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“Benvinguts al Principat d’Andorra.” You have to log some pretty long hours to be welcomed into the puny principality of Andorra. This has nothing to do with winning over the delightful Andorran people. It has to do with access. Wedged into the difficult land along the French-Spanish border, this ancient Pyrenean nation of 60,000 people has neither airport nor rail lines. Only two roads — one from France, the other from Spain — show the way. By November the French route, which crosses the highest pass in the Pyren�es — the breathtaking 7,900-foot Port d’Envalira — is often too perilous to traverse. The bus from Barcelona takes four hours. So why do some 8 million visitors annually make the effort to get to a country that’s one-sixth the size of Rhode Island and notoriously hard to get to? Bargains. Andorra is the land of 5,000 duty-free shops, where busloads of bargain-hunters can save as much as 50 percent on products ranging from Cuban cigars, Armani jeans, and Japanese electronics to Rossignol skis, Givenchy perfumes, and liters of Absolut. As a result, border towns like Pas de la Casa have acquired all the charm of an outlet center, and the claustrophobic capital city of Andorra la Vella has become a European hybrid of Hong Kong and the Mall of America. Moreover, the availability of cheap booze and budget accommodations has historically given Andorra — which boasts five prime ski areas — the reputation of having the sleaziest apr�s-ski scene west of Bulgaria. Tawdry though it may be in some ways, Andorra is also exceedingly beautiful. The stunning countryside is rich with tobacco fields, glass-surfaced lakes, stone cottages, and pine forests. Snow-capped peaks serrate the crystalline sky as you make your way from one Romanesque village to the next. In Les Escaldes one can visit the thermal baths of Caldea, Europe’s largest spa. Hiking and biking trails climb hillsides and cut through the valleys of Anyos, where cows and lambs fatten up before making their appearances on menus alongside onions, peppers, white beans, garlic, and other staples of Catalan cuisine. Andorra abounds with places to eat. In Andorra la Vella, avoid the ones that advertise the preset menu del d�a or platos combinados. In the capital, you’ll pay slightly more but get far better fare at the following restaurants: Ca La Conxita, Can Benet, or Marti. Also, make sure to try El Bon Raco in neighboring Santa Coloma, where the xai (lamb) roasts on an open hearth, and the escudella (a stew of chicken, sausage and vegetables) goes great with a Priorat cabernet. Two of Andorra’s best rustic restaurants — La Borda de l’Avi and Borda Raubert — lie just outside the village of Massana, in the heart of ski country. And with winter approaching, Andorra’s ski country will give you plenty to do. There are five distinct areas — Soldeu-El Tarter, Arinsal, Pal, Ordino-Arcalis, and Pas de la Casa-Grau Roig — and each is trying to court a more discerning clientele. New luxury hotels, such as the smart Xalet Ritz in the tiny village of Sispony, Hotel Piolets in Soldeu, and Llop Gris in El Tarter, represent a welcome change from the rather dreary hostelries that once characterized the area. On the slopes, the change is even more dramatic. Soldeu, which is actively cultivating a more upscale image, has replaced the rickety bridge across the gorge of the River Valira with an eight-person gondola that whisks you to the area at Els Espiolets. Even the eastern Andorran rival resorts of Soldeu-El Tarter and Grau Roig-Pas de la Casa have put aside centuries of animosity and linked the two areas with a drag-lift, combining to form 330 miles of piste served by over 50 lifts. Although Soldeu has the best skiing, the after-ski scene there remains a bit dicey — and that goes double for Pas de la Casa, known to draw some of Europe’s least pleasant ski bums. To avoid the rowdies, one option is to base yourself in the valley town of Encamp and utilize the jumbo gondola from the top of Grau Roig. A better bet is to ski Ordino-Arcalis, where you can stay at the nearby Xalet Ritz. Probably the prettiest town in Andorra, Ordino is also the most cultured. It’s home to the opulent Museu Casa d’Areny-Plandolit and the fascinating Museu Postal. As principalities go, Andorra’s no Monaco. Its boozy, bargain-basement reputation belies a growing cultural identity that manifests itself in many forms — not the least of which is the desire to turn Andorra into a tourist haven befitting one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Andorrans pay no taxes. But they clearly do pay attention to what tourists are looking for in a great value, out-of-the-way European travel destination. ARRIVING The nearest major airports are in Barcelona (Spain) and Toulouse (France). Buses to Andorra la Vella leave regularly from both cities, though Barcelona offers more routes, not to mention fewer hairpin turns and mountain passes. LODGING Hotel Xalet Ritz (Tel. 011-376-837877) Hotel Piolets (Tel. 011-376-871787) Llop Gris Hotel (Tel. 011-376-851559) SKIING Pas de la Casa-Grau Roig (Tel. 011-376-801060) Soldeu-El Tarter (Tel. 011-376-890500) Ordino-Arcalis (Tel. 011-376-850121) For more information, visit www.andorra.com.

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