Catalonian Pyrenees: Five Fabulous Family Ski Resorts
We were recently in The Pyrenees. The sun was golden and the skies were blue. The apres ski was affordable. The runs were quiet and seemingly endless, and most of the time there were no queues for the lift. Yes, I said The Pyrenees. In the school holidays. And no I’m not dreaming it or making it up! If you avoid the weekends, the Spanish side of the Pyrenees is a crowd free wonderland, an accessible winter playground, and a genuine Catalonian adventure for all the family…..
The Catalonian Pyrenees: fabulous for families
At times it feels like we have our own private resort, as we fly down empty runs, or pop onto chair lifts without having to wait for the snowboarder in front to pick himself up. It is hard to believe we are in the heart of the Pyrenees. This place feels magical and I would pinch myself to see if it was real if my boots weren’t already doing that for me.
The open secret
Skiing in The Pyrenees is hardly a well kept secret. People from all over Europe head there every year for winter sun and snow sports. But most many for the French side. Our half term date is with five resorts in Catalonia. It’s unconventional I know; Brits have traditionally come to Spain for the three S’s. But with a young family, and a desire for fresh air and exercise, the only S I’m looking for is snow. We bypass the beautiful beaches and coastline of Costa Brava for the high mountains and the winter resorts. And it’s a blast.
A very varied blast. Not one resort of the five we try is anything like the other. All are easily accessible; under two hours drive from Barcelona and Girona with a family car. Two are even interlinked. And all are perfect for a family who has never been skiing together before. And probably just as much fun and with enough to challenge for a family that has.
Here’s our verdict on the five resorts, and what they have to offer a snow seeking, first time skiing family with limited skills, an assortment of tweens and teens, and an appetite for an adventure…
La Molina is our first experience of skiing together as a family. But then, La Molina is used to firsts; it was the first ski resort to be built in Catalonia, with the first ski lift and the first ski school in the country. It’s also the first resort around here to offer evening snow groomer excursions. Our guide Esther Vidal from Escola dEsqui Alta Cerdanya soon has a measure of our skills, but it doesn’t put her off! She whisks us straight up the mountain. And what a beautiful mountain.
The resort of La Molina is wide and open. It has 61 kilometres of piste. There is so much space and so few people about on this sunny weekday morning that we get the slopes pretty much to ourselves. “It is very different at a weekend when people come up from Barcelona,” says Esther. Esther is one of more than 400 qualified instructors working in the resort, and like many of them, she specialises in guiding and facilitating skiing for people with disabilities.
If you’ve been to Andorra and think you know all about Spanish resorts then you’re wrong. The Catalonian resorts we visit are more manageable and family oriented. The apres ski is less bawdy. Hotels are small and family run, although they do still cater for big groups – on our first night in Hotel Solineu, staff welcome a party of 100 French people. It’s not all families and beginners though; the World Snowboarding championships were held here in 2011, and Barcelona is bidding to host the 2022 Olympics, which will put La Molina at the forefront for Alpine ski racing. La Molina and La Masella are linked resorts that form the Alp 2500 resort and between them have more than a hundred pistes. There are two freestyle snow parks in la Molina; Trampoli, and the more challenging Alabaus.
But beginners are very welcome. Even on the higher slopes; where easy runs go right to the top; unlike some other resorts you aren’t left to languish on boring nursery slopes at the bottom of the lift. For the first couple of hours we snow plough down the mountain in a line, trying to do some decent turns and get a feel for the terrain. By the end of the day we are skiing a massive sunny valley between the two resorts and looking forward to seeing the world from the other side in the morning.
La Masella takes itself seriously as a resort, and so it should. It has the longest run in the Pyrenees with almost a 1km vertical drop from top of La Tosa D’Alp to the base of the resort. More than 90% of the slopes are north facing, and inside the forest, which helps keep quality of the snow. La Masella offers night skiing, where snow dudes can fly down 10 km on 13 slopes, in a fairy lit magical setting. Night skiing proves to be one of the highlights of our trip. Check out the magic in this video:
While La Molina is wide, open and mountain studded, La Masella has more of an enclosed alpine feel to it, with winding blue runs that seem to sweep through the trees forever. There are two big beginners areas, and one of the slopes is even called Familia.
Beginner skiing has changed since I was last on the slopes. Many of the difficult things, like getting on the lifts, are now much easier. Chairlifts are plentiful, with travelators to help you on, and the lift slows as it reaches the top of the mountain for easier disembarking.
“Well we once had a guy from London,” says a guide, a little unsurely, when I ask him how many Brits come to this resort dedicated to Nordic skiing. When our own children find out there are no lifts, they start to protest, but then they have a taste of it, on gently sloping hills, a pale sunshine over the Cerdanya Valley and Lake Malniu.
