Fun in the sun: learn to ski in Soldeu, in duty-free Andorra

by csenor

Soldeu is a vibrant, aspirational and sun-blessed resort, especially good for beginners and intermediates with a deserved reputation for its excellent ski schools

Soldeu is a resort with big ambitions and a growing reputation. It is the leading Pyrenean ski resort, situated in the small duty-free principality of Andorra which itself is an area roughly equivalent to the Isle of Wight sandwiched between Spain and France. Constitutionally, Andorra is a mixed bag, having a French president, a Spanish head of church and Catalan as its spoken language. However, it didn't take long to embrace skiing unanimously by declaring it the national sport – not a bad idea, considering it is one of the perennial whipping boys of European and world football.

Soldeu has already signalled its intent to be an alternative to the Alpine resorts, with huge investment in fast new gondolas, chairlifts and chic hotels such as the new five-star Sport Hotel Hermitage with its fabulous five-floor spa (see picture slide show, right). Putting aside old rivalries over grazing rights, Soldeu has made peace with its neighbours – Pas de la Casa, Grau Roig, El Tarter, Canillo and Encamp – and all six have pulled together to create one unified linked ski area, the Granvalira, covered by one ski pass. This has created a huge improvement in services and the amount of skiable terrain, as well as increasing the range and standard of accommodation. However, this move upmarket has also added to the cost of what used to be seen as a viable budget ski destination to rival eastern European countries such as Bulgaria.

The main reason nowadays for visiting Andorra, particularly Soldeu, is its enviable reputation for the standard of its ski schools and the quality of its snowpark facilities. Within the Granvalira area, there are now 450 instructors on hand – about half of them British – to boost what is already becoming a formidable reputation. This, married to the relatively gentle mountain terrain, wards off the experts and makes it the perfect place for beginners and early intermediates to learn and progress while feeling like kings of the mountain.

THE RESORT

There are still some quaint older buildings remaining in the town – a pleasing reminder of Soldeu’s farming heritage. However, there are still parts of town that are not so agreeable on the eye, and because the main road to France runs through the village, the ambience is rather compromised. Location is important here, since most hotels are located towards El Tarter rather than Soldeu. Some travel operators continue to give them a Soldeu label, though some will require long walks or transport to get to the lifts. Because the main road is very busy, location is especially important for families with young children. If you are lucky enough (or informed enough) to be based in one of the new, smart hotels near to the ski lifts, it is a pleasant place to be.

Duty-free status means there are bargains to be had. However, most of the ski shops sell either last year's models or products that simply don't appear in ski shops back home or in other Alpine resorts. The best savings are to be made on bottled spirits and designer clothes. Soldeu has a really lively après-ski scene, with a reputation for pouring “good measures” in its bars, in an abandoned duty-free style. However, the resort is more than happy to leave the dubious distinction of being the best place for a booze-up to its more rowdy neighbour Pas De La Casa, which caters strongly to a young, single and free (to get drunk) crowd.

THE CONTEXT

Soldeu (meaning literally “ Sun god”) enjoys about 300 sunny days per year and lies in prime position at the heart of the Granvalira. The area lift pass effectively gives access to 193km of mostly north-facing pistes, serviced by 60 lifts, including a great variety of wide open slopes as well as lots of scenic tree-lined runs.

Be warned, the local terrain does not have the dramatic scenery of many of Europe's Alpine destinations. There is nothing here to rival the majesty of the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc or the Dolomites. However, Soldeu does have an abundance of excellent cruising terrain suitable for novices and wobbly intermediates.

THE SKIING

From Soldeu, the eight-seater téléphèrique (TC8) and six-seater télésiège (TSD6), or chair lift, take you above the wooded north-facing slopes to the large plateau of Espiolets at 2,250m. The Soldeu ski schools operate mainly from here, using the many gentle runs fanning out either west towards Pas de la Casa or east towards the sunnier slopes of Riba Escorxada (2,100m). The lift from El Tarter (TC10) merges with the TSD4 at Riseto, another ski-school meeting point.

From Riseto, the TSD6 takes you up to Tosa Dels Espiolets (2,467m) or the highest point Tossal de la Llosada (2,560m) where there are lots of nice, long relaxed and scenic blue runs back down to Riba Escorxada, or further east over Pic D'Encampadana (2,491m) and down into Canillo. Go west and there are plenty of varied wide and tree-lined slopes down to Grau Roig (pronounced “Grau Rosh”) at 2,120m. Further to the west still is the bustling village of Pas De La Casa at 2,100m.

