For us socially mobile first-gen middle classers who didn’t grow up "holidaying on the slopes", the prospect of going skiing is as daunting as it is preposterous. Sure, after 15 years in London, I’ve been privy to enough conversations to know that "après rules", and that the Pyrenees are "just lovely" at this time of year, but when faced with actually strapping on a pair of skis (I found out they in fact clip on), I was totally out of my depth.
But ever game for a little social anthropology and keen to see what so many colleagues have been banging on about for all these years, I set off for a week in Andorra. It's nestled high in the Pyrenees, wedged between Spain and France. Catalan speaking, with a population of just 80,000, it’s one of Europe’s smallest countries, and is primarily famous for two things: ski resorts and low taxes.
I travelled there with Neilson Holidays, who proved perfect for a first foray into this world as they do all the heavy lifting for you, including organising chartered flights, transfers, hotels, ski hire and, crucially, ski lessons. Before setting off, one of their reps even gave me a call to answer any questions I might have. Believe me, there were many. Here’s what I learned:
What to pack
The first challenge came on the phone to said rep: “What do I wear?" I asked.
“You definitely need a good pair of salopettes,” he says. Ummm… turns out these are thick, waterproof trousers with braces to stop snow going down your pants on the many inevitable falls. On top of this, you’ll need a hardy ski jacket, thick socks, waterproof mittens and plenty of thermal underwear. And so I turned to London’s numerous snow shops – and quickly realised that kitting myself out for this week could easily cost more than my monthly rent. The savvy shopper instead should try resale sites like DePop, Vinted, and eBay. These are full of second-hand ski clothing, with the majority listed as "worn once". Ignoring the obvious question, as to why so many abandon skiing after just one trip, here I bagged myself a full outfit of pristine condition for less than £100.
Beyond the clothes, and a pair of goggles (I got a very reasonable pair from Bloc Eyewear), the rest of your kit is rentable, and shops on-site will size you up for skis, boots, poles and a helmet; which my very many falls and I would implore you to wear at all times.
Even when off the mountain, on a ski holiday, it turns out, activewear rules. I’ve truly never seen such density of The North Face as was on our outbound flight – me sticking out instantly as the noob in my ankle-length wool coat I’d presumed I’d need for best in the evenings. So leave the partywear at home, stock up on stylish fleeces, and lean into the idea of wearing ski trousers to breakfast.
Where to stay
I quickly learned that there are three key considerations when picking a hotel from which to ski. Number one is proximity to the gondola (the ski lift kind, not to be confused with the boats). Ski gear is heavy! The morning walk from the hotel to the lift was the most strenuous part of every day. If your hotel’s more than five minutes away, it’s well worth paying to rent a locker close-by to store your kit and avoid fainting before you’ve even made it up the mountain.
Number two is good water pressure. A hot shower at the end of a day spent repeatedly tumbling down a nursery run is heaven itself. Expect aches in muscles you didn’t know you had, bruises all over, and chilled-to-the-bone fingers and toes. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for taking a good boiler seriously.
And finally: the food. Skiing is really hard work. Getting into your kit is hard work, getting to the mountain is hard work, staying upright, and staying warm is hard work. All of this will build in you a monstrous appetite, and it’s imperative that your hotel can feed the beast.
I stayed at Hotel del Clos in El Tarter, which heroically delivered on all of these fronts. Just 350m from the gondola, the hotel provides its own kit lockers complete with heaters to avoid any wet boots in the morning. The showers here, too, were divine, with abundant heat and fantastic pressure to pummel away the injuries. And serving breakfast and dinner buffet style, the food allowed for numerous greedy helpings of hearty, warming calories to keep me running.
With floor-to-ceiling wood panelling, roaring open fireplaces, and heavy faux-fur blankets and cushions to collapse into of an evening, del Clos delivered on all the the cosy, classic ski lodge clichés I’d imagined for such a trip.
The main event. The actual putting on of skis and sliding down a mountain. I’ll admit, I was nervous. I count myself as active and adventurous, but this is an alien sport, and it doesn’t come easy – despite what the four-year-olds zooming past will make it seem. It’s therefore vital to find a good teacher and, after hearing scare-stories of screaming Frenchmen, I was relieved to meet my never-screaming instructor, Stuart – a booming ex-pub landlord with a wicked sense of humour, and limitless patience.