When we first arrive at Guils Fontanera resort, we believe we know how to ski. This soon goes out of the window as we place our skis in the grooves of those who have gone before. By mid afternoon, we barely take a pause from laughing, as we clumsily skid down slightly undulating hills in the unfamiliar ski equipment, deep in the forest. It is a truly bonding experience, skiing so slowly we are hardly moving, then falling into deep drifts, with fresh snowflakes covering our eyelids and hair.
But despite all the fun, I’m surprised the boys liked it so much. Because nordic skiing doesn’t have the thrill of downhill. And you can’t cover anything like the same ground. What it does have (when everyone isn’t shrieking and laughing) is silence, and nature, and a chance to take in your surroundings without it all passing in flash. This resort also has Director Joseph Blas Martinez, who was once third best in the world for Nordic skiing. “I am very happy that you are here,” he says. And I believe him. But then, he hasn’t seen what we have done to his pistes!
If you want to be better than we are, Guils Fontanera allows you to do it on 45 kilometres of piste, with 25 possibilities of interconnecting circuits from easy to (I suspect) almost impossible. We manage one part of one circuit. I wonder if the guy from London is still finding his way home?
Vall de Nuria
Vall de Nuria is possibly the most unique ski resort I have ever visited. And it is said to be even more spectacular overnight, in the summer, when the fading light on the church draws the eye from the crystal lake.
However, you can’t just wave a wand or click you heels to get there. You have to make an effort. The resort is only 135 kms from Barcelona, but you can’t do it entirely by car. Unless you are an enthusiastic hiker, you need to take the cremallera (rack railway) from Ribes de Freser, finding somewhere to leave your car at the quaint little station, queuing for tickets and then packing onto the train with skiers carrying skis and ski boots, prams and carry cots. But when the train arrives at its destination, with a little toot, and when you spill out onto the platform, and go through the alpine style tunnel leading to the resort, you know why you have bothered.
“That’s when people say Oh!” says Ruth Bober from the resort’s communications’ department. And indeed, it is an ‘oh’ moment. A long symmetrical, sustainably built resort and hotel, next to an ancient, legendary church and shrine, with ski slopes ascending to the heavens, and the sun on perfect peaks. But its more than that. Everywhere you look there are kids with sledges; every kind of sledge, heading to the giant playpark, Parc Ludic. And everywhere else, adults are playing.
Val de Nuria wouldn’t suit everyone. If you hate kids, it’s probably not your thing. If you are an intermediate skier then you may struggle to find many runs that suit you – there are lots of nursery runs, and many expert runs, and not masses in between. On our weekend visit, the runs are icy, and there are queues for the few lifts that there are at base level. But it’s the beauty of the valley that you come for. And the mountains. And on the plus side, the train limits the amount of people who can come to the resort, so the queues do have a natural limit. It is also possible to escape the learner skiers by heading uphill; half way up you can have lunch at a youth hostel and cafe with a terrace that drops away to nothing, surrounded by ice fields.
The best fun of this resort is an hour in the play park. Even babies from about a year can have a go depending on their weight and height. But then, in Val de Nuria everyone becomes a child. I recommend the sledge with handles that help you steer. Stopping is up to you. There’s a whole valley to explore and the last train doesn’t leave till six!
Vallter 2000 is the most eastern resort in the Pyrenees. It gets good snow in springtime when eastern winds take mist from the sea. But our guide describes it as ‘heavy snow’ that’s not always easy to deal with. Vallter is affectionately called the Mediterranean resort of the Pyrenees; it certainly had a Mediterranean feel when we visited, with bright blue sky and hot sun. On a good day you can see right to the coast, where the extraordinary Cap De Creus and Bay of Roses glimmer in the winter sunshine.
Vallter 2000 is a mountain station, situated 2000 metres above the valley of the River Ter. Unlike La Molina there is no ski resort attached for tourists to eat and sleep. instead we stay in the glorious Camprodon Valley, in the Alpine spa and wellness hotel; Hotel Grevol in Llanars.
Vallter 2000’s elevated position and lack of surrounding resort give it a wilder feel. There are less facilities like toilets and mountain bars once you leave the base station, which can eat into your skiing time and you might find yourself part of a long line of cars driving up to it at weekends. But it’s worth the drive when you sit at the top, have a drink on the terrace of the Les Marmotes bar, at 2535 metres, with Puigmal towering above you at 2913 metres.
Vallter 2000 is a smaller resort than the Alp 2500 resorts; with just four green slopes, three blue, four red and one black. But you can take a blue run from the top to the bottom of the mountain. And there are plenty of other things to do. Like strapping on snow shoes and heading up into the back country, orienteering, torchlight skiing and going on a snow camp. Or just putting on a pair of sunglasses, finding a reclining chair, enjoying that Mediterranean weather and trying to spot the sea.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Costa Brava Girona Patronat de Turisme, the ski resorts of La Molina, La Masella, Guils Fontanera, Vallter 2000 and Val de Nuria. The views and experience are, as ever, all entirely our own.