Austria’s ‘Classic’ Ski Resorts
North America has the acres of powder skiing through glades of trees or down extreme gullies. France has the convenience of its high-altitude purpose-built ski resorts. Switzerland caters ‘very-nicely-thank-you’ to those looking for a rather more exclusive experience in the mountains. Italy offers the more relaxed idea of food, wine and sunshine.
Austria likes to see itself as the beating heart of skiing.
World Cup races are televised and analysed in the same way as whatever recipe of football is popular in other countries. Children are groomed at special ski academies and make their way through a Darwinian series of age-based competitions: survival of the fittest and ablest skier.
And the country is home to some of the most legendary resorts in the world. Yes, there are more convenient or more modern or even more attractive resorts elsewhere these days. But ask a first-time visitor to Europe where he or she wants to ski and the odds are that at least a couple of the following resorts will be on the list:
St Anton am Arlberg
This historic town under the Arlberg pass between the Tyrol and the Vorarlberg was originally a stopping point on a trade route. Locals learnt to ski with the first ski club in the Alps, founded in 1901, and the Arlberg area still boasts of the technique developed by Hannes Schneider as a basis of the modern style of skiing.
The ski area, with cable cars rising into the mountains on both sides of the main town, stretches up to the Arlberg pass and the exclusive hamlet of St Christoph before descending to the picturesque village of Stuben.
The après-ski has also been notorious over the years. The famous refreshment stops on the afternoon home run are still there and it is possible to dance and drink the night away in all standards of bar and disco. But the main thing – and something that has always been the ethos of the resort – is that however hard you party, you still make it up the lift for the first powder tracks in the morning.
Verdict: St Anton is Austria’s classic resort for experienced skiers. Steep gullies, untouched expanses of powder or knee-busting bump runs – it’s all on offer if you are good enough to try.
An old mining town, Kitzbühel would be more likely these days to show sympathy with the mine-owners and their families. The resort is seen as a winter vacation destination for the German-speaking glitterati – whether Austrian cabinet minister or German soap actress – and increasingly as a welcoming bolthole for wealth Eastern Europeans.
But the town hasn’t lost its soul. The ski schools still offer their famously precise (and effective) advice to thousands of beginners from all levels of society every winter. And Austrian hearts and lungs all over the country work that little bit harder every winter when the traditional Hahnenkamm downhill ski race takes place. Nearly 50,000 spectators visit the event live and millions more follow the events on their televisions.
The ski area itself can now claim to be one of the largest in the world, with its links through to Kirchberg and Westendorf and eventually over to the equally sizeable Ski Welt area.
Verdict: Kitzbühel is the grande dame of Austria’s classic resorts with a historic town centre and luxury hotels, but still with the skiing scope and attraction to a range of budgets.
Zell am See
Zell am See is the picture-postcard winter resort – spectacular mountains behind a lakeside setting. The Romans were the first to realise its attractions and it maintained its popularity through the Austria’s Imperial era, with the resort being a favourite of the Emperors (and Empresses). Some of the grander hotels near the lake can date their foundation back to this time of popularity as a spa resort.
Skiing started back at the beginning of the 20th century – like many of the ‘classic’ resorts the local ski club was the impetus for development – and Zell am See has hosted World Cup downhill ski races over the years.
It has also carved out a profitable niche, helped by the wonderful scenery and easy access, in wedding tourism. Some visitors go so far as to use the chapel at the top of the Schmittenhöhe mountain for a blessing and then ski down in their finery!
Verdict: To be fair, the skiing of Zell am See doesn’t compare to the previous two locations (although it is perfectly adequate) but the stunning location, atmosphere and history put Zell am See into the ranks of Austria’s classic winter resorts.
This guest post has been written by Steve Rout, an ex-journalist and qualified ski instructor and mountain walking guide, who runs several travel and sports websites from his home in the Austrian Tyrol.