Cruising territory

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

The Tyrolean resort of Westendorf has long lured Irish beginner and intermediate skiers, and families, many of whom return over and again.

As well as easy pistes and a general lack of showing off – negating a need to keep up with the Johanns – the aprés ski has a Gaelic slant. There are emerald beers and Irish music on tap during Paddy’s weekend, and there is also the serendipitously named Fein Sinn restaurant and bar in the town. Its Celtic connection is a coincidental link created by a Gaelic-German linguistic reversal and has nothing to do with Irish politics. It means something along the lines of feeling good (or “fine”) – but the staff smile sweetly in recognition when we point out the link.

Yet Westendorf has had its limitations for those tempted to return, because once you are a competent skier the relatively small size of the resort restricts how far you can ski – and for up-and-coming skiers, who need miles under their belts to get off the intermediate-standard plateau, repeating the same runs day in, day out can get tedious and hinder your improvement.

But a few years ago all that changed when Westendorf was lifted into the vast SkiWelt area beside it. It was always accessible by bus – but once you’re up gliding on mountains, taking to the roads can feel like a rude interruption. Now the lift at the top of the Choralpe slope has a run down to the left, to the valley floor. While the connection to the Brixen im Thale lift – taking you up into the heart of SkiWelt – is via a rolling “carpet” across what feels like a field, you are soon on the high-tech lift system and skiing over mountain and vale across to the various villages that make up SkiWelt.

While Austria has maintained its trad-postcard image with dinky wooden villages – unlike certain French ski resorts where planners had few qualms about housing skiers in slabs of concrete – it lost out to France when it came to the sheer scale of resorts that spread ever-longer cable cars and chair lifts, like tentacles, across vast valleys, creating a web of resorts to create super-ski areas.

These include Trois Vallées (with 660km of skiing) and Portes du Soleil (650km of pistes, including links with Switzerland). France also has higher mountains than Austria.

While SkiWelt is very much an intermediates area – with ribbons of red runs, a slew of blues and some rare blacks – it offers great touring opportunities, with 279km of runs. This is serious cruising territory, where you can glide for satisfyingly long stretches, down tree runs, wide, open slopes, and fields of gentle moguls.

You can tour the mountains from, say Hopfgarten to Ellmau, or Brixen to Soll, although some parts of the piste map and signposts are confusing, so leave time for getting temporarily lost down the side of an Alp, and taking an unscheduled ski lift, if you are trying to get somewhere within a certain timescale.

The SkiWelt setting is beautiful, with views across valleys to mountains all around, with the imposing Wilder Kaiser range jagging the sky above Kitzbuhel (an area you can extend your ski pass to, should you wish to cover serious miles).

The villages dotted around the edge of SkiWelt offer various experiences, from the more buzzy Soll, with an active nightlife (although it has tried to shed its lager-lout image and appeal more to families), while smaller villages such as Hopfgarten would have you believe you were spending a mountain holiday in Hobbit land, with few signs of it being a ski resort.

The size of the towns and villages generally translates to queue size too, so while you may have to shuffle against the ski-suits of the hordes each morning in larger resorts, if you take off up the mountain from the Hopfgarten or Brixen lift, things are generally quieter and faster.

But whichever way you ascend to the pistes, SkiWelt is a beautiful, well-run place in which to float about, practising turns for long stretches.

New technology on the slopes

Swapping ski-lift tickets will soon be a thing of the past, a staff member at SkiWelt told me with glee. At the moment ski passes have a chip within, that can be read through your ski-gear, and so can be kept in your pocket. But now some resorts are introducing face recognition , which will send alarm bells if the ski-pass is not being used by its owner. More and more resorts are resorting to this technology – you have been warned. Other information is stored too, such as each lift you go through, so at the end of the day you can check how far you have travelled and where.

Technology that has been around for a while is timed runs – there are two in SkiWelt – on which you can test your speed and be filmed doing it. Your ski pass sets the camera going and you can watch the result at the bottom of the run or on the internet.

All ski resorts now have Facebook pages, Apps and Twitter – along with websites. As one marketing director told me, her staff have to be up early each morning getting the snow reports and skiing conditions online to encourage people to use their resorts.

And the hefty bills that came with using the internet on a mountain are diminishing as there is now free access at certain locations.

Health in Hofgastein

I lie back in a hot outdoor swimming pool, face turned to the snow-darkened sky, catching great, fluffy flakes on my tongue, enjoying the warmth of the water while a snow cap gathers on my head. This is the external thermal reach of the Alpentherme pool in the resort of Bad Hofgastein, in Salzbergerland, where the wellness associated with winter sports runs off-piste.

If you stay in certain hotels, such as the warm, wooden, well-run Norica (bookable through Topflight), you don’t even have to trouble yourself with the outdoors to get to the bathing centre, as it links to Alpentherme via a tunnel.

While you can swim beneath the falling snow in either a warm or cool outdoor pool, or cavort in an indoor pool complete with high slides, there are also more health-boosting and monitoring options. You can opt for the deep radon baths that hit some nucleus of your being, or choose a complete health check – from heart rate to blood pressure and so on – with a get-fit programme devised from the resulting information. This is available for all, from sofa spuds to top athletes.

See alpentherme.com

Emma Cullinan was a guest of Topflight