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
Sunday 13 March 2011
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.
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).
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