Vallnord Inspection Visit
As the sales Ski Adaptable team set off for our 6am flight to Barcelona, we were unbelievably excited. Two hours later (of which was spent dozing and gazing out at the French and Spanish landscape from above) we arrived in Barcelona-El Prat airport, and went out of the terminal to the coach drop-off and pick-up area for our transfer to Andorra. Having never been to the tiny country of Andorra, and having heard the brilliant responses from our regular groups that travel there, I was expecting great things – I was not disappointed.
The transfer lasted three hours, all of which flew by as the views of Barcelona city centre melted into the Catalonian countryside before the seasons seemed to reverse as we entered into a wintery scene in the mountains near Andorra. You couldn’t help staring in awe at the deep ravines, plunging waterfalls and snow covered mountains that dominated the sky all around you. If it wasn’t for the great skiing in Vallnord, this could have been my favourite moment from the trip.
We stayed at the Hotel Patagonia, a superior 3*, ski-to-door hotel, a stone’s throw away from the chair lifts up into the mountain. Once checked-in, we went up to our rooms which were all spacious twin beds with ensuite bathrooms, complete with a sofa, table and chairs, kitchenette, and (the best part) a balcony overlooking the stunning, frosty mountains opposite. However, now was not the time to relax as we were due to meet our agent in Andorra, Jordi, who would be showing us around Vallnord and Grandvalira, including the 15 hotels that we use for our school groups and various après ski activities (when we do an inspection visit, we certainly do not scrimp on our homework!). We first headed off to Ski Fusio for our ski fitting, which was a convenient 30 second walk away from the Patagonia, opposite the chair lifts. The sales representative fitting our skis was well versed in the act and spoke great English meaning all three of us were measured, fitted and out the door in around five minutes, poles, helmets, skis, boots and all.
It was then time to explore the capital city, Andorra la Vella (‘Andorra the Old’ in Catalan), the highest capital city in Europe. We visited the shopping centre, stopping for a quick aperitif of jamón and bruschetta in true Catalonian style. The layout of the shopping centre (multi-tiered square surrounding a large open concourse) means it very easy to keep an eye on your students and makes it a great place for free time. Many of our groups spend a few hours here enjoying the famously cheap buys due to Andorra’s status as a tax haven (including a big Superdry store!). We then headed off to the Caldea & Innu spa, a momentous, architectural delight. The building was designed by French architect Jean-Michelle Ruolle in 1994, and was meant to mimic the mountains around it, however with the modern twist of being made completely out of glass. It stands as a sharp, but somehow fitting contrast to the rugged, snow covered terrain that surrounds it, and seems quite daunting amongst the small Pyrenean houses. The spa is the biggest of its kind in Southern Europe, and it is easy to see why they gained their title when you head inside. Cascades of waterfalls, large Jacuzzis elevated above the main pool, hot and cold baths, wooden saunas and lazy rivers which lead you outside into the cold Andorran air, all whilst submerged in the thermal spring water. After a long day on the slopes, this luxurious treat would be only too welcome. Whilst there we saw their infamous performance, where the lights were dimmed, warm water rained from the ceiling and a dancer swung from a suspended sheet of fabric above the pool, it was a truly memorable experience. After all of this, we were all completely exhausted and headed back to the hotel for a long, well deserved sleep.
The next morning was dedicated to the slopes. After a huge breakfast at the hotel, we donned our skis and headed up the mountain on the chair lift located a 2 minute walk from the Patagonia & Crest Hotel (a 6 seater lift that takes you directly up and back down to the base of Arinsal and where the Ski school is located) to meet our ski instructor Dave, an English expat, and we began our lessons. As the least able skier in the group, I spent most of my time practising on the nursery slope and finally, under the excellent instruction of Dave, exploring the ‘greens’. Beth and Jack went higher into the mountains and skied many of the green, blue and red runs that Arinsal and Pal had to offer, watching the professionals weaving and bouncing their way in-between the trees and the deep snow on the black runs at the peak of the mountain. The weather and conditions were absolutely perfect, just before we arrived it had snowed heavily on the mountains, covering the slopes in around 2 metres of fresh powder, however the sky above was a brilliant shade of blue and the sun was shining. It was quite strange eating lunch in a t-shirt and sunglasses whilst being knee-deep in snow!
