My watch read 4 a.m. when I finally tore myself away from my friends and stumbled out of the crowded bar into the fresh snow. In Andalusia, 32 kilometres outside (and 1,470 metres above) the city of Granada, après-ski has no discernible end.
That night demonstrated to me that while Spaniards ski well, they party even better, and this Latin flair and zest for life comes across amply in dozens of mountain resorts, from large interconnected ski areas to tiny mountain villages, that offer a truly viable alternative to the over-commercialised resorts of the Alps. And if Barcelona wins the 2022 Winter Olympics in July 2015, you’ll be hearing a lot more about some of these places in the years to come!
Sierra Nevada (right) in southern Spain is completely unexpected. In a country more associated with sand and sangria than with snow and ski, who expects to find a major winter sports resort set inland from Costa del Sol hotspots Malaga and Marbella? In this corner of Spain, you really can sunbathe – or even swim – and slalom in a single day. Sand and snow are less than two hours apart. The high-altitude skiing ranges 2,102 to 3,305 m. (6,896-10,844 feet), with 32 lifts and 95 km. (59 miles) of mainly gentle pistes, so it’s a great place to improve your technique. The feel of the resort is neither alpine nor classically Spanish. The wide choice of accommodations includes four-star Meliá Sierra Nevada and Kenia Nevada. Last year Hotel El Lodge opened, housing a branch of the fashionable Marbella nightspot Suite.
Nearest airports: Almería (209 km./130 mi.), Granada-Jaén (47 km./29 mi.), Málaga (168 km./104 mi.)
An equally upmarket resort, located in the Pyrenees Mountains of Catalonia’s lovely Vall d’Aran, Baqueira-Beret (top), has remained one of Europe’s best-kept ski secrets, shared by a small but savvy assortment of international types. The skiing rises from 1,500 m. (4,921 ft.) with 33 modern lifts, 120 km. (75 mi.) of piste and a big 1,000-m. (1,610-ft.) vertical drop. It’s suited to all levels — from complete beginners to advanced skiers. The lovely villages here also offer many other things to do besides après-ski carryings-on, such as thermal springs, ice skating, visiting museums and historic churches, and more. The best hotels locally include Rafaelhoteles’ La Pleta with a swimming-pool and spa, and the smaller Meliá Royal Tanau Boutique Hotel. For more resort info, click here.
Nearest airport: Barcelona (350 km./217 mi.)
Spain‘s biggest ski area is also to be found in the Pyrenees, west of Vall d’Aran some 165 km (103 mi.) from Zaragoza. At 1,550 m. (5,085 ft.), Formigal in Aragon has all the atmosphere of a traditional mountain village – but with tapas bars instead of fondue restaurants. The resort area has benefitted from a multi-million-euro investment in recent years, and has a vertical drop of 1,000 m. (3,281 ft.), 21 lifts and 137 km. (85 mi.) of pistes spread over four interconnecting valleys. It’s marketed as part of the Aramon Group along with nearby Cerler at 1,500-2,630 m. (4,921-8,629 ft.) with 19 lifts and 57 km. (35 mi.) of mainly intermediate pistes, and Panticosa at 1,150-2,220 m. (3,773-7,218 ft.) with 16 lifts and 20 km. (12 mi.) of largely intermediate pistes. Add to this the even smaller Javalambre at 1,650-2,000 m. (5,413-6,562 ft.) with 9 lifts and 15 km. (9 mi.) of easy piste), and Valdelinares with 11 lifts and 9 km (6.5 mi.) of also fairly easy skiing.
Nearest airports: Bilbao (322 km./200 mi.), Barcelona (370 km. /230 mi.).
The ski history of La Molina in the Catalan Pyrenees near Girona dates back to 1923 after the arrival of a railway line, and it was here in the 1940s that Spain‘s first ski lift and ski school opened. Today it forms part of a ski area called Alp 2500 (named for the town of Alp), together with neighbouring Masella, its vertical drop ranging from 1,700 to 2,445 m. (5,577-8,022 ft.), and including 33 lifts and 135 km of piste to suit all levels. Some 135 regional lodging options include the HG La Molina right at the foot of the slopes.
Nearest airport: Barcelona (162 km./101 mi.)
Beyond these four, many non-Spaniards don’t realise that there are dozens other winter resorts, including a number farther west in the Cantabrian Mountains and Picos de Europa ranges of Asturias, León, and Cantabria. One of the best is Cantabria’s Alto Campoo, although its reputation has yet to spread beyond Spain’s borders. It’s situated in the Cantabrian Mountains 100 km (62 mi.) inland from the Bay of Biscay, making it Spain’s northernmost resort, and its skiing takes place on north-facing slopes that hold their snow particularly well. The top lifts are at 2,250 m. (7,381 ft.), with a vertical drop of 600 m. (1,969 ft.). Views from the summits, across to the sea and over to the heart of the Pyrenees, are spectacular. Five chair lifts and eight drag lifts serve 28 km (17 mi.) of terrain across a wide swathe of open mountainside reached from the base area at 1,650 m. (5,413 ft.). The closest place to stay is the three-star Hotel La Corza Blanca or in a choice of inns in the nearby village of Brañavieja.
Nearest airport: Santander (98 km./61 mi.)
Also in the Cantabrian Mountains, in the north of León province, San Isidro is between 1,500 and 2,100 m. (4,921-6,890 ft.) up and has 15 lifts and, 27 km (16 mi.) of varied pistes. With the recent addition of two new chair-lifts, four beginner drag-lifts and a general updating of facilities, the resort has now become a proper player in the area, with the local gastronomy and spectacular scenic beauty being real pluses.
Nearest airports: Asturias (115 km./72 mi.), León (96 km.60 mi.).
Felice Hardy is co-editor of the ski information website welove2ski.com.