Pictured above is the Ski Juwel piste map. It shows the full extent of the ski area created in 2012 by the union of the the lift systems in the Wildschonau and Alpbach. Altogether, 109km of piste are on offer: making it the one of the ten largest ski areas in the Tirol.
The map does a grand job of showing Skijuwel’s layout. But it’s only a map, and it can’t tell you the real reasons why this mid-sized network of lifts and runs is deserves your consideration, especially if you’re a beginner, or any kind intermediate. So here, to make it clear, are the secrets it won’t reveal at first glance.
1. This is a ski area blessed with lots of fall-line pistes
Why? Because they’re direct, unfussy and good for your technique. Not only is it an inspiring sight when you’re standing at the top, looking straight down. A fall-line piste also gives you the chance to settle into your skiing, and build a rhythm: without constantly having to change your course or worry about what’s coming round the next bend. You can make turn after glorious, swooping turn until your legs explode – or someone suggests you stop to admire the view.
Ski Juwel has lots of pistes like this. There are three crackers on the slopes above Niederau; two glorious top-to-bottom descents in Alpbach; and another sweet and direct little run off the back of Auffach, towards Inneralpbach. Four of these pistes are red, and are steep (on one of them I saw a skier sit down to make her turns, rather than risk doing it standing up). Two are black. All five are going to challenge you to be a better skier, and as you learn how to deal with them your self-confidence is going to soar.
Which is the best? In my book, it’s either the former FIS-rated downhill course (marked 15 and 16 on the Ski Juwel piste map) which drops through 800m from the Lanerkopfl to Niederau. Or red 47a and 47, which drop through 900 vertical metres from the Gmahkopf to Inneralpbach in the Alpbach valley. But really it’s best to ski them all repeatedly yourself and make your own mind up…
2. But not all the pistes are hell-for-leather
Not everyone wants to go haring straight down a top-to-bottom run on first day of his or her holiday. Most skiers need to warm up their ski legs first and rediscover their technique. That’s where the slopes on the north face of the Schatzberg, above Auffach, come in handy.
Here, at the top of the lifts, there’s a broad, gentle, and generally snowy face which is home to several wide pistes. It’s above the treeline, so it’s best avoided if it’s cloudy or snowing. But catch it on a sunny day, and you’ll be able to make lots of easy, no-stress turns: perfect for getting your groove back at the start of the trip.
3. There’s a good mix open slopes and trees
The top of both the Auffach and Alpbach sectors of Ski Juwel can be hard going on a cloudy day – just like any terrain that’s above the treeline. But actually that’s a minor discomfort, because the vast majority of pistes in the ski area are cut through forest. Trees add definition to the snow when the light’s flat – by casting dark “lowlights” on its surface – and tree-lined pistes really come into their own on cloudy days. Which means Ski Juwel can cope a lot better with changing weather than a high-altitude resort such Tignes.
There is a drawback though. The trees are there because almost all the skiing is below 2000m. That’s fine in a cold, snowy winter like the one of 2012-13. But rather less brilliant if it’s warm and dry, as it was at the start of the 2013-14 season. By way of compensation, most of the important slopes are north facing, which helps to keep the snow cold, and standards of snow-making and piste-grooming are high – so even if the snow off-piste is wafer-thin, you can still ski most of the pistes. But all the same, this is a place for a mid-winter and last-minute trips, when you’ve got the best chance of finding good snow.
4. Laid-back Niederau is great for beginners
First-timers should base themselves in Niederau. This friendly, unpretentious village is home to a beginner-friendly package of easy nursery slopes and a fun-loving bunch of ski instructors with long experience of teaching Brits. In fact, several are British themselves – or Dutch, which is almost as good because their English is near-faultless. The laid-back atmosphere helps too: often, in big-name resorts, first-timers can feel like second-class citizens. But here – set apart from the main ski area at Auffach – a lot of the guests are in the same boat, and making the same discoveries at the same time. Add a bit of après-ski and the odd tot of schnapps, and you’ll quickly understand why it’s popular.
5. There’s plenty of off-piste skiing in the Alpbach valley
Want to test yourself against more exacting terrain? Then the southern end of the Alpbach valley, beyond the Wiedersberghorn is the place – skiing from the Hornbahn 2000 chairlift. Check the Tirol’s excellent avalanche bulletin first, make sure you’re properly-equipped, and hire a guide to keep you out of the avalanche zones. He/she will also make sure you don’t get lost in the thick forest that coats the lower slopes of the valley.
6. Food and drink is cheap
Hungry? Then there’s good news: mountain food (and drink) is a lot cheaper here than in the A-list resorts of France and Switzerland. One of the most popular mountain restaurants here is the Gipfö Hit above Auffach, and it’s regarded as a little dear by the locals. But all the same, a big, filling plate of Tiroler Gröstl is only going to set you back €8.90, and half a litre of beer (a little less than a pint) costs €3.50. In La Plagne a couple of seasons ago, I bought a plate of chips for €7. When it comes to value for money on the mountain, there’s no comparison.
7. And holidays won’t cost a fortune either
Oh yes, and while we’re on the subject of money, let’s not forget that package ski holidays in the Ski Juwel can be pretty inexpensive too. Check out the websites of Inghams, Crystal and Neilson for taste of what’s on offer, and don’t forget to see if they’ve got any discounts going: at the time of writing, late-booking hotel holidays in Niederau in the first week of February were on sale for less than £400pp, including flights and transfers. Of course, bagging a late-booking deal is always a good tactic, outside the peak weeks of the season, But it’s a particularly good tactic for the Ski Juwel: so you can be sure it’s having a decent winter.
I’m not saying every holiday to this part of the Austrian Alps needs to be cheap and cheerful. For example, the four-star superior Hotel Böglerhof in Alpbach is a calm and lovely upmarket hotel if you fancy a taste of luxury. But even a 40sq metre junior suite here is cheaper than a regular double room in some three-star hotels in Meribel in France.