After lunch we headed off the slopes, and visited the towns of Pas de la Casa, El Tarter, Canillo, Encamp and Soldeu, inspecting hotels and meeting the managers. The Palau De Gel swimming pool and ice rink, as well as the bowling alley are both found in Pas de la Casa and El Tarter, a short 20 minute drive away from the Vallnord resort, and even closer to Grandvalira. The swimming pool was Olympic sized (don’t forget your swimming caps!) and the ice rink was full of games and even had go-karts around the outside. The bowling alley was similar to a disco, with flashing lights, music and arcade machines, a real contrast to the cool quiet of the slopes, and a really fun activity for the evenings.
Our final, full day in Andorra was spent once more on the slopes where we visited more of the resort. Again, conditions were amazing and as I was practising my newly learnt skills on the nursery slopes, Beth, Jack and our instructor Dave ascended up various lifts and covered most of the surrounding runs.
At the top of Arinsal is the gondola that leads across to the Pal sector of the resort. This takes approximately 20 minutes to glide through the mountain side (great views!), and leads to the base of Pal which opens up to another approx 35km of slopes. Pal has some great picturesque tree lined runs, and all slopes are extremely well linked.
Taking a break from Skiing, the head of the Arinsal ski school showed us around the various canteens, restaurants and facilities that Arinsal base station has to offer. It is here that we saw first-hand the equipment used for the adaptive skiing in Vallnord, which is one of the most advanced resorts in the world to offer it, and we met the passionate instructors who specialise in this area.
With work commitments, out of the way for the rest of the day, we had some free time to hit up slopes one last time. Once again we headed up, this time instructor free, to get a feel for the slopes for ourselves. Firstly, we jumped onto Les Fonts chairlift which can be caught from the base station of the Arinsal sector. We became very familiar with this lift during our stay as it takes you ¾ of the way up the mountain. From here you have the choice of skiing back down enjoying several wide, enjoyable blue runs that fan off in all directions or continue on further with the Port Negre chairlift which will take you the remaining distance to the peak of Pic Negre, the highest point in Vallnord at a height of 2,569m. At the top the skiing is a lot more varied and is better suited to the intermediate and advanced skiers in your group. Red and black runs are the name of the game up here with the chance of a little off-piste shenanigans (weather permitting). Beginners aren’t completely left out however thanks to a simple blue taking you from the very top all the way back to the base station with a number of forks on the way down linking up with the runs found at the top of Les Fonts chairlift. From the base it is possible to continue further on still, down the fairly narrow yet very enjoyable Les Mermades run which takes you all the back to the Josep Serra Gondola located next to the Hotel Crest and Patagonia essentially making both of these options ski to door.
The following morning, it was with sadness that we said goodbye to Andorra and got on our transfer through the snowy mountain passes, back into the sunshine of Barcelona and onto our flight home.
Vallnord and Grandvalira are our most frequented and popular ski resorts for school groups, and after having visited them myself, it is clear to see why. The country itself is a safe, friendly place filled with fun activities for when you are off the slopes. Overall we had a very enjoyable time skiing in Vallnord. The conditions were perfect with powdery snow and bright blue skies with the occasional snow flurry to keep conditions fresh. The Arinsal sector is the perfect place to begin your ski journey with fantastic infrastructure in place to build confidence and fast progression thanks to some very forgiving blues. This means students will not be required to spend their whole time at the bottom of the mountain on the nursery slopes (as can sometimes be the case in other resorts) but can instead see all of the mountain without fear of the difficulty ramping up too quickly. Groups with more advanced skiers will also find plenty to enjoy in Arinsal but may find themselves moving over to the Pal sector after a couple of days where difficult reds can be found in abundance. The tree lined skiing of this area makes it feel a world away from Arinsal yet is just a short gondola ride away.