Saturday, December 1
Save dodging the gore-dripping jaws of hairy 7ft monsters (beered-up young men in the traditional, Donnie Darko-esque costumes of Austria’s creepy Krampusumzüge festival) on the road from Zürich airport, our arrival last night in the Paznaun Valley passed without incident. On our first morning in this town of Champagne-induced lie-ins, all of us, panting for a taste of the region’s exceptional early snow, take our first and last ‘early’ breakfast.
Kit hired, we proceed to the Pardatschgratbahn lift. It’s the first day of the season, and the scrum of eager skiers and boarders swallows up the town’s eastern edge, a situation not eased by technical problems with the brand new Fimbabahn gondola. Up on the hill an hour later, mob rule continues. But a short first descent to Idalp, where the slightly surreal sight of a red Porsche Cayman in a perspex box gives us our first hint of this resort’s unabashed celebration of de luxe living, quickly puts us at the hub of 210km of groomed pistes. In minutes we’re having wide-open,
sun-kissed descents to ourselves, and nipping into fat chunks of off piste, a little crusty but choked in a metre of untracked snow.
Time for some (ahem) work. Our crew is in town to see R’n’B star Rihanna take her shot at Ischgl’s famous annual season opener, the Top Of The Mountain concert. And the Bajan star is holding a press conference at her gaff for the night, the deeply plush Trofana Royal hotel. While journalists, camera crews, well-connected locals and all, apparently, of their borderline-hysterical pre-teen daughters wait for the singer to arrive, rumours ripple through the crowd. It transpires that the star was booked before the smash hit Umbrella made her a No 1 artist worldwide, and that she’d neither ditched the Ischgl gig, nor renegotiated for megabucks. In fact her only concession to diva-dom was to make a last-minute demand that her personal hairstylist be flown in this morning from New York to freshen up her do. When the star of the show and her (fabulous, admittedly) €5,000 bob enter the room, the 19-year-old’s Bambi-like gorgeousness and dewy poise, spark a frenzy of phone camera activity, before she smiles and purrs through a barrage of penetrating questions from the assembled international press. ‘Rihanna, do you like ze snow?’
Sister cuts it on stage too. Just ten years ago, Ischgl was a tiny farming town with a minimal ski operation, before local Gunther Aloys had the idea of raising the cash to book A-list names for free open-air concerts and put the resort on the map. Diana Ross, Scissor Sisters and Beyoncé later, the gigs which start and end each season have been instrumental in catapulting Ischgl to stellar status and driving the development of today’s impressive on-mountain infrastructure and in-resort expansion. As we pick our way through the crowd, stopping at the odd glühwein stall ‘to warm up’, the monolithic black-clad stage, set up at a cost of £140,000 just for the night on the valley floor, spells out just how big this little town thinks. The lighting rig suddenly flares turquoise and yellow, and
it’s showtime. Oozing charisma and impossibly leggy, Rihanna quickly establishes a sultry command of the 20,000 spectators – ‘Whassup Isch-GUUUUUL!’ – and launches
an eye-opening, steroid-injected set laced with rock and reggae that makes stadium anthems of her pop ditties. Big up you, Umbrella girl.
The only alpine branch of Ibiza’s legendary club, Pacha (below), in the Madlein Hotel, adds a shot of credible cool to Ischgl’s jumping nightlife offer. It’s a classy if compact space, dominated by a huge crown-of-thorns chandelier made of antlers and foxy young things wigging out on podiums in outfits clearly not designed with wintersports in mind. We keep our eyes open long enough to gawp awhile at the dressed-up party people tipping down bottle after bottle of Veuve Clicquot at
£95 a pop in the VIP area, before weaving back to our hotel at 2.00am, only to discover the next morning that minutes afterwards our new favourite pop star gave her security the slip and tipped up at the club for a dance-up. Doh!
Sunday, December 2
Matteus, our coach and guide for the day, meets us at Idalp, and leads a whistle-stop tour of some of Ischgl’s best-loved runs, including the stunning long and speedy cruiser down to Samnaun, just over the border in Switzerland. Samnaun has duty-free status, and stocking up on perfume, booze and smokes there is a classic Ischgl day out – capacious rucksacks are a must. Over lunch at Idalp’s Pardorama restaurant, whose gleaming glass walls wrap Paznaun peaks around its diners, Matteus tell us that when he isn’t coaching skiers and boarders, he spends months-long chunks of the summers up a mountain with just his dog and the couple of hundred cattle in his care for company. ‘Out of season’, he says, ‘Ischgl is what it always was. A small farming village. Only now with more money.’
In up-for-it Ischgl’s sea of après classics, Trofana Alm is identified by the hand-jiving stuffed bear above its entrance, and it’s where we park skis and boards for the afternoon session. Squeezing into a booth, we watch in awe as the capacity (and then some) crowd sinks short after short after short like freshers at a student union vodka promotion. Beaming punters of all ages hang off the upstairs balcony, bounce manically on the spot and all bellow as one a string of hilarious Austrian oompah-pop anthems. By five the atmosphere is volcanic, and while he house down, the bar staff start opening bottle of Champagne with silver swords. We make a feeble attempt to exit, and are immediately foiled by a round of free drinks sent over by the grinning, two-thumbs-up bar manager. Prost!