Beginners

This is a fantastic place for beginners, with top tuition by English instructors for all abilities and all disciplines such as snowboarding, telemark, moguls, freestyle, carving and off-piste. The Granvalira offers an excellent opportunity for beginners to stretch their legs, whereas most other super-ski circuses cater mostly for good intermediates to experts. Above Soldeu alone, there are six gentle green runs on which to get started, and a further 13 really progressive blues. In no time at all, the majority of novices find themselves taking the Tosa des Espiolets lift up to Espiolets and enjoying the confidence-building blues that wind back down to town.

There are a further 12 green “beginner zone" slopes and 25 gentle blues to explore in the Granvalira as a whole. Beginners and families will enjoy the real sense of achievement and adventure that Soldeu can provide as a first-time skiing experience.

Intermediate/expert

Advanced intermediates and expert skiers will perhaps want more challenges than are offered here. Luckily, the area lift pass can be used by early intermediates who want to explore the whole area from east to west, from Encamp right over to Pas de la Casa (it is not possible to ski back down to Encamp). Because this is not a place that experts visit, there are more opportunities for untracked off-piste than in most Alpine destinations. Aliga 2 is a good scenic and tree-lined black descent from Tosa des Espiolets down to El Tarter.

Snowboarders

The area has become a big hit with snowboarders, as the Andorran government – keen to add spice to the hip marketing image of the principality – has provided well-designed snowparks, all blasting out music to add to the fun. There are a number of designated “free-style” areas above Soldeu, Pas de la Casa and Grau Roig, with the icing on the snowy cake being the superb Nike ACG Snow Park above El Tarter, accessed by télésiège TSD6. There are assorted rails and kickers, a border-cross course and a tournament-standard half-pipe to show off your tricks and “bust some huge air”. Regular high-profile competitions take place from here during the season, and there are also very helpful free-style experts on hand to give advice on technique.

Three favourite runs

L'Esquirol (blue) is a lovely, leisurely scenic run that zig-zags through the trees down to El Tarter from Riba Escorxada (2,100m). Because it is a main route down to town, it is most enjoyable outside the late-afternoon skiing rush hour.

Llebre (red) This long, varied and fun blast from Tosa des Espiolets (2,467m) starts above the trees with a nice wide open section, before descending past Espiolets and joining up with two reds through the trees (Salvans and Torrallardona), from which you can take your pick. You can ski right back into Soldeu if you wish to continue on either of the blue runs – Bosc Fosc or Os.

Aliga 2 (black) One of the few long, steepish and challenging runs, this will be enjoyed by most average intermediates. A more direct descent than others, this one starts at Tosa des Espiolets and drops from 2,467m right down into El Tarter at 1,710m.

SOLDEU AT A GLANCE

The facilities

Total lifts 60
( 4 cable cars, 30 chairs, 26 drags)
Lift capacity per hour 100,700
Snowparks Two
Mountain restaurants 34

The terrain

Resort height 1,800m
Slopes 1,700m-2,640m
Total piste length 193km
Longest run 8km
Number of runs 110
(green 18, blue 38, red 32 , black 22)
Beginner pistes 30 per cent
Intermediate pistes 60 per cent
Expert pistes 10 per cent
Linked areas Pas de la Casa, Grau Roig, El Tarter, Canillo, Encamp

Pros and cons

For +
Large linked ski area
Great terrain for beginners and early Intermediates
Excellent tuition (in English), ideal for beginners and improving intermediates
Variety of runs from wide open sunny terrain to lower winding forested runs
Good snow record
Good snow parks
Generous measures in the bars

Against –
Busy main road through centre
Village architecture
Limited off-piste activities
Limited choice of quality mountain restaurants
Not much to challenge confident intermediates and experts
Long airport transfers

THE DINING

Mountain restaurants

When telephoning from the UK or roaming, prefix all numbers below with 00 376 and omit the initial zero.

In general, lunch options on the mountain are uninspiring and self-service – but there are a few notable exceptions, with great quality and full service. These are listed listed below.

