Not, in fact, the happy-clapping climax of some bizarre thigh-slapping ritual, but Rob Freeman’s pick – painstakingly researched by close questioning of bar staff throughout the country – of Austria’s resorts to know
The British Connection: Alpbach
Tucked away in a little valley in Tirol, this ridiculously pretty village makes you feel so good about yourself every morning as you tramp down the street with skis on shoulder that you can’t help saying ‘Guten Tag’ to everyone you see. Most will reply ‘Good Morning’ because it is very unlikely they won’t be British. It’ll be said in a booming, military sort of way, because the voice will almost certainly belong to a major or an ex-colonel or at the very least someone who’s quite big in the city. Or his wife, who’ll be called Elizabeth or Jane. They will have been coming to Alpbach every year for several decades – and why not, because Alpbach breeds fierce loyalty and unswerving devotion among its guests? It’s really Surrey-on-Snow.
...its nurturing of generations of British youngsters new to the slopes. The village even has a British ski club, the Alpbach Visitors, run by the super-efficient Dinny Patterson (who finds rooms for guests in hotels and private houses) and set up by her late husband Colonel Billy Patterson in 1958. The UK connection actually goes back much further – St Oswald, former King of Northumbria, gave his name to the church.
Alpbach on a stick
You have to take a skibus to the main lift, but that’s a small price to pay to wallow in charm and gemütlicheit that you can measure in metres – you can’t claim to know Austria until you’ve skied here.
The spiritual slopes: Heiligenblut
The pencil-slim spire of the 550-year-old village church rises through the early morning mist cloaking the little town. Heiligenblut (it means Holy Blood), one of the most mystical and atmospheric of ski resorts, tucked away in a blind valley in the southern province of Carinthia, prepares for a new ski day. You can feel the history of this holy site, for centuries a place of pilgrimage (the church has a relic of Christ’s blood brought to the village more than a thousand years ago – don’t take my word for it, talk to the village priest). Still the believers come – to ski and board as well as pay homage. The lifts take you ever closer to heaven and deliver unto you 55km of piste.
...being something of an Austrian Chamonix – it lies in the shadow of the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain – so Heiligenblut is a magnet for serious climbers as well as skiers and boarders. The ascent is a two-day affair, with an overnight in a refuge.
Heiligenblut on a stick
If you’re looking for a riotous time and a wide choice of nightlife – get thee elsewhere. Such temptations of the flesh are forsaken in this holy place, and in their stead is a heaven-sent opportunity for regeneration of body and soul in a special village at the foot of snowsure slopes (it opened several weeks early this season, the cover was so good) rising to a 2,899m top station – the already lofty runs protected by even loftier peaks and presided over by the all mighty Grossglockner.
The racing certainty Schladming
Those skiers of a certain age whose spirits were stirred by the Ski Sunday theme music (which incidentally is a piece called Pop Looks Bach) will have put Schladming on their must-ski list because the resort looked so magical as the frequent venue for World Cup races. The screen image is accurate and Schladming has simply got better as the seasons go by, with its skiing now linked across four mountains, the snow largely protected on runs bordered by woods. So when the snow arrives it stays – as it did at the start of this season, when the resort was able to steal a march on most of Austria by opening a full four weeks ahead of schedule after spectacular early falls.
...being the home resort of California governator Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger – when he isn’t breaking a leg in Sun Valley, Idaho. As well as having the fastest of the World Cup downhill courses.
Schladming on a stick
A solid, atmospheric old town with excellent bars and restaurants to be discovered in both the main square and down side streets – and with 81 lifts on the Ski Alliance Amadé lift pass covering more than 161km of runs, the piste treats in store are endless. A scrummy ski sundae of a resort.
For piste and quiet: Kappl
It’s always good to wax lyrical about a resort that your readers have probably never heard of. And there’s no reason why they should really, as it has never been in any British operator’s brochure to my knowledge.
That could change, for two reasons. The peaceful little Tirolean village, which lies in the Paznaun Valley above the road that leads on up to Ischgl, has a compact but varied and satisfying network of slopes plus a comprehensive range of accommodation that includes four four-star hotels. And in addition, it could soon be the hub of a new lift connection that will create a truly mouth-watering linked area. Just a few kilometres distant as the crow flies is the Rendl area of St Anton am Arlberg and the well-advanced idea is to build two lifts to link Rendl with Kappl – effectively, via a short bus ride, connecting Ischgl and St Anton.
...being absolutely modest – even though it has been named Austria’s third best family ski resort. Those who blink on the way up to Ischgl will probably certainly miss it – they shouldn’t.
Kappl on a stick
Those who do pause at this delightful spot as others rush up to Ischgl are rewarded with 40km of uncrowded and sunny runs – some of them moderately challenging. And just down the road is its sister resort of See, charming and family-orientated. Kappl has one of the best children’s centres around, at its mid-slope Sunny Mountain complex. They look after the children, you chill out.
The classic choice: Kitzbühel
Where else can you find a ski resort with cobbled streets and surrounded by metres-thick medieval walls – and choc-a-block with designer boutiques, Viennese-style coffee shops and award-winning restaurants of rare delight? Kitzbühel has it all – except altitude, and there’s not much even the most assiduous of resorts can do about a geological oversight. Fortunately the town is saved countless times by its location in one of those so-called schnee-winkls. Or snow pockets. When the snow is good here, the skiing and boarding, over a vast area that stretches miles and miles up to Pass Thurn, are, frankly, orgasmic. Rightly it takes its place at the top table of resorts.
...the Hahnenkamm World Cup downhill race, run on the slope known as the Streif. It is fearsome, the ace of races. If you’re feeling brave you can ski it the day after the race. Get your edges done first – the racers get water poured on to the course before the start so it is just that little bit more icy for greater speed. How thoughtful.
Kitz on a stick
Big name, big reputation, big atmosphere. But the macho image of the Hahnenkamm shouldn’t put people off – the extensive ski area is full of blues to cruise and reds to shred. And its modest altitude lends a beautiful undulating feel to the skiing, as the slopes stretch away into seeming infinity. The town itself is simply sublime.