Snow-capped wonderland

Grandvalira ski slopes

ANDORRA - When I first heard of Andorra, I thought it sounded like a place out of The Lord Of The Rings or Game Of Thrones, and it did feel a little out of this world when I arrived last month.

Andorra is a small principality of just 468 sq km - about two-thirds the size of Singapore - spread across 65 peaks in the Pyrenees Mountain range, which forms the border between France and Spain.

Despite being sandwiched between the two countries, Andorra has a strong sense of identity, defined by its stark, mountainous landscape and Catalan heritage (Catalan is its main language, although Spanish, French and sometimes English are also spoken by Andorrans).

I arrived in Barcelona at 6.30am, via a Qatar Airways flight from Doha. My guide, native Andorran Ruben Tomas, 44, picked me up at the airport and we began the 21/2-hour drive to Andorra.

Andorra does not have an airport or railway. You can drive in and out of it only via two major roads, one from France and one from Spain.

Driving through Spain's flat countryside, my eyes scanned its rich earth tones: olive and beige fields, rust coloured rocks and clay. But as we got closer to Andorra the landscape darkened. The green leaves in the trees went from olive to pine, the rocks from rust to charcoal. I found myself driving through winding valley roads between steep cliffs and sheer rockfaces which, though predominantly brown and grey, were mesmerising in their scale and severity.

I could immediately imagine how beautiful the mountains would look in the first bud of spring, the full flush of summer and the fieriness of fall. Even in the middle of winter, the snow-capped mountains boasted an austere beauty. Over my five days in Andorra, I never tired of the mountain views which surrounded me.

The roughly 15 villages which populate this landlocked country lie within narrow valleys, with homes scattered along winding roads up the peaks. In fact, Andorra's average elevation is 2,000m. At 1,023m above sea level, its capital, Andorra la Vella, is the highest capital city in Europe.

While about 75,000 people call Andorra home, only 25,000 are natives. The rest are expatriates from countries such as Argentina, France and Spain who go to Andorra to work in the tourism industry, which makes up about 80 per cent of the country's economy.

Andorra attracts more than 10 million tourists each year, mostly from Spain and France, but also from other countries such as Russia and Britain. Winter is its peak season as 60 per cent of its tourists head to Andorra to ski.

Its ski resort Grandvalira is the largest in southern Europe and boasts 210km of ski area across 118 slopes. Thanks to Andorra's continental alpine climate, there are 300 days of sunshine a year on average, even as resort-goers enjoy mountains full of snow that are maintained by more than 1,000 snow cannons.

More than skiing

Ski season starts on Dec 1 and lasts through mid-April. Each of Grandvalira's six ski areas has slopes for everyone, from beginners to advanced skiers.

As I had not skied in many years, I made my way to the ski and snowboarding school in the Grau Roig area for a refresher lesson.

Grandvalira has more than 400 instructors who lead daily group and private ski and snowboarding classes. My instructor revised basic techniques with me, such as how to stop, move slowly and turn, before I was given free rein on the bunny slopes.

I was on the slopes for only an hour and wished I had more time there. But I had an appointment I couldn't miss: a mushing session with a sleigh and some huskies.

Besides skiing and snowboarding, Grandvalira also offers other snow activities such as mushing (adults pay €37 for a 1.5km ride and €79 for a 5km ride), where you are pulled in a sleigh by huskies; snow shoeing (from €21 an hour to €63 for five hours), where you put on special plastic and rubber footwear to walk over snow; snow mobiling (from €2 for two people for a 10-minute tour to €58 for two for a 30-minute trip); and skijoring, which is a Scandinavian form of skiing pulled by dogs (€68 for a 3km ride and €89 for a 5km ride).

Mushing was one of the highlights of my trip. The thrill of being pulled over the snow by a pack off dogs through breathtaking scenery was enough to make up for the downside of the experience: the dogs' unfortunate smells. I'm a dog lover, but mushing past dog poop did put a damper on the experience.

