A mere smudge on the border between France and Spain on a European map and coming in at a lightweight 291 square kilometres (181 square miles), the tiny landlocked Principality of Andorra attracts an inordinate number of tourists – over 10 million a year – with a population of just 86,000 people. It's the tourism euros that keep the economy afloat (making up over 80% of the country's GDP), ably supported by its status as a tax haven. Comparatively rich, the people here not only enjoy fantastic winter snow but glorious summer sunshine that no doubt contribute to the inhabitants having one of the longest life expectancies in the world.
Amazingly, since 1278 Andorra has been ruled jointly by the President of France and the Catalan Bishop of Urgell in Spain. The agreement was reconfirmed in 1993 when the first Andorran Constitution was passed, however, the dual head of state roles are practically honorary. Andorrans live in seven valleys framed by the steep mountains of the Pyrenees, but locals make up only approximately 43% of the population, with Spanish, French and Portuguese making up most of the rest of the population. While the official language is Catalan, it's common to hear French, Portuguese and Spanish being spoken – as well as plenty of English on the ski lifts!
And it is the winter sports resorts that have put the country firmly on the tourist map. The fact that the capital, Andorra la Vella, rests at 3,356 feet, making it the highest elevation of any capital city in Europe, is a clue to just how mountainous the tiny country is. Along with its 299 kilometres (186 miles) of runs and less expensive lift tickets than France and Spain, plenty of sun, friendly locals, and good food, make it a great winter sport destination. The budget friendly prices especially appeal to families and friends doing their first ski trip and the infrastructure is well set up for beginners.
The main ski area is Grandvalira, the larger of the two areas in Andorra and the largest in the Pyrenees, which consists of several linked ski areas. The closest to the capital, Andorra la Vella, is the low-level Encamp, followed by the family-friendly Canillo, and then El Tarter, with a well-regarded snowpark, good family facilities, and nightlife. Next, at the centre of the Grandvalira ski area is Soldeu with excellent steep descents, as well as wide open slopes for intermediates. While it's very family-friendly, it's also known for its nightclubs and in summer its bike park on the mountain.
The next ski area is the pretty Grau Roig with excellent scenery but no accommodation at the base of the slopes. The last area is Pas de la Casa, considered the best place to purchase equipment and to party. The terrain here is fine, with good runs down to Grau Roig. The smaller ski area is Vallnord, which consists of three areas, two of which are directly linked. Of these two, Pal is the smaller of the areas, while Arinsal is more of what would be considered a typical ski town – for better or worse. The other area, Arcalís, is not yet linked to the others by ski lifts and is more of a small village than ski town. All have good general terrain, but Arcalís has better off-piste and powder skiing.
In summer, Andorra offers nature-based activities, particularly walks and hikes through the mountains and valleys. Valleys such as the Incles Valley and the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley are beautiful and offer rewarding walks, particularly during spring.