Living the high life in Andorra

Europe’s highest country above sea level offers fine dining and exciting skiing

 

The last time I skied in Andorra (years ago) it was as cheap as chips – indeed, cheap chips contributed abundantly to the tourist offering. The skiing followed suit with small, beginner resorts where your self-esteem would not be challenged by expert skiers executing perfect parallel and carving turns around your botched snowplough.

So I was happily surprised, after a first day’s skiing in the sunny (despite it being early January), queue-free groomed resort of Arinsal, to be dining in a vast, sympathetically converted stone barn, eating rich local produce inventively prepared.

We ordered a selection of dishes at Moli dels Fanals in the mountain village of Sispony halfway between Arinsal and Andorra la Vella – to fully survey the region – and had a table groaning with Pyrenean (and a splash of Mediterranean) produce from duck, goat-cheese salad with dried fruits, courgette carpaccio, belly of tuna, Iberian ham, with sauces, marinades and garnishes including escalivada (grilled vegetables). But that’s just a tiny taster of the menu, which combines Catalan Pyrennean cooking with French cuisine.

It was clear from here that we were going to see the smart side of Andorra. Its economy relies greatly on tourism and it got a kick-start as a tax-free destination decades ago. As we took the cable car from Arinsal across to the adjoining ski area of Pal a local pointed out the route smugglers took over a mountain pass. Tax-free status can bring out base behaviour in people. But the country was recently wiped off the OECD’s blacklist of tax havens and it all feels much more sophisticated. Yet prices of ski gear, food and drink are still not as high as in big-hitting Alpine resorts.

Andorra – the highest country above sea level in Europe and with the world’s highest life expectancy (83) – is quite wealthy and has been spending on infrastructure. On our second day we drove over to Vallnord – a small resort with impeccably groomed slopes. We glided around all morning without fear of obstacles but after an easy ride we sought adventure. After lunch we persuaded our guide to free us from the simple life and found the off-piste runs well populated but idyllic, with small, hoppy routes between pistes.

Yet there are big, long runs in the vicinity – Andorra’s largest ski area, with more than 210km of runs, is Grandvalira. When I first came to Andorra the resorts in this former cluster were just linking up. The pass between two resorts was shut one day because – it was rumoured – the heads of two villages had had a row and one was refusing to open the link. There is no sign of local hostilities getting in the way of skiing nowadays.

This ski area offers touring where you can take lift after lift. Its full length runs from the Encamp area at one end to Pas de la Casa at the other. We were based in Soldeu – at Grandvalira’s centre – able to head off in both directions.

We stayed in the Piolets Park in the resort of Soldeu where the buffet breakfast got the day off to a slowish start, such is the vastness of the offering. And, in a sign of being up with global trends, all the milks are at breakfast: almond, soya, coconut and dear old dairy.

The previous evening we had rolled off the slopes and ducked into the Caldea spa in the town of Escaldes-Engordany, sitting in an outdoor pool, drenched beneath water spouts and gazing at the mountains.

From there it was a short walk to Enoteca, another purveyor of astonishing local food combined inventively. Again we ordered a mix and spent the evening grazing a table of tapas.

For smarter fare up the mountain – where cheap chips are still amply available (luckily) and which we availed of in a barn full of schoolchildren in Vallnord – there’s the lakeside Refugi dels Llacs dels Pessons, where we sat at long tables in the winter sun, clutching blankets to our sated stomachs on the last day of a holiday that brought unexpectedly rich skiing and food, all served up without fanfare or airs.

Get there: Fly to Barcelona, Toulouse or Carcassonne.

Stay there: Princesa Park Hotel in Arinsal is a short walk from the ski lifts hotelprincesaparc.com/en/

Emma Cullinan travelled as a guest of Crystal Ski – crystalski.ie

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