Andorra is tucked snugly in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It’s one of those tiny countries we honestly didn’t know much about, and for many years the draw was simply to check it off on our quest to visit every country in Europe. I nearly booked a day trip two years ago when I was in Barcelona, but now having been to Andorra, I’m glad I didn’t. This tiny country, actually the largest of Europe’s six micro-states, is worthy of more than a day trip by coach to indulge in the duty-free shopping in the capital. With reliably good snow (at the time of our visit and publication, Andorra had the best snow depths in Europe), more kilometers of pistes than roads and a variety of activities for both the skiers and non-skiers, an Andorra ski holiday should definitely be on your radar.
Andorra is a Country?
It’s hard to remember what we knew about Europe before we lived here. But, like many of our Instagram followers, it’s probably a safe bet that we hadn’t heard of Andorra back then either.
It doesn’t have an international airport, and unless you have the means to charter a helicopter or a private flight to Andorra’s La Seu d’Urgell Airport, you’ll be arriving via automobile most likely from Toulouse or Barcelona. Both cities are an equal distance of approximately 200 kilometers away. While maybe not the easiest country to get to, believe us when we say it’s well worth the easy drive, which we made from our home in Bordeaux.
The somewhat limited access even in these modern times left us discussing how a tiny country characterized by glacial landscapes and steep valleys came to be in the first place. Our questions were answered with a visit to Casa de la Vall in Andorra la Vella. The historic house was the seat of the General Council of Andorra, held the court and even a small prison. A newer modern building that can accommodate the growing size of the Council General has now replaced Casa de la Vall, though today it serves as a small museum to help puzzled visitors like us understand Andorra’s complex political system.
Though it’s not known for sure exactly when Andorra was founded, it’s thought it was around 700. It’s the last remaining independent principality of the Marca Hispanica, which were buffer states created by Charlemagne to keep the Muslim Moors from advancing in to Christian France. Tradition says that Charlemagne extended a charter to the Andorran people for fighting against the Moors.
Of course, there would be disputes between France and Spain throughout the centuries over Andorra. In 1607, it was decided that the head of state of France and the Bishop of Urgel of Spain would serve as co-princes and Andorra would keep its independence. Councillers from the Seven Parishes of Andorra were elected and it was ensured that everything stayed equal by requiring each parish to work together to make administrative decisions. This was accomplished by locking away all government documents in a box that required seven keys in order to open it. The eldest council member from each parish was entrusted with their parish’s key.
It wasn’t until 1993, though, that Andorra finally had a constitution and formally became a parliamentary democracy. The head of French state, which is the President of France, and the Bishop of Urgel are still co-princes, though they have reduced power.
Skiing in Andorra
Of course, the highlight to an Andorra ski holiday is the more than 300 kilometers of pistes. Andorra might be tiny in size as a country, but it actually has one of the largest ski areas in all of Europe. Seriously, skiing is such big business here that it’s even a regular part of the kids school curriculum and we weren’t joking about there being more kilometers of slopes than actual roads.
Andorra actually has two different ski areas and both look like they should be the setting of just about any Hollywood action movie set in the mountains. For those expert off-piste skiers looking for a challenge, this is the place for heli-skiing and heli-boarding.
I keep suggesting we fling Tim out of helicopter with his skis, but he hasn’t agreed. Yet. For now, he’s sticking to the red and black runs. And he tried them out at both of Andorra’s ski areas: Grandvalira and Vallnord.
Grandvalira is Andorra’s largest ski area with 210 kilometers of pistes between 1710 – 2640 meters and encompasses the six villages of Soldeu, El Tarter, Pas de la Casa, Grau Roig, Encamp and Canillo, all interconnected by 11 resort links. You can easily ski across all of the villages in a full day on the slopes; just don’t forget where you parked the car or miss the last lift back to it! But have no worry, there is a ski shuttle that runs in between each village.
Vallnord is has a more boutique ski resort feel with 63 kilometers of pistes up to 2625 meters. Vallnord encompasses the resorts of Pal, Arinsal and Arcalis. Though several locals told us that the views are unparalleled at Arcalis, we unfortunately had a near white out. Tim could still ski on the lower slopes of the resort, and admittedly that snowfall is what makes the snow conditions in Andorra so good. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes when you’re skiing.
Vallnord is also a frequent host to the Freeride World Tour and some of the best freeride in Europe.
