I've visited 525 ski resorts in 20 countries – and this one is the best

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  • Felipe VI
    Felipe VI
    King of Spain
"One word of warning: in springtime you need to keep an eye out for brown bears" - Getty
"One word of warning: in springtime you need to keep an eye out for brown bears" - Getty

I’ve spent rather more than half a lifetime looking for the perfect ski resort and to my continuing surprise I have found it in – of all places – the Spanish Pyrenees. Baqueira Beret, still almost unknown to British skiers, is fit for a king.

It’s been the winter home of the Spanish royal family ever since it first opened in 1964. King Felipe VI first came as a toddler in the early Seventies and learned to ski here. His father, Juan Carlos, was so passionate about the skiing that he built an exotic chalet and members of Felipe’s extended family make use of it during high-season weeks and on most weekends.

My personal journey to arrive at this revelation about Baqueira has taken me to more than 525 resorts in 20 countries around the world. Inevitably, I’m frequently asked which is the best.

My stock answer is that on any particular day it can be anywhere you happen to find yourself. For me, the ‘best’ resort is where you wake up in the morning to a bluebird day, with ice crystals dancing in the rarified mountain air. Underfoot, there’s 20cm of fresh light powder that fell overnight. You’re in the company of someone you love, or close friends, and, after a long active morning, a leisurely lunch in an enticing wayside hut looks promising. Sometimes I’ve achieved this in unknown out-of-the-way places that have almost escaped tourism and barely offer a lift map.

But “best” begs the questions “best for what?”, along with “best for whom?” Best depends not only on your standard of skiing, but also on what you are personally looking for in a holiday, both on and off the snow. Best for Challenging Skiing, Best for Sumptuous Accommodation, Best for Tight Budget, and Best for Partying are not necessarily the same destination.

For the past 30 years I’ve been an irregular visitor to Baqueira and I’ve watched it grow from a local hill to a world class destination. It now has just about everything any of us could ever want from a ski resort.

The Spanish complain that prices here in their answer to the swanky resorts of Megève and Courchevel 1850 in France or Gstaad and St Moritz in Switzerland are far higher than in any other of their resorts, such as Formigal, La Molina or Sierra Nevada.

King Felipe VI in Baqueira - Getty
King Felipe VI in Baqueira - Getty

However, they’re still less than half what you will find in one of France’s top destinations, such as Val d’Isère, or its Swiss equivalent, Verbier. How about a main course in a smart tablecloth restaurant for £12 and a bottle of delicious local red wine for less than a tenner?

The resort is in the Pyrenees, but make no comparison with duty-free but not always bargain-basement Andorra, its most popular ambassador. Sophisticated Baqueira lies on the high Bonaigua Pass in the Val d’Aran, a remote cleft in the north of the mountain range. The nearest airports are Tarbes-Lourdes (2hrs) or Toulouse (2.5hrs). During the Second World War the French Resistance smuggled 20,000 Jews along vertiginous goat tracks to safety here. It’s a proud component of would-be-autonomous Catalonia. Here in this Pyrenean Eldorado they firstly speak Aranese followed by Catalan, Spanish, and a smidgen of French, if you insist.

Baqueira consistently enjoys some of the best cover in Europe - Getty
Baqueira consistently enjoys some of the best cover in Europe - Getty

The basic requirement of the perfect ski resort is, of course, the snow and the actual skiing. Baqueira consistently enjoys some of the best cover in Europe. In recent seasons the average summit depth has been 175cm, while this winter looks set to break all records. Right now there’s a mighty 175cm in the village and 275cm at the 2,600m top of the ski area.

The original resort lies at 1,500m, with lower and higher satellites, and the top lift rises to a respectable 2,516m. The ski terrain continues to expand and there’s now 167km of groomed pistes. This season the beginner area at the hamlet of Beret has been transformed with a new surface lift and a high speed six-person chair.

The beauty of the terrain here lies not only in the long runs of all standards, but in the mainly simple, but nevertheless exciting, off-piste variations from almost every marked run. For the first time this winter Baqueira features on the calendar of the prestigious Freeride World Tour.

True, most of the skiing is intermediate, but some steep couloirs such as Escornacrabes (Where Goats Tumble) provide plenty of challenges for experts. From the top, Goats induces a frisson of pure unadulterated fear. However, when you pluck up the courage to point your skis over the lip and push off, the experience is pleasantly more benign.

