The tiny principality of Andorra lies in the high Pyrenees between Spain and France. It is best known for its ski resorts and its duty free shopping which are the main factors in attracting more than ten million annual visitors. The altitude of the region is comparable with Alpine ski resorts reaching a peak at Coma Pedrosa which stands at 2.942 metres. Typically the skiing is popular with families and is ideal for beginners whilst the après-ski is amongst the liveliest of Europe’s ski resorts. One major advantage that Andorra has to offer over alternative ski destinations is its southerly latitude which often results in beautiful blue skies during much of the annual ski season which usually runs from mid-December until April. Visitors will also be pleased to find that accommodation, lift passes and entertainment in general tend to be significantly cheaper than in comparable Alpine resorts.
Getting There in Winter
The only way to get to Andorra is by road as there are no airports or railway stations in the country. If you’re driving you’ll find that both the CG-1 from the border with Spain and the CG-2 from the French border are very well maintained and always remain open during the winter months. However, you must exercise extreme caution as road conditions can change rapidly.
If you’re coming from abroad then you should check out which of Europe’s many budget airlines fly from your local airport to any of the following airports in Spain or France (distances and estimated transfer times by road are shown in brackets):
- Girona (199km – 2½ hours)
- Barcelona (202km – 2½ hours)
- Reus (189km – 2¾ hours)
- Toulouse (194km – 2¾ hours)
- Perpignan (172km – 2¾ hours)
Before travelling it’s a good idea to pre-book a private ski transfer with an experienced operator in offering services direct from any of the above airports to your hotel in Andorra from both Spain and France. A number of private bus companies do operate services into Andorra from Girona, Barcelona and Toulouse airports but aren’t a particularly convenient option for skiers compared with the private transfer.
Choosing a Resort
There are now two large Alpine skiing zones called Grandvalira and Vallnord which have more or less united what were largely independent ski resorts in the past. The Grandvalira integrates six different valleys which allows you to ski 205km of pistes with a single lift pass. It includes the well known resorts of Pas de la Casa and Soldeu. The other main ski area besides the Grandvalira is the Vallnord which includes Arinsal, Pal and Arcalis. The excellent lift network between valleys makes this whole ski region extremely well linked so your choice of resort has become less significant than it might have been in the past. The main resorts to choose from are as follows:
Pas de la Casa
This is the grandfather of Andorran ski resorts having opened its first ski lift as long ago as 1957. It’s a fairly small resort right on the French border but has access to more than 200km of slopes as part of the Grandvalira ski area. It caters for all levels of skiers and is recognised for having excellent ski schools with English speaking instructors if required. It’s also known as something of a party town with a fine selection of good value bars and restaurants.
Soldeu and El Tarter
As part of the well linked Grandvalira area, these resorts provide access to nursery slopes for beginners as well as challenging black runs for seasoned skiers. The two resorts are quite distinct from Pas de la Casa as their focus is very much geared towards an upmarket skiing experience with a selection of fine accommodation on offer. The nightlife is somewhat more refined with spas and cocktails more the order of the day. In spite of the higher-end tourism you’ll still find a stay here to be great value when compared with similar resorts in other countries.
Arinsal-Pal and Arcalis
Arinsal and Pal are connected by cable car and offer perfect conditions for novice skiers and those with some experience though probably won’t prove sufficiently challenging for advanced skiers who would be best taking the 45 minute shuttle bus to Arcalis. Similar to Pas de la Casa, the ski schools here are first class and the nightlife is very lively and great value.
La Massana is best suited to beginners on a budget, more experienced skiers will want to head for the Vallnord ski area which can be accessed by gondola from the centre of town in just 10 minutes. This resort is a good family choice for inexperienced skiers who aren’t especially interested in the typical ski holiday experience.
Not a Skier – Not a Problem
Andorra is a great destination for beginners but if you have someone in your group who doesn’t want to have a go at skiing then you should book accommodation which caters for skiers and non-skiers alike. The Sport Hotel Village in Soldeu is one such place. It is located right next to the ski lift, offers a great ski hire and storage service. For the non-skier the hotel is close to Soldeu village and has a Wellness Centre which includes a fabulous spa with outdoor Jacuzzis from where you get great views of the snow covered Pyrenees. The hotel’s rooms and restaurants come highly recommended making the Sport Hotel an ideal choice. If you’d like to go even more upmarket the five-star Sport Hotel Hermitage in Soldeu is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group. It has an enormous spa and all its suites offer spectacular views of the mountains., offers a great ski hire and storage service. For the non-skier the hotel is close to Soldeu village and has a Wellness Centre which includes a fabulous spa with outdoor Jacuzzis from where you get great views of the snow covered Pyrenees. The hotel’s rooms and restaurants come highly recommended making the Sport Hotel an ideal choice. If you’d like to go even more upmarket the five-star Sport Hotel Hermitage in Soldeu is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group. It has an enormous spa and all its suites offer spectacular views of the mountains.
Other activities that will be of interest to both skiers and non-skiers are the following:
Duty Free Shopping in Andorra La Vella
Andorra has long been known for its duty free shopping which has attracted not only overseas tourists but also Spanish and French visitors from across the borders. Cheap alcohol, cigarettes and perfume have been the best sellers together with high quality outdoor wear, electronics and leather goods. Today more than 2000 retail outlets line the streets of the capital desperately trying to attract the attention of shoppers.
A word of warning: The economic crisis in Spain has seen a significant drop in many domestic prices which has eroded the price competitiveness of Andorra. In addition you should be aware that Andorra is not a member of the European Union so your vehicle may well be stopped and searched as you reach the Spanish or French borders. It’s therefore important not to exceed your duty free allowance when shopping.
Caldea Health Spa
Located in Les Escaldes is Europe’s largest health spa which comes fully equipped with swimming pools, salt and ice baths and Jacuzzis including an outdoor one with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
In El Tartar you can try your hand at husky sledging. All you have to do is stand on the sled behind the dogs and they pull you around a circuit under the guidance of their handler. You can even learn to guide the dogs yourself. This is a great activity for both adults and children. Experienced skiers may like to go one step further and be pulled around the circuit on their skis.
A great way to get non-skiers onto the piste is to hire some snow shoes then head up the Canillo gondola. A number of circuits have been created to allow visitors to take a walk on the mountain accompanied by a local guide who works for the Grandvalira ski area.