|Photo by Freeimages.com/M. Me.|
The Daily Telegraph, February 18, 2016
The prospect of French mega resorts like Courchevel and Val d'Isère being overshadowed by Kitzbühel and St Anton may seem preposterous. But back in the Seventies, when skis were thin and straight and Austria's Franz Klammer ruled the downhill courses of the world, the majority of British wintersports fans went to the Tirol and Salzburgerland. Then the French began creating giant linked resort areas with doorstep slopes, prompting the British to migrate en masse to the likes of La Plagne, Les Arcs and Tignes.
The slow, but steady, switch back is down to cost: Austria now represents better value for money than the most popular resorts of the French Alps. Everything from basic holiday costs to lift pass, ski school, eating out and partying usually costs less. Moreover, the standard of service is higher in Austria, the welcome is warmer, and lift systems are no less sophisticated.
If you rejoice in difficult black runs, steep couloirs and other classic high Alpine terrain, France and Switzerland will always hold the edge. However, for the rest of us, this may well be the season to give overlooked Austria another try. Here's where to go, by category.
Unless stated otherwise prices are per person for seven nights in the cheapest available week. Prices include flights, transfers, and half-board accommodation and are based on two people sharing a double or twin room
Best for beginners
Complete beginners really don't need the complexity of a large resort, so a novice’s visit to this Tirolean chocolate-box with oodles of atmosphere – it regularly wins prizes as the prettiest village in Austria – should result in a lifetime of piste enthusiasm. While the ski area is now linked to that of Auffach in the neighbouring Wildschönau Valley, Alpbach itself, only a 40-minute drive from Innsbruck airport, has remained remarkably unchanged down the years. The only difference is that intermediates who might otherwise have moved on to pastures new now have the incentive to return to explore the respectable 145km of slopes served by 47 lifts in the two valleys.
Alpbach has a special relationship with the British that began more than 50 years ago when a Major Billy Patterson came here on leave from his army base in Germany and enjoyed the pistes and the pubs. He told his army friends in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) and they told others. Thousands of British have since learnt the basics here and many return year after year. British regimental ski teams still train here.
The single nursery slope in the village centre is ideal for practising snowplough turns after lessons, but the main ski area is a five-minute bus, then a gondola, away. Of the two ski schools in the resort, Alpbach-Inner Alpbach ( skischule-alpach.at ) is the original learning establishment, while Alpbach Aktiv ( alpbach-aktiv.com ) also has a fine reputation.
Where to stay
Hotel zur Post is an ancient three-star hostelry that has been at the core of village life for over a century. The bar is favoured by the locals and has an unpretentious restaurant that serves traditional cuisine. From £749, Inghams ( inghams.co.uk ).
Alternatives Niederau in the neighbouring Wildschönau valley (wildschoenau.com) has similar small-village appeal along with Kühtai (kuehtai.info) near Innsbruck.
Six-day lift pass €211.50
More info alpbachtal.at
Best for intermediates
Saalbach has some excellent groomers for intermediates
Saalbach and neighbouring Hinterglemm are a 90-minute drive from Salzburg airport and share one of the most sophisticated lift systems in Austria.
Saalbach is the larger of the two villages and has a charming centre with traditional cafés, bars, designer clothing boutiques and a clutch of smart four-star hotels. Hinterglemm is an altogether more peaceful proposition and better for families.
The two villages are at the centre of a magical ring of 2,000m peaks. These form a natural circuit of pistes that can be navigated in either direction to give adventurous intermediates a sense they are actually going somewhere each day - 55 lifts give access to a respectable 200km of pistes. The area is also linked to the village of Leogang ( saalfelden-leogang.com ).
Unlike a lot of circuits suited to intermediates, this one doesn't have to be completed in one go. Since, if you get tired, you can simply descend to the valley floor and take the free ski bus home in time for the après – busy in Hinterglemm and riotous in Saalbach itself.
Where to stay
Chalet-hotel Christina sleeps 26 and is a four-minute walk from the nearest lift. It’s also well-positioned for nightlife. The Christina has been extensively renovated in recent years and now boasts the same Yorkshire-made beds as supplied to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kensington Palace.
From £644, Ski Miquel ( skimiquelholidays.co.uk ).
Alternatives Ellmau ( wilderkaiser.info ) is a pleasant little village in the heart of the SkiWelt, Austria’s largest interconnected ski area. Bad Gastein ( gastein.com ) in Salzburgerland has 220km of linked intermediate runs.
Six-day lift pass €233
More info saalbach.com
Best for advanced
The ability to handle the slopes like a god and the bar like the devil makes or breaks your stay in what can be regarded as one of the top resorts in Europe for serious skiers and riders.
