Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Snowboarding in Andorra by rental car: the definitive guide

Powder riding in Grandvalira. Photo courtesy of Alex Teton

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Nathalie and I took a bus up to Andorra to snowboard.  It turns out, I have a serious powder snowboarding addiction, and this past weekend, I went back.  This time, though, I took a car.  Here's how I did it.




The TL;DR; 


  • I went to Andorra to snowboard with a few friends who flew in from Brussels and London;
  • To get from Barcelona to the mountains, we rented a car, which was not only very reasonably priced but could be quickly picked up and dropped off directly at the airport; 
  • In contrast to staying in a hotel, we rented a furnished apartment, which while more spacious meant that we had to provide food and other amenities; 
  • ...which wasn't too bad considering that Andorra almost no sales tax, making shopping particularly affordable. 
  • We snowboarded Grandvalira - Andorra's largest domain - which offers more than enough variety for both a long weekend and an entire week. 


Unlike my first run up to Andorra, I was making this trip with a few friends from Belgium.  Since living here in Spain and getting to ride the Pyrenees, I wanted to share that experience with a group of snowboarding friends.

Back in mid-November we fired up a group chat, picked a weekend with the best flight deals, and set out looking for a place to stay.

Booking Flights

Seeing as Andorra is a long 14-hour drive from Brussels (and even further from London where one friend was flying from), we agreed that it would be easier if everyone flew into Barcelona, since not only do I live here, but it's also the closest major airport to the Pyrenees.

Barcelona is fortunate enough to have multiple flights a day over various carriers between both Brussels and greater London.   In addition to mainline airlines such as British Airways and Brussels Airlines serving the airport here, different Low-Cost Carriers such as Ryanair and Vueling also serve these routes with some of the lowest airfares on the market.

However, since the group from Brussels was bringing the majority of the snowboarding gear, they needed to choose the most cost-effective way to get here and back.  Since many airlines - particularly the Low-Cost Carriers - do not include ski gear in their base airfares, they needed to carefully weigh their options. In the end, Brussels Airlines' Light and Relax fare offered the best deal, which allowed them to bring their gear with them free-of-charge in addition to the allotted one bag allowance. 

As it stands of this writing, most 'full-service' airlines in Europe still have fare classes that include ski and snowboarding gear transport.  Therefore, if you're looking to fly out to Barcelona to ride the Pyrenees, it's definitely worth checking with say, Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM, etc., when making your reservation even if they look more expensive at first glance. 

Lodging and Pass

Once we settled on the weekend, we then set out to find the best deal for accommodation and which domain we wanted to ride, deciding on Andorra's largest ski area: Grandvalira.  The search wasn't tricky - various online travel agencies, as well as the stations themselves, offer package deals across the Pyrenees.

In the end, we went with Estiber - the same company Nathalie and I used to book our bus trip in January and I reserved online paying by credit card.  Our package included: 
  • 3 nights in a furnished apartment;
  • 4-day ski pass at Grandvalira.
Prices vary depending on the quality of accommodation and the dates.  Our package came out to approximately 250 EUR a person.

Of note, our friend from London could only confirm his reservation a few weeks before the trip. I contacted Estiber via email and they swiftly amended our booking.   Our friend coming from the UK then received a link to a payment portal where he could settle the balance with his credit card.  It really couldn't have been easier, and I was pleased with the prompt service. 

Car Reservation

With flights, lodging, and ski pass reserved, we needed a way to get from Barcelona to the slopes.  Thankfully, with Spain being the world's 2nd-largest tourist destination, our options were vast and seeing as we're in the middle of the low season, we didn't have to look very long for an incredible deal.

Our car after a night of snowfall.
For the price of 9 euros a day, we got a small utility vehicle with plenty of room for four adults plus our bulky gear. We used aggregator rentalcars.com to make the booking, which subsequently made a reservation with Goldcar on our behalf setting T1 at the airport as the pick-up and drop-off point.

Once everyone arrived, I went to Goldcar's counter at the back end of the arrivals hall, spent three minutes filling out paperwork, and immediately received my keys.  Now, this all happened at 9 p.m, on a Thursday in February.  I would imagine that during more busy periods I would have waited longer. Regardless, the process went quickly and without any hiccups.

Now, Goldcar has a section of one of the garages inside the terminal. As such, we didn't need to wait for a shuttle to go to a remote lot and could instead load up and hit the road directly.  Likewise, when we returned the car five evenings later, we only park it in their section of the garage. An attendant came by while we were unloading and did the return check.  In the end, we probably saved a good 30 minutes each way, which made the trip less stressful and gave us a bigger buffer when coming back.

The Drive

Barcelona is about as well connected to Andorra as you can get, considering the tiny Pyrenean nation has no railway nor airport. There are only two ways to get into the principality - either via France or from Spain.  While the French side is closer to Grandvalira, going in via Spain is more direct.

From Barcelona, there are three routes to the Andorran border - two shorter ones with tolls and one slightly longer albeit tollfree itinerary.  We chose the toll-free option because it was both closer to the airport and, in my opinion, the 30 minutes saved do not justify the 25 EUR spent.

Approximate route from Barcelona El Prat Inernational Airport to
Soldeu Andorra.
In any case, all the roads lead to the border town of La Seu D'Urgell, which is Catalan for Urkel's Sister.  From there, you cross the border and continue up the main and only road until you hit whichever town in the domain you are staying in. In our case, we stayed in Soldeu, which conveniently for us, sits in the center of Grandvalaria.

Food, alcohol, and tobacco are all tax-free in Andorra.  Immediately after entering the country there are series of grocery stores directly adjacent to the 'highway.' We stopped at one of them - Shopping Sant Eloi and stocked up on food and liquor for our stay.

