings that look out on to the mountains through floor-to-ceiling windows and are big enough to ski around. There's an even better view from the hotel's outrageously luxurious five-storey spa facing the steepest black run – the one that's to be used for next year's World Cup.

By swimming through from the pool to the outdoor Jacuzzi, you are, quite literally, hanging over the valley and can look straight on to the slopes. This is the sort of opulence you usually get in a Bond movie, and the Hermitage should cast itself for the next one; it's the perfect setting.

Walking back to the Himalaia, we could hear the goats' bells clinking as the herds were being brought back from the hillside to a barn behind our hotel. The elderly man who shepherds them every day, morning and night, is one of the resort owners and one of the wealthiest in the valley. He's been doing it for decades; that's Andorra for you, fiercely proud of its traditions, old and new side by side, yet catching up fast with the rest of Europe's hot-spots. But hopefully not too fast.

As John told us, when he first moved to Soldeu 10 years ago his friends back home wouldn't visit because they thought Andorra was so down-market they wouldn't dare admit to skiing there. "Now," he says, "they can't keep away." Neither will we.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Margareta Pagano travelled to Soldeu courtesy of the Andorra Tourist Board (andorra.ad). She stayed at the Hotel Himalaia (00 376 878 515; hotansa.com).

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker