WHEN American and Canadian skiers fly to Europe, they mostly head for large, crowded resorts in the Alps. Few of them know that Spain has five high mountain ranges -- the Sierra Nevada in the south, the Picos de Europa in the northwest, the Sistema Central and the Sistema Iberico not far from Madrid, and the Pyr'en'ees on its northern border with France -- and 30 ski resorts.
Two of these resorts are entirely devoted to Nordic cross-country skiing -- Sant Joan de l'Erm and Lles -- both in the Pyr'en'ees, where you also find most of the larger resorts: Cerler (7 Olympic runs), Baqueira/Beret, El Formigal (hourly lift capacity: 12,260), Nuria (7 high peaks for ski touring), and La Molina (8 chairlifts and 11 long, high T-bars). While many British skiers come to Spain on well-organized, prepaid holidays (thanks to them, English is spoken in the major resorts), only two American tour operators offer ski packages for Baqueira and for Solynieve (Sierra Nevada), the resorts where the King and Queen of Spain ski.
Unfortunately, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia were not in Baqueira, nor in Solynieve, when I skied there, but I did meet some memorable people -- my Spanish ski instructors. They were always encouraging, never impatient, and they went with me on some of the high, long, and steep T-bars so I would not be scared. If you have ever suffered, as I have, with ski instructors in the Alps who acted like staff sergeants, you will understand why I am grateful to my Spanish profesores.
Baqueira/Beret is at the end of the lovely Val d'Aran, a long row of villages graced by Romanesque churches. It's not a huge development -- no high-rises -- but offers all the amenities of a ski resort: hotels, apartments, ski and photo shops, supermarket, beauty parlors, and so on. There are six chairlifts and eight long T-bars.
Most of the time you ski on wide-open, treeless snowfields. There are easy, intermediate, and ``black'' runs, all well maintained. The nearby Beret area has long, varied runs, some of them connecting with the Baqueira trails. This season a new chairlift will open up even more good terrain.
Every week the ski school holds races for all classes. Imagine my joy when, for the first time in my life, I tied on a racing ``bib.'' It said ``Baqueira/Beret 190 Stadium Slalom.'' No, I didn't win, but it was fun anyway.
Dining out in one of the many restaurants in Val d'Aran (Casa Irene in Arties was my favorite) is one of the high points of Baqueira, but you need reservations. Spaniards dine late, 9:30-10 p.m., linger over conversation till nearly midnight, then start out on the evening's entertainment. Fortunately Baqueira, like Solynieve, is used to British guests, so you can dine early at your hotel if you want to. I stayed at the Tuc Blanc, right next to the main lifts, which is, I think, the best-run hotel. But you should walk over to the Hotel Montarto: Hidden in its lower reaches is Regalo Titina, the nicest little store for gifts, especially for children. Sierra Nevada
Solynieve is not a village, but a new resort with four hotels near the lifts -- two gondolas, four chairlifts, 10 T-bars. Total vertical drop is 1,351 meters (4,432 feet). Here you have the highest mountains of the peninsula: Veleta, 3,392 meters (11,128 feet) accessible by gondola; others almost as high are for ski mountaineers willing to walk up. At 2,500-meter altitude you can ski from November to May (in good years) and all year at higher elevations. Most of the descents have been smoothed out to look like eight-lane highways. But when it has not snowed for some time (Solynieve claims 250 days of sunshine a year) the runs can get pretty hard-packed.
At the Melia Hotel, where I stayed, there's entertainment every night, including costume balls and games for children. Kids have lots of company here and lots of fun. Practical information
There are Spanish National Tourist Offices in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Houston, and Toronto.
Your travel agent can book ski-week packages through these tour operators:
Mena Travel in Miami. Call toll free in the United States: 800-327-4514.
VE Tours in Viajes, Ecuador; Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. Call toll free in the US 800-222-8383.
Prices vary with time of year and day of departure, and range from US $750 to $1,200. For example, until March 28 Mena has a $751 package offering group departures for Baqueira, including air fare from New York, transfers, one night in Madrid, six nights in Baqueira Tuc Blanc, breakfast, and all-lift ticket.
Low add-on fares from your airport to the departure point of your package tour are offered by Iberia Airlines. For example, the add-on fare for San Francisco-New York round trip is $276. There are also charters for Los Angeles-Spain to be used with land-cost packages.
Iberia Airlines of Spain can be reached toll free in the US at 800-221-6742. In Canada, call (514) 861-9531 (Montreal), or (416) 964-6625 (Toronto).