Image: Pyrenees
Fritz Faerber  /  AP
A view from the Soldeu ski area Jan. 6 near El Tarter, Andorra. Andorra's mountains bring skiers from all over Europe and a handful from the U.S.
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updated 1/19/2011 2:52:18 PM ET 2011-01-19T19:52:18

It's less than 20 miles from border to border. It has two heads of state — one a bishop from Spain and the other the president of France — but its official language is Catalan. Its mountains rise higher than 9,000 feet, and they're home to some 125 miles of ski slopes.

This is Andorra, a tiny landlocked principality that's nearly all vertical, tucked in the eastern Pyrenees between France and Spain. Historically, it occupied important trade routes through the mountains, and it continues those trading ways today with duty-free goods.

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But in the winter, cheap liquor, cigarettes and perfume take second billing to snow. Andorra's mountains bring skiers from all over Europe and a handful from the U.S. A day on the lifts offers visitors the chance to practice French, Spanish, German, Catalan, Russian and other languages I couldn't decipher. Best of all, skiing usually lasts well into spring, with many resorts open until April if snow conditions cooperate.

From the U.S., traveling to Andorra usually means landing in either Barcelona, Spain, or Toulouse, France, and renting a car or taking a bus. It's about 3 1/2 hours of driving from Barcelona through increasingly mountainous areas dotted with crumbling castles and soaring churches.

Andorra has been a relatively inexpensive ski destination for Brits and other Europeans for years, but it wasn't very user-friendly the first time I visited in 2003. My wife and I stayed in the capital Andorra la Vela and found it difficult to get to the slopes via bus. Everyone smoked and maps and tourist information were scant.

Smaller crowds, varied terrain
On a trip this winter, we found it more geared to tourists. Now buses run frequently and are easy to catch, and tourist information is a bit more available — though smoking remains intense.

Most of all, though, the ski amenities are far better. Faster lifts, one ticket for four linked ski areas and more snowmaking capacity means more time skiing and enjoying the Pyrenees.

Pas de La Casa is the easternmost of the linked resorts, lying along the border with France. Unfortunately, the border is unmarked in the mountains, so I'm still not sure if I managed to ski into France.

Locals say Pas de la Casa has the best reliability for snow. It was some nice intermediate runs as well as beginner areas. It's very popular with the British, so English isn't uncommon here. And the many bars and apres ski spots thrum with energy.

My snowboarding friend and I preferred the area of Grau Roig — right next to Pas de la Casa. The crowds were slightly smaller and the terrain more varied. Many of the Andorran slopes are treeless, but Grau Roig has some nice runs where you can go off-piste among sparse woods. And there are some nice steep runs as well.

We stayed in a condo near El Tarter, where a gondola takes you halfway up the mountain to a hub of activity. There are several restaurants, dog mushing, ski and snowboard school and lifts heading up to the top of the mountain. Throughout the Grandvalira circuit, there are igloo hotels and bars, snow go-karting, snowshoeing and even scuba diving under the ice in alpine lakes.

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Fine dining and spas
After a long day on the mountain, Andorran restaurants seem to offer larger portions than I remember from most European trips. A good way to get a nice sampling of food is to order the menu of the day. Diners get a choice of first, second and sometimes third course, along with dessert at a set price.

We were overwhelmed by the El Sola restaurant next to the Ice Palace (Palau de Gel) in the town of Canillo about 15 minutes down the main highway from El Tarter. A large open dining room gives a clear view of the chef cooking immense slabs of beef, lamb and pork at a giant wood fire.

If you go ...

Just after we sat down, the owner dropped off a dish of grilled sausages. The warm goat cheese salad was a giant pile of fresh greens with a toasted block of goat cheese drizzled with honey. After a steak the size of Texas defeated my appetite, our request for the check instead drew a bottle of schnapps and another liqueur called Ruavieja. When we did get the check, the damage was only about $47 (35 euros) each, with a bottle of red wine.

Fine dining isn't the only relief from the ravages of mountain activities that no longer match my advancing years.

Andorra has many spas. But, the biggest and most amazing for me is Caldea. It has a huge indoor-outdoor pool with bubbles and jets and other soothing treatments. Stairs lead out of the center of the pool to raised whirlpools under the high glass roof. Near the pool, a large hot pool and smaller ice-cold pool make up what's called the Indo-Roman baths.

Of course, there are dry saunas and a steam room, which has sparkling stars in the ceiling and the scent of eucalyptus. Sign up for a spa treatment and Caldea opens up a whole different level of fun and relaxation.

