Only a handful of high resorts in the Alps staggered into May at the end of what has been an over-extended season caused by a ludicrously late Easter. On their closing days, most could barely field a few hundred hardy visitors who were determined to slalom on until the last lifts closed.
So how did Ischgl in the Tirol persuade an extraordinary 24,000 to queue patiently from first light for access to mountains gripped by blasts of cheek-stinging sleet? The weather even threatened unsuccessfully to transform itself into a full-blown blizzard.
The answer, of course, was Robbie Williams. Some 20 years have slipped by since St Anton’s less famous rival in the Western Tirol put music in the mountain mix and magically conjured up a way of attracting new skiers to a moribund market. Other resorts across the Alps have wisely followed with a host of music festivals designed to boost ticket sales in the low season. But nowhere does it better than Ischgl, which has created a worldwide brand that they now zealously guard.
For their opening and closing concerts the resort started with Elton John back in 1994 and pulled the curtain on the winter of 2014 with Robbie Williams. If you want to know who will open the season this coming December, you’ll have to read on.
In between have come a host of A-list celebrity singers that includes Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Sting, Bon Jovi, Deep Purple, The Killers, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, and Kylie Minogue. None of them come cheap. Robbie (or Rob, as he’s known off-stage) can command a couple of million quid for a 90-minute set. But the swinger is a skier at heart. He used to winter in Zermatt whenever he could, although for the past 10 years he’s swapped snow for stadiums.
So perhaps he gave Andy Steibl, Ischgl’s rock star-like tourist director a giant discount. “We’re not saying,” smiles Andy with a flick of his shoulder-length flaxen tresses. I tell you, they don’t make Austrian bureaucrats like they used to.
Still, a Saturday visit to Ischgl seemed to sandwich neatly between gigs in Vienna and Amsterdam on Robbie’s 41-date European tour to promote his latest album Swings Both Ways. However, it produced a logistical headache for his tour manager. Other musicians travel with a four-piece band and four forty-ton trucks of equipment. Robbie, who never does anything by halves, has taken to the road with 15 and 24, respectively.
He settled for a lightweight stage. But even so, this required a fleet of piste machines working night and day to clear the road to mid-mountain so that sufficient gear can be transported on up to Idalp at 2240m. Playing at altitude in cold weather has its problems. Backstage after the show Robbie said he felt a bit faint and breathless at times. The band claimed the brass was off key because of the cold – although the audience didn’t notice – while the pianist said he had to contend with ice on the ivories and frozen fingers. Drummer Karl Brazil commented: “It wasn’t easy, but it was good fun and the crowd was great. The scariest bit for all of us was coming up in the gondola!”
The Man Himself swings into town on the eve of the lunchtime gig along with his newly pregnant wife Ayda and their daughter Theodora. They stayed at Trofana Royal, the top spot in Ischgl’s clutch of luxury hotels.
The resort caters largely for a well-heeled German clientele that skis hard and parties even harder. The core components are testosterone-charged blokes aged 30 to 40, topped up with copious amounts of alcohol. What they want and what they get are oodles of techno-oompah, resounding from traditional Tirolean huts and semi-industrial drinking sheds complete with gyrating go-go dancers. If granny were to glimpse the 21st-century split-to-the-waist version of the traditional Dirndl national dress she’d faint clean away on the spot.
The sozzled street party starts each afternoon in the square by the Silvrettabahn in the Kuhstall, one of Ischgl’s iconic former cowsheds, and spreads to bars all the way across town. Most importantly, the hard-drinking crowd is essentially good-humoured and despite the daily amount of alcohol consumed a cross word is a rarity.
Whether or not you are a Robbie Williams fan, you are undoubtedly either a skier or snowboarder if you’ve managed to make your way here. The easiest airport transfer is from Innsbruck (90 minutes) or from Zurich (just under three hours).
What you get for your money (197€ to 257€ for six days, depending on type of pass and low/high season) is one Europe’s great ski arenas that links through 44 lifts and 238km of piste to Samnaun in the Swiss Engadin. With a top height of 2872m, extending the season into May is usually not a problem. In 2014 there was enough snow at altitude for the season to have continued into June.
Largely because of the business generated by Robbie & Co, the lift system is constantly being updated and is one of the most modern and efficient in Europe. Main mountain access is by giant gondolas from both ends of the village, which take you up to the mid-mountain plateau of Idalp, setting for the giant stage for the closing concert.
The winter of 2014-15 sees the opening of the Pardatschgratbahn gondola, which will greatly increase uphill capacity. From Idalp and Pardatschgrat a network of runs spread out in every direction. Even on the concert day when the lift company had to limit visitors to 24,000, queues were short if you studied the map and planned your journey. Admittedly by no means all were skiing, but the slopes away from Idalp remained remarkably uncrowded.
Tour operators here include chalet specialist Ski Total and Inghams. For the closing weekend I stayed in Ski Total’s Chalet Hotel Abendrot. This is a cosy and comfortable four-star with a spa area conveniently situated in a quiet location close to the village centre and a three-minute walk from a lift. You can ski back to within 50m of the hotel. Prices for 2014-15 are from £519pp from December 7, including half-board, flights and transfers.
For next winter Ski Total is also opening the three-star Chalethotel Belmonte at the opposite end of the village. It is located a five-minute walk from the new the Pardatschgratbahn. Inghams, which is celebrating its 80th birthday in 2014, has a choice of seven hotels here. These range from the B&B Hotel Garni Binta (from £769pp) to half-board in the five-star Hotel Post from £1,139pp. Travel included.
The ski season is now over in Ischgl, but behind the scenes they are already preparing for the next opening party in December. Who will it star? James Blunt – he’s hugely popular in both Germany and Austria and an expert skier – is the frontrunner. I understand that negotiations have already reached an advanced stage.