Michael Zwischenbrugger knows a thing or two about spectacular ski resorts. He grew up in one of them: Obergurgl, in the Austrian Tirol. Since then, he’s skied right across the region, and can’t wait to get back onto the slopes. “When the lifts are running, and we’re ready to ski again, that first sight of the pistes is going to be such a joyful moment,” he says.
“What’s more, the Tirolean regions are well prepared for the winter season and are following carefully-considered Covid-19 safety protocols. In fact, in some resorts these measures go beyond those set by the government. I can’t wait to get up there.”
Here’s Michael’s pick of the Tirol’s most beautiful ski areas: well worth adding to your short-list once the season is back on track.
It’s the icing on the cake, every time you ski well.
There you are, blasting down the mountain, feeling strong, confident and skilful. Then you stop for a breather – and look up.
Holy Mother of All Things Majestic: the mountains are so beautiful you think your heart is going to burst.
At the start of your skiing career almost any mountain will produce this effect, but as you begin to explore the mountains, you realise that some resorts really are more spectacular than others. Fortunately for me, there several stunners in my own back yard – the Austrian Tirol. Here are six for starters.
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Skiing Hintertux is always a visual thrill. In part, that’s because it’s a glacier resort – one of only two that’s open all year. Many people ski it when the rest of the Alps are snowless; and when they do, riding the gondola up from the valley station is a bit like jumping on a time machine. In half an hour you fast forward from spring, summer or autumn into the middle of winter: and magically return to your starting point at the end of the day.
But it’s also because of the pyramid peak of the Olperer, which overlooks the highest pistes and dominates the scene. Seen from the north and east, it’s a mountain that seems to have been reduced to its absolute essentials: a triangular shape, a sheer wall of rock and razor-sharp ridges. And it’s never more spectacular than in late November, with the sun setting behind it. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a wisp of cloud curling off its peak too. At the end of a big day of skiing the effect is mind-blowing.
In the summer, the Silvretta High Alpine Road is a magnificent drive. Linking Galtür with the Montafon valley, it serves up switchback turns and soaring peaks for almost its entire length, and is regarded as one of Austria’s finest drives.
In the winter, though, it’s shut.
Which means, in the ski season, Galtür is an end-of-the-line resort – with that soothing, go-no-further atmosphere you find in the final village in any valley. No-one is in a hurry here, except perhaps to go skiing. And once they’re on the slopes they find plenty of opportunities to stop and soak up the view.
The two pin-up mountains here are the Gorfenspitze and Ballunspitze: pyramid peaks that stand like sentinels over the valley and make for a mesmering final approach as you drive in from Ischgl. But there are plenty of other visual treats: notably the descent, on-piste, towards the Kops reservoir. “Every time I ski there, it feels like I’m dropping down to a Norwegian fjord,” says Galtür’s mayor, Toni Mattle.
You know how, in the silent-movie era, they used to wind a looped, never-ending backdrop behind the actors as they ran on the spot; so it seemed like they were moving? Skiing in St. Anton is a bit like that. You get down into a tuck, straighten your skis into a schuss, and head off towards Warth, on the other side of the Arlberg ski area. Every time you look up, another gob-smackingly beautiful mountain seems to be winding past you. They never stop.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating. But only a bit. No other ski area I know of serves up quite such a gorgeous procession of peaks as you traverse it. You start on Gampen, immediately above town, gazing onto the 2816m Vodere Rendlspitze across the valley. Then it’s on past the jagged ridge of the Valluga, followed by the Flexenspitze beyond Stuben, the Hasenfluh above Zürs – and many more. It’s not just their number: it’s the way you can see their whole shape – from the valley floor to jagged summit – that makes them special. By the end of the skiing day it feels like you’ve traversed half of the Alps.
Innsbruck is not like other ski resorts. It’s a bustling city with deep historical roots, planted right in the middle of the Alps – and it’s the fusion of urban and mountain scenery that creates a unique sense of spectacle. Every street frames a view of soaring peaks. Every summit offers a God-like panorama over its buildings. Here, modern life and Mother Nature walk hand in hand.
This intermixing is at its best when you ski the Nordkette – one of 13 ski areas that ring the city. Even getting there is a thrill; as you ride out of the city centre on Zaha Hadid’s sleek mountain railway, before catching a couple of lifts up to 2,300m. The sudden transition from busy pavements to wind-swept wilderness will make your head spin. But even so, nothing quite prepares you for the view downhill.
It’s the steepness that makes it extraordinary. It feels like you’re looking straight down between the tips of your skis onto the roof of the mid-station lodge, and from there into the streets of Innsbruck below. You can’t help wondering where you’ll end up if you fall: lying on your back in the middle of Maria-Theresien-Strasse, perhaps? Chances are, you’ll never forget the moment you launch yourself into that first powder turn.
The first time you go to Obergurgl, it’s like discovering a secret kingdom of snow. To reach it, you need to drive 27 miles down the Ötztal – ever-deeper into the Alps, ever-further from normality, past the resorts of Hochoetz and Sölden – and then, just as you give up hope of ever arriving, you emerge into the final stretch of valley, to be confronted by a magnificent parade of peaks.
There are 3,000m summits almost everywhere you look. Acre upon acre of skiable snow beckons too, and you get the sense – as you ride the chairlifts upwards, and feel the bite of the frigid air – that this is one of skiing’s strongholds. You’d be right too. Obergurgl has an extraordinarily long season.
How best to see it? From the pistes of course: carving big, extravagant turns over Obergurgl’s intermediate-friendly runs. But there are couple of must-visit huts too. The Hohe Mut Alm is one: sitting on a snowy shoulder of mountain at 2,670m at the top of the valley. The other, clinging to the summit ridge of the Wurmkogl at 3,080, is the Top Mountain Star bar and viewing platform. On a sunny day, you’ll never want to come down.
Not many skiers know about the Osttirol. This little enclave of the Tirol lies south of the main Alpine ridge, and although the links are good – via the Felbertauern road tunnel – the towering 3,798m peak of the Grossglockner seems to shield the place from view. Peppered with eye-wateringly pretty villages, and bathed in a sunny, southern climate, it’s one of the most serene and relaxing places to ski in the Alps.
Kals-Matrei is the largest of its ski areas: and if it’s an eyeful of the Grossglockner you’re after, this is where to come The pistes rise up two sides of a long spine of mountains, and from the eastern face jaw-dropping views are commonplace. But it’s not just a single peak that makes the scene exceptional: it’s the part it plays in a much larger wall of mountains. No fewer than sixty 3,000m peaks are visible.
To give yourself time to really look, reserve a table for lunch at the Adler Lounge – a modern, fine-dining restaurant, set at the top of the lift system at 2,421m. Even better: book one of its bedrooms too.
December 16, 2020Xania Wear
Hi Michael, Thank you for your insight on Austrian ski resorts. We live in Kals and we agree, it’s a hidden gem of a ski area. Being surrounded by so many peaks over 3000m, in a friendly village, with great mountain huts, accessible off piste and a great area for ski touring are some of the reason why we have made it our winter base.