The Pyrenees are neither as high as the Alps, nor as dramatic in appearance as the Dolomites. But between the food, shopping and spas, plus affordable prices and Barcelona as a jumping-off point for your trip, tiny Andorra with its European mix offers more than enough for a memorable ski vacation.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Popular ski and snowboard playgrounds in America

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  1. Heavenly run

    Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., offers skiers 91 trails and 4,800 acres of terrain. (Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort ) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Busy at Beaver Creek

    Colorado's Beaver Creek Snow Resort averages 311 inches of snow per year, gets 300 days of sun and offers more than 1,800 acres of skiable terrain. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Beaver Creek Snow Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Oh boy, Alberta

    Whiskey Jack Lodge is pictured at the foot of the ski hills in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Lake Louise Ski Resort is one of the larger ski areas in North America with 4,200 acres of terrain. (Andy Clark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 2-mile-high club

    Looking for a high-elevation rush? The base center at Utah's Snowbird Ski Resort sits at 8,100 feet. The resort's highest point, Hidden Peak, climbs to 11,000 feet. (Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Va-va-va-Vail

    Vail, Colo., located west of Denver, is one North America's better-known ski towns. Vail Ski Resort features more than 5,200 acres of skiable terrain over 193 trails. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Après ski

    Skiers and snowboarders can do more than hit the slopes in Vail, Colo. Visitors can visit spas, go shopping and enjoy nightlife, festivals and family-friendly activities. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Take a Telluride

    Also located in Colorado, Telluride Ski Resort has 18 lifts, 120 trails, more than 2,000 acres of terrain, and features "Galloping Goose," the resort's longest run (4.6 miles). (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Road trip!

    Ski and snowboard enthusiasts can easily drive to Telluride from the Four-Corner states. Located in Southwestern Colorado, the drive time is seven hours from Denver and Phoenix, 2 1/2 hours from Grand Junction, Colo., and 2 1/4 hours from Moab, Utah and Durango, Colo. (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Stowe away

    Stowe Ski Resort is smaller when compared to competition west of the Mississippi, but it is a hot spot in the Northeast. The area offers 485 acres of terrain, but an average trail length of 3,600 feet -- longer than any other New England resort, its Web site boasts. (Stowe Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great spot for beginners

    Buttermilk Ski Resort is small compared to some of its Colorado neighbors. Located just outside Aspen, Buttermilk has carved out its niche by focusing on snowboarders and beginners. Buttermilk offers 435 acres of terrian over 44 runs. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Experience required

    Aspen Mountain is the backdrop for a horse and carriage ride in downtown Aspen, Colo. Aspen Mountain features 76 trails -- 48 percent considered "more difficult," 26 percent "most difficult" and 26 percent "expert." If you're a beginner, you probably want to get your feet wet some place less daunting. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Take a hike

    Members of Aspen Center for Enviromental Studies (ACES) take a snowshoe tour in Ashcroft, Colo.Ashcroft Ski Touring/Cross-Country Area offers about 22 miles of groomed trails, and is located 11 miles from Aspen. (Courtesy of ACES) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Lock and Keystone

    Another popular ski option in Colorado is Keystone Ski Area, located about 90 minutes from Denver International Airport. The area features 20 ski lifts, two gondolas and more than 3,100 acres of terrain. (Bob Winsett courtesy of Keystone Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Grab a six-peak

    Vermont's Killington Ski Resort stretches across six peaks. Skiers and snowboarders can reach the area's 752 acres of terrain with 22 lifts. (Killington Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Beautiful Breckenridge

    Big crowds may descend on Colorado's ski resorts, but that shouldn't be a problem at Breckenridge. The resort has two high-speed SuperChairs, seven high-speed quad lifts, a triple lift, six double lifts, and others, giving it the ability to move nearly 38,000 people per hour. (Carl Scofieldd courtesy of Breckenridge) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Bring the family

    Smuggler's Notch in Vermont bills itself as "America's Family Resort," and offers services, activities and education aimed at making sure everyone in your clan has fun. (Smuggler's Notch Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 63 years and going strong

    Colorado's Arapahoe Basin has been operating since 1946. "The inaugural season opened with a single rope tow and $1.25 daily lift tickets," its Web site reads. Prices and equipment surely have changed, but "A-Basin" offers the skiers and snowboarders 900 acres of terrain -- more than half above the timberline. (Arapahoe Basin) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Long way down

    Utah's Alta Ski Area is scheduled to remain open through April 18, 2010. It features 2,200 acres of terrain, more than 100 runs and an average snowfall of 500 inches per season. It does not, however, allow snowboards. (Alta Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Not for the faint of heart

    Of the 116 runs at Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming, 50 percent are "expert" and 40 percent are "intermediate." That's great news if you pass up the bunny slopes for some challenging skiing and snowboarding. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. On -- or off -- the beaten path

    Jackson Hole Ski Resort offers 2,500 acres of terrain, plus an open backcountry gate system that offers access to an additional 3,000 acres. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sun Valley -- how original

    Seriously. Idaho's Sun Valley, started in 1936, claims it is the original ski resort. "Born out of a desire to bring the magic of the European ski resorts to America, Sun Valley quickly became a phenomenon without peer on this continent or any other," its Web site boasts. (Sun Valley Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Do you believe in miracles?

    American Shaun White is pictured competing during the Nokia Halfpipe Snowboard FIS World Cup on March 4, 2005 at Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y. Lake Placid has hosted the Winter Olympics twice -- in 1932 and 1980 -- and offers a variety of activities, including downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, ice skating and more. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Old West reminder

    Seven thousand feet up in the Colorado Rockies, nestled quietly below one of the largest ski mountains in North America, sits a small ranching community that serves as a constant reminder that the Old West is alive and well. Never far from its ranching roots, Steamboat remains firmly linked to a Western tradition that sets it apart from every other ski resort in the world. (Larry Pierce courtesy of Steamboat) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Big skiing in Big Sky Country

    Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont., collects 300 inches of snow each year and features 3,000 acres of terrain, 94 marked trails and a 3.3-mile run called Hellfire. (Donnie Clapp courtesy of Whitefish Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Sweet on Sugarloaf

    Sugarloaf Ski Resort features 1,400 acres of skiable terrain, including Tote Road, a 3.5-mile-long stretch running from summit to base. Sugarloaf's redesigned terrain park features the 400 foot long Superpipe, a magnet for snowboarders throughtout the region. Portland and Bangor offer airport service to Sugarloaf, and Boston and Montreal are four short hours away. (Grant Klene courtesy of Sugarloaf Ski Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Crossing borders

    With more than 400 inches of snow per year, nearly 8,200 acres of skiable terrain and 200 trails, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia, Canada, is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. (Randy Lincks courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Carrying the torch

    Some athletes will become world champions of their sport on the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb when the Winter Olympics roll into British Columbia early next year. (Paul Morrison courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
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Explainer: Cheers! Eight great après ski cocktails

  • Crème brulee martini, anyone? We've looked to some of our favorite restaurants in ski country to find out what they're serving. Here's how to mix up your own.

  • Crème Brulee Martini

    Image: Creme brulee martini
    Skiing Magazine
    Take Frangelico and Cointreau, add a crushed-graham-cracker rim, and you've got a creme brulee martini.

    Vanilla vodka is mixed with Frangelico and Cointreau, shaken and served in a chilled cocktail glass with a crushed-graham-cracker rim.

    Find it at: Plato’s, Aspen Meadows Resort in Aspen, Colo.

  • Brandy Avondale

    Image:
    Skiing Magazine

    Baileys, Tuaca, rich Godiva chocolate liqueur and cream are added to brandy, shaken and strained into a snifter. It’s garnished with ground nutmeg, cinnamon and cocoa.

    Find it at: The Westin Riverfront, Beaver Creek, Colo.

  • Spruce's High West Toddy

    Image: High West Toddy
    Skiing Magazine

    The bartender at Spruce Restaurant creates this warm specialty with local High West Rendezvous Rye combined with Chamomile tea, honey water, lemon juice, cloves and a cinnamon stick. It’s garnished with a lemon peel for a bit of tang.

    Find it at: Dakota Mountain Lodge, The Canyons, Utah.

  • The Hot Teddy

    Image: Hot Teddy
    Skiing Magazine

    A delicious mix of Baileys, Grand Marnier, Frangelico and Goldschlager steamed with vanilla soymilk and topped with chocolate sprinkles.

    Find it at: The Westin Riverfront, Beaver Creek, Colo.

  • Pumpkin Pie

    Image: Pumpkin Pie
    Skiing Magazine

    Pumpkin puree, Wild Turkey or Kentucky bourbon, maple syrup and house make chai syrup are shaken with ice and topped with sparkling wine, then strained into a chilled martini glass with a cinnamon sugar rim.

    Find it at: Kelly Liken, Beaver Creek, Colo.

  • Old Saint Nick

    Image: Old Saint Nick
    Skiing Magazine
    Containing Jim Beam, Dark Rum and White Cr?me de Cacao, the Old Saint Nick is sure to make you jolly.

    A frothy combination of eggnog, Jim Beam, Myers Dark Rum, White Crème de Cacao and nutmeg to warm you from the inside out.

    Find it at: The Vail Cascade, Vail, Colo.

  • The Snowball

    Image:
    Skiing Magazine
    Y ou'll be climbing every mountain when you down one of the Snowball cocktails served at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vt.

    Grey Goose Vodka, Kahlua and heavy cream are combined in a shaker and strained over crushed ice into a martini glass. Topped with a scoop of foamed milk and garnished with a cinnamon stick

    Find it at: Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vt.

  • The Falcon Burner

    Image: Falcon Burner
    Skiing Magazine

    This tall, hot double-shot cappuccino with Grand Marnier is topped with fresh Vermont whipped cream and drizzled with local maple syrup.

    Find it at: The Equinox, Manchester, Vt.

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