By modern standards, Kals-Matrei is small: but it’s also, modern, well-equipped and magnificent. If you need a break from the bustle of the mega-resorts, but don’t fancy a week on cranky old lifts, put it high on your hit-list.
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The Osttirol is Austria’s secret kingdom of snow: rural, underpopulated and hidden from view behind the vast 3798m bulk of the Grossglockner massif. Few foreigners even know it’s there, and as a result its wintersports infrastructure is under-developed, given the quality of its terrain. If you want a sense of what the Alps were like before skiing came to dominate mountain economies, this is where to come.
You won’t, however, have to sacrifice all your skiing comforts. At the Grossglockner Resort Kals-Matrei, you’ll find a well-managed, well-equipped ski area, with several high-speed chairlifts, hard-working snow cannons, a rather swanky top-of-the-world restaurant and some cracking terrain. Yes, it’s also small. There are just 45km of waymarked pistes, which makes it a minnow compared to the likes of the Arlberg or the SkiWelt. But if, say, you’ve got kids with you, and won’t be skiing flat out all day, every day; or if you use it as a base for day-tripping to some of the Osttirol’s other, more idiosyncratic ski areas, you’ll have a ball.
It’s also noticeably cheaper than many ski areas further north. It’s not just the hotels and B&Bs: with lift passes discounted by 50% for 6-18 year olds, skiing here with older kids is more affordable too.
A Short Guide to the Skiing in Kals-Matrei
Essentially, you’ll be skiing two sides of the same ridge, as it marches north to join the main east-west Alpine wall. One side of the ski area faces east or north-east and drops down into the quiet Kalsertal valley, bottoming out at 1300m. The other faces mainly north-west and sits above the small market town of Matrei in Osttirol (altitude; 975m).
The steeper pistes tend to be on the Kals side: which is where you’ll find the two best blacks in the resort: numbers 12 and 13 on the map. Neither is particularly long, but both including thrillingly steep fall-line sections: the kind where you can look down over edge of your outside ski, and see the mountain dropping away in an unbroken line beneath you.
Meanwhile, the Matrei sector is where intermediates will find the biggest area of cruisey, confidence-boosting pistes, known as Goldried. It’s set between 2200m and 1450m and faces north-west, so the snow quality is good for most of the winter. This is the obvious place for holidaymakers to warm up their ski legs on their first two or three days of the trip, before getting stuck into some of tougher runs at the top of Kals side of the ski area.
Beginners meanwhile get two main areas of nursery slopes: down at the bottom of the valley on the Kals side, and up in the Goldried section on the Matrei side.
Those in search of tuition should contact either the Matrei Ski School or the Kals Ski School, depending on which side of the mountain is their base. More experienced skiers should beat a path to the local Bergführer office. The mountain guides here offer everything from a half-day ski-touring taster, to a whole week of ski-touring excursions from Kals.
Wherever you ski, however, you’ll notice four things:
1. For such a small area there’s an uncommon variety of pistes, both above and below the treeline. There really is something for everyone here, even if it comes in small doses.
2. The pistes are unusually quiet. Things get a little busier between Boxing Day and New Year, as well as during Carnival week (which climaxes on Rose Monday and/or Shrove Tuesday). But you’ll never see crowded pistes like the ones in La Plagne or Val Thorens in France. Midweek in January or March, you’ll have only handful of skiers for company on the slopes.
3. The scenery is properly mind-blowing, especially as seen from the Adler Lounge at the top of the ski area. Up there, you can identify no fewer than 60 mountains with an altitude above 3000m.
4. Snow-cover, on-piste, is good for a resort of middling altitude. Snow cannons cover 100% of the pistes, so Mother Nature gets plenty of back-up if there’s a drought. Sure, in spring, things can get slushy on the lower slopes on both sides of the valley. But with many other slopes facing either north-east or north-west the quality of the snow is usually good, especially from December to early March.
There are lots of off-piste and ski-touring options if you hire a guide, but…
Expert skiers and boarders can’t assume the snow will always be deep and powdery, despite the fact so few people ski here.
That’s because the Osttirol sits on the southern side of the main Alpine ridge, and shares its climate with the Italian Dolomites rather than the rest of Austria. So it’s generally sunnier and less snowy than the likes of St Anton or Innsbruck.
That’s not always true, of course. Weather patterns tend to settle in over the Alps, and sometimes you get a succession of low pressure systems rolling up from the Gulf of Genoa and across the southern Alps, dumping large quantities of snow en route. When the weather’s like that, the Osttirol can be absolutely buried by the white stuff – while the rest of the Tirol, north of the Grossglockner, stays dry. But those conditions tend to come once in every four or five winters. So if you’re hoping to ski powder, wait to see how the season unfolds, and book last minute.
Where to stay in Kals-MatreiWhere to stay? Essentially, there are two options: in one of the Kalsertal’s villages, or in the small market town of Matrei-in-Osttirol, just off the main road into the Osttirol. Both have their virtues. On a sunny afternoon, when they head back to base, those staying in Matrei get to ski home into the sunset. They’ll also reach the town more quickly on arrival; and this ease of access makes Matrei a faster launch pad if they’re planning day-trips – to St Jakob, perhaps or tiny, gorgeous Obertilliach.
For late-season beginner’s trips, Matrei is also the better option, because its nursery slopes are at the top of the Goldried gondola. It’s a bit of a trek to reach them each morning, but when you do you’ll be at the snowsure altitude of 2200m.
