In the traditional Catalonian taverns of Andorra's mountain parishes, the staffs of the tiny country's two largest ski resorts - Vallnord and Grandvalira - gather with the locals, and in reverent tones they speak of the coming of the snow as the righteous speak of the coming of the Messiah.
It is the second week in December and the eclectic mix of ski pilgrims have gathered in the tiny landlocked nation - roughly the size of the Galilee - that lies in three high mountain valleys in the majestic Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border. Attracted by the 300 km. of runs suited to every level of ski expertise, devotees from France, Spain, England, Russia and, in increasing numbers each season, Israel have arrived for the start of the 2007 season, only to be stymied by a stretch of sunny skies that has plagued the Andorran snow industry as well as those of other European ski destinations.
(Since my snowboarding trip to Andorra from December 10-15, the high pressure that had been stagnant over the Iberian Peninsula has yielded a bit and allowed a few minor dustings.)
Despite round-the-clock production of artificial snow at both Vallnord and Grandvalira, during my stay the few centimeters of the white stuff on the runs allow for only a fraction of the resorts' combined 165 chairlifts to be up and operating - and the natives inside the tavern are restless.
"Twelve years! Twelve years we have not had a season start so late," Javier Unger shouts in Hebrew over the heavy bass of the hip-hop music of the nightclub. He steps outside to be heard and when he opens the heavy wooden door inside the old Andorran trading post, the music echoes out across the wide canyon at the base of the Vallnord's Pal-Arinsal station.
Underneath a full bright moon, the silver tops of the resort's highest peaks tower above the hamlet, and when the door of the tavern swings shut the valley is again without sound, except for the whispering of the mountain springs coursing in the moonlight over the gray granite walls of the valley.
The son of an Argentinean father and an Israeli mother, Javier is the child of two winter sports enthusiasts who came to Andorra separately on college ski trips. They each fell in love with the region's natural isolated splendor, and then they fell in love with each other, and they stayed. Similar international love stories are found among the households of Andorra's 75,000 permanent residents.
Javier, 29, pulls the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, and shakes his head as he lights a cigarette, fouling the clear, cold mountain air. "What a bummer that there's no snow yet," he says. He funds his ski-bum's existence by working at a local hotel during Andorra snow season that usually begins the last week of November and lasts deep into April. The lanky snowboarder points out to me the secret off-trail areas in the woods where he and his friends would poach untrodden patches of powder following the first good snowfall.
This year's late start is the exception, and resort officials are keeping their fingers crossed that the snow will arrive strong in January, producing a bumper layer that will last well past the scheduled end of the season, as it has done on occasion after similar droughts. When winter does finally show up, the expanded facilities at Grandvalira and Vallnord resorts will open ski areas that have been updated in the off-season, displaying a range of slope diversity and facilities that put Andorra on the same level as some of the finest Alpine ski destinations in France, Italy and Austria.
Javier finishes his smoke, and we reenter the club and are absorbed into a warmth pulsating with cheer and the tones of a Justin Timberlake remix. A quick scan of the rest of the patrons reveals the international assemblage very much central to Andorra's many intrinsic charms. A group of young Spanish ski-lift operators lift pints with two ski medics from Chile, who fly between resorts in different hemispheres in pursuit of an endless winter. Suddenly the music stops, and the patrons gather around an American who begins to strum a guitar. But the crowd of Irish and English ski instructors in the bar are oblivious to the classic Clapton tune, cheering an extreme skiing film showing on a big screen until a pretty Andorran waitress shushes them with a sweet smile.
ACCORDING TO LEGEND, Andorra was founded in 784 by Charlemagne. The country is truly charming: Dwellings built of river stones of varying shades of brown, red and gray, jointed with black mortar and topped with low steel-gray roofs, perch on the mountainsides and in gray granite valleys. Pine forests shade centuries-old stone-arch bridges which span the numerous streams that eventually collect in the crystal clear Valira River that spills out of the Pyrenees into the Spanish plains.
