However, according to two friends who have recently had the opportunity to weigh up Andorra, it does have its attractions. Tina Carter has just come back from a week there with her nine-year-old son, Thomas, after going skiing for the first time last year in Val d'Isere (France). Sheila Brewis has just come back from a week with her family in Schladming (Austria), after having a week last year in Andorra.
The two of them spent their time in Andorra rather differently. Sheila and family did the classical thing for British skiers: they stayed in and took ski school classes at the biggest resort, Soldeu - a ski-inspired development on the road up to the French border at Pas de la Casa. Tina and Thomas stayed with friends in the valley village of Ordino, near La Massana, and took private tuition in the high north-facing bowl of Arcalis, near the opposite extremity of the tiny principality.
Looking back with Austria for comparison, Sheila has mixed memories of Andorra. 'As in Austria, we were very happy with the hotel and the skiing. The runs at Schladming are much longer, but Soldeu is just as interesting and the ski area is similarly attractive.
'The village we stayed in this year - Haus in Ennstal, just next door to Schladming - was everything you (or at least we) hope for in an Austrian resort: pretty, rustic, quiet. By contrast, Soldeu was shabby, with lots of messy building sites and noisy at night - not with British holidaymakers as you might suppose, but locals shouting and roaring around in cars.'
And what of the Soldeu ski school, famous for its predominantly British-speaking instructors? 'Absolutely excellent. We felt this at the time, but we feel it even more strongly having just come back from a week in German-language classes. In Haus, we got no individual tuition at all, because the instructor had neither the time nor the language skills to give it to us.'
Both the Brewises and the Carters judged Andorra cheaper than France or Austria, as expected, although the differences in mountain restaurant prices were much less pronounced than in valley shops. For a burger, chips and salad with a glass of wine, reckon on pounds 4-pounds 5; for a three-course dinner with wine in a decent restaurant, reckon on pounds 10-pounds 12.
What struck Tina about the three restaurants at Arcalis - all neat, efficient but rather soulless cafeteria operations - was the 'beautiful, immaculate loos'. Clearly, starting her skiing career in Val d'Isere, traditionally the most hygienically challenged resort in the Alps, has left scars.
Tina, who got as far as skiing the Solaise area in her week in Val, went to Andorra expecting something of a letdown. She was pleasantly surprised. 'I don't doubt that a good skier would find the resorts limiting. But for a second-week skier like me, Arcalis was fine - the area was big enough to give me some variety, but small enough for me to feel confident about finding my way around with Thomas when not having a lesson. And the great contrast to Val d'Isere was that the area was so quiet - hardly any Brits, and during the week hardly any Spaniards either.'
Ordino left the Carters similarly impressed. 'It may not be picture- book Alpine,' says Tina, 'but it doesn't suffer from the building- site syndrome - and some of the shops here and in the bigger towns are smart, serving an upmarket local and Spanish clientele.'
Neither the Carters nor the Brewises experienced the other three areas Andorra has to offer - that shared by Pas de la Casa and Grau Roig, only slightly smaller than Soldeu, and Arinsal and Pal, above La Massana. Tina Carter would be keen to do so on a return visit: 'Car hire is cheap, and having a car would allow you to get around the different areas without worrying about the ski bus - the one to Arcalis seemed adequate, but we were much happier not depending on it.'
Andorra is less distinct from minor Alpine destinations than we tend to believe. Price is undoubtedly part of its appeal, but for a really cheap skiing holiday, eastern Europe remains the prime destination. What makes Andorra so appealing for novices is the ready availablity of good English- language tuition.
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