It is 10am and I’m trying to engage my two sons in their first skiing lesson. My vow to be a patient teacher and never raise my voice to Rafa, 16, and Luca, 14, has already broken. “Get that bloody foot up,” I yell as an outraged professional instructor and his junior students serenely practise snowploughing nearby.
It’s day one, we have only been on the nursery slopes for 20 minutes. I watch groups of young men on the piste ski past me and can’t help feeling middle-aged. The last time I was here was on a stag-do in nearby Soldeu with a bunch of mates. Fast forward 13 years, and I’m back with the groom and our three teenage sons. Times have changed. No more beery nights with the lads, the plan is a different sort of male-bonding experience; fathers and sons on the piste. We’re staying for five nights in El Tarter, opting for half-board at Neilson’s Hotel Del Clos, 350m from the chair lifts to the pistes. El Tarter is very much a family resort and Hotel Del Clos has a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, crèche, games room and good-sized bedrooms, and for the ski-weary, an impressive range of spa treatments.
Only 1.5km from Soldeu, the resort is part of the huge Grandvalira area formed in 2003, giving skiers access to 128 pistes stretching 210km. Snow snobs will tell you that Andorra is cheap and cheerful, as if that’s an insult. Like everywhere else, it’s no longer that cheap, but €4 for a pint of lager is still pretty good. It’s true that Andorra doesn’t quite reach the heights of Alpine beauty, but the views from the mountains still take your breath away. Just don’t expect postcard-perfect Tyrolean Instagram opportunities.
Turns out it’s not just me and the groom who’ve grown up – so has Andorra. The queues, the pain and chaos of my last trip seem to have subsided considerably, mainly thanks to an efficient production line which has all five of us kitted out in our ski hire gear within 20 minutes. Helmets used to be the preserve of extreme skiers, but are now ubiquitous. Most importantly, ski boots are actually comfortable. Not the envy-inducing comfort of snowboarder moon boots, but a long way from the bunion-crushing excruciation of the past.
My first parenting challenge is being stuck on these nursery slopes while my friends are bombing down black runs. My competitive inner-teen isn’t happy. My sons are absolute beginners, a couple of hours on an indoor slope aside, which is partly why we picked Andorra. It’s a perfect resort for novices and there are ski schools galore. Unfortunately, I discover they are all booked up well in advance. Apart from a couple of hours of private tuition, I am left with the hideous prospect of teaching them myself. All previous attempts – tennis, maths, snap – have proven disastrous. Yet they take to it surprisingly quickly. I like to think it’s my natural teaching skills, but I realise that the teenage brain, which I am usually so swift to criticise, is incredibly adept at picking up new skills. Like sponges, they absorb the basics within a morning. Soon they’re skiing like naturals. I relish watching their progress and learn something new myself – the gentle art of patience. I am also secretly grateful to rediscover my skiing legs on some easy slopes.
Day two and the five of us are skiing like a gang, albeit carefully, enjoying a range of easier slopes. By day three the boys are requesting red runs and suddenly we’re a bunch of lads … well, kind of – a slightly odd mix spanning 13 to 52. Although this two-men, three-boys combination doesn’t turn heads on the slopes, the lady who sits on the adjoining table for dinner and breakfast every day is certainly intrigued.
By late afternoon, the fathers are more exhausted than their offspring and we quit while we’re ahead. In memory of his stag-do, I try to entice my groom out for a beer, but he’s more excited about the tea and homemade cake the hotel serves at 4.30pm each day. The almond-based Spanish pastel de Santiago is a particular favourite. Meanwhile, our teenagers are much keener to explore the après-ski entertainment. First stop is a lively, open-air bar next to the slopes where a DJ plays a strange mix of techno and Dire Straits, and the two fathers begin to feel their age.
We head up into the small town of El Tarter. It really is very small, with only a shop and a couple of watering holes. We stop for a welcome beer at Dylan’s, a cosy bar serving fondue, which is where our night on the town ends. It’s back to the hotel for a meal and endless rounds of knockout whist in the cosy, wood-panelled lounge. This becomes a nightly ritual. No screens in sight and much more enjoyable than cheesy Eurodisco bars, endless lagers and overpriced pizza. One teen even skips tea and cake to do maths homework without being asked.
On our final day, the sun is out, the snow is powder perfect and the panoramic views are Insta-worthy, too. The boys have a private skiing lesson, leaving the two old men to go further afield. Neilson provides a free mountain expert guide for those who want a tour of the pistes and some coaching from an instructor. Naturally, these days there is also an app to help navigate the large ski area, but we prefer to wing it. No problem, as Grandvalira is well signposted and connected, with plenty of chair lifts and the occasional drag lift. Even the few black runs aren’t life-threatening. We ski into Grau Roig and Soldeu, reminiscing about our stag days, but reflecting that this time has been just as enjoyable – a lads’ holiday but minus the hangovers.
We pick the boys up at 1pm and treat ourselves to lunch at the Trattoria Pasta Che Vuoi restaurant next to the ski school. The table service and homemade pizzas and pasta are a welcome change from the crowded self-service fare we experienced on previous days. We spend the rest of the afternoon skiing in Soldeu, enjoying some long and easy runs for the last time before home.
On the chairlift back, I get talking to a 70-something dad skiing with his son. It’s an annual ritual for them. “I hope I’m still coming back when I’m 80,” he says. Why not when ski passes in Andorra are free for over-70s? If our sons are up for it, I think we’ll be joining him.
Way to go
Explore the Grandvalira ski area in Andorra from £409pp, with Neilson. Travelling on 17 March 2019, price includes return flights from Stansted, resort transfers, seven nights half-board at Neilson Hotel Del Clos, guiding and coaching service
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