The core of the village is just one main street – pedestrianised during the day – lined with some fine, old hotels and inns, sport shops and cafés. St Anton used to be bisected by the main trans-European railway, which you had to cross in order to reach the ski area, but the line was moved to the valley side of town in 2001.
The village is situated at 1,305m and the Valluga, the highest lift, is at 2,810m. In between lie an array of runs that vary from the moderately demanding to the just plain wicked – with waist high moguls to boot. This is not a place for the faint-hearted. A blue slope here might well be classified dark red in a lesser resort. But if you are the kind of person who feels confident on steepish intermediate runs and is game to go black, you are going to have an awful lot of fun here.
Snow cover is usually reliable and the main action takes place on the Valluga side of the village, on and above the slopes of the Gampen and Galzig sectors. The Rendl ski area on the other side of the valley is more benign (and sunnier). Less accomplished members in the group can always take the ski bus to the altogether more friendly slopes of Lech and Zürs included in the regional Arlberg lift pass – in all, the pass covers 340km of slopes. But be sure to return in time for the evening action. St Anton is as serious about its raucous nightlife as it is about its skiing.
The off-piste offered by the ski area as a whole is one of the major attractions and an excursion to Zürs off the back of the Valluga is a must for any expert skier. Its hype is worse than its bite but what gets the adrenalin flowing is the fact that anyone carrying skis is only allowed up the final cable car to the 2,811m summit if accompanied by a guide. British-run Piste to Powder ( pistetopowder.com ) offers expert guiding and off-piste tuition.
Where to stay
Montjola is a four-star chalet-hotel located in a peaceful position, away from the hoots and howls of the après. It does not have direct access to the slopes, but operator VIP runs an efficient shuttle service from 8am to 8pm. The walk down takes around four minutes and it's double that to climb up from the piste or nightlife. From £899, VIP ( vip-chalets.com ).
Alternatives Zürs ( lechzuers.com ) on the Flexenpass above Lech has plenty of challenges both on and off-piste as does Ischgl ( ischgl.com ).
Six-day lift pass €245
More info stantonamarlberg.com
Best for snow reliability
The Tiefenbachkogl viewing platform at 3,307m, above Sölden Photo: Tirol Werbung
Sölden offers high-altitude, intermediate-friendly slopes in the same Otz valley as Obergurgl. within less than an hour's drive of Innsbruck. The two notable differences being Sölden’s nightlife – which is younger and wilder than that of its more conservative neighbour – and the lack of British holidaymakers.
Sölden is not the prettiest resort, stretching for 2km with hotels and shops dotted about the main valley road with no real centre. But the slopes are much more extensive than the statistics (33 lifts and 144km of piste) suggest. This is largely because the three mountains above are well connected, without any annoying paths between them. An eight-person gondola takes you up the 3,050m Gaislachkogel. Most of the pistes are intermediate, but there are lots of off-piste opportunities.
Sölden's record for reliable snow stems from the two glaciers linked into the ski area, the Rettenbach and the Tiefenbach, and its season continues for most of the year. The ski area closes at the beginning of May, but reopens for summer in June. Apart from a few weeks’ closure in September for maintenance, it remains open in the autumn and into winter, provided snow conditions are satisfactory.
Where to stay
Four-star Hotel Erhart is a five-minute walk from the main Gaislachkogel gondola. It's a contemporary hotel in a quiet location with its own spa and free entry to the pool at the nearby Freizeit arena.
From £755, Crystal ( crystalski.co.uk )
Alternatives Obertauern ( obertauern.com ) is Austria’s best shot at a purpose-built resort with a strong reputation for reliable cover throughout a long season. Hintertux ( hintertuxergletscher.at ), at the end of the Zillertal, is a high glacier resort that remains open throughout the year.
Six-day lift pass €253,50
More info soelden.com
Best for charm and romance
Watching the annual Hahnenkamm, the toughest of all downhill ski races, held in late January, takes your breath away. At one point, the course plunges away at an angle of 85°.
The funny thing is: the Hahnenkamm isn't really what Kitzbühel is about. This former medieval mining town, set against the beautiful backdrop of the Wilder Kaiser mountains, is actually one of the softies of the Alpine world. Its slopes are, for the most part, flattering rather than frightening. Even the notorious Streif racecourse, the venue for the Hahnenkamm, becomes a Familienabfahrt – a family run – once the World Cup circus has left town.
The local slopes are divided into two separate areas – the Kitzbüheler Horn and the much more extensive Hahnenkamm. And apart from its own 170km and 51 lifts in the local area, Kitzbühel links (by a short bus ride) to the 280km and 91 lifts of the Skiwelt area, which includes Westendorf and Söll. The distance you can travel in a day is limited only by the hours the lifts are open. Kitzbühel has its own lift pass separate from the Skiwelt pass, while a 10-resort Kitzbühel Alps AllstarCard (six days from €241) covers both.