I’ll confess that my impressions of Austria’s ski scene to date (based mainly on bleary-eyed repeat visits to the riotous British Snowboard Championships in Mayrhofen in the 90s) have been of a full-speed-ahead party culture which doesn’t waste time on sophistication. Ischgl, it’s clear, is a very different proposition. Lined with plush restaurants, designer bars and glossy boutiques worthy of Bond St, and packed with expensively dressed, good-humoured and, frankly, shitfaced Austrians and Germans, the streets hum with self-assured aspiration and unbridled, grown-up hedonism. Replete from an excellent four-course dinner at the Post Hotel, we take a stroll to the refined surroundings of Guxa cigar bar for a brandy or two.
It’s time to check out another of Ischgl’s USPs – its notorious, unrivalled-in-the-Alps array of girlie bars. Our group plumps for Coyote Ugly, downstairs at the Madlein right next to Pacha, and, passing a gaggle of stretch Hummers outside, we pause for a swifty in the austere metropolitan chic of the lobby bar. It’s refreshingly incongruous among the rest of the town’s gilt-edged Tirolean trimmings, and its atmosphere of understated luxury is a contrast too with our next stop in the basement of joy. Once through the doors, most fall silent, idiot grins fixed at nipple height on the stream of awfully friendly young ladies dancing and strutting on the bar and stage. Our token female Becky and I play a quick game of ‘spot the real ones’. We both fail to score. Which makes seven of us.
Monday, December 3
The weekenders have headed home, and as it’s too early in the season for the international package crowd, Ischgl’s peaks, swaddled in a 50cm overnight snowfall which shows no signs of stopping, are our private playground. Half-blinded by the fluffy deluge, but beautifully cushioned over every dip and curve, we barrel down the steeps which lead back to town, slopes which can often present a spooky obstacle course peppered with end-of-the-day crowds, skied out ice patches and out-of-control boozy lunchers. Today, they’re ours alone, and they rock.
There’s still more Ischgl high life to be sampled, and we take shelter from the bucketing snow at the Alpenhaus, where soggy boots are swapped for warmed slippers and a three-course gourmet spectacular is served in the VIP Lounge (above) whose sleek decor is worthy of a Bond villain’s lair. After a few glasses of fine wine by the roaring fire, some of the group decide to skip the whiteout and take the gondola back down, while the hardcore resolve to spank as much powder as humanly possible on this our last day. Another 20cm has fallen during lunch, and in snow-muffled near silence we bomb a few heroic runs on the higher slopes before starting a circuitous route to the bottom.
…where we all reconvene at Schatzi, another Ischgl après must-see. This might be a traditional wooden barn-style inn, and it might be a quiet Monday afternoon, but the girls bar-dancing in teeny tiny Tirolean frocks are flinging the gingham with gusto, and before long, members of our crew join the queue of beaming men sliding Euros into garters and dribbling into their beers. Timeworn party classics are the DJ’s stock in trade, and the singalonga tables dotted around the bar peak at Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now (guys, there are other bands, you know).
Ischgl, we can no more. Another great dinner at the Hotel Solaria, another table-dancing joint (the rather more down-to-business Living Room) and a bunch of bars later, we down a final beer at the blissfully calm locals’ haunt the Ischgler Einkehr, and kick through the snow – still falling, in truckloads – back to the hotel, in time for four hours’ kip before our ride back to Zürich.
Ischgl, austria : www.ischgl.com
Getting there: EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Innsbruck, an hour away. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Friederickshafen, two hours away, and both BA (ba.com) and Swiss (swiss.com) fly to Zürich, three hours away
High-end: Ski Independence (www.ski-i.com)
Mid-range: Crystal Ski
Season: 29 November-3 May 2009
Vertical drop: 2872-1400m
Snowmaking: 653 cannons cover Ischgl and Samnaun
Lift passes: one-day £34, six-day £140
Mountain munchies: Everything from global gourmet menus to high-quality Tirolean comfort food to canteen snacks is on offer at the seven high-altitude restaurants
Guiding: available at Ischgl Ski School (schneesport-akademie.at)
Snowpark: the main freestyle park above Idalp is rated one of Europe’s best
Eating/drinking: Everything from fast food joints to traditional, formal restaurants to swishy sushi bars.
Facilities: Anything money can buy, pretty much. The usual extracurriculars – skating, hiking, horse-drawn sleigh rides – are available, and for whiteout days or a day off the slopes, the Silvretta Center’s water park, spa facilities and bowling alley are very handy
Good morning: Guten Morgen
How are you?: Wie geht es Ihnen?
I love you like a fat kid loves cake: Ich liebe dich wie ein dickes kind kuchen
Highlight: The frenetic but friendly nightlife
Bummer: Ischgl’s visitors are all about having the best, so prices are high
Rupert Mellor traveled with Inghams (020 8780 4447, www.inghams.co.uk) which offers packages to Ischgl in half-board accommodation ranging from 2* to 4*(from £651 and £876 respectively), including return flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers. Flights are available from 13 other UK airports for a supplement. Inghams has featured Ischgl for 40 years and also offers holidays to 28 other Austrian resorts.