Roc de les Bruixes (0890 696) This is one of the best restaurants in the Grandvalira, located above Canillo . A crackling fireplace makes it a cosy refuge for a long lunch, comprising delicate French and Mediterranean dishes. Starters such as foie gras cost about €13, while a tender beef fillet is €20. The creative desserts are well worth an extra €12.

Gall de Bosc (0890 607) By far the best lunch option in the Soldeu sector, this is conveniently situated at Espiolets on the upper level above the Espress'Oh! cafe. Quality Catalan and French cooking is served à la carte, or as set menus and daily specials. A good, mainly Spanish-focussed wine list and the lovely terrace make this hard to beat on a sunny day. Two courses and wine €35.

Refugi del Llac de Pessons (0759 0150) One of my favourites, at the top of the Grau Roig Bowl. Specialising in grilled meats cooked on the wood fire, the restaurant occupies a stunning, picturesque setting overlooking a lake. Views from the sunny terrace are spectacular. Two courses and a beer €28.

La Marmita (0755 556), Hotel Grau Roig. A fine-dining restaurant with a modern eclectic menu of French- and Italian-influenced dishes, this place is well worth a visit. The fish and meat main courses are excellent. Three courses and wine €45.

Marisqueria Campistrano (0856 488) This cosy gourmet restaurant specialises in fish dishes and is renowned as the best in Pas de la Casa. Three courses €40-€50.

Village restaurants

Borda De L'Horto (0851 622) Popular with locals, this restaurant is set in a rustic converted barn. It serves both local specialities such as lamb, botifarra (Catalan sausage) and paella, and International dishes. Three courses with wine costs €36. Situated outside the centre, it's a 20-minute walk from the main lift station.

Borda Del Rector (0852 606) in Incles, two minutes downhill towards El Tarter, is a traditional Catalan restaurant where wonderful aromas waft from the open-fire grill. Make a booking and staff will arrange for you to be picked up. The special set menu costs €65 and the wine list has some excellent Spanish choices.

Cort Del Popaire (0851 211) One of the best in Soldeu, this place serves succulent lamb and steak grills in an atmospheric old barn. At €35 for two courses with wine, it is decent value.

L'Esquirol (0852 655) Located just past the Gallop bar on the main street, this very popular Indian restaurant serves all the tandoori and balti favourites. Popadoms, main course, rice and a beer: €18.

Fat Albert's (0851 765) My personal favourite, located behind the Hotel Himàlaia. Downstairs from the ever-popular bar, this extremely popular and lovely restaurant is set in a 300-year-old barn. There are two sittings, at 7pm and 9pm, serving an extensive and eclectic menu. Excellent specials include steak-and-ale pie, tasty Thai prawns and a lovely T-bone steak. Two people can eat three courses and wine here for €45-55.

THE APRES-SKI

One of Soldeu’s main attractions is the lively apres-ski. Something is going on every night, but thankfully the resort is not as raucous as the infamous Pas De La Casa – which, rather unflatteringly, has been dubbed “one of the cheapest places in Europe to be sick in” and caters mainly for French “ yoofs” from Toulouse in the 16-25 age group. There are a variety of venue choices on or just off the main street, catering mainly for British visitors.

Best in Soldeu

Aspen Popular large sports bar on two levels, with large screens and pool tables. Regular live bands on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays from 10pm, plus DJ. The second floor is a Tex Mex from 7pm-11pm, serving huge portions. If quantity rather than quality is your thing, dive in.

Avalanche Live music venue, on the same side of the road as Aspen, with a great pub atmosphere. A DJ keeps things lively in-between bands. Other popular attractions here are the fussball (the locals are better at this than the real thing), pinball and snowboard arcade game.

La Cava del Drac Next door to Avalanche. One of the smaller pubs in Soldeu, it is usually packed and lively with a good atmosphere. What they lack in bar promotions, they make up for in generous measures.

Fat Albert's The most popular après-ski bar/club/restaurant. Located behind Hotel Himàlaia, it serves a wider range of beers than the usual San Miguel. It is mostly standing room only, to maximise the space, with large-screen TV, live bands (Saturdays, Sundays,Tuesdays, Thursdays, from 10pm). The DJ booth is the front end of the Scooby Doo van; rocks until late.

