Tuesday, January 23, 2018

We took a bus to snowboard in Andorra (and here's how you can too)

Vallnord - Pal Arinsal
This weekend, Nathalie and I went up to Andorra to do some snowboarding.  Here's my write-up on our experience including everything you need to know if you want to go there yourself. 

The TL;DR

  • We went to Andorra on a bus to snowboard with Viatges Estiber's Ski Bus package.
  • The bus departs and arrives from Barcelona Sants station, drops and picks you up at the hotel as well of the ski station of your choosing.
  • You get two nights in a hotel with two breakfasts, and one dinner included.
  • Prices range from 135 EUR to 185 EUR per person depending on the hotel and the station. 
  • This is the easiest and one of the most affordable ways to get snow time in the Pyrenees from Barcelona. 

The Review

For those of you who know us or have read my previous posts, you'll know that Nathalie and I love snowboarding.  In fact, being close to the skiable mountains was one of the reasons we decided to move to Barcelona. With winter upon us, we set out to get back on the slopes. 

For the record, this trip wasn't our first one to Andorra.  We went a few times last year, which, unfortunately, I didn't get around to writing about (although I plan on making up for that in the next couple of weeks).

Since the tiny, mountainous principality is only a three-hour drive from Barcelona, we would book an apartment, rent a car, and drive up for a long weekend.  Depending on availability, we were usually able to find deals.  However, it's not the only way to get up there. 

A handful of local travel agencies offer semi-inclusive packages that get snow aficionados to and from Barcelona by bus, provide two nights in a hotel with breakfast and dinner included, and a two-day lift pass at either of the country's stations - Vallnord or Grandvalira. Having rented a car and an apartment the last few times we were there, we decided to give the bus a go.

The package

Nathalie and I booked our trip with Viatges Estiber - a Barcelona-based travel agency specializing in ski and outdoor holidays in Spain and the French Alps.

As mentioned above, we bought a Ski Bus package for 163 EUR a person, which included:

  • Bus transfer from Barcelona's Sants train and bus station to our hotel and back; 
  • Two nights in a three-star hotel with two breakfasts and  one dinner included;
  • A two-day lift pass at Vall Nord - Pal Arinsal.
We booked our trip six days out.  At the time of booking, there was still plenty of availability. 

Prices range between 135 to 185 EUR depending on the weekend, the quality of the hotel and which station you choose, with Vall Nord being cheaper than Grandvalira.

Departure

The buses depart from Barcelona Sants train and bus terminal at 7:00 p.m. each Friday.  They advise everyone to arrive 15 minutes early to ensure a quick departure.  Since it was our first time, we decided to be there at 6:30 p.m.  In hindsight, this was a wise decision.  

When we got out of the metro and went to the bus terminal, we noticed a crowd of people with ski gear lingering around.  We initially thought that we were in the right spot.  However, at 6:50 p.m. the bus hadn't arrived.  While Nathalie watched our bags, I quickly walked around to see if the bus parked elsewhere.  

As it turns out, the buses see map below were waiting next to the main bus terminal.  However, even if it was a bit confusing, we moved our stuff, found our coach, met our 'guides,' and took our seats before the top of the hour.  By 7:15 p.m., the bus was rolling, and we were on our way.


The Bus Ride

This was our first trip on a bus since coming back from Southeast Asia. We were pleasantly surprised with the modern cabin, comfy seats, and adequate legroom.  We were also surprised to find that the two of us were most probably the oldest passengers on board.  As it would turn out, Estiber gears their Skibus product towards college students.

In many ways, it makes sense.  Most people in their mid-30s with jobs tend to either have a car or the financial means to rent one and can usually afford more accommodating lodging.  However, Nathalie and I were in it to discover how the product worked and, oddly, we were (mostly) enjoying the experience of being around people who were born when we both were in high school and the nostalgia of our time backpacking three years ago.

Barcelona Sants Station looking at the Estiber loading terminal.
Andorra is a three-hour drive from Barcelona.  Since the bus didn't have a restroom and left before Spanish dinner time, we made a 45-minute rest stop halfway into the journey.  Stopping in the village of Ponts, we joined the passengers of the other three Estiber buses at a local hotel's restaurant.  There, passengers could order sandwiches, dishes, pizzas, or just a drink. All were reasonably priced for a hotel restaurant with most of the sandwiches in the 5 EUR range.  At 10 p.m., we loaded back into the bus to complete the last leg of the journey.

An hour after leaving the restaurant, we came to the Spanish-Andorran border.  Andorra, while sandwiched between France and Spain, is not a member of the European Union, European Economic Area, or Schengen Zone.  Therefore, you have to cross a controlled border point to enter the country.  That said since you can only access Andorra by car, if you qualify to be in the Schengen zone (which if you're coming from Spain or France, you have), then you can enter into the country without issue.

