10th June 2019
Novice skier Kate Lewis checks out Baqueira Beret, and finds a cracking under-the-radar Spanish ski slope, perfect for beginners and families.
If I asked you to picture Spain in your head, you’d probably come up with huge plates of paella and jugs filled with sangria, followed by lazy afternoon siestas. Or a scorching sun on dusty Andalucían plains. Even – unfortunately – high rise resorts and football blasted out on big screens by the Mediterranean coastline. So far, so clichéd.
Picture this. Dozens of tiny unspoilt medieval mountain villages dotted around the foot of white-tipped Pyrenees peaks, and skiing to rival some of the best slopes in Europe, but at a fraction of the cost. Skiing? In Spain? Yes! Bienvenido a España.
High up in a remote region of the northern Pyrenees, in the Aran Valley, sits upmarket Baqueira Beret, Spain’s answer to the Val d’ Isere. The 2,610m high region is divided into three areas; Baqueira, Beret and Bonaigua, each with sweeping wide, long runs and, with over 165km of skiing and 110 runs, plenty of choice for all abilities. A new region for die hard skiers even opened in 2019, Bacvier, complete with red and black runs galore and plenty of fantastic off-piste. The purpose-built ski resort of Baqueira sits snugly at the base of the valley. Built in the 1960s, it’s not pretty but it’s functional, and access to the slopes is easy; a gondola runs direct from the resort up to the slopes.
It’s a wealthy region; regularly visited by the Spanish Royal Family. Even Victoria Beckham has skied here (using Chanel skis, naturally) and the 10,000 people of Aran have a language and culture distinct from Spain as you know it. Distinct even from Catalonia, the region in Spain in which it sits, so it’s a fascinating region to explore. Years ago the area’s main industries were the old zinc mines and wool textiles. Now the winter sports scene dominates, and with good reason.
I’m staying in the 4-star Himalaia Hotel, a hotel with a nod to the Nepalese mountains funnily enough. The Himalaia is nicely set up for families, with family rooms and a small kids’ club, and its location, slap bang in central Baqueira, means the gondola is only a short walk away; essential when you’ve got more than your own cumbersome ski legs to worry about. Rooms are contemporary and comfortable, decorated in cream and taupe tones, with photos of hardy climbers from days past on the walls, and prayer wheels in reception. Hang on. Prayer wheels? Climbers who’ve met their fate? I hardly want to leave my room, but the slopes await.
I’ve been skiing once before, but I try to erase the memory from my mind. It involved an ex-boyfriend, a red run and no prior ski lessons. Today is a fresh start, and I’m immediately cheered by the sunny demeanour of my ski instructor Annette Eyte, from the British-run BB Ski School.
Annette has lived here for 18 years so knows the slopes well. However, she understands my anxiety. ‘I only learnt to ski when I was 26 so I understand the fear factor,’ she says. We get stuck into the lesson, starting with how to put on the skis and side step upwards. Annette makes this look oh-so-easy, but I feel clunky and unnatural miles away from the graceful pros skidding down the slopes. Next we practice small turns on a flat section of snow so I can start to experience what my skis feel like when moving. I’m quickly progressed up a moving carpet (like a travellator in the mountains) to have a go at snowploughing down a short green run, along with about a hundred five year olds who make it look like a cinch.
After satisfying my coach, we try a button lift to gain a little more height up the mountain, and a longer green run. Increment by increment I’m increasing in confidence and I’m soon wobbling my way down a green run, snowploughing for Britain.
Alas, a blanket of cloud comes in, so we retreat to the Bosque café for café con leche and a chat about the region. ‘People like it because it’s an easy resort, and you can’t really get lost. Plus there are no big ski companies here, and that’s part of its appeal. It’s a secret gem and still a little undiscovered,’ she says. ‘Families in particular tend to come back here again and again to ski and to get their children through ski school. Lift queues are also really small, and that’s a big deal when you’ve got kids with you!’
Baqueira certainly is a joy for families. It’s better value and less busy than better-known resorts, its sophisticated appeal means you won’t find drunk, raucous parties staggering around at 5pm, its position on the mountain’s north face means snow lasts till the end of the season (hello Easter ski holiday) and there’s tons of other outdoor activities to enjoy, should you want a break from the powder.
There are, conveniently, two crèches on the slopes, one at 1,500m (for tinies) and one at 1,800m (from two out of nappies up to six and a half). Kids can get going in ski school from three though Annette advises me that the ideal age to start skiing is four and a half, as children younger than this won’t have control over their snowplough. I know how they feel.
