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

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The Independent Travel

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.

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