With excellent nursery slopes, great teaching and blanket family-friendliness, Arinsal in Andorra tops BASI’s list of learner resorts. Rosanna de Lisle took her son Arthur, seven, there for his first taste of skiing – oh, plus après-ski, beach parties and spa visits…
“The last time I went skiing I was hoping to have a baby. The father-to-be and I had a lovely week in Kitzbühel with a more experienced friend who took us to piste-side huts for fortifying pitstops and, after too good a lunch, down the course of the famous downhill race, the Streif.
Nine years on, the baby is on his back, clinging to a bench in the locker room, as I try to yank off his ski boots. After his first morning in ski school, Arthur, now seven, is tired, hot, hungry – and the damn boots seem welded to his legs. “Just get them off,” he groans. I’m pulling, twisting and going purple. Suddenly, thankfully, his ankle slides out.
We put on our snow boots and almost moonwalk with relief across the nursery slopes to a restaurant. One of the many strengths of Arinsal, in Andorra, is that everything is where you need it. Except the boot jack.
My first day’s skiing, on a school trip to Crans-Montana, involved falling off a button lift, crashing into a tree and contorting with cramp. Then I got the hang of the snowplough and was away. So I’m curious to hear how children are taught these days.
Arthur was among 25 absolute beginners, aged seven to 12, and though the two instructors were friendly and British, he’d been fighting back tears as I left to find my own group.
They began by side-stepping up the nursery slope. “We started with only one ski on,” explains Arthur, restored to his usual chatty self by a bowl of spaghetti bolognese. “We were holding the other ski like a pole and that was helping us. Then we held the other ski like a tray, with the spare leg held up.
“Next we put on both skis and were taught to stop,” he says, and I imagine he means the trusty old snowplough. “But I did like a ballet first position instead. I thought: ‘Oh no, what’s happening?’ I thought I’d better fall over on purpose. So I put my hands on the snow. That got my skis in a real muddle and one of them came off.”
At least I now know what made him so desperate to shed his kit: fear his legs might take off in opposite directions again.
We return to ski school for an optional extra hour. The rust rubs off and soon I’m back to where I was in Kitzbühel, if not up for a run as black as the Streif.
It’s the last week in March, the first week of the Easter holidays, and apparently mid-winter in the Pyrenees. The cold is biting and the sun barely pierces the cloud all day, but the snow is fantastic.
As my group – seven parents from England and Ireland, taught by Andrew from New Jersey, USA – weaves down the mountain to ski-school pick-up at 4pm, a mass of several hundred children looms into view beside the magic carpets. It’s a white-out, and I say a silent thank you to the friend who lent Arthur her daughter’s fluorescent green trousers.
The snowplough is still taxing him, but to make sure day one ends on a high another instructor, Alex, pulls him down the nursery slope by the tips of his skis, holding them in a firm V.
Happy hours and free popcorn
The co-editor of this magazine thought long and hard about where a seven-year-old should learn to ski. She picked Arinsal because it’s a family-friendly resort full of native-English-speaking instructors.
It tops BASI’s list of Europe’s seven best resorts for learners, rated for its “brilliant nursery slopes with easy progression to wide, gentle runs further up the mountain” and an excellent, good-value ski school, which also offers adaptive skiing and snowboard lessons.
Arinsal is the logical place to stay in the Vallnord ski area, which extends to Pal (prettier, more varied runs, less convenient accommodation) and Ordino-Arcalis (reputedly Andorra’s best skiing but a 40-minute bus ride away, with no village). Altogether Vallnord has 93km of marked runs, served by 45 lifts – lift passes cover Pal-Arinsal or the whole area – and there’s a master plan to spend €40m on new lifts and facilities by 2038.
Arinsal village is small to wander around and children seem welcome everywhere. The Irish pub, the Derby, has two snowboarders who video ski school on the slopes and then show the footage on big screens in the bar at happy hour, which offers free popcorn and kids’ drinks. Every afternoon, as we come off the gondola, we are greeted by cheery people slapping stickers on our jackets that bring more freebies.
