Skiing in Austria: Gold-medal travel

Fresh tracks, Lech. Farther up the valley than St. Anton, Lech provides a quiet alpine-village experience. If you want to exercise your mind and not just your body, take a break from the mountains and visit the historic city of Salzburg. Built into the side of a huge mountain - the Festungsberg - the medieval city was founded by bishops who made multiple fortunes exporting salt to the rest of Europe (hence the name Salzburg - "salt mountain").
Fresh tracks, Lech. Farther up the valley than St. Anton, Lech provides a quiet alpine-village experience. If you want to exercise your mind and not just your body, take a break from the mountains and visit the historic city of Salzburg. Built into the side of a huge mountain - the Festungsberg - the medieval city was founded by bishops who made multiple fortunes exporting salt to the rest of Europe (hence the name Salzburg - "salt mountain"). (MICHAELA URBAN)
Posted: January 27, 2014

ST. ANTON, Austria - In a remote alpine valley in western Austria, a local cheese farmer named Hannes Schneider opened a ski school in the 1920s. Soon people all over the world were learning his "Arlberg" technique, and modern skiing, as we know it, was born.

The Arlberg region, named after the mountain range that stretches between Vorarlberg and Tyrol in Austria, is more than just a ski destination, it's a pilgrimage to a holy land. This terrain is some of the most challenging in the world for skiing.

But what really separates the Arlberg region from North American ski destinations is authenticity. This is no Disneyland ski village cooked up by a marketing team; these restaurants, hotels, and ski huts were homes and hay barns long before "Arlberg" became common nomenclature among the international ski community. You feel it the very first time you step into Lech's 200-year-old mountain hut Hus No. 8, www.hus8.at, and feast on Rindsuppe and Käsespätzle.

The Arlberg region has two main ski resorts, Lech, www.lech-zuers.at, and St. Anton, www.stantonamarlberg.com, connected by a shuttle bus. One ski pass provides access to both resorts. Together they deliver 210 miles of trails serviced by 94 lifts, which is more acreage than you can explore in a week. You'll also find some of the best off-piste skiing in the world here. But unless you have the skills, gear, and experience, it's better to stick to the trails. This is serious extreme terrain, and avalanches are common (I saw three on my first day skiing).

As far as lodging goes, both towns have a wide variety of hotels and rates. If you're looking to party, St. Anton hosted the 2001 World Alpine Ski Championships and has a better club scene, whereas Lech, farther up the valley, provides a quiet alpine-village experience.

If you have some extra time in your schedule, just down the road are two of my favorite glacier resorts, Sölden, www.soelden.com, and Stubai, www.stubaier-gletscher.com. Both offer enormous ski acreage, and glaciers mean the snow is always good.

Sölden has a younger scene and the associated nightlife. Just stroll down the town's main drag and you have your pick of discos, hip restaurants, cafés, and groovy shops. And while it lacks some old Austrian ski-village charm, it more than makes up for it in relaxed fun and affordable hotels. It's also where many of the major World Cup ski teams train in early season, including the U.S. squad, so you just might be hoisting a beer next to Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn.

Make sure you pay a visit to the spa and wellness center the Aqua Dome, www.aqua-dome.at. This mega water world has three "suspended" heated outdoor futuristic bowl-shaped pools, with underwater music and light effects. You also have a choice of eight individually themed saunas and steam rooms, where you can relax in a hay stable, enjoy a beer Aufguss (sauna infusion), or cool down in a thundery mountain shower.

In contrast, the Stubai Valley is the perfect place for a family trip or a quiet romantic getaway. My favorite hotel is the Alpeiner Nature Resort, www.alpeiner.at. Decorated throughout in native spruce, the architect created the perfect balance between modern comfort and traditional feel (and the pool and sauna area almost rivals Aqua Dome, albeit smaller).

The neighboring town of Fulpmes has a wide selection of great restaurants that serve both modern and authentic Austria cuisine; my favorite is the Groebenhof, www.groebenhof.com. And a stroll through the twisty hilly streets of Fulpmes, through centuries of old Tyrolean architecture, is a perfect way to walk off your Wiener schnitzel.

The slopes of Stubai are as epic as one would expect from a first-class Austria resort. Home to the 1976 Winter Olympics, this is where Austrian Franz Klammer had his daredevil downhill run that won him a gold medal and made him a national hero.

When you're done knocking yourself out on the trails, don't hang up your snow pants, as you have to try out the massive sledding run at the Elfer mountain in Neustift, www.stubai.at. This moderately steep, fast track (serviced by a gondola) thunders along for five miles. But don't worry, you can stop at the "Zum Weber Luis" alpine hut on your way down and grab a sausage and a warm Glühwein (mulled wine) to build your courage and strength - you'll need it since, the last mile of the run is the steepest.

If you want to exercise your mind and not just your body, take a break from the mountains and visit the historic city of Salzburg. Built into the side of a huge mountain - the Festungsberg - this medieval city was founded by bishops who made multiple fortunes exporting salt to the rest of Europe (hence the name Salzburg - "salt mountain"). Much of this money was spent building the extravagant and beautiful Romanesque and Gothic churches that are ubiquitous here. The alleys and narrow cobblestone streets that wind in and out through ancient city walls are a wonder to explore.

For lunch, stop in the Eulenspeigel, www.zum-eulenspiegel.at, a 680-year-old family-run restaurant with a gingerbread-house exterior. Inside you climb a twisty, steep wooden stairway that delivers you to a unique collection of intimate dining rooms. The restaurant offers amazing traditional cuisine using fresh-caught fish, herbs, eggs, and fruit and vegetables grown on the Eulenspiegel family's farm.

Of course, one of the more popular attractions in Salzburg is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birthplace "Hagenauer House" at Getreidegasse 9, and the home where he spent most of his adult years "Tanzmeisterhaus" at Makartplatz 8, www.mozarteum.at. If you want to make it a full Mozart day, check out a Mozart Dinner Concert, www.stpeter-stiftskeller.at, next to St. Peter's Abbey, where his Mass in C minor was first performed in 1789 (his wife, Constanze, sang one of the soprano roles).

You should also take the tram ride to the millennium-old Hohensalzburg Castle, www.hohensalzburgcastle.com, atop the Festungsberg and tour the castle's many rooms and museums. The view of the surrounding mountains and the lazy Salzach River that winds its way through this magnificent valley is worth the ticket price. If you look carefully, you can even see the Trappe estate, immortalized in The Sound of Music.

Munich has the largest selection of direct flights to the region and is also a great city to explore. Rife with world-class museums, historic churches, and other cultural wonders, it is worth spending a day or two there. I saw Hansel and Gretel performed by the Bavarian State Opera, www.bayerische.staatsoper.de, on my last trip and it was one of the high points of my vacation.

Traveling in Austria is best done by train. It's not only economical, safe, relaxing, and sensible, but it adds to the romance of the experience. And that's what Austria is all about: the experience. You can find good skiing all over the world, but no place can deliver the kind of culture and history that you'll find here. Just remember to take a few days off the slopes. Austria is so much more than just another ski destination.


traveltalk@phillynews.com

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|