The medieval town with its heavily buttressed walls and delicate painted frescoes is one of the most beautiful in of Austria. It is also one of those rare resorts that genuinely appeals to non-skiers. Its pretty, pedestrianised streets are lined with luxury hotels, upmarket boutiques and cafes. There is also a wonderful choice of four-star and five-star hotels.
Where to stay
The four-star Schwarzer Adler is among the best of the resort's accommodation – an old Tirolean inn converted into a contemporary hotel complete with spa. From £1069, Inghams ( inghams.co.uk ).
Alternatives Lech ( lech-zuers.com ) is Austria’s smartest ski destination, but it still retains much of the atmosphere of the farming village that it once was. Seefeld ( seefeld.com ), set on a wooded plateau 25 minutes from Innsbruck, has limited alpine skiing. But cross-country skiing, curling, and sleigh rides are the popular alternatives for those who holiday in comfort in a range of sophisticated four and five-star hotels.
Snowmaking 820 guns
Six-day lift pass €241
More info kitzbuehel.com
Best for partying
Ischgl as a party resort matches any in the Alps Photo: TVB Paznaun/Ischgl
Ischgl is often overlooked by the British – which is surprising, given its full-throttle nightlife and high-quality intermediate pistes.
It’s famed for its opening and closing parties that host some of the world’s most celebrated artists. Robbie Williams attracted a capacity crowd of 25,000 for a mountain top gig in May 2014 and James Blunt is tipped to kick off the coming season in December. The concerts started with Elton John in 1994 and have since featured an array of A-list celebrity singers, including Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Sting, Bon Jovi, Deep Purple, The Killers, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey and Kylie Minogue.
Ischgl is an old farming village that has developed over the years into a sophisticated tourist centre, with a collection of smart hotels and cavernous bars. It's a paradoxical place. The accommodation is mostly upmarket and more expensive than in many resorts. The clientele tends to be at least 10 years older than the twentysomethings who pack into the Mooserwirt on the slopes above St Anton. But that doesn't stop the Ischgl crowd from climbing on the tables and partying as if it were their last day on Earth.
If you like your après as much as the pistes, and think you might be too past it for St Anton, then put Ischgl on your hit-list.
From 3.30pm, the atmosphere in the village and at the foot of the pistes is electric. It's also wonderfully good-natured. If all you've ever known is the surly swirl of the average British pub on a Friday night, you are in for a pleasant surprise.
With 238km of pistes to explore – the area is linked to Samnaun in Switzerland – the slopes suits all standards and the lift system is constantly being updated. A new mountain access gondola this winter will greatly improve uphill capacity.
Where to stay
Four-star ChaletHotel Abendrot is close to the resort centre but tucked away from the noisy main drag. From £519, Ski Total ( skitotal.com ).
Alternatives St Anton ( stantonamarlberg.com ) and Saalbach ( saalbach.com ). At both the party begins in huts on the slopes long before the lifts close for the day.
Snowmaking 1,200 guns
Six-day lift pass €226
More info ischgl.com
Best for families
If you're taking young children to the Alps, the ideal is guaranteed snow cover at village level throughout a long season so that a holiday is possible either pre-Christmas or towards the end of April after Easter. At 1,930m, very high for a resort at the eastern end of the Alps, Obergurgl happily obliges.
A short transfer and a low-risk environment is also preferable. This traditional village is set around a fine church, an easy one-hour drive from Innsbruck. There's no through traffic and the ambience is essentially family-friendly.
The resort attracts a loyal band of regulars, who love its low-key atmosphere and well-run, traditional hotels and scattering of chalets.
The drawback is an undersized ski area, which can irritate those looking for endless action on groomers. It’s linked by lift to higher Hochgurgl, but together they still only offer 110km and 24 lifts. The off-piste in Obergurgl is good and the spring touring opportunities are renowned.
Obergurgl Ski School (skischule-obergurgl.com) has been teaching the basics to children and adults since 1922. Hochgurgl Ski School (schischule-hochgurgl.com) has less of a pedigree, but a strong reputation. Most instructors speak reasonable English, but, don’t expert to learn cutting edge technique.
Where to stay
Chalet Verwall sleeps 34 guests in family suites and offers the full range of childcare/instruction. It’s located just off the main village street and you can hit the slopes 30m from the door to a gondola and the ski school meeting place. From £699, Ski Esprit ( espritski.com )
Alternatives Alpbach ( alpbach.at ) and Westendorf ( westendorf.net ) both offer good dedicated nursery slopes and ski schools that have been teaching British skiers for generations.