Since we had left Barcelona very early Friday morning, we didn't have a chance to eat breakfast before leaving.  Seeing that we made good time took 20 minutes and grabbed a bite to eat at the adjacent cafe before completing the last 30 minutes of the drive.

By in large, the drive is uneventful, with little more than medieval farming towns and the occasional karting center along the way. The roads are well maintained and generally clear of snow. That said, Grandvalira sits at a high altitude and is subject to regular snowfall (which would be expected for a ski domain).  The snow can continue until you're well into Spain snarling traffic in the process.

When we left on Monday morning, our car was snowed in, meaning we had to both dig ourselves out and throw on snow socks.  These indispensable pieces of winter equipment weren't included in our rental; rather Nathalie and I bought a pair last year when we got stuck in almost the exact same spot. If you do not have a set and are planning to go to Andorra by car, you can and should rent them from the car hire company - it will save you an enormous amount of time and frustration.

Apartment

We stayed on the outskirts of Soldeu in the oddly named Apartamentos La Pleta 3000.  Our unit had four beds - one double room, a bunk bed, and a sofa bed in the living room, with a minimally equipped kitchen.

While some significant details were missing - think dark bathroom, no dish soap, worn out pillows, and questionable cleaning - the apartment was warm and served its purpose.  Fresh bed linens and towels were included in the booking.

The kitchen: note the space for a dishwasher but no dishwasher.
Wi-fi was available for 4 euros a day.  We bit the bullet and bought the package which allowed us to browse and chat over our phones.  That said, it's a shared network with the entire building, and in the evenings, with everyone on it and presumably trying to stream media, it slowed to a crawl. However, this is Europe, and fast internet connections are rare to find in the mountains, so set your expectations accordingly.

The nearest access lift is 900 meters away from our apartment. While there's a free shuttle bus with a stop next to the building, we made the walk each morning, in part to get stretched and warmed up for the day's riding.

As mentioned above, we had to street park our car since the building didn't have a garage. Again, it wasn't a problem since we came prepared to dig ourselves out of the snow.  However, it also meant that once we parked the car, we left it there for the duration of the trip, fearful that we'd lose our spot so close to the building.

For check-in and check-out, we had to go to the company's central office.  Fortunately, it was just down the street and could barely be considered a detour.  The staff was friendly and spoke English well enough that there were no misunderstandings during the process. We were expected to leave the apartment as we found it - clean(ish) and with the lights turned off, which wasn't a problem at all.

Grandvalira

Home to the largest domain in the Pyrenees, Grandvalira boasts over 200km of trails spread across five different access points. Difficulty runs from beginner to expert terrain with ample side country to play in.  Lately, I've really gotten into glade boarding   Unlike many places in the high-altitude alps, Grandvalira has plenty of skiable areas below the treeline. I had a blast going off-piste into the woods and was always able to make my way out to a connecting slope on the other side.

Soldeu's main lift area looking up towards
the FIS competition slope.
Apart from the trees, the domain has some great runs to cruise on, a few bowls and walls to shred powder and three snow parks.  Speaking of which, we spent most of one day at the park in El Tarter, goofing around and getting taken to school by kids half our age.

While the park itself is nothing too spectacular, there's a wooded section with many natural-ish features built in.  I particularly enjoyed that part, even if I can't take a one to save my life.  It's definitely worth checking out, even if you're not a park rat.

It snowed steadily while we were there meaning we had four straight powder days.  Unfortunately, it also meant that visibility wasn't the best which limited our ability to take in the stunning beauty of the surrounding mountain range. That said, the powder was amazing, so I was happy to make the trade-off.

Soldeu offers a small but more than satisfactory apres-ski.  The Villager Pub inside the central lift facility has a happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. each evening with Spanish and Andorran tapas to refuel on after a long day on the pistes.  For those looking to immerse themselves in English ski culture, Aspen Bar is one of the most British places I've ever been to on the planet.  Be aware that they don't take bank cards, so make sure you have cash-on-hand if you'd like to go there for a post-ski sloshing.

Overall Impressions

All told, the weekend was a smooth success.  There's a captivating charm to Andorra, and while Grandvalira might be the biggest domain in the Pyrenees, it still keeps the relaxed vibe of a smaller station. With rates comparable to or lower than their alpine counterparts, there's definitely value in choosing it over some stations in France, Austria, or Switzerland.

Going by car instead of bus certainly has its benefits.  For one, you're free to make your own schedule and by doing so, you can avoid rush hour and the inevitable Sunday-night traffic jam at the border.  Second, the car gives you the freedom to take advantage of the many shops selling tax-free goods. While there are small grocery stores near both Grandvalira and Vallnord that work in a pinch, they are generally overpriced compared to their counterparts in the rest of the tiny country.

Further, the car gives you the freedom to visit other parts of the domain without having to spend hours moving by chairlift (not that it's necessarily a bad thing).  While we were lucky to stay in central Soldeu, Grau Roig and an entirely different part of the station is only a 10-minute drive north.

Finally, going by car lets you explore the entire region.  Andorra isn't the only place in the Pyrenees where you can ski and snowboard.  Both Spain and France boast multiple stations ranging from tiny, 1-lift hills, to domains with over 100km of pistes for enjoyment.

Whichever way you cut it, if you're avid about snowboarding or skiing the Pyrenees are worth it.  Whether you go by bus, by car, or even chauffeured service, you're almost certain to have an excellent experience.  After all, everyone knows the Alps, but how many people can say they're ridden Europe's second-largest mountain range?  You'll never forget it if you do.
Grandvalira's El Tarter section. Photo courtesy Daniel Fastenau.

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