There’s More to Skiing in Andorra Than Meets the Eye
14th January 2024 | James Cove, Andorra, Pyrenees.
Last modified on January 18th, 2024
Those that have skied recently in Andorra will know what it offers. Those that haven’t may have a slightly wrong view of the ski area in the Pyrenees.
For some people skiing in Andorra conjures up images of beginner runs, busy slopes, out of control skiers, a poor lift system, average food, long coach journeys and all washed down with duty-free booze at rock bottom prices.
In my view little could currently be further from the truth.
It may have been slightly true decades ago, but it certainly isn’t correct now.
I first skied here in the late 80’s and have returned on a regular basis.
I remember when Pas de la Casa and Soldeu weren’t even on the same lift pass even though they shared a slope – skiing between the two was forbidden.
There was no gondola from La Massana to Pal, and to get there you had to drive up a twisty tight mountain road.
Driving back down was a bumper-to-bumper experience with hundreds of other cars.
Arcalis was a powder area known to select a handful, and now it is a regular stop on the Freeride World Tour and famous throughout the freeride community for its fabulous terrain.
Lunch and apres were basic, but now things have gone up-market.
“We are trying to attract people that maybe came some time ago when they were younger, before all the changes, and to show them that we have built on the past and now offer an altogether different experience,” said Iain Archer from Andorra Travel Service.
“So many people learnt to ski in Andorra and then they moved on – now they are coming back in increasing numbers to experience how it has changed and what it now offers.
“People who overlook Andorra perhaps do so at their loss.”
More about Andorra Travel Service later.
THE SKI AREAS
Grandvalira is the main ski area and has the resorts of Pas de La Casa, Grau Roig, Soldeu, El Tartar and Canillo in its geographical area.
- 210kms of skiable terrain
- 73 lifts
- 3 freestyle parks
- 136 runs
- 6 children’s areas
- Highest lift – 2,640m
Pal and Arisnal are not linked by lift to the main Grandvalira area, but are now known as ‘Grandvalira resorts’ and are included on the lift pass.
- 63kms of skiable terrain
- 31 lifts
- 2 freestyle parks
- 47 runs
- 2 children’s areas
- Highest lift – 2,560m
As is the separate ski area of Arcalis that is the highest resort in Andorra and has some steep north-facing terrain for the experts.
It is my personal favourite in Andorra.
- 30.5kms of skiable terrain
- 130kms if off piste routes
- Highest lift – 2,625m
I’ll be skiing Pal, Arinsal and Arcalis later, so do check back for an update.
First we have been in the main Grandvalira area.
PlanetSKI is in the Pyrenees for much of January and we’ve been covering our adventures in the French Pyrenees and Andorra in an updated rolling blog since we arrived just after New Year:
We have also been reporting on the snow conditions in our daily snow report:
Part of the cliched view of Andorra is true – it is ideal for intermediates with blues and reds stretching in every direction.
It is also good for children and beginners.
But there is far more to the ski area than that.
There is some skiing and snowboarding for experts.
The Encampadana Freeride Area in El Tartar is one such area, but sadly does not yet have enough snow to open.
I have skied it before, when there was no lift and you accessed it by hanging on to a rope off the back of a piste basher.
I can vouch that it offers some challenging options.
In the 80s snowboarders were a new and growing group on the slopes.
There are still many around.
I can say that reports of snowboarding’s demise, in Andorra at least, are greatly exaggerated.
STAYING IN ANDORRA
There are 55,000 hotel beds and around another 15,000 in apartments.
They cater for the 9m people that visit Andorra each year – 55% in winter and 45% in summer.
We started our extended winter stay in Andorra in the Hotel Austria in Bordes d’Envalira, just above Soldeu in the main Grandvalira sector.
It is run by Pierre&Vacances, a company that is better known for its self-catering apartments and residences.
In Andorra it has two hotels – one in the main town of Andorra la Vella, and then Hotel Austria.
Bordes d’Envalira barely existed when I first came to Andorra all those years ago – now it is growing and I suspect there is more development to come.
There is no direct ski lift into the Grandvalira ski area, but regular shuttle buses run to and from Grau Roig throughout the day with the journey taking under 10-minutes.
We never had to wait more than a few minutes, and though we had a car it was easier to take the free shuttle.
Hotel Austria is a good value 3* establishment with a restaurant where you can eat a la carte, or half-board.
It should be pointed out that some fellow residents who were on half-board complained of a lack of choice on the menu, and were rather unimpressed with what was on offer.
Several others pointed out that the wifi kept logging them in and out, and was utterly tedious.
