I’m just back from Zell am See; the lakeside resort that sits not far from Austria’s highest mountain, the Grossklockner. It’s a cute, welcoming, and well-organised place – and about as different from your average, purpose-built resort as a ski town can be; without actually waltzing off the pages of the ski brochures and settling into a book of the prettiest towns in Austria instead. As a result, it makes a great target for skiing families who want more from their holiday than a non-stop diet of pistes. That’s not say there isn’t some great skiing here: there is (see below). But if you, or your wife/husband/children, fancy a wider taste of winter, put it high on your hit list.
Here are seven reasons why it works well for families.
1. The transfer takes about an hour and 15 minutes
Well, that’s how long it took the other day, when I was coming back on the Saturday afternoon transfer bus with Mark Warner. Okay, so it was January, not February half-term, but even so I was surprised how clear the roads were, and how quickly we covered the 50-odd miles to Salzburg airport. There were no sick-making switchback roads either (I should know: I was facing backwards most of the time, chatting to other skiers). Now, my own son Sam would have regarded all of that as a disappointment. Inexplicably, he loves coach journeys. But most kids think otherwise; and such a short transfer time is, by the reckoning of almost every family I know, a huge relief.
2. The Tauern Spa is BRILLIANT
The Newsoms are frequent visitors to the Aquatics Centre in London’s new(ish) Olympic park. It’s a great place for a swim, but when it comes to family fun, it’s not a patch on the Tauern Spa, which sits between Zell am See and the neighbouring resort of Kaprun. It has waterfalls, slides, grotto, jets and sprays, as well as six pools: three of which are outside. Two of these are heated to 36C and are almost as warm as a bath. The other is a cooler 26C and designed for proper swimming. It’s not cheap: a family day ticket costs an eye-watering €70.50. But spending an afternoon in either of them, while gazing up at the Kitzsteinhorn glacier every now and again, is going to blow your kids’ minds. Especially if it’s snowing. (If Mum and Dad take it in turns to sneak away for a bit, there are saunas, steam rooms and massages on offer too.)
Oh yes, and there’s another swimming pool (with slide) in the middle of Zell am See if all you want is an hour or two of swimming (family tickets are €31.20).
3. There’s a cool, Brit-friendly chalet hotel close to the lifts
This winter, family-skiing specialist Mark Warner set up one of its Brit-friendly chalet-hotels in Zell am See, a five-minute walk from nearest ski lift: the Mountain Lake Resort. This is not your average chalet-hotel. Each family gets a shiny new apartment, complete with kitchen and sitting room, and the two-bedroom flats have two bathrooms as well. Of course, you won’t be cooking much, if at all: daily breakfast, tea and six dinners a week are all served in the dining room downstairs. But when it comes to ski holidays space is the ultimate luxury: and getting so much of it, for less than the price of a normal chalet-hotel in France, is a huge bonus.
Of course, not every family wants to pitch in to such an English-speaking cocoon. But the vast majority will love it, thanks to the childcare on offer during the school holidays, and the presence of other British parents to swap stories, congratulate/commiserate where appropriate, and generally replicate the warm fug of empathy that swirls around the school gates back home.
4. The skiing will stretch Mum and Dad – if they want it to
Zell am See has the reputation as an easy place to ski. And yes, it can be. There’s a central spine of pistes running down Schmitten (the mountain immediately above town), that starts at gentle-blue level and finishes as a not-much-harder red. It drops through a whopping 1200 vertical metres in the process. Meanwhile, the Kitzsteinhorn glacier – covered by the same lift pass – majors in broad, steady pistes and super-soft snow. Both venues are great for building your confidence.
But that’s not the whole story. On the north side of Schmitten the slopes take a more vertiginous turn, plunging straight down the side of the mountain to create some classic blacks. The Standard (number 14) is the best of them, and drops through nearly 1000 vertical metres to create one of the most underrated steep pistes in the Alps. Meanwhile, on the Kitzsteinhorn, a fresh dump brings off-piste opportunities aplenty. You’ll need to hire a guide to discover its full potential, but there’s everything here from wide-open, no-fear powder pitches to tight, steep, and challenging chutes.
5. There’s lots of easy skiing for young legs to explore
There are nursery slopes at the base of the lifts at Schuttdorf and Schmittental: and some highly-rated ski schools, too. But the real strength of Zell am See and the Kitzsteinhorn is as a destination for young skiers who have already mastered their snowplough, and are moving on to parallel turns. Blue piste number 9 on Schmitten is near-perfect: as wide as than the Champs Elysées, and served by a safe, eight-man chairlift with heated seats and a bubble to cover you from the wind.
6. Lunch won’t bankrupt you
Relax, you’re in Austria. There’s a sense of fairness about the pricing. A bowl of goulash soup costs €4 or €5 in many mountain restaurants and is a meal all on its own. If you pay more, then they really push the boat out – as they do in the lovely Areit Alm, which serves some of the best food I’ve eaten on a mountain in Austria. Mains there are around €20 a head.
7. There’s plenty to do after the lifts shut
Take your pick from the Maisiflitzer Alpine Coaster in Kaprun, tobogganing runs scattered along the valley, night-skiing three nights a week just above the middle of town, indoor ice-skating, or a floodlit, fireworks-and-freestyle Snow Night (Mondays in Kaprun, Wednesdays in Zell am See). If it’s cold enough, you can also go skating on the lake: although it needs a much colder winter than the one we’re having for the ice to form.
Here come the caveats
Zell am See isn’t perfect. If you’re tempted, you need to know a couple of caveats.
First, the skiing above Zell am See itself, on the Schmittenhöhe, isn’t very high by modern Alpine standards. It starts at 750m and tops out at 2000m. There are snow cannons all over the place to make up the shortfall if Mother Nature doesn’t provide natural snow. But whenever there’s a thaw, the quality of the cover on the lower half of mountain suffers – getting slushy during the afternoon and then refreezing overnight. Yes, the pistes on the Kitzsteinhorn are much more consistent than that – in fact, it offers some of the most snowsure skiing in the Alps. But to get the best chance of good snow on both mountains, aim for a mid-winter trip, in January or February.
Second of all, you need to be prepared to shuttle about a bit. To get to the Tauern Spa, or the Alpine Coaster, or the Kitzsteinhorn glacier, you’ll need to catch one of the free shuttle buses or jump in one of the many local taxis. It’s not as convenient as a purpose-built, ski-in, ski-out resort like Tignes-le-Lac. But then resorts like that offer a much more single-minded focus on skiing. Zell am See’s lower altitude and more diffuse layout may have their drawbacks, but they’re also the reason why it offers a more varied holiday experience.