After mushing, I had lunch at an Andorran hamburger restaurant called AndBurger, right next to the Grau Roig slopes. For about €15, I had one of the best steaks of my life. They were seared on hot slate over a pine wood fire and were flavourful and cooked to perfection.

Most of the meat you eat in Andorra is incredibly fresh. The livestock are raised in Andorran grass fields and drink Andorran water, which is pure and very low in minerals so it has a clean, fresh taste. A side note: The tap water in Andorra is better than any bottled water you buy in the store.

You can also enjoy traditional Andorran food, mostly hearty grilled meats and sausages with potatoes, vegetable soup and small salads, in bordas or farmhouses that have been converted into restaurants and bars.

There are also a number of fine-dining restaurants, such as Restaurant Plaza and El Gran Cafe, both in Hotel Plaza, which serve French-style cuisine. Expect to pay about €30 a head for a meal, excluding alcohol. This is a country where a good bottle of wine can cost less than €4 in the supermarket.

Traditionally, Andorrans do not have their own cuisine and rely heavily on their neighbours for produce and culinary inspiration.

For generations, Andorrans led a subsistence existence. The grassland is sparse and most of the mountain terrain is too tough to farm, so for centuries, they would walk for days down winding dirt paths from their homes on the mountains to the market in the Spanish town of La Seu D'Urgell, more than 20km away, to barter for goods. The market is still open today and is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

These days, Andorrans head to the nearest supermarket. The biggest and best is in the Pyrenees Andorra department store in Andorra la Vella, which has a great selection of regional foods, such as legs of the finest jamon (Spanish cured ham) and hundreds of cheeses. It is also stocked with other goodies such as foie gras, jams, assorted types of salt and gourmet olive oil that are sold at a fraction of prices here. I bought a few jars of fresh foie gras for €7 each and a bottle of non-filtered, single press extra virgin olive oil for €8, which would cost almost three times as much in Singapore.

The department store is well worth a stop to stock up on foodie treats you can take home, as well as designer goods by brands such as Mulberry, Diane von Furstenberg and Isabel Marant.

In fact, Andorra is a popular shopping destination for people from Spain and France as while it uses the euro, it is not part of the European Union and is thus not subject to its taxes. It levies a 4 per cent sales tax on goods, compared to the 20 per cent tax levied by its neighbours.

Relax at a spa

Shopping aside, the best thing to do after a day on the ski slopes is to head to a spa.

Many of Andorra's hotels offer an in-house spa, with at least a pool and Turkish and Swedish saunas. Going to spas is part of Andorra's winter tradition as a way to ease sore muscles after a morning of skiing and to clear the body of toxins in dry or wet saunas before dousing yourself in ice cold water.

I paid a visit to the spa in the basement of Hotel Plaza, where I stayed. For €25, I had access to a warm pool with six types of water jets to massage different muscle groups. I also got to try the Swedish and Turkish saunas and six showers of varying effects, ranging from a lukewarm aromatherapy shower to a rejuvenating one that aimed jets of ice cold water at different parts of the body.

With dim lighting that slowly changed colour, new age music playing in the background and electronically heated pool beds, I was so relaxed I found myself struggling to stay awake.

Even if your hotel has its own spa, you should still schedule a visit to Andorra's hot spring in Caldea, which is in the north-eastern section of Andorra la Vella. There, two spas are housed in an architecturally stunning building, whose glass shards form a steeple that reflects and mimics the surrounding mountains. Caldea (€34.50 a person for a three-hour visit) is a family-friendly spa, where chatting and socialisation in the pools, which are fed by an underground hot spring, are encouraged. Inu'u is more up-scale and tranquil, for those aged 16 and above (€65 to enter).

Massages and spa treatments are available and focus on different aspects of physical and mental health, including nutrition, beauty and body and mind.

Depending on the duration and type of treatments, prices range from €106 to €313. But do not expect Asian-style kneading. I had two massages during my visit, at my hotel and at Inu'u, and found the light sweeping of hands over my muscles too gentle. The massages were relaxing but did nothing to ease muscle tension.

