Skiing Special Report: The fine art of skiing on the cheap

Andorra has gone from being Ibiza with snow to offering a variety of great resorts for all tastes and ages, says Maria Leach

Andorra is a small country with big paradoxes. Its broad, blank mountainsides are defined by stunning Pyrenean mountain ranges part hidden in the clouds. But as you get towards the capital, Andorra la Vella, the stark reminder of what Andorra means to most people becomes evident: shop windows packed with duty-free goods and supermarkets stacked so high with cheap alcohol that's it's hard to find the few dusty vegetables lying disconsolate in a forgotten corner.

Andorra is a small country with big paradoxes. Its broad, blank mountainsides are defined by stunning Pyrenean mountain ranges part hidden in the clouds. But as you get towards the capital, Andorra la Vella, the stark reminder of what Andorra means to most people becomes evident: shop windows packed with duty-free goods and supermarkets stacked so high with cheap alcohol that's it's hard to find the few dusty vegetables lying disconsolate in a forgotten corner.

When I first came here as a novice skier in the mid-Eighties, the generous proportions of rum to coke, the sunny skies and unsurpassed après-ski debauchery gave this small tax haven squeezed between France and Spain a reputation as the Ibiza of its day. Nowadays, Andorra has become simply a good country in which to ski, with variety in the characters of resorts, a wide choice of accommodation and, of course, an après-ski life which still throbs into the early morning.

Although it's impossible to get a three-valley pass (the three main resorts can't put aside old rivalries and work together), you can still have a cheap skiing holiday here – if you work at it.

Simon, I and our three children (12, 10 and eight) have, over the last four years, developed independent holidaying on the cheap in Andorra into a fine art, while ensuring that our time is as pain-free on and off the slopes as possible.

The challenge is to get a week's varied skiing for five at around £2,000 all in. Although keen to keep within our budget, we eat out in style every other evening, drinking good riojas and turning a blind eye to the prices. Instead, we economise on lunches by taking a picnic up the mountain. We ski somewhat nomadically, choosing the resort on the day, our children following us on blue, red and black slopes when not roaring off-piste between the trees.

We ski where we please, buying fresh bread in the mornings and picnicking in secluded spots, wedged on to tree trunks and cramming chorizo, crisps and chocolate into our mouths as soon as we can remove our gloves. The only real expense is the soft drinks and beers, which we buy from the cafés.

On our last trip, we flew to Barcelona rather than Toulouse, as the drive down through the Cadi Tunnel is less vulnerable to heavy snowfalls than the route from France over the Pas de la Casa. Our rented Astra was a frugal diesel complete with ski-rack and snow chains, and with the help of the fourth tape of Harry Potter, the journey was a relaxed three hours from airport to resort.

We were returning to our preferred choice of accommodation: self-catering in a two-bedroom apartment in the village of Arinsal at £450 for the week. Sadly, it could not even rise to the challenge of a cold tap on the bath, the bed headboards fell off in our hands, and neither the lights nor the blinds worked. In Andorra, it's best to shrug these things off.

We complained to Servissim Andorra Holidays (who remedied most of the faults by the following evening) and set off to our favourite night spot, Rocky Mountain, where the same Van Morrison tape as last year was still rumbling around the large, dark, smoky rooms and the children amused themselves playing air hockey and pool while we quaffed the local wine and beer.

Last year we had stayed at the ApartHotel "Annapurna" just outside the beautifully preserved village of Ordino. The year before we had tried the other alternative of dinner, bed and breakfast at the friendly Hotel Arinsal. The children, then 10, 8 and 6, found the evening meal both late (starting at 8.30pm) and too adult for their tastes. We missed a general place to relax in, while the cost of £950 for half board meant that eating elsewhere was too much of a luxury. Value for money and freedom of movement meant that this year we reverted to our original choice of self-catering in an apartment.

As for the resorts, Arcalis in the north nearest to Spain is our favourite; it's also the cheapest at just over £60 for day passes for all the family. The six-seater chairlift speeds past 6ft icicles dripping sword of Damocles-like from the black rocks, and the resort is remote and uncrowded with 24km of pistes. At the February half-term week, there was only a smattering of Spanish and Andorrans on the slopes, the chairlifts and cafés were fast and efficient and there was ample skiing or boarding for intermediate children and more proficient adults.

We spent one day at Soldeu el Tarter, which is the largest of the country's resorts and cost around £80 for the five of us. At an additional cost you can ski over to neighbouring Grau Roig and Pas de la Casa, although last year's experience of queues at Grau Roig and the visually uninspiring slopes of Pas de la Casa meant that we kept to Soldeu this year.

It's a young person's resort, crowded and lively with distorted Europop blaring out from the cafés and more than 250 instructors who can improve your skiing technique. The main base is like an international airport lounge and although the skiing is the most extensive in Andorra, I yearned to get away from the uncoordinated English teenagers, one of whom took out our eight-year-old in a 30-foot tumble on his final run of the day.

We chose to go to the beautiful tree-lined resort of Pal for our last two days' skiing at a cost of around £70 a day for the five of us. Although, like all the resorts, the number of pistes you can ski is relatively limited, it is now linked by cable-car to the adjacent valley of Arinsal, where the children had spent their first two years perfecting the snowplough. Pal, nestling among the tall pines trees, provides solace to the soul and is the perfect way to round off the holiday with its cosy cafés, lovely red runs through the trees and breathtaking views of the Pyrenees.

The comparative hassle of the self-build style holiday is not for the faint-hearted, but it's as good value as a package holiday based in one resort (with Air Miles, it can even work out cheaper) and the sense of adventure as we set out to explore a new resort is worth every euro. On a grey day in March, it is with a certain sadness that we are listening to the rest of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire without the accompanying backdrop of the Pyrenees.

Maria Leach and her family booked online with British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com), well in advance, and paid a total of £489 return. They rented a medium-sized hire car through Europcar (0870 607 5000, www.europcar.co.uk) for £174 for a week, including ski rack and snow chain. The apartment in Arinsal was booked through Servissim Andorra Holidays (00 376 737 800, www.andorra-holidays.com) for £450. Ski hire, arranged locally, costs £100 for four; passes were another £400. With £450 of spending money, the total cost of the week was £2,063, or £413 per person

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