Skiing the Austrian Alps
Every year, our skiing fraternity does one of two things. It either rebooks previous travel and accommodation arrangements, usually without giving too much thought to alternatives (which it considers to be the ‘safe’ option), or it wrings its hands metaphorically and pins a tail on the donkey (thereby taking a ‘dangerous’ pot luck, which might work out fine). So many aspects
govern the choice of ski resort but there is hardly any doubt that Austria and the Tyrolean Alps can offer unparalleled quality of skiing in a complete package.
The country has performed a magnificent task of making North Americans appreciate the ‘value for money’ of its various resorts, which almost guarantees that you will hear plenty of Atlantic coastal accents around the streets and the tops of the runs. The fact is, most Austrian ski breaks can be enjoyed for several hundred dollars less than in the US homeland, mainly because all costs can be incorporated, an element not managed quite as well in the Rockies, or on Whistler Mountain, where I believe that some of the overheads can become budget-demolishing.
For me, as a family man, my heart resides in these mountains, because there is scarcely a ski fan around the globe that will not know of Austria’s renowned schools and its positive attitude towards ski education, from several angles. Very few resorts exist without first-class training facilities and, for the first-timer on the slopes, either children, or adults, the best way to avoid the
holiday wrecking falls is to take a few lessons. It works very well for the less seasoned vacationer, believe me.
Most resorts possess a charming back story, usually accompanied by genuine community spirit that has existed in Austria for aeons. Unlike many other ski locations, Austria seems to be blessed with some of the best weather conditions. When the skies are glowering, the wind is howling and the snow is falling, that is the best time to head into town. It will not last long and the blue skies and glorious sunshine return invariably to ensure the finest conditions in the snowfields. I have to tell you that this occurs like clockwork.
However, what matters most to ardent ski fans are the vertiginous qualities of the top runs. If you are seeking the best serviced blacks, then Austria must be your choice. At Slden, which is sited at a wonderful 4,500 feet, its highest lift-serviced run is at an eye-popping 10,700 feet, which means a vertical drop of just over 6,000 feet. St Anton’s respective figures are 4,300, 9,270 and an almost 5,000 feet drop, while even Innsbruck promises 1,900, 7,400 and 5,500 feet. It is the drop that makes the difference.
Austria is also famous for the traditional charm of its welcome, usually accompanied by mulled wine, or a snifter of Schnapps. While mixing alcohol with the slopes is definitely not recommended, the après-ski is truly splendid and I have never found fault with the
culinary delights either. However, another aspect seems to proliferate around the Austrian resorts. You might notice that I mentioned the ‘cleanliness and greenness’ of some of the Swiss venues, with an emphasis on the latter condition. In Austria, it is virtually a given and the entire environmental issue is just accepted and not reinforced at every opportunity, almost as though it simply does not need to be. There are no eco-evangelists preaching from every notice board in Austria.
Instead, it is the wellness factor of the individual that is highlighted and most Austrian resorts offer the full spa treatment, providing top-to-toe services that take fullest advantage of the stunning environments, plenty of natural remedies (with access to local herbs, plants and the purest of spring water), in a variety of hot and cold treatments. Of course, some of them can be a trifle expensive but, as a once a year treat, a little bit of pampering seldom goes amiss.
Of course, the main attraction is the snow and, if you enjoy powder skiing, making the occasional detour offpiste is strongly recommended. The main groomed runs feature packed powder. Austria also operates a very clear set of run-markers. Thanks to the valley locations of most resorts, which are usually surrounded by mountains, the majority of the runs start above the treeline, feeding down to the centres. All slopes feature mid-run markers and, wherever a lift station exists, you will find useful orientation maps that pinpoint the danger areas, show the locations of safety nets, rope barriers and each of the numbered runs. Wellness extends some way beyond the spas. However, if there is one defining factor about Austria, it is that it feels as if it resides in another time-zone, sometimes like a trip back to a more glorious period, which adds immensely to its overall appeal.
Austria ski facts:
Getting there: flying from any of London’s airports is possible. A typical Heathrow to Innsbruck flight costs around £156pp return (with BA), for 14 days, in mid to late-January. staying there: Package deals (perhaps with Crystal Ski Holidays - www.crystalski.co.uk) can cost from £1,655pp return (14 nights) in mid to late- January, in Slden. It is always going to be beneficial to book flights and accommodation together, as savings can be made. Some resorts are significantly better value for money (such as Innsbruck) than others. Fourteen nights for two in the Tyrolis Hotel, Innsbruck, will cost from £534pp inc. return flights from Gatwick (with Cooperative Travel).
Getting about: many Austrian resorts are already car-free zones. Watch out for that, as it might not always be advantageous. You can rely on excellent public transport services, which are often included with resort ‘passports’.