Irish take to sun and skiing in Andorra

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GO ANDORRA: Nearly one in every seven skiers from the UK and Ireland go to Andorra – that’s more than go to Switzerland, Canada and the US combined, writes AMANDA PHELAN

IT SEEMS a bit strange to fly somewhere warm to go skiing. But sunshine, cheap drink, good snowfalls and an astonishing array of guns for sale are just some of the contradictory wares on offer to anyone visiting the small principality of Andorra, tucked away between France and Spain.

It’s a great place to go, winter or summer, and Irish people seem to get a particular welcome – make sure the locals know you’re from Ireland and not that other neighbouring island with the unpopular tourists.

You can get to Andorra by flying to Toulouse or Barcelona, and it’s already 10 degrees hotter than Dublin when we arrive, forcing the Irish travellers to strip off their ski jackets before boarding the buses waiting in the airport car park.

The sun beats down as the coach rolls towards the jagged line of the Pyrenees, and even when we get to the snowline the temperature does not seem to warrant the bags of luggage stuffed full of sweaters and woolly hats.

Andorra is the second highest country in Europe after Switzerland and has one of the largest ski areas. Its two main sources of income are tourism and shopping, due to its tax-free status garnered long ago when enterprising locals took advantage of bickering between the Spanish and French.

We head for the village of Soldeu, one of several towns in the region that once depended on mountain farming for income, but is now better-known for skiing. Traffic on its main street – also the road to France – comes to a halt daily as goats and sheep are herded to and from the mountain, and curious farm animals peer at you from the dark pungent barns on the cobbled back streets.

The ski resort is owned and run by locals who are fiercely proud of their mountain and its history, including a feud between the two princes of Spain and France who once ruled the region. The local villagers took advantage of the friction to gain independence and tax-free status.

The area is full of wildlife, and the ski runs are named after the native animals whose tracks can be seen criss-crossing the groomed snow. Bears are being reintroduced after they were wiped out by hunting – but not to populated areas, as you can imagine how visitors would feel if they were chased down the slopes by a big brown bear.

The official language is Catalan, but French and Spanish are spoken too, and most people have some English so you’ll be able to get by. Some of the locals picked up on my Irish accent, and it got us a big welcome.

Andorra is trying to shake off its image as a low-budget destination suitable mainly for beginner to medium-level skiers and snowboarders. But it’s hard not to have misgivings before you go – let’s be honest, who goes skiing in Andorra? Answer: growing numbers, but I hope it stays as it is and doesn’t get too crowded or too dear.

A nagging suspicion that the Pyrenees is the poor man’s Alps persists as the tour bus negotiates its way through the village of Pas de la Casa, where there’s no sign of the high-end boutiques and cafes of most ski resorts – instead, there’s dozens of shops selling a volatile combination of high-strength alcohol and high-powered weapons.

Shelves groan beneath seriously cheap plonk – bottles of Pastis Ricard go for €1.50, Moët for €20, and four-litre bottles of whiskey for €20.

Besides the booze, big buckets of slingshots sit outside the stores. Air-powered rifles and pistols sell for less than €5 and the supermarket sells enough Wenger knives to arm the Swiss army. My young fella is delighted: “Can we bring one home, mam?” Try explaining that to the customs man.

Luckily, he forgets about his gangster tendencies after we arrive in Soldeu and get a friendly welcome at our apartment, where the best kept secret of the mountain is tucked away in the building’s basement.

This is the Merlot Restaurant – fantastic food, and the best Sunday roast you’ll eat. It’s run by an Irishman, chef Bruce Dowling, originally from Artane, who is a legend even among the well-fed locals for his tantalising peasant-style selection of cooking.

Our one-bedroom €650-a-week apartment is roomy and clean, and has a well-equipped kitchen where, in the early morning we consult our Grandvalira mountain guide to plot our skiing course.

We board the gondola from Soldeu village to the terminus halfway up the mountain. It’s a short, steep trip, and there was just enough time to unfold the piste map and plot a path from one side of the resort to the other.

It looked simple enough from inside the cabin – follow half a dozen squiggly red and blue lines, throw in a couple of blacks for quick thrills, and it seemed you could ski from the heart of the resort in Soldeu to the furthest edge and be back in time for lunch.

But many are easily fooled, and even the most well seasoned ski instructors admit they would find it hard to traverse the resort in a week of skiing – that’s 110 marked trails stretching over 193km.

“Andorra can be deceptive, and it’s a great challenge for a range of skiers – it’s one of its charms,” says Henry Fingleton from Laois, who has been coming here so long he’s practically a local.

Henry and wife Paula come here during the season from January to Easter with their children, and so fell in love with Andorra they set up Pro Ski, a company that trains people who want to qualify as ski instructors. As well, the Pro Ski team can help you tweak your performance if you just want to improve your personal skiing ability.

