Skiing in Spain’s Sierra Nevada: How the ‘Costa del Ski’ is perfect for Christmas card snowscapes and adrenaline-pumping thrills

“THERE’S no way I’m skiing down that. I’ll walk up, get my ski and take the lift down,” insisted my Olive Press colleague, looking longingly uphill, while skiers zipped gracefully past us.

His grimace was barely visible through the layers of buff, hat and goggles, but the snarls were audible as he lay spread-eagled one ski 20 metres above him, where he’d taken a tumble.

It had been a testing day on the slopes for ski virgin Rob, and after a particularly ambitious blue run with three consecutive wipeouts, his sense of humour had vanished without trace.

It didn’t help that the rest of our impatient group had zoomed back to base for a caña, without a second thought for Rob. 

With my several years of experience I had naturally ended up volunteering to become his impromptu ‘professor’.

After rescuing his ski and a bit of gentle cajoling, we set off gingerly down the highest mountain range in peninsular Spain, making ‘giant pizza slices’, as my first teacher had called them, with our skis.

Sierra Nevada Borreguiles
Sierra Nevada is just a short drive from the Costa del Sol
Capileira And Sierra Nevada
Picturesque: Sierra Nevada in Granada

He was soon back in the saddle and I was considering a career change, as I later sped down the Olympico run, in the Laguna de las Yeguas valley, which at the top has amazing views towards the Rif mountains of north Africa across the shimmering Med.

It was the beginning of the perfect Sierra Nevada weekend, with perfect powder snow, bright sunshine and some of Spain’s best après ski at the end.

The Sierra Nevada is easily Spain’s best skiing resort, with nearly 113 kms of pistes over 1200 vertical metres.

The longest piste, Aguila, is a dreamy 6.3km of easy turns and magnificent views, while the series of black runs, including Trampolin and Visera, that will test most skiers.

Of course the resort is most famous for allowing tourists to test the adage of being able to ski in the morning and sunbathe on the coast, a cava in hand, by late afternoon.

Sierra Nevada
ski chairlift
The Sierra Nevada ski resort is now open for the 2023/24 winter season. Credit: British Ski Center

And on the subject of sunbathing, some fanatics – including me – even brave the slopes in a bikini for the last day of the season in late April or early May (la bajada en bikini).

Believe me, it’s an unmissable day festooned with champagne, near nudity and plenty of hedonism.

But it’s not just for fun junkies; expert skiers insist the snow, particularly in springtime, is a soft and sumptuous ride, unlike the tightly-packed icy pistes found in many European resorts.

The long termers call it ‘cream snow’ (nieve crema), and most say it is at its best from February to April, although the season often begins in late November, weather permitting (this year it began on Dec 3 with just a few kilometres open).

Best of all, the price for passes has not gone up much over recent years (€37.50 to 58.90 for an adult day pass depending on time of year).

Sierra Nevada 1
On the slopes: Sierra Nevada

“It’s a magnificent place with sun and a great location,” explains Mercedes Delgado, who has worked in the resort’s admin team for over three decades. “The temperature is usually pleasant and makes for excellent snow conditions, with late night skiing too, and the season usually continues to May making it very versatile.”

She continues: “And our proximity to Granada city is a huge plus, whereas many European resorts are very isolated.

“You can come to the Sierra Nevada and also see the Alhambra, eat some famous Granada tapas.. . there is something for everyone.”

She is one of many long-timers, who have worked in the resort for verging on half a century.

Take a wonder around and chat to the various business owners and you’ll be amazed at how experienced they are.”

Telemark Team sierra nevada ski spain
Skiers in Sierra Nevada

There’s Luis Casanove, at Telemark, who began on the slopes in 1987, while Jose at Skisol is now in his 41st year working here.

It wasn’t long after that in the 1990s that Giles Birch and Jonathan Buzzard set up together, going on to run their now famous British Ski Center (yes, American spelling).

The strategic location is near the beach, not far from Madrid, and perfectly accessible from most of southern Spain (Valencia, Murcia etc) and increasingly Portugal.

Alongside a loyal British crowd, many of them expats from Alicante and Malaga, the majority (around 80%) of the skiers are Spanish.

They are particularly drawn to the resort’s authenticity and charm that swanky French resorts have long since lost, with prices to match.

The place was quietly successful in the 1980s, but grew massively since the world ski championships in 1995.

Spanish is still the lingua franca – although virtually all restaurateurs speak English. 

BUSTLING: Sierra Nevada

By contrast, in high-end Swiss resorts or in France’s Courchevel or Meribel, where the super-rich walk their Chihuahuas in white skin-tight salopettes, you’re hard pushed to find a native French speaker.

The resort is very family friendly, with the majority of the 139 runs at a beginner or intermediate level. 

There are several zones purpose-designed for little ones: with magic carpet lifts, bike-skiing and toboggan runs for kids or non-skiers.

More experienced skiers – and hundreds of snowboarders – head to the Sulayr Terrain Park, where there are well over 100 different ramps and rails, with the largest ski-jump in Europe.

The cool kids also hang out in the Loma de Dilar area, which boasts the biggest permanent half-pipe in Spain, with a cross country ski and snowboard run.

Snowboarders celebrate the opening of the Sierra Nevada slopes

And it’s not just the class skiing that keeps punters coming back, the nightlife and restaurants are second to none.

And the Sierra Nevada’s businesses are delighted to meet you, friendly down to earth businesses that do not mock their customers with ski-high prices. 

Try Nichi at Bar Ski for some apres-ski vibes of the highest calibre… his bar and the ones around it are perfect for a cheeky beer or glass of wine before heading to one of the nearby restaurants.

Looking for a bit of the high life, you will easily find yourself distracted by Marbella Club’s Sierra Nevada outposts, El Lodge, or its recently added sister Meribel, two sumptuous, high-end additions to the local scene.

These are the sort of top end places that rival anywhere in Ibiza or Cannes, and keep the wealthy expats on the Costa del Sol more than happy whether there is snow or not.

And you can easily get a slice of it (even a high-end pizza slice) for a lot less money than you might realise as their restaurants are open to everyone.

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