Tim’s three days skiing in Andorra were some of his favorite out of all of the ski areas we’ve been to in Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria. In comparison, Andorra is also very wallet-friendly when it comes to ski passes with a 2-day pass at Grandvalira running €87 per adult throughout the entire season. In comparison, some of our go-to ski destinations close to our former home in Italy ran €103 for a 2-day pass during the same peak period. (2017 prices at time of publication.)
Andorra for the Non-skier
I’m terrible at skiing and snowboarding. After several winters of sporadic lessons and spending more time on my bum than upright, I think Tim finally gave up the idea of us whooshing down the slopes together. With him hitting the pistes, I had plenty of activities to choose from to keep me busy until we’d meet up for lunch or a little aprés ski.
There’s a sensation that comes from the freedom of driving a snowmobile and Andorra has some gorgeous landscapes to explore. For non-skiers like me, snowmobiling is the perfect way to discover unspoiled and untouched parts of the mountain.
Snowmobiling tours are offered at Grandvalira and Vallnord, and I had the opportunity to experience snowmobiling at both ski areas. Each offers an entirely different experience.
Grandvalira at Grau Roig offers more of a forested experience and we even saw a deer while we powered our snowmobiles up and down hills and in and out of the forest. Here you’ll really be challenged to race up hills, zig and zag and see what snowmobiles can do.
Vallnord offers a different experience, allowing non-skiers to experience the slopes after they’ve closed to skiers and snowboarders for the day. With some slopes closed after a massive snowfall, I got to snowmobile while Tim was skiing. But the conditions were almost whiteout conditions and we had to descend because the snowcats grooming the slopes couldn’t see us clearly enough. It was still pretty cool to snowmobile up the ski slopes and you get a feel for just how steep they are.
Dogsledding is another activity available from both Grau Roig and El Tarter, though a ski pass is necessary if you’re mushing from El Tarter. The excitement of the dogs as they hop and howl before that sled brake is finally released is palpable. And then near silence once the dogs are free to run; the only sound is the rhythmic patter of their paws on the snow.
The great thing about dogsledding in Andorra, as opposed to some exceptionally cold places like Lapland or Svalbard, is that the temperatures are much more comfortable even on a snowy day like when I went. There’s a circuit the dogs run and you can choose from 2 – 5 kilometer long circuits. You also have the option to sit back on the sled and let the guide and dogs do all the work, or you can give mushing a go. It’s even suitable for kids, though you do have to be at least 14 years of age to drive the sled.
Airstream Experience by Schweppes
While Andorra does have an igloo hotel, which we’ve stayed at in Zermatt, we loved the unique Airstream Experience. A luxury airstream decorated by a local artist has been placed on the mountain at Vallnord above 2000 meters. It’s even on skis so that it can easily be moved around by snowcat, offering everyone that stays a unique experience.
It has electricity, a kitchen and a fully equipped bathroom. Of course, there’s hot water.
The experience was designed with couples in mind. You can spend the night in the silence of the mountain under the stars before skiing right out your door the next morning. And dinner can even be organized at the mountain restaurant La Borda de la Coma at 2200 meters, where you’ll enjoy fondue and grilled steaks.
Maybe we’re just getting older, but a day of winter sports is rough on our bodies these days. The spa can be just what a tired body ordered, not to mention that you can hardly pass up a visit to Europe’s largest health spa.
The 6000-square meter Caldea uses 68ºC water from the source Escaldes-Engordany, where the health spa gets its name. Caldea is for everyone, including families, and general entry gives you access to the indoor and outdoor lagoons with a variety of water massaging features, saunas, jacuzzi and various baths. You can also book a variety of massage and treatments in addition to the general entry.
What we loved in particular is that Caldea also has the INUU Spa, which was added to the complex in 2013. It’s a smaller, more upscale version of Caldea but only allows entry to those 16 years of age and above. It’s perfect for a couple like us who wants to relax in a quiet, adult-only environment. And like us, mostly couples were there soaking in the warm therapeutic waters after a day of work or skiing.
We spent about two hours enjoying the various levels, water features and steam and saunas, though you could certainly spend more, especially if you had also booked treatments or massage.
Where to Eat in Andorra
Andorran cuisine is a wonderful marriage of French and Catalan cuisine, with the food influenced from their French and Spanish neighbors. You can also find traditional Andorran dishes, which are more simple and based on the ingredients grown, raised and found in this mountainous country, in the smaller villages.
We sampled both modern and traditional Andorran dishes to come up with list of our favorite restaurants that should be on your Andorra itinerary.