Six-day lift pass €253
More info obergurgl.com
Best for terrain parks
Mayrhofen is part of the larger Zillertaler Superskipass ski area
This once-traditional village in the Zillertal was one of the original migration points for British skiers in the Seventies, and its allure has never faded. These days it's equally popular with snowboarders.
Many, both riders and skiers, are drawn to one of Austria's most highly-rated terrain parks, as well as wide, open slopes above the tree line that are heaven for powder hounds after a fresh snowfall.
The Vans Penken park is divided into six areas and served by its own quad chairlift, and features include the huge Rainbow Box and the massive, multi-faceted Beastbox multi-jib. The Kids Park also has its own lift.
The local area has 159km of pistes - but that’s just a fraction of what's on offer in the region. The ski area's lift pass, the Zillertaler Superskipass, gives access to a mighty 487km of pistes in the valley, served by 178 lifts.
Après is manic here. The Dutch tend to lead the way at bars on the mountain, long before the lifts close for the day. The action then switches to the Ice Bar next to the bottom gondola station. Between 5pm and 8pm, the place goes completely wild.
Each April Mayrhofen plays host to Snowbombing ( snowbombing.com ), a sort of Glastonbury-on-snow, complete with live bands, djs and ski and snowboard comps. The week-long festival acts as a major boost to accommodation and lift pass sales.
Where to stay Hotel Kramerwirt is a traditional inn run for generations by the Kröll family. The building dates back to the 17th century and the half-board food here is particularly good. From £750, Neilson ( neilson.co.uk ).
Alternatives Nordkette, Innsbruck ( nordkette.com ), and Ischgl ( ischgl.com ) both have great terrain parks along with the Pitztal glacier ( pitztaler-gletscher.at ).
Six-day lift pass €230,50
More info mayrhofen.at
Best for value
It's not difficult to find low-cost in Austria, if you're prepared to compromise on either the quality or quantity of the slopes. There are dozens of small villages with loads of charm, but limited terrain and lift systems. Yet Söll has so much more to offer: the largest ski area in Austria, plus plenty of budget accommodation.
It is the unofficial capital of the SkiWelt, a dozen villages with linked and 280km of largely intermediate pistes and 91 lifts. If that's not enough, the region is directly linked through Westendorf and Kirchberg to Kitzbühel. This adds another 54 lifts and 168km to the tally, though on a separate lift pass.
A decade ago Söll was best-known for its raucous laddish nightlife. But with the highest density of hotel beds in the region, it is now trying to appeal to a much wider clientele, including families. Nevertheless, it is best suited to those who want to attack the slopes with gusto or party – or both.
The traditional Tirolean village with its onion-domed church is set in the middle of a wide valley. The slopes are a kilometre away and best reached by ski bus.
Where to stay A chalet holiday is the best way of cutting all the extra costs of food and drink – essential or otherwise – to a minimum. Three-star Mounty is a no-frills chalet sleeping 45 in the main building and adjoining annexe. It is situated an eight-minute walk from the resort centre and 100m from a ski bus stop. From £489, Crystal ( crystalski.co.uk ).
Alternatives St Johann-in-Tirol ( kitzbueheler-alpen.com ) and Kühtai ( kuehtai.info ) have a good choice of budget accommodation.
Six-day lift pass €225
Best for weekends
You can be in the mountains within an hour after landing in Innsbruck Photo: Innsbruck Tourismus
Finding a hotel in the Alps that will take bookings of less than a week is not always easy. Not so in Innsbruck, with its huge choice of city accommodation. This is one of Austria’s most beautiful cities, boasting a medieval old town of narrow cobbled streets and colourful buildings along the banks of the River Inn.
Apart from being the capital of the Tirol, Innsbruck is a ski resort in its own right – and one with considerable charm and fine restaurants. You can be on the slopes within an hour of leaving the airport as the Nordkette ski area is reached by a funicular and a cable car from the city in 20 minutes
The local lift pass covers 250km of piste in nine nearby ski areas such as Axamer Lizum, Neustift and the Stubai Glacier as well as Igls and the Patscherkofel. They are all easily reached by free ski bus.
Where to stay
The four-star Hotel Alpinpark is comfortable and conveniently situated in the city centre and the ski bus stops outside the door.
From £450 for a four night break from Thursday to Monday. Ski Weekends ( skiweekends.com ).
Alternatives Ski Weekends also offers Zell-am-See ( zellamsee-kaprun.com ), Fugen ( zillertal.at/en/winter/fuegen-kaltenbach/ ), and St Anton ( stantonamarlberg.com ) as suitable for short winter getaways.
Six-day lift pass €209
More info innsbruck.info
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