A couple of weeks ago, I was skiing in Innsbruck. Well, not in Innsbruck, but in four of the nine different ski areas around it – all of which are served by the same Olympia Skiworld Pass. It’s reminded me just how good it is as a target for a ski weekend or a short break, rather than simply an airport you fly in or out of for a ski holiday somewhere else in Austria.
Why? Here are five reasons for starters.
1. Innsbruck’s not near the Alps: it’s surrounded by them
Most Alpine airports are on the edge of the Alps. But when you fly into Innsbruck, you’re flying (almost) into the middle of them. Okay, so that makes the approach a little scary if it’s bumpy, and you’re staring out of the airplane window at the mountain peaks, sliding past not far beneath the wing. But the payoff for those last-minute jitters is a big one. You get off the plane, look up – and there are the mountains, all around you. In fact, from the runway, you can actually see the lift stations on the city’s two local ski areas, the Nordkette and the Patscherkofel. It’s a great curtain raiser to the start of your trip.
2. The transfer to your hotel takes 15 or 20 minutes
No-one likes a long transfer on a short break. So it’s a joy to jump in your hire car (you will definitely need a hire car) knowing that the drive into town will only take 15 or 20 minutes. You can be checked in, unpacked, and most of the way through dinner in the time it takes many short-break skiers to reach the outskirts of their resort.
3. There’s a huge variety of terrain on the city’s doorstep
What sort of skiing do you fancy? Do you want to warm up your skiing legs on lots of broad, ego-boosting pistes? Then you should hot-foot it to the Stubai glacier. There are 70km of groomed runs there, set between 3212m and 2300m, and the snow is almost always in superb condition. I skied them just after one of the warmest January days on record, and the snow was soft and grippy on all but the long “itinerary” back down to the lift station on the valley floor. Higher up, you’d never have guessed the Alps were in the grip of a long thaw.
Or perhaps you’d rather get stuck into something steeper? Then let the Nordkette be your target. You catch one of Zaha Hadid’s sleek, modern trains to get there, from the city centre, and in half and hour, you’ll find yourself boot-packing along a wind-swept ridge, en route to one of two hair-raising, and avalanche-protected chutes. If there’s powder, you may just have of the most exciting descents of your skiing career.
Maybe it’s a terrain park you’re after? Innsbruck has got plenty of those. The Nordkette has a highly-rated line of medium-sized kickers, as well as smaller, beginner-friendly jumps. Meanwhile, Kuhtai is home to one of only eight Olympic-standard superpipes in the Alps.
The list of options goes on…You can ski Franz Klammer’s famous Olympic downhill run on the Patscherkofel (these days, a fast and fun red piste), or similarly scintillating pistes in Axamer Lizum, which hosted Olympic races in both 1964 and 1976. Meanwhile Schlick 2000, in the valley below the Stubai glacier is home to some extremely mellow blues.
None of these ski areas is big enough for a week-long holiday, but picking off the ones that suit you (and the snow conditions) best, day-by-day, is going to serve up a sumptuous variety of ski experiences that’ll leave your grinning from ear to ear.
4. The Innsbruck area gets snow from more than one direction
Innsbruckers are a lucky bunch. When the snow comes from the north (a phenomenon known as a Nordstau), it gets snagged on the Nordkette and dumps a lot of powder on their local off-piste mountain. When it comes from the south, it almost always stops short of the city, but gets as far as both the Stubai glacier and Kuhtai, which are close to the Italian border. And when there’s no fresh snow around, the Stubai glacier offers some of the softest, most reliable pistes in the Alps. In other words, whatever the weather you’ll find good snow a short drive from your hotel.
5. There’s heaps to do when you’re not skiing
Okay, so Innsbruck isn’t the place to go if you want to dance till dawn in your ski boots. Head instead to the likes of Ischgl, St Anton, Mayrhofen and Saalbach for that. But if you’re looking for a bit more variety to your down time, there are few places that can compare. Highlights include…
A 70mph run in a taxi bobsleigh in Igls…
Making your own skis at Spurart…
A bit of art at the Ferdinandeum…
Or maybe a slice of Sacher-Torte at the Café Sacher…
But there are a couple of drawbacks…
Innsbruck may be brilliant for ski weekends. But it’s not perfect. The first drawback is that Innsbruck airport closes when a big snowstorm blows in. Of course, it’s not the kind of thing that happens every week, and Innsbruck isn’t the only Alpine airport that shuts when it snows: but the difficult approach over the mountains does make it more susceptible to closure than most. If you’re unlucky, you may find the flight directed to Munich, which will add three or four hours to your journey time. You’ll be transferred from Munich to Innsbruck by bus – but at least you can spend the time looking forward to fresh snow when you get there.
The second drawback is that that if you stay in Innsbruck itself, you’re not going to have a ski-in, ski-out experience. You can change that by basing yourself in one of the ski areas: Kuhtai is the obvious one, but Axamer Lizum has a handful of ski-in, ski-out hotels as well. Both are close to the airport. The only danger is that you’ll be inclined to stick to that one lift system during your stay, and I think the real joy of an Innsbruck weekend is day-tripping to as many different areas as you can manage.