Origen is the creation of Michelin-star and renowned Catalan chef Nandu Jubany. And in honor of Sport Hotels 10th birthday, he has created a special 10-course tasting menu showcasing all of his best dishes that have graced Origen’s menu. Perfect after you’ve spent a day working up an appetite on the slopes, the tasting menu is truly a treat.
Most courses were a culinary work of art, like “the best olives in the world,” which are a crunchy pastry cleverly disguised to look like Spanish green olives and then drizzled with the best Catalan olive oil.
Other courses were plays on something else, like the cannelloni that were actually made of cabbage instead of pasta, stuffed with partridge and topped with a black truffle cream sauce.
Some traditional dishes were also included, and though not necessarily the prettiest dish, the paella sized pan of mountain rice with sea cucumbers served family style was one of our favorite courses.
La Vaqueria at Grau Roig Hotel
Open only for lunch, La Vaqueria at the Grau Roig Hotel has seating on the slope side terrace outdoors or in the cozy traditional dining room. They also serve the best mulled wine (and we’ve tasted our fair share of it across Europe) we’ve ever had, so at the very least pop in to warm up aprés ski.
The cuisine is traditional Andorran mountain cuisine and we had onion soup, a traditional Andorran meat stew, a delicious tagliatelle simply dressed with a generous amount of shaved black truffles and parmesan and a venison filet that was to die for.
Cerveseria Era Bauro
Leaning more heavily toward Catalan than French, Cerveseria Era Bauro is both a tapas-style restaurant with small plates meant for sharing and an Andorran craft beer brewery.
We started with four dishes and the fondue, Andorran patatas bravas, sliders and pork ribs were more than enough for a filling meal. Of course, we also tried their Andorran craft beer.
We couldn’t leave Andorra without trying some Andorran wine and L’Entocea is a chic wine restaurant with quite a selection of wines to pair with their gourmet menu. There are actually only four wine producing estates in Andorra and the production is quite small, so Andorran wine can even be difficult to come by in Andorra. L’Enoteca happens to stock some of Casa Auvinyà’s 3000 bottle production. We paired a Casa Auvinyà Evolució, once the very first red wine produced in Andorra in 2009, with the chef’s tasting menu.
Though it might seem surprising for a landlocked mountainous country, fish and seafood is actually a big part of Andorran cuisine and this particular tasting menu showcased both Spain’s fish and their winter truffles. Though the entire tasting menu was delicious, our favorite dishes were the scallop carpaccio dressed with shaved truffle, tuna belly with roasted red peppers and the seared beef over potato gratin.
L’Era d’en Jaume
Located in Llorts, L’Era d’en Jaume is a family run restaurant serving traditional Andorran mountain cuisine in a small village. Here you’ll find mostly locals coming in for lunch or dinner and a menu of typical Andorran dishes like the national dish, escudella and game meats like rabbit or wild boar.
We couldn’t pass up trying the national dish, which is a stew made from bone broth and has different meats, meatballs, vegetables and pasta in it. Of course, there are many variations of the dish across the small principality and the version at L’Era d’en Jaume hit the spot after a cold and wet morning skiing and snowmobiling.
Where to Stay in Andorra
Grau Roig Hotel
The Grau Roig Hotel is a family-run boutique luxury hotel and Andorra’s only true ski-in, ski-out hotel. It’s situated right on the slopes of Grau Roig just 10 meters from the lifts in the Grandvalira ski area. In high demand with regular returning guests, it can be hard to score one of the 42 lovely rooms, all with slope views.
If you do, you’ll find yourself in chic mountain decor and with access to a fabulous boutique spa.
Sport Hotel Hermitage
The Sport Hotel Hermitage is located at the foot of the pistes of Grandvalira Soldeu and has access to lifts in just a few minutes walk from the hotel. All 135 rooms are suites ranging in size from 42 square meters to 66 square meters and all guests have 3 hours of daily access to the 5000 square meter Sport Wellness Mountain Spa water circuit.
Located in the village of Soldeu, you also have access to shops and restaurants within walking distance.
Hotel Plaza Andorra
Hotel Plaza is located in Andorra’s capital, Andorra la Vella and is a 5-star hotel. The dog-friendly hotel has spacious rooms, a large on-site spa and ski lockers for guests traveling with their own ski equipment.
Being located in Andorra la Vella, we also had easy access to shopping, a variety of bars and restaurants and Caldea Spa since the capital is easily a walkable city.
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