The other day my wife and I stopped for a quick snack in a mountain restaurant in La Plagne. We had a plate of chips: nice French fries, and plenty of ’em, for 7€.
A couple of weeks before that I ate a good-ish stew in a mountain restaurant on the slopes above Val Thorens. That was 26€.
And on both occasions, I couldn’t help thinking back to the Sonnalm restaurant, on the slopes above Westendorf in the Skiwelt. Part of Austria’s largest interconnected ski area, Westendorf is home to some scintillating pistes and a decent terrain park, and the Sonnalm is one of its best table-service restaurants. There, in front of a crackling fire, I ate a superb Tiroler Gröstl for 7.50€.
Gröstl is the Tirolean equivalent of bubble and squeak. Made from potatoes, sausage, onion and garlic – with a few herbs and a fried egg on top – it’s a proper meal, not a snack, and it was pretty much the same price as the chips in La Plagne.
It was better-cooked than the stew I ate in Val Thorens, too – which cost three times as much.
Is it just the food that’s better value for money in the Skiwelt? Well, I can’t pretend the following is a comprehensive review of pricing in both France and Austria: but it’s interesting nonetheless to look at the way the cost of some sample items compares…
Beer is cheaper
At the Sonnalm in Westendorf, I noticed a half-litre of beer cost 3.20€. In the same restaurant where I ate the stew in Val Thorens, France, it cost 7.50€. Okay, so that’s expensive even by French standards, but even in the Moris pub in Val d’Isere beer a 1.5l jug of beer works out at 5.83€ for half a litre, and 4.30€ at happy hour.
Tuition is cheaper
With “The Reds” in Westendorf 5x4hr adult group ski lessons (two hours before lunch and two hours afterwards) cost €140.
Hotels are cheaper
I stayed in a couple of good four-star hotels when I was in the Skiwelt. The first was the four-star Kaiser in Scheffau. The interior design is not exactly cutting-edge, but the food is excellent, the service good, the rooms spacious, and the price attractive. A double room in early March 2012 costs €198 a night, half board for two, including beer and wine at dinner and a big tea at 4pm. Oh yes, and there’s a good pool and spa, too.
Second was the four-star Hotel Schermer in Westendorf, which also had a good spa, a pool, and big rooms. Double rooms in early March 2012 cost 228€ a night, half-board for two.
Compare those prices with the cost of a night at the three-star Hotel Golf in Les Arcs. The Golf is a good hotel, but it doesn’t have a pool, and one night there, room-only, in early March costs 258€ for two. Half-board, the price is 319€.
Sometimes there are late-booking discounts available at the Golf, but even with the price cuts, it works out at 251€ a night, half board.
So, what’s the catch?
In skiing, as in life, you can’t have everything – and the one thing you don’t get much of in the Skiwelt is altitude. Most of the skiing is below 1800m, which is village level in many of the big French ski areas. Admittedly, the climate in Austria is generally colder than in the French Alps, but all the same the snow in the Skiwelt is more likely to suffer from cycles of freeze and thaw than the big areas in France.
That means you’ll need to holiday here in mid-winter for the best chance of consistent conditions. I’d say January to late February is the time to come.
The second drawback, for some, is that most of the skiing in the Skiwelt is on-piste. You won’t find the big, balls-to-the-wall backcountry descents that you get above the likes of La Plagne or Tignes, in France. Nor will you find so much of the fun, nibbly bits of powder between the pistes, either.
But for many once-a-winter skiers that’s not a worry. After all, they don’t have the skills to ski bumps of powder, and want instead to build their confidence on well-groomed red and blue pistes which are accessed by fast lifts – and in that respect they’re just as well served by the Skiwelt as they are by the lift systems in France. What’s more, the prevalence of tree-lined runs in the Skiwelt means that they can still go out and see where they’re going on a day of low cloud or heavy snow – which is not the case above the treeline in the higher areas of France.
In other words if you’re an intermediate-level skier, put the Skiwelt on your hit-liste. It’s cute, and friendly, too: and on the evidence I’ve seen, you’ll find the prices a pleasant surprise.
Several tour operators feature Westendorf, including Crystal and Inghams. For independent travel, fly to Innsbruck, which is served daily from London Gatwick, and twice weekly from Liverpool and Bristol, by easyJet. For more information about the Tirol got to www.visittirol.co.uk, and www.skiwelt.at for more about the Skiwelt.