Most of the skiing is intermediate, but some steep couloirs provide plenty of challenges for experts - Getty
Most of the skiing is intermediate, but some steep couloirs provide plenty of challenges for experts - Getty

A huge plus point here is the relatively low-cost heli-skiing with Pyrenees Heliski (00 34 655 012 393; pyreneesheliski.com), based eight miles away in the ancient valley town of Vielha. A day with six drops costs €900 (£750), but prices are usually lower for a short day of just two drops when booked through the local British BB ski school (01903 233323; bbskischool.co.uk). Incidentally, having a first-class British ski school in my perfect resort is an important extra bonus, particularly when it comes to teaching children.

The terrain is in three areas linked across six main peaks, with main access from Baqueira itself by a gondola from the village centre. The hamlet of Beret is little more than a lift station and a terrain park at 1,800m that can be reached on skis or by car from Baqueira. It’s the starting point for some easy blue runs as well as a few much more demanding ones on the Tuc deth Dossau, one of the highest points of the ski area.

The on-piste Moët Winter Lounge (+34 682 737 679) serves champagne by the glass or the magnum, but even in this exalted lunch spot the food is good value by Alpine standards. A potato omelette costs €10.45 (£8.70) and Thai soup €12 (£10). A glass of local wine costs €9 (£7.50).

Now, the resort itself. No, it’s not the prettiest. Like Tignes, the main base at 1,500m dates from the Sixties ski boom when architectural beauty played second fiddle to bed numbers. The more recent development of more sympathetic four- and five-star hotels is housed in a mall at the bottom of the lift system in Val de Ruda. Purpose-built, these owe more to North American notions of convenience than to our European ideal. But Tanau at 1,700m, where the Spanish royal family resides, is unquestionably cool. This collection of traditional mountain homes, including the five-star Hotel Pleta (www.lapleta.com), blends with the beauty of its surroundings.

What attracts me to Baqueira is the location in more general terms. You don’t have to base yourself in the resort, but alternatively in the ancient town of Vielha eight miles away, or in one of the half-dozen medieval hillside villages such as Arties, below Baqueira. Don’t miss out on a visit to Tauèrna Urtau (+34 973 640 926) here, famous for its extraordinary variety of tapas. Order enough rounds of drinks and you won’t need dinner.

Along with Arties, the villages of Salardu and Tredòs offer a variety of accommodation and fine restaurants tucked away down cobbled alleyways. A government-subsidised bus service links the villages between Vielha and Baqueira. But unless staying in the resort itself, a car is essential. Parking is not a problem.

The pretty village of Salardu - Getty
The pretty village of Salardu - Getty

For anyone used to skiing in the Alps, a visit here requires considerable mental and temporal adjustment to the daily routine. On my first visit, after a delayed flight to Toulouse, I arrived in the main street at 2am to find it crowded with night owls who I assumed were leaving Tiffany’s, the main nightclub, at closing time. Wrong. They were leaving restaurants after dinner and going to the club.

At 9am, when the front de neige in Val d’Isère is awash with ski classes, the gondola base in Baqueira is all but deserted. No respectable Spaniard clicks into his bindings before 10 or 11am. He/she skis furiously until 3pm, then has a serious lunch. On a sunny day I recommend the terrace of Le Tuc Blanc (+34 630 46 63 20; www.hoteltucblancbaqueira.com). After the final run home it’s time for tapas and tempranillo until 6pm when the bars empty – it’s siesta time.

At 9pm the whole family re-emerges for drinks and tapas before dinner at 10pm. Of course, you don’t have to switch to the exhausting Iberian clock. You can dine alone in an empty restaurant at 8pm, but not earlier.

In springtime you need to keep an eye out for brown bears. They’ve been reintroduced to the wild here from a breeding programme based in Arties. Curiously, they tend to head for the French frontier. I can’t imagine why.

Ski Miquel (01457 821200; skimiquelholidays.co.uk) offers seven nights at Chalet-Hotel Salana at Baqueira Beret from £625 per person, on a chalet half-board basis; or from £820 per person at four-star Hotel Montarto, on a half-board basis. Both holidays include transfers and flights from London Gatwick or Manchester (£35 supplement).

Which is the best ski resort you have visited? Let us know in the comments section below

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