Grandvalira - slopes
The Grandvalira linked network – Soldeu and its neighbouring villages of Pas de la Casa, Grau Roig, El Tarter, Canillo and Encamp – is to the east of the Andorran capital of Andorra la Vella, and is the country's biggest ski area.
'This link-up, all on the same lift pass, really puts us in the big league – just like Les Trois Vallees,’ they told us as we selected skis last season in the excellent Pic Negre ski and board hire shop in Soldeu over a glass of local hot grog. Transactions are often accompanied by a snifter in Andorran shops!
Well, Courchevel may have something to say about that claim, but Grandvalira has a lot to boast about – such as 63 lifts covering 120 miles of runs over four valleys, on slopes that are pleasantly varied and give plenty of scope to get away from the crowds. Despite Soldeu’s name meaning Sun God, the snow is usually reliable through a long season.
And, recent economic hiccups granted and allowances made for Andorra having a starting point some decades behind most of the major European wintersports resorts, this is still a destination going places. Andorra started seriously thinking about skiing only after a local postman got himself a pair of skis to help him do his round quicker after he saw a French schoolteacher trying them out.
Grandvalira is now developing apace, with big improvements to the ski area – new lifts and remodelled slopes – coming each season. It may have taken this principality of about 72,000 souls a while to get going, but once it embraces an idea it pursues it with purpose. After all, it didn’t get round to giving women the vote until 1970.
Ski highlights for all levels
Beginners: There are extensive nursery slopes at the Espiolets area, at the top of the main gondola from Soldeu. Some may say it's a nuisance for beginners to have to take a lift to the nursery area – but we believe it helps ensure they start on good snow.
There is a smaller, but still excellent, nursery area at Riba Escorxada, above El Tarter. Both these areas have magic carpet lifts to make things easier for beginners.
Intermediates: The whole linked area is a superb playground for intermediates, with few intimidating slopes. Intermediates and above can set out on exciting Trois Vallees style trips from Soldeu, maybe to Pas de la Casa for a leisurely lunch.
For beginners ready to progress there is a gentle early intermediates' area to the east of Espiolets. Many of the reds in Grandvalira would be blues in France, and take the higher grading only because of the occasional short sharp steeper section.
The ski patrol here have a habit of setting up netting in the middle of pistes to keep speed down – a sort of high altitude traffic-calming measure.
Experts: There are a few steepish blacks, but this is not the place for fearsome runs – and mogul fields seem few and far between. Some of the blacks would be no more than a red in many European resorts. But the Avet run down to Soldeu is a reasonable challenge.
Off-piste: However, in good snow there is no shortage of decent off-piste. On a powder day, many head for the bowl above Riba Escorxada or the Solanelles area. Sometimes there is the chance of snowcat skiing, from Pic d'Encampadana down to Riba Escorxada.
And don't forget the target audience here is principally beginners and intermediates – after new snow there can be fresh tracks to be had for days.
Ski schools and guides
Few resorts are better prepared to handle beginners than Grandvalira. It has a long tradition of greeting British skiers, particularly beginners, and the Grandvalira ski school (00 376 80 10 74) is largely staffed by British, or at least English-speaking, instructors. And there is no problem hiring guides for off-piste adventures.
The advanced nature of the network surprises those new to Andorra, the slopes dotted with gondolas and high-speed chairlifts, with few drags. Achieving an uphill capacity of 90,000 skiers an hour in its relatively short history is quite an achievement. There can be queues in the morning for the gondola out of Soldeu, but there is an option of taking a chairlift up the mountain.
Snow reliability and snowmaking
Slopes are mainly north-facing and keep their snow well. Two poor snow years recently attracted some criticism, but over a long period Grandvalira actually has a very good snow record. Snowmaking covers nearly 50 per cent of the runs, and the area is renowned for the quality of its grooming.
Some would say it is too efficient, not leaving enough 'natural' runs. But whenever there is a shortage the highly-efficient snowbashers are very adept at making the best of what they have, shifting it about if sparse patches appear – and the runs down to the villages are usually in decent shape to the end of the season.
The terrain park above Riba Escorxada is highly rated – large, with jumps, rails, a half-pipe, boarder-cross run and bumps. A freestyle day pass has been introduced and the park features a giant airbag where new tricks can be safely tried out.