Paradise in the Pyrenees

Spain’s Val d’Aran is like Aspen, minus the attitude

By: Maryann Hammers

Your clients may have hiked the Rockies, trekked the Andes and skied in Whistler. But have they visited Spain’s Val d’Aran?

Located near the French border in the northwestern part of Catalonia, the high valley is surrounded by the Pyrenees’ highest peaks and is a favorite among wealthy Spaniards for world-class winter sports. But with its crystal lakes, rushing waterfalls and hundreds of miles of trails, the area is an ideal year-round destination as well.

As a non-skier, I was delighted to visit in July when the weather had warmed, crowds had dispersed and wildflowers covered green-carpeted fields. The small villages looked like they came out of the pages of a fairy tale: Tidy homes had steeply slanted slate roofs, honey-colored stone walls and balconies spilling over with red geraniums. The Romanesque-style churches, some 10 or more centuries old with distinctive pointed bell towers, contributed to the charming picture.

The village of Arties has the area’s best nightlife and the most restaurants, including Casa Irene,

reputed to be the valley’s finest. Vielha, the capital, is the largest town with a population of about 4,000. The resort village of Baqueira is the most upscale and boasts the best winter skiing, with 57 runs, an average snowfall of 32 feet and a top elevation of 8,234 feet across a terrain of 4,749 acres. But though the area is a winter playground for Europe’s elite, the entire valley seemed relaxed, casual and laidback wholly lacking the self-absorbed scene of say, Aspen or Vail. I didn’t see a single designer boutique.

I did, however, see plenty of borda small, family-style restaurants, where huge, hearty portions are served on platters and everyone just digs in. With the emphasis on stews, game and blood sausage, the local tipico cuisine was too heavy for my California-honed vegetarian tastes, but I adored the fresh vegetables, wild mushrooms, pan y tomate (toast rubbed with garlic, smeared with raw tomato and drizzled with olive oil), tortilla espanola (a potato omelette) and of course rioja, Spain’s delicious red wine. And the cassis a sweet aperitif made from wild mountain berries was reason enough to visit.

Clients traveling to Val d’Aran can fly to either France or Spain. The nearest airports are Toulouse, (about 100 miles away), Zaragoza (180 miles away) and Barcelona (220 miles away).


La Pleta: Baqueria’s Boutique Luxury Hotel

“You like cigars and cognac? I don’t, really,” the young Spaniard confided.

We were in the lobby of La Pleta Hotel in the resort town of Baqueira, Spain. Mellow jazz filled the air, cozy sofas and chilled champagne awaited us, cabinets were stocked with Cuban stogies and fine liquor, and the Pyrenees’ peaks loomed just outside the ceiling-high windows.

“This cognac costs 5,200 euro,” the Spaniard added. “I’d rather have a cup of coffee after dinner.”

Well, at that price, I prefer coffee too. But for the wealthy guests of this new boutique luxury hotel, fancy cigars and pricey liquor fit right in.

La Pleta, part of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, nestles so snugly against the imposing mountain range that I felt like I could reach out the window and touch the slope. Just steps to the ski lifts, the 71-room hotel is often solidly booked in winter. Last winter, Posh Spice was one of many celebrity guests, and the staff here still gossips about her all-Chanel outfit including matching Chanel skis. (For the record, Ms. Beckham chose the two-level presidential suite with the bed facing the mountain and a large-screen television that drops from the ceiling.)

Val d’Aran is spectacular in summer, but the message hasn’t quite gotten out to the masses. The area was quiet, pristine and serene during my short stay. The resort hopes to entice warm-weather travelers with an array of summer adventures, including horseback riding, kayaking, whitewater rafting, canoeing, helicopter sightseeing or mountain biking (the Tour de France passed in front of the hotel during my visit). As part of the hotel’s partnership with the nearby Jeep Academy, guests can learn to navigate ditches, creeks and narrow mountain trails.

Rates for standard rooms start at about $130 in summer; adventure packages start at $235 for three nights. Winter daily rates start at $213, four-night minimum.

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