One night we have dinner with the head of ski school and the rep from Andorra Resorts at Cisco’s, a Mexican restaurant with great steak and quesadillas, and the Italian owner spirits Arthur down to the bar to join a tequila-fuelled beach party.
Another evening we go to the family session at the spa at Hotel Princesa Parc, the fanciest place in town, and Arthur enjoys the bubbling pools, jets and a channel of cold water he likens to “Andy Murray’s ice bath”. Non-residents can also use the bowling alley.
Ready for school?
Arinsal is good for parents, too. The pistes all end at the nursery slopes. “It’s like a giant funnel,” says Scott, the ski-school head, describing the mountain. “You’ve got to try bloody hard to get lost. Parents feel relaxed here.” In my ski-school group there’s a couple who are here with their children for the third time.
The stress, as at home, lies in the school run. Hotel breakfast starts at 8am and ski school at 9am and 59 minutes is not long enough to fill up with muesli, eggs and toast, brush our teeth, walk down to the gondola, sit in it and anoint sunscreen, get the blasted boots on and stomp up the metal staircase to the nursery slopes.
On day two, I deliver Arthur to his group and join my own three minutes late. In a muck sweat. On day three, we stuff croissants in our pockets and reach the ski station at 8.35, only to find the locker room shut until 8.45. On the fifth morning, when we’re checking out, we find a few guests already tackling the buffet at 7.45. The early bird gets the bacon.
Our four days’ skiing covers so much ground, in both senses, that it feels longer. The routine works: three hours’ ski school in the morning, the same for lunch, another hour of school, drinks in the village and dinner at the hotel. The long lunch break is lovely: eating with your child is a delight when you haven’t been nagging him all morning.
Teaching him myself would have been a disaster, I realise, when we attempt the nursery slope and he bristles at my directions and leans on me too heavily as he shows off his snowplough, until the tips of our skis criss-cross and we collapse in a heap. Going to ski school myself guarantees four hours a day at my own pace – or a bit faster, as Andrew pushes us. He gives individual tips on technique and doubles as a tour guide. On day four he takes us to the winding, wooded pistes of Pal, something I could not have done with a beginner in tow.
Arthur, meanwhile, moves down a group and learns faster. On day three he graduates from the magic carpet to a chair lift and skis down half of the mountain with his new instructor, Alicia. On day four, in blazing sunshine, we go on the chair lift together, ski down with no one falling over and laugh in some amazement.
We stay at Hotel Xalet Verdu, a standard three-star property lifted by the extended family who run it. On the first night we arrived, frayed and famished, at 10pm – our four-hour transfer from Barcelona airport became six when the bus ran into a Catalan independence demo – and they kept the restaurant open just for us. Like Destination Ski and Andorra Resorts, which organised our entire trip, the hotel staff are unstintingly helpful.
Arthur likes just about everything about Arinsal, from the pet-friendly carriage on the gondola – “it actually smells of dogs!” – to the vat of tinned sweetcorn in the buffet.
Most of all he loves the snow, and can’t believe how much there is. When the gondola brought us down to the village at the end of the first day, he wouldn’t get off, “because I haven’t properly felt any snow,” so round we went again. At the top I made a snowball and handed it to him. He chucked it at me and declared his wish satisfied. Sometimes the simplest pleasures are the sweetest.
We hope to return – with custom-fitted boots.
Destination Ski offers seven nights (six days’ skiing) at the three-star Hotel Xalet Verdu in Arinsal with half board, including flights, transfers, lift passes, ski school and rental of skis and boots (plus helmets for children) from £589 per person either for one adult and one child under 12, or for two adults and two children. The same package for five nights (four days’ skiing) costs from £569 per person for a family of two, and from £519 per person for a family of four.
For four-star lodgings, upgrade to the recently refurbished Hotel Ushuaia from £75 per person.
For independent travellers, Destination Ski’s sister site Andorra Resorts is the place to book all airport transfers and ski extras, with offers for Arinsal including the Family Ski Pass which comprises four reduced-rate lift passes.