Who needs skis?
Aware of the need to diversify, Pyrenean ski resorts have plenty more to offer their visitors than just skiing
With the many challenges facing the winter sports sector in the coming years, from warmer temperatures to declining numbers of skiers, all the experts agree that ski resorts need to diversify in order to survive. However, that work has already begun and Catalonia's resorts already offer an increasing number of activities for sectors of the public with no interest in skis or snowboards. Families in particular are increasingly well-catered for, and the sort of activities on offer at many resorts take full advantage of the snow without the need for expensive equipment or years of practice.
A good example of a new activity that anyone can enjoy is Snow Snake. Obviously, sleighing is nothing new but Snow Snake is the type of sleigh you won't find on the front of any Christmas cards. Resembling the long banana-shaped inflatables pulled by speedboat at the beach, the snow snake, which is made up of small sleds linked together, can carry up to 25 people. For those looking for similar thrills and spills in the snow, Naturlandia in Andorra has the Tobotronc, a 5.3-kilometre, two-seater Alpine roller-coaster that snakes through the adventure park's woods. Such activities are most likely to be a hit with families, and another option is tubbing. Anyone who has been to a water park will have seen people shooting down water slides sitting astride rubber rings, and tubbing is similar, though in the snow and, obviously, with a few more clothes than just a bathing costume.
More excitement is to be had with Laser Combat, which transfers laser tagging to the snow. Armed with a weapon that fires infra-red beams, participants attempt to eliminate each other by shooting at digital sensors mounted on headbands. War game though it is, the onus is very much on fun, not to mention safety, as the activity is overseen by monitors that track the players' progress on a computer.
However, perhaps the most numerous alternatives to traditional skiing in resorts involves vehicles. Grandvalira in Andorra, for example, is home to the Audi school, providing lessons for driving on ice and snow in 4x4s and buggies. La Molina ski resort also its own circuit where visitors learn to handle vehicles in extreme conditions.
For those with aversion to four-wheeled vehicles can try Ski Bike or Trikke Skki. The first activity uses bicycles with skis in place of wheels to make them suitable for descending ski slopes. The latter is a tricycle on skis, and both activities are suitable for the whole family; the bikes are easy to use and monitors provide instructions and oversee the activity.
A very different form of vehicle but one that is appealing for its originality is the opportunity to go dogsledding, or mushing as it is commonly called (“mush” is the command for the dogs to begin pulling, though the word “hike” is more common in English these days). Again suitable for the family, mushing is as much an educational experience as a thrilling ride, as the activity comes with an explanation about how the dogs are prepared for outings, as well as a demonstration of the various commands used to control the sled.
Other more traditional ways of getting around the mountains in the snow is snowshoeing. Excursions can be found in most resorts for people of all ages and abilities, and donning snowshoes is a great option for non-skiers and those looking for a safe outing in the snow. The guided excursions are carried out off-piste, along a variety of routes and, unlike skiing or snowboarding, requires no form of special training or physical preparation.
These days many resorts also offer non-skiing activities that require skis. Speed riding, for example, is a sport in which the participants, wearing skis, are equipped with a small parachute that is used to catch the wind and propel the skier across the mountain. And for those looking for an authentic flying/skiing experience, there is heli-skiing, in which participants are taken by helicopter to a remote off-piste location and then left to make their way down to the bottom, either on skis or snowboard, in true James Bond fashion.
The various activities offered by today's resorts truly take advantage of the entire mountain landscape, including pine forests and spectacular frozen lakes. In fact, some resorts offer customers the chance to try scuba diving beneath the ice. The activity, known as ice diving, is suitable for anyone over the age of 10 but it does require time and preparation. One of the requirements for the activity is to have previously acclimatised, and six hours are needed to balance body pressure with that of the atmosphere, due to the rapid change of altitude when visiting from lowland areas. Each dive, which is awarded with a certificate, lasts for up to 50 minutes.
And what can be better after a long hard day on the slopes, whether skiing or not, than relaxing in a warm spa or sauna. There are plenty of spas in Catalonia and if you're in Andorra, why not take a trip to Caldea, Europe's largest thermal spa resort.