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  ADVENTURE ANDORRA
by Bob Enzel

It was almost 40 years ago that I first visited the Principality of Andorra. At that time petite Andorra was still the young daughter of Spain and France.

This past winter when I re-visited Andorra the young lady had grown to full maturity. Andorra was no longer a placid duty free-tax free haven. It had matured into a duty free metropolis and was no longer (totally) tax free …service tax was now four percent. There are over 2,000 shops that offer tax free shopping and 250 hotels where you can rest your pocketbook between jaunts.
 


 

The five ordinary ski areas of years past have been merged into two mega-resorts at both ends of the Principality. Their combined lift total is now 110 (152,000/pph) with 175 miles of skiable terrain on more than 7,000 skiable acres. Many skiers have already discovered this mini-ski-paradise; even in this past poor snow year, Andorra expected skier visits of two and a half million visits—equal to that of its neighbor Spain. The tiny Principality of 175 square miles was now a serious skiing tourism competitor to both Spain and France.

Our visit to Andorra was even shorter than planned when a meter of snow kept us pinned in at our hotel in the Spanish Pyrenees. It cut our visit to two nights and only one day. It took us the better part of a day to make the door-to-door trip from the resort of Baqueira-Beret to our hotel in Andorra. Even so, fellow ski writer Ted Heck and I managed a full day of skiing at Grand Valira, a visit to the resort of Valnord, some duty free shopping, and dining out with our newly acquired friends.

In the many years between visits my memory had diminished, and Andorra had expanded so fiercely I was confused about the lay of the land. The previous tough drive up the mountain road had been smoothed into a relatively easy and picturesque drive out of Spain into Andorra. New roadways cut through solid rock and serpentine curves were reduced to straight-aways. I had also forgotten that the capital city of Andorra La Vella was still about 10 miles from the border crossing. When we first arrived in Andorra I thought we were in the main city, but the area had grown so much I didn’t realize we were actually in the border town of San Julia de Loria. Ten miles further on we arrived in Andorra La Vella.

My memory also failed in finding our hotel without any difficulty. The city had grown in 40 years and it took us awhile to get our bearings within this busy little metropolis…with the help of several kindly citizens. We eventually reached the Art Hotel in the center city. The hotel overlooked a lovely park and canal and it was comfortable and convenient. It also solved a triple purpose: close to restaurants and shopping, with easy access to the highway to both ski resorts. Unfortunately, we only had two nights to enjoy hotel comforts. www.apsisarthotel.com/index.html. Shopping in and out of the city is phenomenal and the night was still before us… Ted and I enjoyed walking around the old town looking in windows and occasionally popping in to buy an item or two.

Off we went early the next day with our equipment loaded to ski the resort of Grand Valira. The resort offered the most convenient access to France at the western end of Andorra. Our guide that day was Christa whose grandparents once owned a hotel within steps of a nearby lift. It was fortunate we had a guide--and Christa was a good guide--because there was no way we could have managed to ski the entire complex in one day. A modern 88 passenger tram to the top whisked us up in short order. Even so we managed to only ski the Canillo-El Tarter-Soldeu-Grau Roig side of the resort. We missed the Pas de la Casa side of this huge mountain complex. Of course, we would have liked to have returned the next day and skied it all, but time was limited. We intended to visit Valnord the following day, which was also our departure day.

Somewhere near the top we squeezed in a short visit to the resort’s kennel where a litter of rescue pups were being very carefully cared for. One of many new features this past year was a specially designed auto circuit where cars were being driven on snow and ice, but once again time didn’t permit us to try it out. Another neat little touch was a second Mickey Snow Club circuit at Grau Roig for children in a Disney atmosphere and characters. We needed a break so it was entertaining for us to watch the little kids have a grand old time. The Disney Garden followed the success of similar kindergardens and snow play areas on the El Tarter side of the resort. We also managed to ride the new six-seater detachable chairlift in the Sodeu area and observe the operation of the new chair lift in the beginner’s area at Grau Roig, plus a new conveyor belt at Pas de la Casa.

The next morning thanks to a new 1.2 km tunnel between the center of Andorra and La Massana we were able to zip over to Valnord in 10 minutes, park our vehicle in the new indoor garage and use the walkway that connects to the new gondola lift. We trudged around the top of the resort and envied those skiers that whizzed down perfectly groomed surfaces…they probably wondered why these two idiots weren’t skiing on such a fine day? It was a beautiful day with bright sun which fortunately allowed us to stay within our tight schedule and still visit the multi-complex restaurant and shops at the top of the main meeting area. In actuality, there are twenty dining places scattered among the resort with foods offered as diverse as Chinese (Xina Igloo ;) Mexican (Mexicobelix ;) Italian (Bella Italia)…well, you get the idea. Other activities are available on Pal-Arinsal, such as, (dog) mushing, snowshoeing, ski bikes and snow bikes.

The Valnord Resort is divided into two separate complexes: Pal-Arinsal where we now were and Ordino-Arcalis just down the road a short distance. Between the areas there are 67 slopes covering 89 km of terrain and utilizing 44 lifts—which included the beautiful tram to the top of Pal-Arinsal. Valnord is no longer the primitive place it once was when the three areas were known individually by each area’s locale It is now a state-of-the-art resort like Grand Valira. For the most part the Ordino-Arcalis locale is left ungroomed for powder hounds who disdain snow grooming machines. More advanced skiers and snowboarders gravitate to Ordino-Arcalis which claims “the best free ride in the Pyrenees.” They also provide snowshoes, snow bikes and offer swimming and fitness at the Sport Centre.

I should mention that those over 70 years of age ski free and need only stop by the Tourist Office to pick up their complimentary pass. Or go on-line at www.skiandorra.ad/ and check out ski packages and other options that can save some precious Euros. A
5-day pass is a good value and skiers receive a 10% discount on other activities. Ski bus to and from resort runs all season.

Language was not a barrier, but driving was a challenge at times. Andorra has a population of 75,000 in a small area with one lane highways and much traffic that is always in a rush. Not to mention, tourist drivers like us and neighboring-country drivers from both France and Spain. Andorrans are not only 100% literate but probably receive driving licenses upon graduation. Closest airports: Toulouse in France and Barcelona in Spain are both approximately a three hour, 115-120 mile drive.

We reluctantly left Valnord about 11 a.m., leaving us enough time to do the three-hour drive in leisure and still have a few daylight hours to do a quick sightsee around Barcelona. Alas, it did not quite work that way. At the border was a huge duty free store that tempted us to stop and check it out. After all, journalists are supposed to know all the ins and outs. Lots and lots of shoppers with super-large shopping carts filled with just about every item you could imagine assaulted us as we entered. With big eyes we wandered around checking out items and prices. My favorite stop is always the spirits section in any duty free outlet and this one was no exception. The alcoholic beverage department was in itself supermarket size with a variety that boggled the mind. I managed to select a fine cognac and a prize vintage port to lug home. Friend Ted found a great digital camera at a fantastic price. Other people were shopping for custom made shirts; baby necessities; tires; merchandise of every description and every type of electronic item imaginable.

But Barcelona awaited us and we hustled along and arrived in just enough time to do our own two-hour tour. It was a great way to end our trip, but we need to do it again.

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