Give it a try if… The ski resort of your dreams combines organized, modern and polite services with a touch of old-fashioned charm and childlike naiveté.
Steer clear if… You would not let anyone question the superiority of French ski resorts. Including yourself.
I grew up skiing in Italy since I was five, took a much-regretted long break, then saw the light again 7 years ago; swallowed a few frozen tapas in Andorra, subsequently developed a love/hate “thing” with the French Alps. Last year I gave Austria a try, and surrendered to its magic. Skiing there does have certain drawbacks, and so many things about France make it a cool destination; I do not mean to push a black/white view of these countries, especially since I have so much of both left to explore. But as for my heart, only one of the two has made it melt on the whole – and it is not governed by a short guy with a patent inferiority complex. So here are some general tips about the Austrian Alps, to be followed by specific reports on the places I have visited this season.
So far I have only skied in Austria from the end of february to the first half of March, so I cannot comment on other periods. Even though skiers scatter quite widely in this country’s numerous resorts, if you pick one of the most popular places (St. Anton, Ischgl, Kitzbuehel…) in high season you might find a bit of a crowd. If you can, slalom your way through Austrian school holidays (which vary according to the region), Carnival (Fasching) and most of all, Dutch school holidays. Why on Earth, you ask? Well, try and pick one of these two weeks and you will be overwhelmed by an avalanche of lively, colourful and generally unrestrained visitors from Holland: great to hang out with, a bit less to ski among.
Do the Locomotion
A wonderful thing about Austrian ski resorts is that most of them have a train station, or are otherwise well connected with the national rail network, which I have found modern, reliable, squeaky clean and not too expensive. This means you can fly to the cheapest airport in the area, including Munich in Germany or Zurich in Switzerland, and reach your final destination by train – adding a short final bus ride at worst, or even an improvised shared taxi ride (possibly cheaper than you think). Keep in mind that train tickets bought 3 days in advance, e.g. online, can be a lot (even 50%) cheaper.
Heaven Bound Cable-Car
Most Austrian resorts I have visited so far are pretty different from the largest French ones: you lodge in a smalltown or a village at medium altitude (800-1200m), and every morning you take a cable-car towards the skiing area. There are usually 1-3 of such access points for each resort, and you want to inform yourself about the less crowded ones. This will be quite useful in Ischgl or Mayrhofen, for instance, since the crowd tends to reach the slopes on the same cable-car – read long queues and a lot of elbowing, if you are not there as soon as it starts running. Unless you are willing and able to pay a premium price to lodge near one of these access points (or even in a fancy ski-in, ski-out chalet) you might save some money by staying a bit further away.
The Almighty SkiBus
Just one week on the Austrian Alps, and you will realize how many things revolve around Its Royal Majesty the SkiBus. These buses are free, rather frequent, and they will grant you freedom of movement in the absence of a car. If you choose the “further away” lodging option, for instance, you might find yourself in a so-called village which is nothing more than three chalets, a yawning dog and a bench; no worries, just see it as your campus dorm and find everything else you need a few bus stops away. Also, many Austrian resorts (e.g. the Kitzbüheler Alpen or Ski amadé) have a providential partnership whereby the same skipass grants you access to several resorts, interconnected – sometimes exclusively – by… you guessed it: the Almighty SkiBus.
Four critical SkiBus caveats: (1) Carefully check the distance between your chalet/hotel and the SkiBus stop. Most landlords will obviously claim it’s “two minutes away”, but I advise you to double-check, especially since you will mostly cover that distance in your ski boots; (2) There are multiple SkiBus lines in many resorts, sometimes counterintuitively arranged; so if you stay near a SkiBus stop, it does not mean you will easily reach every other stop in the area – a bit of early investigation might save you a lot of time once you are there; (3) Some resorts have a free SkiBus line and a paying “PostBus” line; being generally less crowded, the latter might be a convenient alternative during peak weeks and hours; (4) Finally, its royal status notwithstanding, you’d better not place unrealistic trust in the SkiBus. Sometimes it might be too crowded, less frequent or otherwise less convenient than you think. Accept that your dependence on it might somewhat reduce your skiing time, but the rest will more than compensate this minor flaw.
The Mingling Department
Ah, the people you will meet during your Austrian holidays! I have found many of them to share the same combination of industriousness and naiveté that makes their resorts stand out. Between a schnapps and a smile, it won’t be hard for them to find their way to your heart. Since most businesses are local, you might be surprised at the down-to-earthedness of it all – especially in a brand-ridden environment like the world of skiing. Please consider that many of the people you relate to live in these same areas all year round, so do your job, let them do theirs and avoid creasing the social fabric. One of the very few downsides: many chalets are run by families who live on the premises and close shop at 9pm, then imperiously safeguard their privacy – so you’d better not have any kind of problems during the curfew, or wish to make even the slightest noise. Personally I have found this too restraining: guests are there on holidays after all, and as convenient as it is for locals, their natural appetite for fun should not be confined to the famous après-ski joints.
Hungry like the Wolf
I honestly would not compare the Austrian Alps to France’s gourmet heaven, but you will certainly appreciate the local cuisine – and so will your wallet (on-piste lunches cost an average of 10-15€ per person). Portions are generous, calories abound and alcohol flows generously in this land of Cockaigne: if you see someone having lunch at 11/12am on the slopes, they are just farsighted veterans wishing to digest before bedtime. As far as specialties are concerned, you might have heard of the legendary Wiener Schnitzel (a breaded veal, originally, or most commonly pork cutlet on a bed of French fries with a salad and an oddly befitting berry jam on the side); after eating so many that I had to bear the disgrace of being sued by my own liver, I can sadly confirm they are mostly disappointing in the resorts I have visited (except for a couple of mountain huts in Mayrhofen). Rather than embarking on this quest for the Holy Grail, opt for other delicatessen like the Käsespaetzle, a local soft pasta mixed with tasty cheese and sometimes sprinkled with a kiss-me-not dose of roasted onions, or the reliable goulasch soup. Save some room – actually, a lot – for desserts: once you try the Kaiserschmarrn (a sort of chopped pancake with icing sugar and jam on the side) you might as well choose to turn it into a one-dish meal. If you are looking for a double meal instead, go for the Germknodel and… <Burp> luck!
Happy Consumer Reporting
A pleasant surprise: if you self-cater in Austrian resorts, you will easily find grocery stores and other shops with everything you might need – at sea-level prices. Focus on local products to appreciate their superior quality. Among the treats you do not want to miss are Manner hazelnut wafers and a national treasure like Almdudler, a sparkling herbal lemonade with wonderful taste and brand image that would deserve to pinch global leadership from Coke. Oh, and in most supermarkets (which often close at 6pm, by the way) you will find affordable organic products. Health health health, darling… Need I say more? Start dreaming about next season and get ready to fall in love with this country.
UPS Score (Utmost Perfection Scale): 9/10 + wow!