The popular little principality of Andorra in the Pyrenees has shed its low-cost image and gone upmarket
'Yes, señor, I know it is March and that this is low season,' repeated the receptionist, switching to Spanish from her native Catalan. 'But, no, we don’t have a room.' Even as she replaced the receiver, the telephone rang again.
'Tout à fait complet,' the litany continued, in a fourth language in as many minutes.
'There is really nothing I can suggest…every hotel is full.'
Across the lobby, a New Yorker, his coiffured wife and a pyramid of Louis Vuitton luggage are waiting for the lift. At the bar, a group of die-hard British clubbers gather for a few cocktails before another night on the town.
This early-evening ski scene in the lobby of a comfortable four-star hotel could have been set in Courchevel or St Moritz. But no - this is Andorra. Outside Hotel Piolets Park, snow falls softly on the polished cabins of Soldeu’s eight-person gondola and a happy group of snowballing schoolchildren completes the picture.
For nearly 40 years the little principality, tucked away in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, has been known for its duty-free booze and some of the cheapest skiing on earth. It still has plenty of both. But after a huge makeover, Andorra today is up with the best of them as a top ski destination – and the prices are no longer as low as they were. Somehow, the principality has gained the allure of Ibiza and combined it with the reliability of Obergurgl. New lifts snake across the horizon and the hideous 1960s concrete apartment blocks have long been replaced by attractive new buildings of natural stone.
The choice of where to stay is expanding each year and in Soldeu there’s even a five-star hotel – Sport Hotel Hermitage – housing a four-storey spa. In the same resort, Hotel Bruxelles is known to have some of the best food in the resort. But to get the full benefit of skiing here it is worth hiring a car. All the resorts are within a 60-minute drive of each other and offer completely different challenges.
Soldeu and linked El Tarter are my favourites, with the best combination of skiing, accommodation, and atmosphere. The expanded area has 60 lifts and 193km of piste and the ski school has a reputation as one of the best in Europe.
Personally I would give the resort of Pas de la Casa a miss – unless you’re into après-ski and not much else. Teens and early-20s come here in search of action in a town where the pub crawl has been raised to an art form. Supermarket shelves are piled high with cut-price alcohol, you are never more than 10ft from a bar or a club, and the party rocks on until dawn.
At the other end of the principality, the separate resorts of Arinsal and Pal are linked by a cable-car to create a single ski area of 38 lifts serving 89km of runs. Arinsal’s limited ski area used to confine its allure to beginners and lower intermediates, but the link to Pal has widened its appeal.
Meanwhile, back in Soldeu it is time to bolt down breakfast and hit the slopes again. 'Are you having a good time?' I asked the teenage snowboarder sitting next to me on the lift.
'Yeah, we’re coming again next year,' he replied. 'Andorra’s cool'.
Endorsements don’t come any stronger than that.