A bit of a black sheep amongst other European resorts, Sol y Nieve is certainly not your pretty Alpine village with big firs dripping icicles and designer clad, chic ski chicks sipping lattes that cost a fortune. Nevertheless, the absence of "Oh we tried Mirabel last year – simply fabulous darling" and fierce fashion competition, makes the Sierra Nevada a welcome retreat from the usual winter ski destinations and the village is fun, and so typical of this region of Spain; laid back. The views are also very different to what most ski afficinados are used to. Craggy outcrops of rock jut from smooth, tree-less mountains and only criss crossing lifts break up the cake icing look of the slopes.
The resort itself is a jumble of hotels and apartment buildings built on the side of a mountain with a steep hair pinned road and a chair lift which plies between the Parador at the top of the hill, to Pradollano, the centre of the village. Pradollano with its attractive Plaza de Andalucía is the main hub of the resort where most of the shops, cafes and restaurants can be found as well as ski and board rental and repair services. Plaza Andalucía also houses a small ice rink during the winter months and for those who have an aversion to snow and ice, the Hotel Trevenque boasts a complete indoor gym and spa.
It is from Pradollano that two chair lifts and two gondolas transport you to the Borreguilles ski station, sitting at a height of 2,645 metres. Here you are given access to a total of 79 pistes totalling 84 kilometres with 23 lifts capable of carrying 44,955 skiers per hour. Amongst the new installations over the past couple of years are the “magic carpets”, moving conveyers to aid beginner skiiers clost to the main Borreguilles station; a new chair lift from the upper car park Los Peñones to the main pistes, several new pistes and snow cannons now installed on a total of 30 runs.
The pistes offer skiing for all levels with several wide, undulating short runs for beginners to stomach churning mogul fields. Most of the pistes, however, are coded blue and red; the "easy to difficult" range, as opposed to the very easy and down right insane previously mentioned. Occasionally the resort receives little snow as in 1995 when the World Ski Championships were embarrassingly cancelled. The resort has now overcome this problem by installing over 300 snow cannons, the best snow making facilities in Europe. Another new innovation is the lift pass system. The ‘forfaits’, as they are known in Spanish, now come in the form of plastic credit card style cards which are scanned when passing any of the lift gates. A deposit is charged when purchasing your first card which can either be redeemed at the end of the day or simply updated to use again. It is also possible to ‘re-charge’ your forfait card on-line.
At Borreguilles, there are various options to get a little or a long way further up the mountain and across to other areas such as Laguna de las Yeguas and Lomar de Dilar and Veleta. From Veleta, the highest point, it is possible to dispense with your skis or board and walk a little way to take in a spectacular view of the Mediterranean coast and even Africa on clear days in the distance.
I spoke to Jonathan Buzzard, a veteran of these mountains and one of the only native English instructors in the village, of his likes and dislikes of the resort; "On the skiing side, the resort is perfect for beginners. There is ample space to learn, the new ‘magic carpets’ and a slow draglift which my pupils use to go gradually further up the slope. I like to have my beginners on the chair lift within two hours so we can have a nice long run down the wide easy slopes." And the ones who can already ski? "There are more intermediate slopes than anything else in the resort and areas such as Monte Bajo are fantastic for those who want to ski long, mixed condition runs. A bit more challenging are the mainly red runs of Laguna de las Yeguas and Veleta, this area also tends to get less crowded." There are a total of five black runs in the Sierras and I asked Jonathan about these pistes which I shy my eyes from when ascending on the chair lift. "They are challenging even to the best skiers," explained Jonathan "mainly because of the conditions. The Sierra Nevada really is an exceptional place as far as the variability of the snow is. In the morning it can be icy and within hours, especially late in the season it can be slushy as anything. Perfect conditions for moguls to spring from almost nowhere!" And off the piste? "The atmosphere is definitely different to anywhere I’ve worked before. The location too is perfect. Last season there were days in May where we were snow skiing in the morning and water skiing in the afternoon, I could never do that in the Alps". What about the life? "Sometimes its hectic, it’s a holiday resort after all so people party till dawn and then want a lesson at 9 am. The nightlife is fun and for many people it’s a hard choice between skiing early or staying up late, many of course try both and I can always spot these casualties at early ski classes!"
Unlike many other resorts in Europe, snowboarders are welcomed with open arms in the Sierra Nevada and special facilities are available. A snow park is created including a professional half pipe and slalom and downhill competitions run all season. This year sees the largest competitions held thus far in the Sierra Nevada as it hosts the European and World Cups in March. For the headstrong there is some excellent off-piste skiing and boarding with hair-raising jumps. For beginners in both sports, tuition in many languages is widely available throughout the resort. Finally there is the nighttime experience for both skiers and boarders who just can’t get enough. From 7pm to 9 pm every weekend the long El Rio piste which runs right into the village is lit up and provides a wonderful spectacle when viewed from the café terraces of Pradollano.
Alpine gardens are available to leave the smaller members of your party and for non-skiing adults there are still a surprising number of things one can find while that ski crazy friend or snowboarding brat is up on the slopes. You can make the trip up the mountain to Borreguilles and on sunny days the café terraces are the perfect place to while away a few hours getting a great tan and reading a good book. Alternatively take to the slopes yourself, not on skis or boards but on a huge inner tube – available for rent at Borreguilles. For the more sedate, husky driven sleighs ply the cross-country ski routes equipped with blankets for your knees to keep off the chill.
The après ski in the Sierra Nevada is a lively affair with the usual bar, restaurant and club action. The only difference here is that is it considerably cheaper to eat, drink and be merry than it is say, in the Swiss or French Alps. Try a ‘lumumba’ - a delicious combination of hot chocolate and brandy – at Crescendo’s when you come off the slopes. For dinner check out the delicious fondues at La Fromagerie or for lovers of fine dining La Ruta de Veleta with their impressive wine cellar is a must.
The Sierra Nevada is an excellent family resort with the added bonus of being able to ski later in the season than almost anywhere else in Europe. Close proximity to the city of Granada with its fascinating historical and cultural background, make it ideal for a combined break or even a day trip. One thing is for sure, whether veteran skier or novice snowboarder, the Sierra Nevada won’t disappoint.
For up to the minute information regarding all aspects of the Sierra Nevada, check out their web site at www.sierranevadaski.com.