Even so, here at Welove2ski, we’d still rather stay in the Kalsertal. After all, if you’re turned on by the thought of the Osttirol in the first place, then you’ll prefer staying in quiet rural valley with no through road – and Austria’s tallest mountain at the far end, to boot. You’ll also get access to the ski area from three separate lifts (as well as two beginner areas), which means even less of a chance of a queue in the morning, as well better-quality snow on the lower runs, because the base elevation is 300m higher than it is in Matrei.
For less confident intermediates, there is one drawback to consider, however. It’s that the higher pistes on this side of the ski area are steep. So chances are, that at the start of the holiday, you’ll need to miss them out, by riding the Kals II gondola back down as well as up, until you’ve reconnected with the easier terrain lower down.
Here’s our pick of accommodation on both sides of the ski area.
GRANDONNA MOUNTAIN RESORT
At the top end of Kalsertal accommodation stands the Gradonna Mountain Resort. Literally: this purpose-built, self-contained resort of a hotel, free-standing chalets and a 3000m2 spa stands piste-side above the valley floor. The style is chic and sharp – think Modernism meets the mountains, wearing a larchwood coat – and the atmosphere child-friendly. As well as kids’ clubs, there’s a children’s pool, a free beginner’s nursery slope, and a place to buy lift passes and book your ski school. There’s no doubt you’ll feel one step away from the life of the valley below you, but parents will feel that’s a price worth paying for the convenience.
Want to get up the mountain quickly each morning? The Ferienhaus Alpina B&B is the place to stay, just around the corner from the Kals I gondola station. But there’s a lot more to this place than its quiet but convenient location. It’s been refurbished in unfussy but richly-textured style – with plenty of fragrant stone-pine panelling to lower your heartrate – and is run by helpful owners who bake their own bread for the (highly-rated) breakfasts. Welove2ski has its eye on its newly-remade mountain chalet for a summer hiking trip.
Looking for an affordable start to your skiing career? The Gamsalm sits piste-side on one of the Kalsertal’s easy blue-rated piste – at the southern end of the valley’s biggest village, Grossdorf. Pretty, sunny and convenient, it’s a traditionally-styled collection of highly-rated apartments with a restaurant below, and affordable prices, given the size of the rooms and the location.
At the time of writing, the price for a night in the well-run, budget-friendly Pension Wurlerhof was just €37pp a night, including breakfast. 10 of the rooms are doubles with balconies, and the nearest (blue) piste is half a block away, too. No wonder people rave about the place: its booking.com rating is currently 9.6.
The crisp, wood-panelled Kerehof apartments are just a minute away from the Figolift four-person chair. So you’ve almost immediate access to a choice of red, black or blue pistes for your first run of the day. Facilities are modern, and so is the clean, unfussy style. Recent guests have given the helpful managers the thumbs up too.
Matrei in Osttirol
The super-chic Freiraum appartements sit just north of the town of Matrei, on a quiet side-road (although it’s not far from the main B108). At the time of writing, the price in January is €60pp a night for four people in a two-bedroom self-catering apartment. For ski accommodation, that’s a fairly modest sum, and in the Osttirol it buys you striking architecture and a sumptuous sense of style. So if you fancy a bit of filmstar glamour on your holiday, and you don’t mind driving down to the main gondola station each morning, book it: and don’t forget to dress up for dinner.
Looking for a hotel with a spa, but don’t have quite the budget to stretch to the Gradonna resort? The Hotel Outside is where to come. Downstairs, there’s an indoor pool, four different saunas and lots of treatment rooms. Upstairs, the rooms have oak floors, larch furniture and plenty of wool and leather in the furnishings. You’re right in the middle of the town too, well away from the main road. So if you’re looking for a bit of modest window-shopping or people-watching at night, this is the place.
The best restaurants in Kals-Matrei
For many locals, the Blauspitz Panoramarestaurant – by the lift station at the top of the Kals II gondola is the best restaurant on the mountain: for freshness, quality and a sense of variety in its menu. You should also sit down to at least one lunch at the spectacular Adler Lounge restaurant – which offers everything from sushi to spicy Thai fondues. For Austrian classics, try the Roat’z Boden Genusshitte in the middle of the Goldried sector, or the Temblerhof above Kals, which does a magnificent goulash of chanterelle mushrooms with dumplings (they also bake their own bread).
For dinner, the Rauterstube in Matrei is the gastronome’s choice: awarded 14/20 points and two chef’s hats (toques) from the all-powerful Gault-Millau guide. Pay close attention to the paintings when you go: they’re Franz Walchegger originals. Walchegger was a follower of the early 20th- century star of the Osttirol art scene, Albin Egger-Lienz, and an impressive painter in his own right (even if the locals didn’t always agree).
Meanwhile, over in the Kalsertal, the restaurant at the Gradonna Mountain Resort is the best fine-dining option (13 Gault-Millau points). Here, chef Michael Karl draws from a much broader palette of flavours too. You’ll find both Asian and Mediterranean influences in his cooking.
Après-Ski in Kals-MatreiLet’s be honest: no all-night, dancing-on-the-tables party monster should choose Grossglockner Resort Kals-Matrei for their ski holiday – even when Covid-19 is finally beaten.
Don’t believe me? Check out the happy Kals-Matrei customers in this vox-pop video, filmed way back in 2014. They love the fact that it’s not a party town.
That said, there are still several spots to raise a glass on your way back home – once the world gets back to normal, of course. The most obvious is the resort-topping Adlerlounge – on the terrace perhaps, or in its upper-floor lounge. Then, if you’re heading down the Kals side, the rustic, laid-back Figolalm bar at the top of the lift of the same name is the best spot. Meanwhile, on the Matrei side, the small Schirmbar Izza and the Hotel Goldried’s Muhbar await skiers at the bottom of the lifts.