The Spanish love to ski, but they love partying even more. Nowhere is the Hispanic love of life better demonstrated than in their ski resorts. In a country linked both with city culture and with sea, sand, Malaga and Marbella, you don’t really expect to find a ski resort here. But it has everything you’d expect to find in the Alps, but with tapas bars instead of fondue restaurants.
Even those who know about skiing in Spain tend to think that the slopes are confined to just four resorts: Baqueira Beret, Formigal, La Molina and Sierra Nevada, but the country has over 30 including a variety of smaller ski villages.
First off in the larger resorts is Sierra Nevada in the south of Spain. It’s a surprising place because you can actually swim and ski on the same day – the coast is just two hours’ drive, you can pop down to the Alhambra in Granada for some culture, and you can also see across to Morocco’s Atlas Mountains from the ski area.
The terrain goes from 2102m up to 3305m, with 21 lifts and 107km of mainly easy to intermediate runs. There’s a huge terrain park here, with 70 features including a half-pipe and a kids’ freestyle zone.
In character the resort isn’t typically Spanish nor particularly alpine either. Hotels include four-star Kenia Nevada and Melia Sierra Nevada. A branch of Marbella’s cool nightclub, Suite, is in Hotel El Lodge.
You can reach Sierra Nevada from Malaga and Almeria airports.
Then there’s Spain’s most upmarket resort, Baqueira-Beret, which is also one skiing’s best-kept secrets. Located in the Val d’Aran, this is a cross-cultural area of the Pyrenees where Spanish, Catalan, and Aranese are all spoken.
The best places to stay here are Rafaelhoteles La Pleta with its swimming-pool and spa, or the smaller Melia Royal Tanau Boutique Hotel. But there’s also a British ski school and a British chalet operator, Ski Miquel, who come here.
The skiing goes up from 1500m with 33 lifts, 151km of piste and a 1010m vertical drop. It’s suited to all standards – from complete beginners to advanced level. You can reach the resort from Barcelona or Toulouse airports.
Formigal, Cerler and Panticosa
Spain’s biggest ski area is also in the Pyrenees. Formigal in Aragon is four hours’ drive from Barcelona – so you can always combine a ski and city trip. Located at 1550m, it looks like a traditional mountain village. The ski area has recently received huge investment and there’s a vertical drop of 1000m, some 16 lifts and 137km of pistes connecting four valleys. Hotels include the interestingly-named Fun Aragon Hills & Spa, with spacious and modern rooms, two restaurants, a café-bar with a fireplace, a terrace with panoramic mountain views, and a shuttle bus to and from the slopes.
Nearby is Cerler going from 1500m to 2630m with 18 lifts and 52km of mainly intermediate pistes, and Panticosa at 1150-2220m with 16 lifts and 20km of largely intermediate pistes. You can stay here at Hotel HG Cerler: “The hotel has a big pool, the rooms are clean and comfortable”.
La Molina and Masella
Spain’s first-ever ski lift opened at La Molina in February 1943. The resort continued onwards as a pioneer of ski lifts, and by the late 1950s it had five chair-lifts, 10 drag-lifts and two gondolas.
Today it is part of the Alp 2500 area together with the resort of Masella, its ski area ranging from 1700m to 2445m in altitude. Some 27 lifts and 141km of piste suit all levels. Hotels include HG La Molina at the base of the slopes. The resort can be reached from Barcelona airport.
The Small Resorts
Alto Campoo is one of the best of the smaller resorts, and it still isn’t known outside of Spain. The village is located in the Cantabrian Mountains 100km inland from the Bay of Biscay, making it the country’s most northerly resort. Importantly, the skiing takes place on snow-sure north-facing slopes.
The lifts rise from the base area at 1650m up to 2250m, with a 600m vertical drop. From here you can see the mountains and the sea at the same time. There are 13 lifts and 28km of piste to play on.
Most convenient place to stay is in one of the pretty, stone-walled country houses and apartments in Complejo Abiada Rural, 6km from Alto Campoo. They have a charming, rustic decor with pastel tones, wooden furnishings and exposed stone walls. There is also restaurant on site. Or you could stay in one of the small inns at nearby Branavieja. Alto Campoo can be reached from Leon airport.
In the same mountain range is San Isidro with a ski area going up from 1500m to 2100m in altitude, seven lifts and 21km of piste. The region’s gastronomy, combined with the beautiful Picos de Europa Mountains, are added attractions and Leon is the nearest airport.
Spain’s skiing – from the large interconnected ski areas to the tiniest of mountain villages – creates a truly viable alternative to the over-commercialised resorts of the Alps. You can eat extremely well too – and then there are all those bars. With the skiing and partying, finding time to sleep is the only problem.