Passport-holding Andorrans are a minority in their own country, accounting for only 33 percent of the country's 72,000 permanent residents. The rest come from Spain, France and Portugal, and live permanently alongside the natives in seven mountain parishes and the capital city, Andorra la Vella. Catalan is the official language, but both Spanish and French are spoken fluently and English is widely spoken in tourist establishments.
Some immigrated to Andorra for its peaceful, isolated setting and high quality of life. Others come for the winter and summer sports. Andorrans enjoy the highest average life expectancy (83.51 years) in the world.
But with the European holiday season only a week away, the lack of snow concerns our hosts as they explain that in an average year Andorra, with peaks from 2,000 meters to 2947 m., receives more than 2.5 m. of dry, light snow annually. The bulk of the ski resort's runs should have been up and running two weeks ago, they lament. In a typical year, more than 60% of the local ski season is enjoyed under blue skies, and skiers are less likely to battle the extreme weather that sweeps through the Alps. But Andorra's ski resort representatives admit a good blizzard would do them good, and they would have like it to happen yesterday, already.
Meanwhile, the spring-like weather and magnificent setting hint as to why Andorra is also a summer haven for adventure seekers who flock to the country to hike, mountain bike or drive 4x4s along the ridges or raft down rivers of melted snow.
Israelis usually choose to fly into Barcelona (about a four-hour flight) and make the three-hour car or bus ride (with clear driving conditions) up from the Spanish Riviera through mountain roads into the heart of the Pyrenees. There is also the option of flying into Toulouse in France, four hours to the north of Andorra; in the summer, Andorra is a five- or six-hour train ride from Paris.
The drive itself is worth the price of admission, and Israelis are often shocked when cars are waved through the international border with a warm smile, and passports go unstamped. Two hundred officers are all that is needed to police the streets, and their duties are usually limited to directing traffic in the capital and making sure the pubs are closed at 3 a.m.
TOURISM IS the mainstay of Andorra's well-to-do economy and accounts for roughly 80% of GDP. An estimated 10 million tourists visit annually, attracted mostly by the snow, but also by Andorra's duty-free status. Oren Or, groups operation manager for ski tours from Issta Lines, says its relative proximity and the facilities perfectly suited for beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders at the seven combined stations of Grandvalira (with 66 lifts) and Vallnord (44 lifts) - in addition to low prices - make the country an excellent winter option for budget-minded Israeli families.
For example, Vallnord resort's three ski stations in the parishes of La Massana and Ordina have been designed with families and beginners in mind, with more than 30,000 sq. m. of space and a themed snow park exclusively for children. Two new transportation belts make it possible for the unsteady rider to make it safely to the top of the wide, simple slopes without having to use the initially foreboding ski lifts, and both Vallnord and Grandvalira have nurseries where children between one and four years old can be left in the care of qualified staffs. A new educational games area has been added, and representatives of Vallnord say they try to have at least one Hebrew-speaking ski instructor at each of its three stations.
As for the more experienced, the Soldeu station at Grandvalira caters to the most radical skiers and snowboarders thanks to six excellent black runs and numerous mountain routes. Several facilities located in the upper regions of the resorts allow visitors who wish not to squander valuable time on the slopes to ski up to mini-cafeterias and rest lodges, grab a snack and relax without having to go all the way to the bottom of the mountain. In these lodges, riders can pause to take in breathtaking, panoramic views of the French frontier.
Grandvalira boasts that skiers can fly down as many slopes as they like and still not repeat any in its 200 kilometers of runs for all ages, styles and levels of snow riders.
Both Grandvalira and Vallnord have incorporated extensive freeriding areas and trick parks, and exclusive maintenance teams tend the jumps, rails and modules adapted to every level of thrill seekers. The snow parks hold various high-level competitions and exhibitions during the season, such as the Total Flight held each year at Grandvalira, where the best national and international riders compete to win the Master of Freestyle title at a world class venue.