While there are no official passport controls, the police can and do carry out random checks, which is what happened to our bus at the border. Spanish border agents boarded our bus and asked for everyone's papers. Nathalie and I showed our Belgian ID cards, and the many exchange students on the bus flashed their passports.  Other than a ditzy, young American leaving hers in her luggage stowed under the bus, we had no issues and were on our way 20 minutes later.

Hotel 

When we booked our trip, we chose to stay in the three-star Hotel Garden located just south of the capital city Andorra la Vella.  Check-in went smoothly, and we made it to our room by 11:30 p.m.  The room was clean if not a little basic.  However, it provided everything we needed - mainly a place to sleep and a hot shower - and other than the double bed being two single beds put together, we had little to complain about.

Double room in the Hotel Garden (source)

We had three meals included in our package - one dinner and two breakfasts. The breakfast was a buffet and consisted of various pastries, fresh fruit, yogurt, bread, and different cold cuts.  We've had better, and it would have been nice to have a hot option or two.  However, it provided us with enough energy to get us to lunch.

Dinner, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise.  In contrast to the morning buffet, we received a menu for a three-course meal, complete with four choices for each serving.  We both had warm vegetable soup for our starter.  For the main course, I had pork tenderloin served with mashed sweet potatoes, and Nathalie had pasta carbonara. We finished the meal with an apple crumble-like pastry for dessert.  All told, the meal was a welcome treat after a long day out in the cold.  


Vallnord

Both mornings, the same bus we rode up in picked us up at the hotel - the first morning at 09:30 a.m and the second and last day, an hour earlier. After a quick stop to pick up people staying at another hotel, the bus continued on its 20-minute journey to the base of Pal Arsinal.

Vallnord is split into two different domains, with two main areas each.  Ordino Arcalis and  Pal Arsinal.  While both are in the same group, our package only included a pass to Pal Arsinal.  This made sense as it is impossible to access the two domains on skis since no lifts or gondolas connect the two.

Not that it would matter, though.  Pal Arsinal has nearly 100 km of slopes plus extensive free-riding areas across the domain which is more than plenty for two days of snowboarding.

While it's possible to drive directly to the base station, there is a bubble lift that takes skiers, snowboarders, and visitors from the town of La Massana up to the slopes.  The bus driver not wanting to take his chances on an icy mountain pass dropped us off near the lift entrance. After a few minutes' wait in line, we were on our way up to the Pal base station.

Most of the domain rests below the treeline, meaning that its perfect in both low-visibility and, more importantly, for taking some excellent glade runs.  In between the trees, riders and skiers will find beginner to intermediate slopes for smooth cruising. Compared to some places in the Alps, the pistes aren't that long.  However, you don't get the impression that you're spending most of your time sitting on a chair, thanks in part to the many high-speed lifts.

The Arinsal side sits higher up and therefore has more open free-ride areas as well as the domain's snow park. If you want to get there without going back down to the valley, you need to take the gondola connecting the two.

It's important to keep in mind that high winds can shut down the gondola during the day.  We found that out the hard way on Sunday when we crossed over to Arinsal, made one run down, spent 15 minutes on a chair getting blasted in the face with snow, only to be told that the gondola was out of service and we had to take a free shuttle bus at the base.  On that note, the shuttle runs every 15 minutes between Arinsal and La Massana.

Pal Arinsal ski map (source)

Returning to Barcelona

At the end of each day, the bus picked us up in La Massana.  On Sunday morning before getting on board, we checked out of the hotel and loaded our luggage into the undercarriage.  Before hitting the pistes, the guide advised us to be ready to leave at 4:00 p.m., meaning that if you rented gear, the return needed to be taken care of beforehand.  

We loaded up on time, and 15 minutes later, we hit the road.  As I mentioned earlier, going to and from Andorra requires crossing an international border.  Since many people come up from Spain for the weekend, the frontier area becomes congested on Sunday evening. Indeed, it took us approximately an hour and a half to go 5 km.  

To be clear, it wasn't the Andorrans stopping people, it was the Spanish.  Andorra has no sales tax, and that goes for tobacco and alcohol as well. As you can imagine, Spain would like to make sure that no one denies them of duty revenue. Therefore, Spanish Customs officers randomly pull over cars and buses entering back into the country.  These controls create traffic, meaning that even though we left Vallnord at 4:15 p.m, we didn't cross into Spain until after 6:00 p.m 

The rest of the return journey went off without a hitch.  We again stopped in Ponts, although this time for only 30 minutes. At 9:15 p.m., we arrived back at Sants station, greeted by a warm breeze - one of the many benefits of living on the shores of the Mediterranean.  


Overall impressions

Overall, we enjoyed the package.  The age part was a little strange, if not entertaining.  Estiber's product was solid, if not a tiny bit disorganized for our taste; again though, that probably goes down to the majority of the travelers being students and in it for the party more than the snow.

Would we do it again? Probably.  While it's not our number one choice - if we can, we prefer to take a couple of days off of work, rent a car, and make a long weekend out of it - it's a fantastic alternative for a stress-free and affordable two days in the mountains.

First time I've ever seen I rainbow while snowboarding

1 comment:

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