Unleash the powder hounds

BRIAN JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 26/11/2013
Austria Ski Landscape
Reuters

SKI SPOT: Sonnenkopf mountain in Langen am Arlberg

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The Arlberg region of western Austria is one of the world's premier ski destinations, with 85 lifts linking several resort villages into one expansive ski field.

Nearly 300 kilometres of groomed slopes swoop over mountainsides and valleys, while outstanding off-piste opportunities add more areas for the adventurous, advanced skier.

The classic White Ring circuit provides 22 kilometres of runs and 5500 metres of descent without ever having to ride the same lift twice.

I'm still finding runs I never knew existed, such the relatively new development on Rendl, a mountainside adjacent to St Anton favoured by youthful boarders in low-slung pants and designer beanies.

While the Arlberg's options are enormous and all its runs are inter-linked, I've found that my holiday experiences, especially off the slopes, have differed markedly each time with my choice of where I stay.

There are five main accommodation centres and each suits a different type of winter wanderer.

ST ANTON

The region's chic, big-name resort has good rail connections and is more bustling town than Christmas-card village, with outcrops of concrete blight hiding a town centre in which time-blackened chalets, smart fashion stores and sleek hotels mingle. I like it for its excellent restaurants and terrific wellness centre, with heated outdoor pool.

The party-minded flock to this Ibiza of the snows for tumultuous apres ski featuring Boney M, German hockey chants and table-top dancing in ski boots, most notably at the infamous slope-side Mooserwirt Bar.

Later, the action moves to clubs and cocktail lounges. Beyond the hangovers, however, St Anton has some serious skiing, especially for intermediate and advanced skiers. Off-piste skiing is magnificent, particularly below the 2812-metre Valluga peak, which I often tumble down in equal parts terror and exhilaration.

This is also Austria's best resort for freeriders and boarders. Beginners beware: the easier lower slopes are crowded and, since St Anton is south-facing, slushy by mid-afternoon.

ST CHRISTOPH

Seven kilometres up the road, St Christoph is the kindly aristocratic uncle to teenage St Anton. It has only a handful of buildings, including an onion-domed church.

Many people stay here just because of the Arlberg Hospiz Hotel, an impeccably run, five-star family hotel draped in carved wood and artworks.

Its notable restaurant serves Austrian specialities such as curious hay soup, dumplings and the spicy boiled beef dish tafelspitz.

In St Anton I often feel as if I should be strutting in mink-trimmed gloves and a lime-green parka. In St Christoph, you're better off with a traditional felt hunting jacket, just the right attire for the hotel bar, where well-coiffed Viennese, pleasantly pink after a visit to the wellness spa, sip on red wine from the hotel's 600-year-old cellars.

Stay here for fast access to the slopes, which are best suited to beginners and intermediate skiers. Advanced skiers can always link quickly to runs above St Anton.

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This is the highest of the Arlberg's resorts (1800 metres) and gets more snow than anywhere else, making it a good option for end-of-season skiing.

STUBEN

If you don't care to hobnob with St Anton's chalet bunnies or St Christoph's matrons, consider Stuben.

It retains more of an alpine village character than any other Arlberg ski resort, with a cosy, laidback atmosphere suited to evening knitters and readers and those with young families.

Accommodation is mostly in small, family-run hotels and mid-range guesthouses and self-catering apartments, with only a few restaurants and bars.

Stuben's few streets become snowy canyons as the season progresses. The village gets more snow (12 metres a year) than nearly anywhere else in the Austrian Alps. In addition, the north-facing slopes of the Albona that sit above the village are chilly but guarantee snow into late spring.

There are about 1000 metres of vertical descent, mostly wide and treeless, making for great runs. They aren't the most challenging but advanced skiers will be happy with the relative lack of crowds, as well as the good off-piste temptations.

ZURS

According to locals, you go to St Anton with friends, Stuben with family, Zurs with the girlfriend. This classy village has a certain romantic intimacy, with just enough restaurants and lounges for an elegant evening out, rather than a night on the town.

It also boasts some top hotels, such as the fabled Zurserhof, whose first owner, Ernst Skardarasy, helped pioneer skiing in Australia.

You may well meet members of the Skardarasy family over drinks at the bar. Zurs' hotels are generally family-run, with an emphasis on courteous service and genteel formality, and a liking for mounted stag's heads and rooms named for Austrian emperors.

Zurs shares many of its slopes with nearby Lech, and is known for its abundant snow. I've always found good powder here, with the five-kilometre Zurser Tali run one of the best for knee-deep, icing-sugar skiing. The more immediate surrounding slopes best suit intermediate skiers.

LECH

Sophisticated Lech has a certain glamour but none of St Anton's big-town vibe and bling. Its car-free satellite village, Oberlech, is right on the ski slopes above. With its highly rated restaurants and suave shops selling the latest sporting goods and traditional clothing, Lech is another place for romance rather than all-night dancing.

Nightlife is middle-aged and muted, though riverside bars are buzzing from mid-afternoon: just the place to try a plum schnapps with cinnamon and whipped cream known as a Hot Widow. Hot widows themselves are likely to be lurking at hotel bars, jiggling nostalgically to 1970s' pop.

Lech has grace without glitz and hovers happily beyond teenage exuberance, yet feels like a place for those who still enjoy life. It's also a favourite among those serious about their skiing.

Freeriders consider Lech one of the Europe's best spots for deep powder snow and making first tracks here is a pleasure for any level of skier. NWhile the nearest slopes suit beginners, the rest cater mainly to intermediate skiers.

Experienced skiers can be whisked up the Mehlsack by helicopter, as Lech is the only resort in Austria that offers heli-skiing.

The writer travelled courtesy of the Austrian National Tourist Office.

SWEET TREATS Four Austrian desserts after a hard day's skiing.

TOPFENSTRUDEL A variation on apple strudel featuring layered pastry filled with light, sweet cream cheese.

PALATSCHINKEN Thin, crepe-like pancakes, smeared with plum or apricot jam and sprinkled with sugar.

GERMKNODELN Large steamed dumplings filled with spicy plum jam and dusted with sugar and poppy seeds.

KAISERSCHMARRN Light, raisin-studded pancake chopped into pieces and topped with fine sugar and fruit compote.

GETTING THERE Emirates flies to Dubai and Zurich (6hr 40min), the Arlberg's closest airport. See emirates.com. Arlberg Express offers transfers from Zurich airport for €50 ($82) one way or €80 ($132.5 return, children under 12 half price. See arlbergexpress.com.

TRIP NOTES

STAYING THERE

The traditional, elegant Hotel Zurserhof in Zurs offers five-star accommodation right on the slopes. See zuerserhof.at.

The Arlberg Hospiz Hotel in St Christoph is famed as one of the region's best. See arlberghospiz.at.

Lovely Hotel Kristberg in Lech is run by a former 1960s' Olympic ski champion and has good mid-range accommodation-dining packages. See hotel-kristberg.at.

MORE INFORMATION

austria.info/au

arlberg.net

- FFX Aus

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