When it comes to life in the fast lane and lots of shopping, the only way is up, writes Michael Gebicki.
Andorra. Sounds great, right? I'm messing around in the Pyrenees region of southern France; it's a squelchy, drizzly day that frustrates my plans for a hike when I see the sign, "Andorra", and it beckons me. I imagine a country of milkmaids and square-jawed shepherds in high-topped boots, a lamb slung over each shoulder. "Why not?" I think. And before you can say, "But why?", my front wheels are clawing upwards into the sky. And up, and up again, on a road that spirals into the heavens.
Andorra, it turns out, is high. Above the treeline, the border comes and goes in the seamless way that frontiers are crossed in Europe and then, suddenly, I am in El Pas de la Casa, the first hint of civilisation on the Andorran side. It's a shock. Perched at 2100 metres, the town looks like a ski village mated with a giant shopping mall.
Thanks to Andorra's quasi-duty-free status, the whole country is a favourite shopping zone for French and Spanish consumers when they want to restock their booze cabinet, buy cheap cigarettes, top up with petrol at 30¢ a litre less than at home and get a new set of tyres. For some reason, tyres are a big money saver, so Andorra is liberally dotted with far more tyre dealers than its modest population of 85,000 could ever satisfy. You can also buy Viagra over the counter, no questions asked.
I drive through hills where the metal crucifixes of the ski lifts stalk across the hillsides. The scenery is like New Zealand's South Island on steroids. Andorra is a leading ski destination and Andorrans are thus used to living an invigorating lifestyle. During summer, in order to create excitement in their lives, they drive suicidally. There is nothing an Andorran driver likes more than passing you when you're traversing a roundabout, preferably while going downhill. Since Andorra has many roundabouts, the possibilities for excitement are never far away. Although I am on a four-lane road, Andorran drivers regularly crowd my bumper, failing to overtake but deliriously anticipating the next roundabout.
Since crossing the border, I have entered a glossier world. Andorra looks like an ad for spring-sourced and naturally effervescent mineral water. The clouds have disappeared and the sun sparkles on shiny new cars and the windows of chalet-style apartments. The sky is a rich and expensive shade of blue. The road looks like freshly hoovered carpet.
Apart from a few ancient stone churches by the roadside, the whole country looks as though it was built in the past 10 years. Andorra has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, and it's all down to its status as a handy duty-free zone. Fact: Andorra has more than 2000 shops, which is almost one for every 40 inhabitants. They also pay virtually no tax.
About an hour after crossing the border, the road slopes down into Andorra la Vella, the capital and – wow – it's another great, big shopping mall full of beautifully dressed people toting bags bearing famous logos. These are the inhabitants of Andorra, and unless you've been to the Caribbean or Copacabana beach recently, you've never seen such a genetically well-endowed bunch. Money, mountain air, a Spanish lineage, lots of healthy outdoor living and a workload that involves nothing more arduous than restocking the perfume in your duty-free store are, apparently, conducive to a long and happy life: Andorrans have the world's fourth-longest life expectancy.
Actually, not everyone is beautiful and well dressed. Me, for a start, and like the others of my ilk, I am a blow-in: here for the shopping and a look around, and out again.
Just across the bridge beside the Gran Valira River, I wander into the tourist office to see just what the options might be for the traveller. I could go to Naturlandia, a sort of green Disneyland, which offers mountain biking, archery, mushing, ice-skating, quad biking, paintball, Tobotronc and the world's longest toboggan run, which is an astonishing 5.3 kilometres.
I could also take a hike in the mountains. When every view makes you want to yodel, this is a country tailor-made for alpine walking. Andorra Tourism publishes its own hiking guide, Trails of Andorra, which contains 54 routes, from one-hour strolls to an action-packed day, all promising joy to the heart and mind, if not the legs.
The real revelation, though, is the hotel prices. Andorra's alpine skiing draws the winter crowds but during summer, business is quiet and hotel prices tumble. I can get a three-star hotel room for less than $100 a night for two. A self-contained apartment will cost about the same. I am warming to this idea but I have a perfectly nice hotel back in France, so I wander along Avinguda Meritxell, the main drag, poke my nose in the sporting goods shops and leave sweaty hand prints on the gleaming window of one of several Rolex boutiques. I buy a baguette and a car charger for my iPad, fill up with cheap petrol and head back down the mountain.
I'm pulled over at the border heading back into France. Andorra is a hot spot for smugglers, who pack their vehicles with cheap cigarettes or alcohol for resale elsewhere. Alone in a hire car with Spanish registration, I am a prime suspect. The customs officer regards me with a suspicious eye. "What do you have?" he asks me. "Joie de vivre," I say, and he actually smiles.
The writer flew to Europe courtesy of Singapore Airlines.
Singapore Airlines flies to Barcelona and Toulouse, both of which are within easy driving distance of Andorra. The return flight between Sydney and Barcelona starts from about $1800, to Toulouse from about $2200. singaporeair.com.
In Andorra la Vella, Hotel de l'Isard is centrally located, offers excellent value and turns on a wonderful buffet breakfast. hotelisard.com.
In the pretty adventure sports town of Encamp, Hotel Guillem is a small, friendly, family-owned hotel with pleasant rooms and a spa with a sauna and indoor pool. hotelguillem.net.