IT’S not hard to work out why the Sierra Nevada is often dubbed ‘southern Europe’s top skiing resort’.
While you’ll be shivering in the Alps this week and it’s foggy in the Pyrenees, I’m eating lunch in bright sunshine near the top of Spain’s second highest mountain.
It’s mid-December and the Sierra Nevada is usually warm during the day and a few of the regulars are actually skiing in t-shirts, while everyone looks tanned.
Even better, my light lunch, washed down with an obligatory cana, comes to just over €10…and that is at a restaurant halfway up the slopes!
“Here we sell the weather, not the number of kilometres,” explains Juan Luis Hernandez, boss of EOE ski school. “And the prices have hardly gone up for years.”
And if you fancy a change, the magical architecture of Spain’s most visited monument, the Alhambra, is only half an hour away, while the beaches of the nearby Costa Tropical beckon in an hour.
The famous adage of ‘ski in the morning, sunbathe in the afternoon’ is very much game on and it’s been tried and tested many times.
But none of that interests me. I like visiting the Sierra Nevada for the sport, but also the food and the people.
There is simply nothing more amazing than watching the resort appear on the skyline as you drive from around Spain (or fly over to land in Malaga or Gibraltar).
The snow-capped peaks of Veleta and Mulhacen can be seen for miles around (in fact as far as Grazalema, some 120 miles as far as the crow flies) and winding up the steep, often single-carriageway to the top is as exciting as any drive in the country.
This is a timeless drive with stunning views and many people simply head up to take in the air, particularly on bank holidays which are generally worth avoiding.
What is certainly changing in the Sierra Nevada though is the dedication to move forward.
New kilometres of pistes are added most years, while this year saw a record 77 of the latest snow cannons installed guaranteeing excellent snow until early May.
The season normally starts promptly with the December ‘puente’ weekend of Constitution Day and the Immaculate Conception, when up to 40,000 skiers can rock up for the weekend.
There will be up to 110kms of pistes open at the peak, including the excellent Laguna valley, for expert skiers, where they have recently been filming a Netflix series about the infamous 1972 plane crash in the Andes, when the Uruguayan rugby team were forced to take to extreme measures to survive.
You must also look out for the excellent Superpark Sulayr, Europe’s largest freestyle snowboard park, with its fabulous 165 metre long ‘half pipe’, amazing for snowboarders.
And then there is the famous ‘Rio’ run that leads right down to the resort of Pradollano, which sits at 2,100 metres.
At the same latitude as Cyprus and just 30 miles from the beaches of the Costa del Sol, it is nothing short of amazing really that you can usually ski here in early May.
This is all to do with the altitude of the Sierra Nevada, which has its highest peak in Mulhacen, a staggering 3,482m above sea level.
Named after a 15th century Arabic king Muley Hacen (Abdul Hassan Ali), who is said to have been buried at the top, this is the highest peak in mainland Spain.
From the top of the highest ski lift, at 3,300 metres, the views make the Mediterranean below look like a small pond, with half the coastline of Morocco clearly in view.
It is an amazing place, although it can be a little nippy up there with the wind whistling past, so make sure to bring a coat and jumper.
From here, competent skiers access the amazing runs of the Laguna de las Yeguas area, including the celebrated Olympic run, which is full of twists and turns.
And believe me, you can sometimes find yourself skiing alone midweek and the sheer nature and landscape are spectacular.
It is incredibly easy to have a few days skiing and you can park easily in the underground car park right below the main square.
You come up to the ticket office in Plaza Andalucia where there are new machines now installed so you shouldn’t have to queue for long.
A day’s skiing is not cheap, costing €51 to €54 on most days, but just €42 on a wednesday, while those in their 70s get free passes.
It certainly pays to pick your days with Christmas and Semana Santa seeing the resort rammed, with sometimes big queues for the ski lifts. My tip is to visit for the Reyes when 99% of the Spanish will have returned home for their presents and family get togethers.
Then there is Semana Blanca (literally ‘white week’) – or half term at the end of February – when school children can learn how to ski, while bank holidays can also be very busy and getting up to the resort can be slow.
That said, problems can be missed by arriving by 8.30am or by waiting till midday.
While a modern resort, Pradollano itself is a pleasant place to simply take in the air or a spot of lunch, and there is a fair amount for children to do, with entertainers and Disney figures wandering around, particularly around Christmas.
It has also got a good reputation as being a resort for fun, with the apres ski being some of the best in Europe, once you know where to find it (tip: it’s most uphill).
The place really started to evolve quickly from 1995 when the World Skiing Championship was scheduled to be held there (it actually took place the following year due to poor snow).
“Since then the infrastructure changes were huge and it is now a big resort,” explains resort marketing boss Santiago Sevilla, who has worked there for well over a decade.
“When the weather is favourable, and that is most of the time, this is a fantastic place to be skiing.”
Giles Birch, who runs the well-established British Ski Center, estimates that Pradollano has one of the longest seasons in Europe, opening at the start of December and often going through to mid May.
“There have even been snowfalls in June and when the snow and weather are favourable, which is more often then not, the openness of the ski terrain provides some of the most exhilarating off piste skiing to be found anywhere.”
He continues: “Off piste skiing here has made a great name for itself with easily accessible zones all over the terrain, very little avalanche risk and wide open expanses for all to enjoy.”
Winter sports for all sorts
There is much more to the Sierra Nevada than sliding down it on two planks of wood.
You can tackle it by toboggan and snowboard, or on a snowshoe hike (akin to walking with a tennis racket strapped to each foot).
And if that sounds like too much action, you can always swap icy snow for a hot steam bath and indulge in some me-time at one of several hotel spas.
All year round, the Sierra Nevada is paradise for fresh air fiends.
After ‘the melt’, the resort becomes a paradise for walkers, wildlife lovers and mountain bikers.
Get the best views by taking advantage of the ski lifts, which in summer carry both people and bikes to the summit to enjoy breathtaking routes back down.
Borreguiles, the resort’s impressive ski bowl, boasts a bike park in the hotter months. Youngsters can test their strengths in the mini-olympiads zone or race against each other on the pedal car track.
Guided dawn and dusk walks and a bumper running and cycling race calendar are a magnet keeping the resort busy 12 months of the year.