An under-the-radar Austrian oasis offers some of the best skiing and snowboarding on the planet.
“We don’t measure our ski areas in acres but in square miles,” said my guide, an American transplant from Seattle who came to Austria to ski 20 years ago and never left.
I’m in the Tyrol – the postcard-perfect region of western Austria – on a week-long snowboard safari to see if the Austrian Alps are as good as I’ve heard.
Living in the American West and accustomed to the powdery dry snow of Utah and generous vertical, I’m a bit spoiled and, admittedly, a bit suspicious of the Euroglam “seen and be seen” ski scene. I like a colorful ambience and creature comforts, but what matters most to me is the mountain – the terrain, the conditions, the accessibility. Everything else is secondary. I avoid the Aspens and St. Moritzs for places where the core focus is the skiing, not après-ski.
With more than two days in St. Anton’s Sölden and Innsbruck areas, I’m confident I’ll get a healthy taste of what’s on offer. Besides, a good time in Austria is all but guaranteed. The country lacks the pretense and prices of, say, Switzerland, and is renowned for its true-grit Germanic atmosphere and breathtaking beauty.
After all, this is where Ernest Hemingway came to ski (Schruns) and where Ian Fleming learned to ski (Kitzbühel). So if it’s good enough for those guys…
Standing atop the mountain with my American guide, he begins to explain just how massive this place is by gesturing to the various villages and towns that can be accessed from the slopes.
“Over that mountain is Lech, in that valley is Zürs, over there is Stuben, back this way is St. Anton,” etc. “All the ski areas are interconnected, all the towns can be skied to, all are accessible by the lift system, and, in case you’re too tired or it’s too late in the day, all can be reached by a shuttle bus.”
And get this: the cost of admittance to ski nirvana is just €55— less than $63!
Compared to the $135 lift ticket at Snowbird in northern Utah, for example, which includes the mandatory upsell to the single tram, I ask smugly, “How much is a ticket that includes access to all the high-speed gondolas?”
“Fifty-five euros,” he says. Still expecting some kind of catch, I ask, “OK, how much is a ticket if I want to ski over to the other areas and then take the shuttle bus back in the evening?”
“Fifty-five euros, and the bus is free” he says.
I’m stunned. All of this – more than double and even triple the size of many famous American ski resorts – at half the price.
There are no compromises either. The snow conditions are fantastic (I got treated to both fresh powder and groomed corduroy), the vertical drop is enormous (I did 16 vertical miles in one day), the variety of runs is impressive (huge selection of all levels), and the efficient lift system – in addition to the ticket price – is superior.
And it’s not just here, it’s like this at most of the places I went, particularly in the St. Anton and Sölden areas. If that weren’t enough, over in the latter there’s the added benefit of skiing down not one, but two glaciers.
As a snowboarder, I love to carve the bowls and expansive glades. Austria is the jackpot. While elevations in the Alps are much lower than they are in the Rockies (a big benefit to you coastal living folks), the tree line is significantly lower so just about everything is wide open.
And despite my skepticism, as if to say, “I told you so,” the ambience and whole experience is incredible. The après ski scene, the hotels and inns, the gourmet food, the centuries-old culture and, yes, those fun-to-stare-at Euros in their designer gear, make for an amazing combination. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I had this much “holistic” fun on a ski trip.
To illustrate this point (and brag a little), I stayed at a modern thermal spa hotel in the Ötztal Valley with massive elevated hot swimming pools that look like human cauldrons and something straight out of a sci-fi movie. It also comes with an entire level of spa facilities where nudity is mandatory, or what the lovely hotel manager referred to, with no hint of guile on her face, as “the naked floor.”
Just up the road in Sölden is where the most recent James Bond movie, Spectre, was filmed and where the newly opened 007 Elements is located. Looking like a proper villain’s lair from the Fleming novels, I board down to the restaurant for lunch. Instead of finding the notorious fare available at most American ski lodges, the food here and at all the places I experience is epicurean.
Like Hemingway wrote when he skied in Austria, “The grub is excellent and there is good wine and 30 kinds of beer.”
Across the valley is Obergurgl-Hochgurgl ski area, which borders Italy and affords views all the way to the jagged Dolomites. I stayed at an upscale chalet hotel in the traditional style, where every square inch from floor to ceiling is covered in wood paneling and adorned with some animal or plant from the Alps.
These two hotels and ski areas, not to mention their respective picturesque towns, are just a few miles apart in the same narrow valley. In their own way, each represents a superb blend of traditional and contemporary experiences.
So, yeah, like my American guide in St. Anton, I’m now one of the converted. It’s true what everyone has been saying – the Tyrol offers some of the best skiing and snowboarding anywhere in the world.
It’s surprisingly accessible too. There are direct flights from all major US cities to either Munich or Zurich, followed by a scenic two-hour car or train ride to St. Anton or Sölden, or you could fly into Innsbruck. It’s not any harder than going to Sun Valley or Jackson Hole and there’s a lot more to see and do.
If you go, one strong recommendation, especially for the first-time visitor, is to hire a guide as these ski areas are massive and far-reaching. With all the guesswork and hassle removed, all you have to do if focus on your turns.
And there’s no better time to go than now. Not only is there a favorable exchange rate between the dollar and euro, but over the holidays this section of the Alps received what’s called a “once in a generation storm,” dumping the most snow the region has seen in 30 years.
Hear that? The mountains are calling and you must go.
Jared Zaugg—entrepreneur, author, consultant—can usually be found at the intersection of lifestyle, motoring and culture. Follow him on Instagram.