Iceberg Opposite T-Bar and, along with Fat Albert's, one of the most popular places. This is especially so on Wednesdays, when it is happy hour from 9pm-12am! There are live bands and ski-instructor parties on Tuesdays, karaoke on Fridays.

Pussycat This is more of a club than a bar, open 7pm-4am and located above the recommended Cort Popaire restaurant.

The Roc Bar On the ground floor of Hotel Roc, this place has Elvis live(s)! on Wednesdays, live music and DJs on Thursdays and Fridays.

T-Bar One of the newer bars in Soldeu, T-Bar has rapidly established itself as one of the best, with great bar staff. On Thursdays there is a Snowboard Party; on Fridays it is End of the Week Party night.

The Villager Located in the lift station, this is the largest British pub in the Grandvalira. It is always buzzing and serves some decent pub grub.

Best in El Tarter

El Tarter is more relaxed than in Soldeu and there is a more Spanish vibe, with tapas available in many restaurants: for live music and a British atmosphere, try the Stone Bar, in the basement of the Alba Hotel. For an excellent pizza, try El Mosquit then the Drac Bar downstairs. Popular with locals and ski instructors is the Vintage Club Arthurs, open until the early hours and located opposite the Romanesque church. There is a free bus service available for all villages within the Granvalira area, subject to presenting a valid lift pass.

THE HOTELS

Sport Hotel Hermitage 5* Carretera General, Soldeu. This super-deluxe flagship for the Sport Hotel brand is hopefully setting a trend for the region. It is truly outstanding, pampering guests with every comfort including its magnificent five-floor wellness and spa centre (see picture slideshow, above) and is as close to the main base station as is possible. Highly recommended.

Sport Hotel Village 4* Carretera General, Soldeu. This sister hotel to the luxurious Hermitage has the same fab location right by the main lifts. Guests can use the amazing spa facilities at the Hermitage for an extra charge.

Hotel Sport 4* Carretera General, Soldeu. Yet another hotel in the same group as the previous two – and another quality act. It has excellent childcare facilities, good food, a warm rustic atmosphere and the same superb location. Again, guests can use (at extra charge) the interconnected and fabulous spa at the five-star Hermitage.

Hotel Nordic 4* Carretera General, El Tarter. Ski to the door of this well-appointed and wonderful hotel, situated in the El Tarter village area, a stone's throw from the El Tarter chairlift. An elegant atrium entrance hall is graced with a display of motorcycles and a Rolls-Royce! There's a huge Indoor pool and excellent leisure facilities, plus a buffet-style restaurant.

Hotel Naudi 3* Carretera General, Soldeu. A smart and small family-run hotel with nicely furnished rooms, the Naudi is ideal for couples wanting a relaxed cosy place to stay. It is only 200m from the main Soldeu lifts, and convenient for all the bars and shops.

GETTING THERE

By air

Toulouse airport is 190km (3.5 hours) away, Barcelona airport 200km (3.5 hours) from the resort.

By bus

Regular daily buses run from both airports and cost about €25. Buses also run hourly until 8.30pm from the Andorran capital La Vella.

Useful links:

www.easyjet.com
www.ryanair.com
www.holidayautos.co.uk (for cheap car hire from airports)
www.andorrabybus.com (to book coaches from Barcelona, Toulouse or Gerona)

By car

From Paris, take the A6 to Nantes/A10 to Toulouse/A62 to Carcassone/A61 to Foix. For additional route directions, see www.theaa.com.

csenor

I am a Manchester based song writer who has developed a passion for travel and for new media and technology to the extent that I have now developed my own mobile application and marketing company and service the World's largest travel publisher with content on mobiles. I love the concept of Simon Seeks, to spread the word about places and to give informed, insightful information without any commercial bias. I have very eclectic tastes when it comes to travel. For sunshine breaks - to relax and slow down and get in touch with a stress free state of mind.  I also love active holidays - especially skiing, mountain biking and golfing. During winter I take to the slopes and I like a Christmas ski holiday to enjoy somewhere fresh and exciting. For the future, I plan to broaden my horizons as I have a healthy interest in ancient philosophies such as the Huna from Hawaii and Vedanta in India and I would next love to visit China and Japan. I am truly a travel enthusiast to the extent that I always try to learn the language of wherever I am going to go.. and as this is another passion of mine I have produced a series of mobile phrase books - all available as downloadable 'apps' on mobile phones.