The school is a big hit, and so far all those trained by Henry and his team have passed the tough independent exam needed to qualify as a fully-fledged instructor. For example, Pat O’Keefe, 37, from Trim, is a Pro Ski graduate who took advantage of the lull in work opportunities at home to fulfil his dream to live and work on the ski slopes. “I’m in the building trade, so there’s not a lot going,” he says. “Instead of letting it get me down I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do and learn to teach skiing. Andorra is a great place to do that.”

O’Keefe is delighted with his instructor status, and says the €3,700 he paid for the six-week course is worth every cent. After all, he’s doing what he loves, and learning a new skill at the same time.

But if you aren’t lucky enough to be doing a Pro Ski course, there’s still plenty on offer for young and old. There’s a good quality ski school for kids aged from four up that had my young fella on red runs after a few days, and, just as important, all teamed up with a new set of snow buddies. In fact, he got so good I twice had to pick him up from lost property as he shot down runs so fast his mammy couldn’t catch up. The ski staff are helpful and friendly and often go above and beyond the call of duty to give you a hand.

Once you’ve parked your youngsters, it’s time to set off across the terrain where broad marked trails sweep off in three directions.

The crest of each plateau opens up dozens of irresistible choices: single tracks leading into pine forests criss-crossed with animal tracks, blind drop-offs steering into luge-style gullies, and higher up in the fresh snow, the lone markings of other skiers leading off the official runs and vanishing into the trees or another fold of the resort, suggesting inside knowledge of off-piste runs and skiable terrain not marked on the map.

“No matter how many years I come to Andorra, I always discover a new spot to ski,” says Henry Fingleton, who stays with his family until the season finishes after Easter.

The biggest of Andorra’s half a dozen separate valleys is the tall white bowl looming over Pas de la Casa, with barely any interruption from either trees or rock. Halfway stations on several chairlifts fed beginner runs at the base of the bowl, before the cables swoop up to a steep lip where the groomed trails running would test any good skier. Aside from four or five narrow trails, most of the top half of the resort is off-piste.

But the snow was too good to stay put in Pas de la Casa. For three gloriously crisp days under the sun, the soft dry snow was incredibly forgiving. It was like some kind of dream world, where a hack skier could gaze up at the perfectly formed S-shaped trail they’d carved into the snow and think: are those really my tracks? How did I do that? The sun shone, the mountains rolled on into a blue horizon, and edges held a sure grip on even the steepest black runs.

We took a break at an enormous mound of snow at the top of the Grau Roig valley, that turned out to be the Ice Hotel – a bar, spa and a couple of bedrooms inside an enormous igloo, where everything except the cash register and the partly-frozen bar staff were made of ice although there is none available to put in your drink.

A quick glüwein at the bar wasn’t a good advertisement for an overnight stay while 20 minutes of sitting on a damp sheepskin on a bench made of ice was enough to frighten you away forever. The chill seeped into your bones, and you couldn’t warm up for two to three runs later.

But there are nice bars and restaurants dotted around the slopes, and a good après-ski range of entertainment if that’s your scene. Night trips up the mountain are fun, and you can even try out the snowplough as it combs the mountain ready for the next day’s onslaught.

You can base yourself at a number of villages in Andorra, and Soldeu and El Tartar attract plenty of Irish. It might not have the envy value of a trip to Whistler, Val d’Isère or Aspen – but Andorra has its own friendly character, and a few less status-conscious Gucci-clad skiers is a bonus as far as we’re concerned.

“We’ve come back every year for more than 10 years,” says Trevor Gray, from Wexford, who is making his regular pilgrimage to the white stuff with wife Maria and their two young children.

They aren’t alone: statistics show nearly one in every seven skiers and snowboarders from the UK and Ireland came here – that’s more than went to Switzerland, the US and Canada combined.

Andorra’s two biggest ski areas joined forces a few years ago, and one lift pass now gets you access to Pas de la Casa/Grau Roig and Soldeu/El Tarter.

This means your weekly €175 pass covers 192km of runs, from the bleak, treeless bowl above Pas de la Casa to the wooded slopes of Grau Roig and the wide open pistes of Soldeu/El Tarter beyond.

The integrated area, Grandvalira, is now one of the largest in Europe ranking roughly between Mayrhofen in Austria, and Les Deux Alpes in France.

“The joy of skiing here is it has a little bit to offer to a lot of different people,” says Henry Fingleton. “There’s great history, good food, and skiing for every level. And there’s all-year sunshine.”

Well, you can’t argue with that.

* Amanda Phelan was a guest of 1ActiveHolidays. A week’s skiing including an apartment for four, and breakfast, is €650 per week in Soldeu with 1ActiveHolidays. Six-day adult lift passes for Grandvalira are from €175. Free child pass offers on all bookings. 1ActiveHolidays is a small, family-run travel group with English speaking staff and is based in Soldeu. See 1activeholidays.com.

Get there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly to Barcelona from Dublin and Cork. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Girona (Barcelona) from Dublin. Air France (airfrance.ie) and KLM (klm.com) fly Dublin to Toulouse.

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