(And not to jinx anyone, but trained medics and excellent emergency centers located inside the resorts are ready to treat the injuries inherent in skiing and snowboarding. The Hospital de Nostra Senyora de Meritxell in Andorra de Velle is also well equipped and trained to deal with more serious ski-related injuries.)
And those less interested in hitting the ski lifts have access to a large range of Andorra's apr s-ski, according to Or from Issta. For example, the Adventure Activities Center in Grandvalira's Grau Roig sector has snow-shoeing routes, a snowmobile track (including small snowmobiles for children), dog-sled tracks, ski bikes, archery, paintball, igloo making lessons and, for the true adventurer, paragliding and helicopter scenic and ski trips to the untouched powder of Grandvalira's highest, inaccessible descents.
Issta Lines offers tours ski vacation packages ranging between 799 and 1,400 euros per traveler for seven nights in a double room and half-board.The package includes the charter flight to and from Barcelona, transfer from the airport to Andorra, ski equipment (snowboard equipment rates are slightly more expensive), a six-day ski pass and five lessons of three hours each. Cheaper packages are available for children. Travelers are recommended to purchase travel insurance that costs 1.65-1.85 euros a day.
The apre's-ski, or everything other than skiing to be considered when planning a vacation, ultimately translates into the level of luxury sought by the individual ski traveler.
There are more than 270 hotels with over 50,000 rooms in the tiny country, and accommodations range from two-star dives and hostels in the capital Andorra La Vella, where public transportation and ski buses can be used to reach the gondolas servicing the Vallnord and Grandvalira resorts, to five-star options with their own extensive salons and spas, nightclubs, cafes and fine restaurants a snowball's throw from the ski lifts.
In between are the family-owned and operated 25-45 room hotels. While often a little further from the slopes, they provide an authentic Catalan experience, as the owner pours coffee for the patrons while they eat breakfast before a day of skiing, and who, by the end of the week, will usually call you by name and know how many sugars you like in your coffee.
Even on the half-board offered in most ski packages, visitors should consider splurging with an Andorran feast of the authentic Catalonian fare, which can consist of huge steaks and grilled meats, white fish, lots of tomatoes, lots of garlic, lots of wine. Five-star French cuisine can be found at several locations in the capital, where white-gloved waiters pour champagne and the meals are prepared by top-notch French chefs. Kosher dining, however, is very limited in Andorra.
Visitors to Caldea, the main spa complex, are treated to every variation of warm water indulgence. Characterized by a 600 sq.m. thermal lagoon, Caldea is complete with an artificial river flowing between saunas, Jacuzzis, Turkish and Indo-Roman baths, hydro-massage pools and infrared sun beds. Professional masseuses exercise different styles of massage to rub the stiffness out of a new skier's muscles. Guest may enjoy the memorable experience of relaxing in Caldea's exterior warm water, while snow falls into the steaming pools.
A restaurant in the upper tiers of the complex offers fine dining and a bird's-eye view of the towering quartz crystal, with steel trusses supporting giant sheets of glass thrusting skyward from the center of downtown Andorra La Vella. The spa contains nurseries and children's game rooms, as well as a large rock-climbing and bouldering facility. Prices for three-hour visits begin at 25 euro.
Once reinvigorated by Caldea's therapeutic oasis, visitors may choose to take advantage of Andorra's famed shopping, known throughout Europe for its low prices and absence of value added tax. This means lower prices for designer brands, perfume, jewelry, electronics, tobacco, alcohol and athletic and ski equipment and apparel. Interestingly, Andorrans do not pay income taxes, and the banking sector, with its "tax haven" status similar to Switzerland's, also contributes substantially to the economy.
Andorra features a lively night scene. The trendy, Paris-based Buddha Bar in Andorra La Velle is a hip new address, catering to a more sophisticated clientele, while the friendly bars and dance clubs in the parishes around the ski resorts will suffice for most, and they are packed nightly with locals and vacationers.
The writer was a guest of Issta Lines and the Andorran government.