Over the next week, Stuart guided our small group of absolute beginners in everything from how to hold our poles, to one aspect that proved particularly tricky – how to get off a ski lift without landing on your face. A true testament to Stuart’s teaching, by the end of the week we could all confidently ski a pretty impressive-looking blue run (a slope with a gradient of around 25 per cent), a feat none of us thought possible mere days before when we were struggling even to clip our skis on.
While fearless toddlers seem to take skiing totally in their stride, learning as an adult is, as they say on the slopes, pretty gnarly. Our group all took some hefty falls, had some trying nerves, and ended every day completely exhausted. For people who think a holiday should be restful, skiing’s therefore probably not for you. But if, like me, you love a challenge and aren’t afraid to take some knocks, flying home after just one week with a new skill learned and a whole new landscape unlocked was pretty great.
While I might have been unsure about how well I’d get on with skiing, one aspect of this holiday I was much more confident I’d excel in was the "après". For the uninitiated, ‘after-ski’ refers to the raucous partying which takes place after the ski lifts have closed. From champagne bars, to cosy pubs and outdoor DJs, even the small towns of Andorra had a huge amount to offer on this front.
Here, the norm is to go straight from the slopes to the party, simply swapping your helmet for a beanie and heading to the outdoor techno rave in your long johns. As temperatures dip quickly below zero, the dance-or-die element of needing to move to keep warm ensures the dancefloor’s always bustling. However there’s a popular culture of early bedtimes here, meaning things kick off around 4pm and everyone’s tucked up in bed before 11pm – ready to hit the mountains again first thing tomorrow.
A word of caution, however: beware of the increased effects of alcohol at altitude. This was the single piece of advice I received most frequently from my learned skier friends ahead of this trip. Presuming this said more about me than the severity of the issue, I didn’t heed the warnings and, on my first night, after just three wines, I found myself on stage with my ski instructor’s band belting out Livin’ on a Prayer. You’ve been warned!
When all's said and done, I must admit that I loved this trip. In a severe case of reverse snobbery, I wholly pre-judged the idea of a ski holiday – as did the friends responding to my Insta stories of the trip asking, "Who are you?". My experience in Andorra wasn’t pretentious at all. Here, skiing is a young, fun, exhilarating outdoor sport more akin in its culture to surfing or skateboarding than the UK country club vibe I’d anticipated. While I’m sure other resorts attract a wholly different crowd, in Andorra at least, everyone’s welcome on the mountain ––– and I for one am a ski convert.
The need-to-know ski slang
Pizza and french fry: You’ll earn both after hours spent mastering this. These are the terms used to describe the shape your skis should make when slowing or accelerating.
Dump: Don’t be rude. This is a very heavy overnight snowfall. Skiers are constantly discussing the next dump and, when it arrives, everyone is happy.
Carving: No, not the kind in a Sunday roast, but a series of clean turns using the edges of skis.
Powder: Not to be confused with the white stuff more regularly discussed in London, powder here refers to snow, of course.
Pow Pow: Pronounced ‘paow paow,’ this is an abbreviation of powder, used to refer to only the freshest, finest and fluffiest type of snow - the dream for ski enthusiasts.
Catching an edge: When the metal edge of a ski digs into the snow, usually resulting in a fall. This is a key term to pull out any time you’re in need of a professional-sounding excuse for a clumsy tumble.
Bomber: A skier bombing a run recklessly fast. These people will often shout at trembling beginners as they pass for either being in their way, moving too slow, or their general existence in this world.
Slope classifications: Ski runs are helpfully colour-coded to indicate difficulty. From easiest to the most expert they’re ordered: Nursery (or green), blue, red, black.
Bashed or groomed: Not as nasty as either of these terms sound, this refers to pistes which are smoothed overnight. The pros will race to the top of the first chair lift every morning to hit this cleanest of runs before anyone else.
Fall line: The straightest, most direct route down a hill. It’s ideal to avoid literally falling this entire line, if you can.
For one week half board at Hotel del Clos prices start from £699, including flights from London Gatwick.