Still, I basked in the warmth of the spa and the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.

The spas were another highlight of what was a wonderful trip with an equal balance of action-adventure and relaxation, with delicious meals in between.

I heard summer in Andorra is also stunning, with plenty of opportunities for hiking, rafting and rock climbing. So if you are travelling to Barcelona in Spain or southern France, squeeze in a visit to Andorra - it is well worth a three- or four-day stop.

vlydia@sph.com.sg

This trip was sponsored by Hotels Plaza Andorra and Cheaptickets.sg.

GETTING THERE

The best way to get to Andorra from Singapore is through Barcelona, Spain. Andorra is 200km from Barcelona and just under 200km from Toulouse.

Singapore Airlines offers a direct flight to Barcelona, which takes about 14 hours and costs about $2,000, but I flew Qatar Airways via Doha, which took about 16 hours and cost about $1,200 on www.cheaptickets.sg.

There are no trains or commercial flights to Andorra. Only buses and cars will get you there via two main roads: one from Spain and the other from France.

You can hire a private car pick-up from the airport in Barcelona through your hotel, which will cost about €45 (S$78) a person, or take a bus. Two bus companies offer direct service to Andorra la Vella, Andorra's capital. Direct Bus (www.andorradirectbus.es) provides round-trip services from Barcelona's Estacio de Sants bus station and Barcelona-El Prat Airport to Andorra la Vella. A one-way trip that takes about three hours costs about €33 and a round trip, about €57.

NovAtel (www.andorrabybus.com) bus company provides round trip services from the Barcelona airport to Andorra la Vella for about €56. Buses operated by Cooperativa Interurbana Andorrana (www.interurbana. ad) are the major form of public transportation within Andorra, providing services between its towns and villages for about €1.80 to €6.10 a trip. Some hotels, such as the Hotel Plaza in Andorra la Vella, provide free daily shuttles to nearby ski slopes during the ski season from December to April.

WHERE TO STAY

Grandvalira is divided into six sectors, five of which offer residential villages with hotels, shops and restaurants.

Grau Roig is the only one without a residential area, but it does have an Igloo Hotel (€109 to €183, or S$187 to S$315, for a standard room, €338 to €480 for a romantic igloo suite a night, depending on the season). It is made completely out of snow and perches 2,350m atop the Grau Roig ski area, offering a restaurant, massage facilities, a snow jacuzzi and easy access to ski slopes in the morning.

But novice skiers would do well to make their base in Canillo. A typical and romantic Pyrenean village, its buildings are in Andorra's ubiquitous architectural style of granite walls, pine mouldings and slate roofs. One benefit of this construction is its durability. The Andorran mountains and roadsides are dotted with 12th-century Romanesque churches, which are still standing today. Some even retain their original frescoes.

One of the best places to stay in Canillo is the Ski Plaza Hotel (bed and breakfast costs €100 to €130 a night for a twin room and €150 to €200 for a family suite), a rustic, alpine-style hotel just a five-minute walk from the ski lifts. Its 111 rooms include five family suites, which feature children's rooms with themes such as Heidi, David Crockett and Alice In Wonderland.

If you want to divide your time between the slopes, spas and shops, stay in Andorra la Vella for easy access to the town's amenities, as well as shuttle services to the slopes. The four-star Hotel Plaza where I stayed, which is a five-minute walk from the main shopping strip, is one of the most beautiful hotels in Andorra. Bed and breakfast costs about €110 to €156 for a standard room and €171 to €211 for a deluxe room a night.

The Holiday Inn across town offers bed and breakfast a night starting at €96 to €117 for a double room and €175 to €199 for a Kid Suite. It is about a 10-minute walk from the Old Parliament house and the town's historic district, and offers clean, comfortable rooms and family suites at good value. Andorra's hotels often cost half or even a third the price during the off-peak season from spring to fall.

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