Martin Symington finds his wallet holds out in the Pyrenees - and that early risers fare best

Monday morning of the February half-term holiday, and there was pandemonium in the Pyrenees. Those in the know had risen with the lark to start forming an 8am queue for the gondola from Soldeu up the mountain to Espiolets. Because we had arrived at nine, we faced the best part of an hour shuffling along in unclipped boots, collapsing under piles of skis and poles.

Monday morning of the February half-term holiday, and there was pandemonium in the Pyrenees. Those in the know had risen with the lark to start forming an 8am queue for the gondola from Soldeu up the mountain to Espiolets. Because we had arrived at nine, we faced the best part of an hour shuffling along in unclipped boots, collapsing under piles of skis and poles.

And we were the lucky ones, having reached Soldeu earlier enough the previous afternoon to get to the equipment hire shop. Tardier punters had to queue most of the morning for their gear, before joining the lift queue. Up at Espiolets, there was yet another long queue at the ski school's registration window. Another 40 minutes' shuffling and I reached the front. Alas, all places for morning classes were filled long ago, so it was afternoon ski school for the children - Iona (10), Toby (nine) and Sebastian (seven).

For decades, the tiny Pyrenean principality of Andorra has enjoyed a reputation as the ultimate winter sports stomping ground of Europe's impecunious young. This is Ibiza-in-the-snow, where you party all night, crash out in some crowded concrete block, and breakfast at lunchtime before taking to the snowboard. It is cheap and, to some, cheerful. But this is only half the truth. For several years Soldeu, Andorra's leading ski resort, has been making noises about "going up-market". Over the past two seasons it has finally puts its money where its mouth is, and invested big-time in new gondolas and high-speed quad and six-chair lifts. Several four-star hotels have sprung up, including the Sportshotel Village where we took an open-plan five-bed family suite. This enabled us to combine a budget insufficient for the Alps with a smart hotel whose best points were exceptionally friendly service, superb buffet dinners, breakfasts included in the half-board deal, and a convenient location right next to the gondola station.

On the long coach journey southwards from Toulouse airport, our tour rep had regaled us with stories of the glories of Soldeu: the fun and games to be had on- and off-piste; the restaurants and bars; the cheap booze and duty-free shopping. Then there was the "best ski school in Europe"; the brand new lift system; the fabulous snow conditions. "In fact," proclaimed Mark the rep into his microphone, "I have heard on the radio that it is snowing in Andorra right now." He was right. We snaked over the Grau Roig pass, and slithered into Soldeu to a scene of snowdrifts, icicles and oversized snowflakes sailing down on to roofs already coated thick with icing sugar.

Next morning we woke to royal blue skies and fresh powder. I volunteered to dole out 10,000 pesetas (both Spanish and French money are accepted in Andorra) to anyone who spotted a cloud. The offer would be withdrawn if so much as a wisp of white appeared in the sky. My generosity was to remain untested virtually all week.

Fighting our way onto the slopes that first morning was a fearsome battle, but the beautiful conditions adequately compensated. The Soldeu and El Tarter ski areas are linked by lift, opening up between them a great variety of runs, perfect for intermediate skiers such as ourselves - open pistes, tracks through conifer forest, cruising terrain. In fact, the crowds remained a problem all week, although that bottleneck of the first morning, which was all about competing for places at Soldeu's famous ski school, turned out to be a one-off. "The ski school has an enduring reputation as one of the best in Europe," confirms the Consumers' Association's scrupulously independent Good Skiing and Snowboarding Guide.

How did it get this reputation, I wondered? We rolled up at the meeting point to mayhem, as instructors of numerous nationalities tried to sort scores of aimless youngsters into groups of 12 and assign them to a class. The instructors, hassled and jostled by pushy parents, were themselves complaining out loud that there were just too many kids for them to cope with. By the end of a three-hour session, they had done nothing more than ascertain who could snowplough and who could not.

To be fair, by the second day some method had emerged out of the madness. My wife and I spotted, from a chairlift, an orderly file of youngsters including Iona and Toby, tracing neat, serpentine tracks in the snow under the authoritative leadership of Ian, their British instructor. The youngest, Sebastian, meanwhile, was having more juvenile fun with a young Australian called Annie. And the proof of the pudding was that the three of them eventually took to their groups with alacrity. However, I still think that 12 or 13 children to one instructor are too many, and that instructors should be in radio or mobile-phone contact if they are to to locate lost kids and restore them to their groups.

The five of us settled into a pattern of mornings skiing as a family - sometimes together, sometimes splitting up - then meeting to fight for a bowl of hot soup or hamburgers and chips at one of the teeming mountain restaurants. After ski school we would all take to the slopes again until the lifts closed.

All of this left us so knackered that the trumpeted aprÿs-ski never got off the nursery slopes for us. One night we hired a childminder, and my wife and I headed for downtown Soldeu, where a live band engagingly called The Dog's Bollocks were due to play. First, however, we had a drink in Fat Albert's to a background of football on a giant screen, then another at Aspens where the music was so loud we couldn't even play at chatting each other up.

We ended up at the bar of our civilised hotel, drinking Irish coffee in the relaxing company of other roaring thirtysomethings and fortysomethings. Everybody, we discovered, was of one mind: Soldeu is a great place for a family skiing holiday - except for the overcrowding. If only we were not restricted to peak times such as half-term, then it really would be the dog's bollocks.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model of a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution