In the height of summer, we travel from a scorching hot France to the sixth-smallest nation in Europe. Indeed it is small, but it easily wins the prize for the grandest name ever bestowed on a country. Our travel destination for the coming four days is known as the Principality of the Valleys of Andorra.
And it goes to follow that where you have valleys, you also have mountains. Andorra is a sovereign landlocked microstate on the Iberian Peninsula, in the eastern Pyrenees, bordering France to the north and Spain to the south. Believed to have been created by Charlemagne, Andorra was ruled by the Count of Urgell until 988, when it was transferred to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Urgell. And the present principality was formed by a charter in 1278. It is known as a principality as it is a diarchy headed by two Princes: the Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia (Spain) and the President of France. Its capital, Andorra la Vella, is the highest capital city in Europe, at an elevation of 1,023 metres (3,356 feet) above sea level.
The official and native language is Catalan. However, Spanish, Portuguese and French are also commonly spoken, which is really great for families abroad. As most of our family love history, such unique and somewhat quirky stories and details really get our imaginations running wild.
We are guests at its one and only five star hotel: Sport Hotel Hermitage & Spa and are very curious about what we can expect from our stay in the heart of the Pyrenees. This looks like a perfectly cool place (both literally and figuratively) to escape the forcasted heat wave that will bring even more heat to the rest of Europe.
Well, things get off to a very good start. On arrival, we are kindly welcomed by the valet staff asking after our journey, unloading all our luggage and parking the car at the secure carpark across the road. And the welcome at the reception couldn’t have been more friendly, addressing us by our names imediately. The girls are over the moon with their backpacks filled with stuffed animal, special size slippers, kids amenities and coloured pencils.
The hotel feels like a lodge. The décor is well thought out and a blend of modern and rustic designs. We instantly feel at home with the smart elegance and the cosy and warm ambience. This is definitely a stylish place, but it is still a perfect place to bring children. It is situated in a very beautiful location, surrounded by splendid mountains in Soldeu. The village has various hotels, bars, restaurants, as well as ski and snowboard shops. It is more family orientated than the neighbouring Pas de la Casa.
Before further discovering all the surrounding beauty, we are shown to our Junior Suite Premium. A spacious and luxurious room of around 52 sqm with a king size bed for us and a sofa bed for the girls. The room is nicely furnished and looks great. We are happy to spot the Nespresso coffee machine for making free coffee and tea in the room. Two flat screen TVs, super-fast WIFI, room service and a well-equipped bathroom with super fluffy bathrobes add to the overall feeling of being spoiled beyond compare. And the front terrace is perfect for a relaxing break or a nice evening. Need another example? If you are a fussy sleeper you can choose your own specific bedding and pillow from the pillow menu. Can it get any more luxurious?
The surrounding area provides splendid views of the mountains and the ski slopes; and in summer they are covered with mountain flowers and the occasional grazing cows. One might imagine the Alps. Indeed it has its similarities, but this scenery is somewhat more raw edged. Andorra covers an area of 468 square kilometres (181 sq mi) and only has a population of around 77.000people. So we are really looking forward to hiking in its mainly uninhabited landscapes.
While touring the rest of the hotel, we have a drink in the lounge / bar area called the GlassBar. With its sophisticated design, high wooden walls and ceilings, it is the heartbeat of the hotel. This is partly down to the interior design but mostly because of the stunning views. In the evening, this is the place we settle with amazingly wonderful cocktails and snacks after putting the girls to bed. As it is the weekend, the place is buzzing with both hotel guest and visitors. An old school piano man with marvellous skills plays well known tunes. Later on he walks around the bar asking each guest for a request. Such a lovely touch.
The second evening of our stay, we try the menu at the Glassbar which offers all kinds of snacks and small plates to share. We especially like the freshly prepared sushi and other Oriental dishes we sample. What about lightly roasted tuna uramaki with sesame, teriyaki with cucumber, asparagus and avocado or Thai soup with prawns and rice noodles? If you or your children are more conventional eaters, no worries! It also serves excellent hamburgers, club sandwiches and homemade chicken nuggets with chips. For an even more memorable culinary experience, book a table at the restaurant Origen for an outstanding taster menu of 8 dishes and appetizers, similar to the one being served at the one-starred Michelin restaurant Can Jubany in Vic, Spain.
The breakfast is equally delicious, especially the freshly made omelette. Again the staff are very attentive offering hot chocolate for the girls and asking about our plans for the day, ready to offer some helpful suggestions.
In the afternoon, we meet the charming Gema Vicedo, who is tirelessly promoting this little gem to the rest of the world. She introduces us to one of her colleagues on the activity team who gives us an elaborate presentation of all the things the hotel and its partners have on offer. It’s a real pleasure to see how carefully she listens to our wishes and capabilities. After a while we conclude: we could easily stay for a whole month without getting bored. We decide on the things we like most and all is arranged for us in the most efficient way. That is what you call service!
During the winter months, naturally, most of the activities revolve around skiing. The Sport Hotel Hermitage has its own special path to the cable car. Soldeu is part of the GrandValira ski resort, the largest in the Pyrenees, with over 205 km (127 mi) of ski runs. Rumor has it that Soldeu is one of the three best budget skiing resorts in Europe. The ski area links to Encamp, Canillo, El Tarter, Grau Roig and Pas de la Casa. The Soldeu Ski School has a lot of native English speaking instructors. Gema assures us that there are many multi-lingual instructors, some of whom can even speak our very own Dutch. And the school has won awards for the quality of its tuition. The village sits at 1,710 meters (5,610 ft) above sea level and the top of the ski area is 2,580 meters (8,465 ft). The gondola from the village rises to 2,250 meters (7,380 ft), where the ski and board schools and some restaurants are located. But we will save all of that for another visit.
For today, our oldest daughter first opts for some horse riding, which proves an excellent experience, following trails up and down the captivating mountain meadows. And Angela is happy to accompany her. The recommended Nòrdic Aventura equestrian centre offers 30-minute or one-hour excursions to the magnificent natural surroundings of Soldeu and El Tarter, accompanied by a professional guide to ensure your safety.
Afterwards this sporty adventure, it’s time for some mother/daughter shopping. Andorra has long benefited from its status as a tax haven, with revenues raised exclusively through import tariffs. The competitive prices, quality, flexible hours and public safety are some of the factors which mean that Andorra is the centre of international shopping. A wide variety of products from five continents can be found in more than 2,000 shops.
Meanwhile, Menno takes our youngest for another exiting outing to the Palau de Gel in Canillo. This modern building houses a somewhat odd combination of ice rink, swimming pool, restaurant and gym. Friendly staff greet us and while it is almost 30 degrees outside, we have to change into gloves, helmets and warm sweaters. We step onto a perfect ice floor and speed away, laughing as we try to copy some of the very talented ice dancers that are training here at the same time. So two hours pass without notice until we don’t have enough time to visit the heated swimming pool or ‘kid’s pool’.
For adults aged 16 and over, the Palau de Gel has another trick up its sleeve. During certain hours in the week, the ice rink is transformed into a kart circuit. In individual 10-minute heats, you can master your driving skills on ice in 200cc karts with spiked wheels. They even have specially configurated karts for disabled people. If you travel with a large group of 10 or more you can also arrange a Kayak Polo session. Two Supervisors will introduce you to the art of staying afloat in a kayak while trying to score a goal.
As always, the mountains are calling to us. You can easily take the cable car just a short walk from the hotel to enjoy several hiking trails in the beautiful mountains around the hotel. Make sure you take a blue coloured cable car, as it has a glass bottom – great for people with a fear of heights :-). And we are really tempted by a hike on which you might even encounter the famous wild horses roaming freely in the area. But sometimes the girls have something different in mind than trekking for hours up and down the steep hills. So we decide to take the cable car at Canillo, a short drive from the hotel. On top of this mountain we find the Mon(t) Magic Family Park. A cute little activity centre and an adventure trail. This Fornatura Circuit leads you through the flora and fauna in the area, awakening all five senses. We find it much easier to take a hike when the girls have something to explore and small things they can do or explore while walking. Besides the trails, the park has a compact area of attractions with plenty of fun things to do. Younger visitors can enjoy the play area, with slides, catwalks, hanging bridges and lots more. There are inflatable castles, a ball pool and an open-air playground where they can enjoy things like giant-sized traditional board games.
One of the most exciting activities for somewhat older children and adults is the Zip Line, which at 550 meters long, is the longest zip line in the Pyrenees. During the descent, it speeds up to 80km/h at a height of 40 meters from where you can enjoy the best views over the valley. We take a duo descent, with the girls each being strapped to one of us. Quite a thrilling ride it is! At the end of the Zip Line ride is a pretty, small lake where you can paddle around with kayaks.
We have some more adrenaline pumping activity at the Magic Gliss, a mountain water slide, where we have great fun hitting the water at more than 40 km/h. And while we sit down with a cappuccino on the huge terrace overlooking the surrounding countryside, our girls are off to the next exiting thing: a fast descent along a water track on an inflatable doughnut. You could easily spend a morning or afternoon at the park. No need to go back for lunch as there are also two excellent restaurants to choose from.
For more serious hiking, consider the trail up to Juclar Lake. It is quite a strenuous walk with great views. Take something warm for the top. You will be rewarded with some truly beautiful scenery once you get up there. The walk up to the lake is very popular, so expect the route to be busy. Nevertheless, it is beautiful and well worth doing. The great staff at the activity centre are more than happy to point out all the other equally recommended hiking routes. We also take the opportunity to ask them about the hike which comes with a picnic and a certified mountain guide, the 4x4 excursions, Zumba Lessons, Aquagym, Pilates, trail running, quads tour, guided mountain bike tours and the possibilities of rock climbing. All these activities and even more are also conveniently published on a big notice board near the reception. Coming back to the hiking: if money is not an object then the thing to do is ‘Helitrekking’. This is a great opportunity to fly with a helicopter over the Andorran Pyrenees enjoying the best views before walking through the mountains accompanied by a professional guide.
Although there are heaps of activities on offer, the hotel also has an excellent kid’s club open from 10 to 20hrs. It is an ideal place for children to have fun and make new friends whilst always under the watchful eye of the delightful instructors. During the summer, the club is based close to the side of the pool. So you can still be around, more or less, as they work on creating some art work while you sit reading a book. The club offers a wide variety of things to do. In the morning, there is an ‘excursion’ taking the kids up into the mountains, playing games along the route and, weather permitting, splashing around in one of the mountain lakes. Time is spent making chocolate lollipops, playing water games in and near the pool, treasure hunts, and other games such as Bingo, Memory, Jenga, etc; not to forget visiting the animals.
The outdoor pool is a real bonus, especially in summer. But the real highlight is the free access to the Sport Wellness Mountain Spa, the exclusive centre for health and well-being for guests of the hotel. It has an amazing 5 floors and 5000 m2, where you can enjoy the best beauty and health treatments. While the kids do the hard work of running up the mountain, we have some leisurely hours floating in the cool waters at this magnificent place. The different floors offer facilities that are divided by a thematic criteria: beauty and health, relaxation through hydrotherapy, purification and toning up by wet and dry heat, and finally, the Spa area and water circuit. This circuit has different swimming pools at different temperatures, a pebble way and a wide pool with hydrotherapy jets, underwater massage and direct access to two open-air hydrotherapy bathtubs. Unfortunately for the girls, access to all this spa abundance is restricted to adults and children over 13 years.
Quite a difference from the serene spa is our experience at the world's highest permanent racetrack at the Circuit Andorra at Pas la Casa. At a staggering 2400m above sea level, we take turns riding karts along the 400-meter-long asphalt track. In winter you drive on ice which is probably even more exiting. As they have special kids karts, our girls (even of 8 years!) also have the opportunity to experience their first race.
Speaking of record heights, Andorra also has the highest 9-hole golf course in Europe. It is situated 2250 m above the sea level and it is perfectly integrated into the natural environment. And even a bit higher up you can visit the Roc del Quer interactive trail and panoramic platform. Luckily this 12 metre wide overhang structure is made of steel and glass, since you are actually walking 400 metres above Canillo. If you are a real daredevil, do not miss the climbing tours the hotel offers, which take you to spectacular views during the 3-hrs tour, or longer should you wish.
# This is a completely new concept of a family friendly 5-star hotel. Located at 1850 metres above sea level in the middle of the nature, it is a privileged place to practice mountain sports either in summer or winter.
# At the height of any of the other top Alpine hotels in Courchevel, St.Moritz or Gstaad. Luxury and quality are present in all its rooms, restaurants, spa and other public spaces with excellent, panoramic views. Wherever you go, you can feel a warm atmosphere thanks to an imaginative and elegant design. The staff working at the reception, room service, parking, spa, and restaurant are very efficient and attentive; always willing to help and to make your stay as pleasant as possible.
# A lovely, luxurious experience and nearby to excellent hiking, horse riding, golfing, paragliding and many more activities and cultural highlights in the Pyrenees. And in summer easily done, with the perfect mountain climate. For sure we highly recommend this stunning family destination.