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Ski getaway is ANDORRABLE; Travel; Chic, cheerful and cheaper than Alps.

Byline: Jon Bird

THE urgent barks of the huskies rang around the valley, blue eyes glinting as their harnesses strained.

Their musher bellowed - and the 11-dog team were off, hauling him and nearly 30 stone of passengers.

Inches from the ground, our sled raced past trees and banks of snow on an undulating track, slowing uphill but rocketing going down.

The dogs were not big but had the strength and stamina to pull people up to 30 miles a day.

But after a few days in the tiny Pyrenean principality of Andorra it was clear size is not everything.

It is smaller than Oxfordshire and just one tenth of this mountainous land between France and Spain is inhabited. Its population of 78,000 is the size of an average football gate at Barcelona's Camp Nou.

Yet it attracts eight million visitors a year and it's not just for the duty-free shopping.

Travel With 65 peaks over 8,000ft it has scenery to rival the Alps but offers comparable skiing and accommodation at a fraction of the price.

At Andorra's heart is the 130 miles of skiing in the Grandvalira range, with 110 of its 128 routes green, blue or red runs, suitable for beginners and intermediates.

It also has snow cannons to produce the white stuff should nature fail to provide. This was not a problem in Soldeu in January. The village is a three-hour drive from Barcelona but what a drive.

The road into the Pyrenees twists past the jagged Monserrat mountains, terraces of olive trees, high parched fields and lone church towers on rocky outcrops.

Arriving at Soldeu's recently renovated family-friendly four-star Hotel Park Piolets & Spa at night was magical. It was snowing and fairy lights in its fir trees made it feel like Christmas.

In the morning, brooding grey clouds gave way to sunshine and there began two unforgettable days of skiing with the irrepressible Bethol Standeven, originally from Leeds, as our guide. Bethol, whose magnificently hearty laugh rivalled that of Carry On's Sid James, took us cruising the blues and down steeper reds around Soldeu, Grau Roig and El Tarter.

We called in on an igloo hotel being built and skied the blue Rossinyol run, ranked one of the most scenic in Europe.

Horsepower

Part of the run takes in the Mont Magic Family Park that has figures from Andorran folk tales to entertain kids. It is just one of the resort's many snow features for children.

Returning to the Grandvalira Mountain Park we swapped dog power for horsepower. Driving the 800cc diesel snowmobiles proved to be straightforward and thrilling. Roaring through the snow at 25mph - far faster than I ski - was a blast.

Nowhere is far in Grandvalira and Piolets is a short, free shuttle bus ride from Soldeu's ski gondola.

The hotel has a spacious boot room with lockers next to the ski hire shop. Its impeccable rooms exude comfort and relaxation with their wood panelling, subtle lighting and large beds.

A long soak in the bath, using the free wi-fi or watching the satellite TV are all tempting. But for those still feeling active a trip to the hotel's good-sized pool, indoor and outdoor whirlpools and sauna is ideal. For the really energetic there's a gym.

The quality of the Piolets' rooms and facilities are matched by the warmth of its staff and its delicious breakfast and evening buffets.

The variety of excellent salads, meats, fish, pasta, vegetables and puddings was amazing. More than once my eyes were bigger than my belly - which is hardly small.

Andorra is now chic as well as cheap and cheerful and can rival any European ski destination. Give it a visit, you'll love it.

FACTBOX: Week half-board at Piolets, inc return flights from Gatwick to Toulouse, leaving January 6, 2019, from PS865pp. Crystal Ski Holidays, crystal ski.co.uk 020 8610 3123. Direct flights available from all major UK airports.

CAPTION(S):

GRAND DAYS OUT: Our Jon ready for the Grandvalira range in Andorra

COMFY: Piolets room snowmobile
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EXAN
Date:Feb 11, 2018
Words:671
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