But breakfast was a hearty and healthy affair.
It is popular with families and those looking for value for money.
Grau Roig is ideally positioned in the main Grandvalira area with the resort of Pas de La Casa one way.
And Soldeu & El Tartar the other.
HOLIDAYS IN ANDORRA
Back in the day most UK skiers arrived with the major tour operators on charter flights.
Not any more – many people come independently and use Andorra Travel Service.
It is now the leading independent operator for the UK, Irish and international market in terms of size and expertise and second only to Crystal Ski as an operator in the UK and Irish market.
It brings around 10,000 per year to Andorra mainly for 7- nights but with stays of 4, 5 & 6 days growing yearly.
It is owned by the husband and wife team of Iain and Gemma Archer.
“We have a team of seven staff, all are Andorra full residents thus creating an expert call centre, sales team, service centre and admin function for our flexible holiday model,” said Iain to me.
“When people call, email, chat, or Whatsapp, they come through to our Soldeu office and are serviced by us here on the ground in Andorra.”
The main operators (some no longer here) Crystal, Neilson, Inghams, Topflight, and previously Panorama, First Choice, Airtours had dominated the country with the charter flight model several years ago.
As the low-cost model grew and the traffic to Barcelona airport expanded Iain and Gemma saw that it was entirely possible to get skiers and snowboarders to Andorra without the main operators.
Another big change in recent years.
It began matching hotels, the airport shuttle timetable and packaging with lift passes, ski hire and lessons.
At that point there were 3 services per day from Barcelona in Spain and 2 per day from Toulouse in France.
Accessibility was the key to be able to grow and attract a new market and educate an existing market.
With its partners Andbus, it now has a programme that runs from Barcelona to Andorra 8 times per day – every 2 hours between 9am and 11pm
From Toulouse it is 4 times per day – every 4 hours from 10am to 10pm.
“We have helped to develop and shape the independent market for Andorra and over all we now rival and potentially exceed the charter market,” said Iain.
“Our brand identity is aligned with our transport partners Andbus which gives customer the sense of reassurance that although an independent traveller, they are being taken care of by us each step of the way.”
It is a business model that is likely to be followed elsewhere round the mountains in coming years.
See here for full details of Andorra Travel Service.
While we are on the subject of holidays it is possible to ski for as long as you want per season in Andorra.
All the other ski nations in Europe are in EU/Schengen so Brits can only spend 90 days out of 180 within their borders after Brexit.
See here for the full details:
DINING & DRINKING
I mentioned earlier that the apres and dining experience had changed.
You certainly wouldn’t have seen a slope-side champagne bar back in the day.
And the apres venue L’Abarset, that opened last season in El Tartar, rivals any Folie Douce in the Alps you care to mention.
I passed through at lunchtime, just to take a look, so it was hardly rocking.
Lets hope we can visit a bit later in the day.
One thing I wouldn’t have predicted all those years ago was that the area would be hosting World Cup skiing and is bidding for the prestigious 2029 Alpine Ski World Championships.
Or that it would hold a World Cup Speed Skiing event and the new World Cup discipline of Ski Mountaineering, Ski Mo.
Arinsal will again host one of the country’s most important sporting events: the Comapedrosa Andorra Ski Mountaineering World Cup.
It celebrates its 13th edition this year and takes place from 19th to 21st January.
Arinsal will host two fixtures:
- The Individual Race (20th January)
- The Vertical Race (21st January).
In addition, there is the Open Modality, in which all ski mountaineers can participate.
They follow the same route as the World Cup competitors, and the competition is valid for the Andorra Ski Mountaineering Cup.
The finish line for both routes is next to Chalet Igloo, at an altitude of 2,300 m.
Andorra is a firm fixture on the Freeride World Tour calendar with the event in Arcalis in early February.
Arcalis will welcome the best riders of the Freeride World Tour for the tenth consecutive year.
They visit Andorra to enjoy the terrain and the great opportunities to draw creative lines that the resort offers.
The Andorran event will be the second of five events on the FWT calendar.
BUT SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE
But I am delighted to say that some things haven’t really altered in Andorra over the past decades.
A large beer is still at a very good price -currently €4 (£3.44).
We are now moving on from the main Grandvalira area and have made La Massana our base for the second part of our visit to Andorra, that we have just extended.
We’ll be visiting Pal and Arinsal.
And of course Arcalis.
And we may even go duty free shopping in Andorra la Vella.
Andorra may have changed and developed, but I ‘m still a huge fan.
Oh, and the views still ain’t bad too.
More to follow…