"So where were you exactly?"
"Isn't that a small ski area in Colorado?"
"No, that's Eldora."
"Andorra is a country."
"No way. A country?
Where, like in Europe?"
And so it goes. If you visit Andorra and expect to impress your friends on your return, you will invariably have a version of the preceding conversation every time you talk about your trip.
While this can get old pretty fast, the upside is that not many American skiers book trips to Andorra. For that matter, not all that many Europeans do either, so nasty crowds and long liftlines won't be a problem if you avoid major holidays and ski during the week. Keep in mind, though, that the narrow valleys of Andorra ensure major traffic snarls on the weekends."OK. So where is it, really?"
Andorra is a principality in the Pyrenees, on the border between Spain and France. The closest airports are Toulouse, France, and Barcelona, Spain-either of which is a three-hour drive. Andorra has two main industries-skiing and shopping. The whole country, barely 15 miles across, with just 65,000 residents, is like a giant, duty-free outlet mall. Tour buses from Spain and France arrive with as many avid bargain hunters as powder hounds. And although you probably can't pay for your ski trip with the savings you tally, you can enjoy great deals and great skiing in the same vacation.
If you need more soulful incentive, Andorra's location on the border means you have delightful sidetrips to consider in France and Spain. More on that in a moment. First, you need to decide when and where to go.
The Andorra ski season starts in December and is about five months long. But it's wise to avoid the earliest and latest weeks of the season to ensure adequate snowpack, since the average annual snowfall is only around 100 inches. The country boasts a variety of ski areas-Pas de la Casa/Grau Roig, Soldeu/El Tarter, Pal/Arinsal, Ordino/Arcalàs-and most are either a short drive apart or connected by lifts. Prefer nordic skiing? You may want to put La Rabassa-the local cross-country hub-on your list as well.
For skiers or boarders, Andorra is an equal-opportunity destination. All its ski areas offer modern facilities, with cable cars, gondolas, high-speed chairlifts and enough snowmaking to ensure decent skiing throughout the season. Still, these are all European ski resorts, so plan on spending more than a few hours straddling frosty surface lifts on your way to partially groomed runs. And since the highest Andorran resort tops out at a modest 8,660 feet, the snow level during your stay might not extend all the way down into town. The bare, brown hillside view from your room may mean that all of the lower-elevation tree-skiing opportunities are limited or nonexistent.
Still, it's interesting to note that Andorra is the highest country in all of Europe-2,745 feet high at the Spanish border, with 43 peaks above 2,500 meters (7,620 feet).
The Pyrenees are lovely mountains, but unless you do some independent exploration, don't expect much in the way of "quaint" from Andorra's built environment. There are a few hotels that are undeniably charming, but much of the ski-area development is relatively modern and functional and vertical. The countrysides in nearby France and Spain have "quaint" coming out the wazoo, but Andorra proper, seen from the main roads, can appear more concrete and purpose-built than fit for postcards. On the other hand, if all you want to do is ski and shop, any main road will take you directly to your goals-albeit slowly or in bumper-to-bumper traffic on weekends.
If your goals include trying out your high school French or Spanish with the locals, you may encounter puzzled looks. The national language has been Catalan since the reign of Charlemagne. Fortunately, you can get by on English without muchtrouble, and the Euro will make your crazed shopping binges seem a lot less complicated.
What will complicate your visit are all the enticing sside-trips that are available. Even if you live to ski and can't wait to add the Pyrenees to your list of conquests, plan to spend at least a few days (or the rest of your life) in laid-back Barcelona-the most logical port of entry. (You could also use Bordeaux, Toulouse or Perpignon for your arrival, but, charming as they are, none of these is a major hub for international flights. Madrid, Paris and Marseilles are options, too, but nowhere near as close as Barcelona.)
Barcelona is an energetic, cosmopolitan seaport with more than enough art, clubs and bizarre architecture to keep you buzzing for weeks. The Spanish countryside between Barcelona and Andorra offers wineries for the profligate, monasteries for the pious, even beaches and fishing villages if you veer northeast a bit. A fan of Dali? Then a pilgrimage to Cadeques and Figueras is worth a slight coastal jog in your journey.
If you go directly to Andorra from Barcelona, don't rule out a short excursion north into France-especially if your ski vacation is very early or very late in the season. As soon as you set foot in Gascony, you may wish you had scheduled more time for exploration. The countryside and villages of nearby Corbières have been hailed as the next Provence. Travel + Leisure magazine praises its "almost narcotic beauty." Trying to find lodging on short notice in winter, how-ever, can be challenging.
The same is true in Andorra, so regardless of which snow zone you choose to visit, you will need to make reservations well in advance. Even if you decide to sample all of the surrounding ski areas, you'll need to choose a base of operations for your campaign.
To round out your busy stay in Andorra, or to just take a break from all the skiing and shopping, be sure to ask about some of the less publicized activities. Try dogsledding,helicopter tours, the Spa at Caldea, the ice rink in Canillo or the on-ice rally driving in Pas.
For those of you who are really ambitious, the best Spanish ski resorts are close by as well. Among them: Boà-Taüll (charming locale, expert terrain), Baqueira-Beret (Spain's largest and most expensive), Candanchú (very challenging), Port del Comte (more for families), Formigal (a smaller, friendlier alternative to Bacqueira), Panticosa (off the beaten track, fun and still uncrowded) and Cerler (quiet nightlife, but good snow, lifts and terrain). Spain is dotted with spectacular state-run historical lodges called paradores. The one in La Seu d'Urgell is a classic, and it's only an hour from the lifts in Andorra.
Whether you stay in a converted castle or a modern condo, one insurmountable international problem remains: When you get home, you'll still have to explain to your friends where Andorra is.Or maybe not.
Maybe you'll just decide to keep it to yourself.