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City ski break: Granada & Sierra Nevada

Skiing just off the Costa? Few British travellers know that beyond the Moorish wonders of Granada and the beaches of Málaga, Spain’s highest ski resort offers world-class pistes and, on a clear day, views across to North Africa’s Atlas Mountains

City ski break: Granada & Sierra Nevada
Image: Getty

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Didn’t the other passengers on my flight to Málaga know that one of Europe’s highest ski destinations is less than two hours’ drive away from the Costa del Sol? It didn’t seem so. They were all dressed in shorts and T-shirts, ready for the beach, whilst I was ready for the snow.

I wanted a family ski break with a difference, and as the Alps tend to get rather packed out in peak school holidays, I’d looked further afield to Spain. The southern Spanish province of Andalucía is not on the map for most British skiers — despite the fact the ski resort of Sierra Nevada hosted the Alpine World Championships in 1996 and the Freestyle World Championships in 2017 — but I managed to persuade my family that a ski holiday combined with a city stay was a good alternative to the Alps or indeed the Spanish Pyrenees. And once we’d established that this would involve the medieval city of Granada with the chance to visit its UNESCO World Heritage Site, Alhambra, and a quick trip to the beaches of the Costa, the deal didn’t need sweetening any further.

The one-and-half-hours’ drive from Málaga to Granada saw temperatures plummet as we rose into the hinterland away from the coast. From 19C, down to less than five in Granada — a good omen for snow in the mountains above. Gateway to the majestic Sierra Nevada range that dominates Spain’s vast olive groves from Jaén in the north and to Seville in the west, we had allotted one full day to explore Granada. The obvious focus is the Alhambra, a fortress above the city with a long history that dates back to AD889 but saw a heyday with the arrival of the Arabic Moors in the mid-13th century. At first, I struggled to enthuse myself as the theme park-style entrance took a gloss off the charm, but I was soon enveloped in the warmth of the buildings, the majesty of the numerous inner palaces — all with their own unique fragrances (sweet orange blossom, heady jasmine…), and earthy colours, united by tranquil channels of water which run through the citadel, breathing life into the ancient stone, brick and tile.

Into the hills

The drive up to Sierra Nevada — the ski resort named after the mountain range it sits on — takes around forty minutes from the heart of Granada. I like the moonscape feel and sense of space that’s found high up above the plains. The resort’s modern architecture and the extensive lift system a smart juxtaposition against the isolation of this huge rock system that includes mainland Spain’s highest peaks (Mulhacén at 11,413ft). The village itself is pretty high — at 6,890ft with lifts going up to 10,770ft — and I can feel it in the crisp-cold air: a sign that the snow is in great condition… and that there’s lots of it.

Spain has three main mountain ranges where winter sports are possible. The best-known Pyrenees, in the far north, provides the most extensive choice of slopes with the upmarket Baqueira Beret sitting at the pinnacle of the country’s ski resort offering. But several other resorts including Formigal and La Molina ensure Spain’s prominence as a major ski destination that attracts international clientele, and like much of the Pyrenees, their snow record is excellent, benefitting from storms that cross the Atlantic full of moisture.

In the centre of the country, close to the capital Madrid, two resorts (Valdesquí and Puerto Navacerrada) cater mostly for the local population but aren’t a bad for a day trip. In the far south, the Sierra Nevada is almost as little-known but is a world-class ski area. It’s not only the highest ski area in Spain, but also one of the largest, with 128 ski runs offering over 70 miles of piste served by 21 lifts, plus plenty of hotels, apartments and restaurants and 15 ski schools including a fully English-speaking operation, the British Ski Centre.

We’re straight out into the thick of it, ascending the mountain via cable car and chairlift, with the vein-like system of ski runs, mostly blue and red winding their way down the huge vertical of 4,000ft. I’m mesmerised by the unfolding panorama below. Unlike the Alps, views here sweep away for hundreds of miles and when I finally make it right to the top, I catch a fleeting glimpse of the Mediterranean and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco beyond.

Despite its reliable snow record, the resort gets a lot of sunshine too with more than 80% of winter days listed as being ‘sunny’. Quite frankly, who needs the beach?

Three days skiing just isn’t enough for me, but after caving to family pressure, as I sit on the beach in Málaga for the last two days of this unique city, sand and ski experience, I have to admit that the combination works perfectly for a balanced family holiday. As the sun sets over the Arabic castle in Málaga, we all agree that we want just a little Moor of the taste of Spain.

How to do it

Ski Weekends offers packages to the Sierra Nevada with flexible options that allow time for a city stay in Granada and on the beach in or around Málaga. From £489 per person including return flights, airport transfers, three nights’ B&B in the four-star Melia Sol Y Nieve, Sierra Nevada.

Published in the Winter Sports supplement, distributed with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)