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Andorra the explorer; Pyrenees resort is cool new up-and-coming ski destination for all levels, offering great value lessons to thrilling freeride areas and heli-skiing.

Byline: CHRIS PARKER

"We will never be the Alps, but we are not trying to be," my guide Marti tells me as we catch the first lift of the morning.

I have come to the tiny principality of Andorra, in the Pyrenees, which has a population of just 85,000.

Up until now I have never considered skiing here. In fact, my earliest memories were as a child, when my parents dashed across the border from neighbouring Spain to take advantage of the tax-free shopping.

That was a long time ago and things have moved on, not least here at the up-and-coming Vallnord ski area, made up of the resorts of Pal, Arinsal and Arcalis. Over the last 10-15 years, there has been steady redevelopment. New chairlifts and cable cars have been installed, and shiny, gleaming restaurants and bars built. Andorra is going upmarket.

My two days on the slopes begin at Arcalis, which has just 27 marked runs, covering 30km. But don't let that put you off, the north-facing resort has a reputation for plenty of snow and enough variety to keep skiers of all levels content. The gentle blues and more challenging reds are ideal for intermediates but its trump card is the off-piste offering.

After lunch at the stylish mountainside La Girgola restaurant, which serves everything from simple soups and salads to steaks, we ski to the Cota Freeride area. This is one of a number across the Vallnord area designed for advanced to expert skiers.

Vallnord is building a reputation as a playground for off-piste terrain, with heli-skiing available too. The ski community is taking notice, with Arcalis recently hosting a stage of the Freeride World Tour, where the world's best compete at big mountain destinations, including Chamonix, Kitzbuhle, Verbier and the freeride Mecca of Haines, Alaska.

I catch the free ski bus back to the town of La Massana, which takes about 20 minutes. Sitting below Pal and Arinsal, the surroundings are smart and stylish. My hotel, the four-star Ski Magic, sits right next to the modern, glass-panelled gondola station, which whizzes passengers 2000ft up the mountain to Pal in just five minutes.

The town is a little quiet but fairly well served for bars and restaurants. Ski Magic's sister hotel - confusingly named Magic La Massana - has a large Irish bar showing live sports and serving tapas and restaurants such as Pizzeria Angelo are ideal for families, serving good food at reasonable prices.

For dinner, I take a 10-minute drive to Moli dels Fanals, in the hamlet of Sispony. I arrive at a stone-built barn, which has been converted into a restaurant. A grand old building, with an imposing wood-beamed ceiling, it has become famous in Andorra. Its walls in the entrance are adorned with famous faces, from actors and musicians to Barcelona football stars such as Iniesta and Xavi. The house specialities include snails, artichoke, nine-hour braised oxtail, and my choice, grilled rabbit, cooked on an open fire. The next morning I head to Pal, where the busier bars and restaurants surrounding the gondola give the resort much more bustle.

There are 60km of pistes across Pal and Arinsal, with 42 runs, mostly blue and red. Advanced skiers will enjoy some of the steeper, mogully reds, and the freestyle areas containing tree-lined black runs, including the challenging La Comellada.

Arinsal, which is the most popular town for visitors in Vallnord, is reached via a 50-man cable car. Here, there are a wider choice of hotels and accommodation, and this is reflected by how busy this side of the mountain is, especially on the lower slopes. It's also a popular place to have lessons, which are a snip at around 150 euros for a week, another example of how far your money will go here.

If all the skiing gets too much and you would rather unwind, then don't miss the Caldea Spa, in the capital Andorra la Vella.

If the countless saunas, jacuzzis, baths, bubble beds, and lagoons do not have you in a serious state of relaxation, then how about a little swim in the grapefruit pool? Bizarre but fun, it epitomises this brilliantly over-the-top attraction, a fitting expression of Andorra's individuality and confidence. As Marti told me at the start of my trip, Vallnord is not trying to be like the Alps, it would much rather blaze its own, unique trail.

Travel info Crystal Ski Holidays (crystalski.co.uk; 020 8939 0726) offers a week's half-board at the Hotel Magic Ski La Massana from PS528 per person including flights from Manchester and transfers departing on January 10, 2016.

For more info, go to www.visitandorra.com BREATH OF FRESH AIR Chris enjoys views across the Pyrenees "During the last 10-15 years, there has been steady redevelopment'

CAPTION(S):

SKI WHIZZ Vallnord is building a great reputation

LEARNING CURVE Beginners at Vallnord

"During the last 10-15 years, there has been steady redevelopment'
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EXAN
Date:May 10, 2015
Words:819
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