‘Our timings work well for families too,’ Annette highlights. ‘We run our ski school from 9:30-12:30, which is an ample amount of time for kids to be on the slopes learning. It gives them the rest of the day to do something else if they are too tired for more skiing.’
The wider Aran Valley certainly has more on offer. Aran Park, a 30 minute drive away, is a must for nature lovers with its unique Pyrenean flora and fauna. For more adrenaline thrills there’s an adventure park with white water rafting or husky sledding in Beret. The bustling town of Viehl has an ice rink, swimming pool and bowling alley and there’s a zip wire to zoom down on in Les. There are miles and miles of hiking, biking, canyoning and kayaking to enjoy too throughout the region.
Keen to explore more, I don what looks like tennis rackets on my shoes and head out with guide Bernal Maños to go snowshoeing in the Ruda Valley, a short drive from the Himalaia Hotel. Snowshoeing is a pleasant opposite to the speed and drama of the slopes. We trek slowly through the valley floor, the snow crunching pleasingly under my feet and fresh mountain air filling my lungs, and I stop regularly to take in the eye popping views of the mountains around me.
Hungry, I venture out of Baqueira down into Arties; one of the many pretty mountain villages dotted around the mountain’s long valley floor. Arties seems sleepy on approach, with narrow cobbled streets, stone and slate houses and a 12th century Romanesque church; Esglesia de Santa Maria D’Arties but more fool me. The River Garonne – lifeline to the region – rushes past, a jumble of ice cold frothy water, and over 30 tiny restaurants house the village’s vocal inhabitants, sharing plates of Iberico ham and rich bowls of Aranese stew, washing it down with Spanish Rioja. I eat at Tauèrna Urtau, a cosy pintxos (tapas) spot, along with a jumble of hip post piste twentysomethings, weathered old Aranese men and noisy families. Plates of pintxos line the bar, a feast for my eyes as well as my stomach.
Day two arrives, and I’m let loose on the chair lift and blue runs. Riding on a chair lift is exhilarating, and the views from the top of the blue run are gorgeous. There are less people, less noise and the mountainscape that surrounds me is mesmerising. I begin to see how skiing quickly becomes addictive – and I’m only a beginner on a small slope in comparison to some of the more jaw-dropping vistas I imagine are higher up and off piste.
Annette guides me down this blue run, giving me helpful tips so I’m distributing my weight correctly. My mind is emptied of everything else except concentrating on my balance and turns, listening to the pleasing sound of my skis whooshing across the snow, my heart thudding in my ears. I fall over a few times, but by the end of the lesson my confidence has soared as I begin to find my rhythm.
A soothing visit to the spa back at the Himalaia before I head home eases tired muscles. The Spanish mountains have certainly won me over. Next time, I’ll be bringing my own little royal family. Oh, and red runs? I’m coming for you too.
Find out more about Baqueira-Beret or call +34 097363 9025
Find out more about Val d’Aran or call +34 65749 3349
Flights and transfers
The nearest airports from Baqueira are either Toulouse (2 hours) or Barcelona (3 hours).
Return flights to Toulouse are available from London Gatwick with EasyJet priced from £45 pp
Return transfers from Toulouse Airport to Baqueira-Beret cost from £309 pp based on two people sharing a vehicle. Visit holidaytaxis.com or call 01273 828200.
Where to stay
Hotel Himalaia Baqueira
Seven nights’ accommodation with breakfast at Pierre & Vacances 4*,Hôtel Himalaia Baqueira starts from £286 / 333€pp based on two people sharing a double room. Family rooms are available.
The Himalaia can organise many activities for families including husky sledging, horse-drawn sleigh ride, biking, rafting and snowshoeing.
A kids’ club is open from 1-5.
Eira Stylehotel, Baqueira: eiraskilodge.com
Chalet Salana, Baqueira: skimiquelholidays.co.uk/chalet/salana
Chalet Lori, Vielha (15 min drive from Baqueira): skinspired.co.uk/chalet-iori
Where to eat
Tauèrna Urtau, Arties +34 973640926
Tamarro Restaurant, Baqueira +34 973644322
A one-day adult lift pass for Baqueira Beret is priced from £45 / 52€
A six-day adult lift pass for Baqueira Beret is priced from £216 / 252€
Six day’s ski and boot hire from the Baqueira Beret Equipment Hire Shops is priced from £86 / 100€
Baqueira British Ski School 01903 863660
Ski Inspired: skinspired.co.uk
Ski Miquel: skimiquelholidays.co.uk/resorts/baqueira