Skiing high in the Tyrol
GO AUSTRIA:The Skiwelt is the most modern ski area in Austria, making it the perfect place for groups of all levels to get together, writes JOAN SCALES
That day last December, it was minus 14, the skies were clear and the crystals were tiny frozen snowflakes glistening in the sunshine. Thanks to some long johns and microfiber ski wear, it was great to be out in it. Here on the mountain tops the air is sparkling and the clouds seem far below.
This is a beautiful day to get to know the Skiwelt region of Austria which stretches over 279km of ski runs. It has 91 cable cars and lifts, and dozens of restaurants and bars.
The mountains are so perfect it is hard to stop looking at the scenery. It is breathtaking. When a plane passes overhead, you feel you can almost touch it. We are 1,829 metres above sea level here, though it sounds higher when you say 6,000 feet.
It is the beginning of the ski season and the slopes have yet to fill up. We are lucky not to be among the 130,000 people the cable cars can transport hourly. I’m not sure they ever reach that number, though this is one of the most modern ski areas in Europe, making it very popular.
The Skiwelt Wilder Kaiser Brixental, to give it the full name, links the ski villages of Söll, Scheffau, Brixen, Ellmau, Going, Itter, Hopfgarten and Westendorf, where many Irish people have learned to ski. With the level of investment going into the Skiwelt, not surprisingly it has been voted the best ski region in Europe. The improved high-speed lifts mean you can cover serious terrain here.
The region covers the Wilder Kaiser mountains and has a mix of ski and winter sports activities for all levels including para-gliding, heli-skiing and tobogganing. Each village has its own lift access with ski schools, equipment hire and shops. We were based at Söll and tried our best to cover as much ground as possible in a few days. Thanks to the high-speed lifts and cable cars, you can do a lot of skiing here.
The area provides perfect skiing and boarding for all levels with 124km of blue runs, 128km of red runs and 11km of black. There are also plenty of off-piste and cross country routes.
The longest run at Söll is from Hohe Salve to the Valley, at 7.3km. The final red run with a steep descent allows you to swoop down to Valley Station on a high or the looping blue will get you there at a gentler pace. Skiing does not have to end at 5pm as there are 13km of night skiing slopes too.
One of the interesting new additions this year is the Skiline, an online report you can download of how much skiing you have done each day. Every lift pass has an individual number and as you go through a lift it records your journey.
At the end of the day, you can print out a report from the wesbite, skiwelt.at.en, showing how many lifts you went through, how high you went and how many kilometres you covered. It is perfect for encouraging competition among groups of friends and showing your progress if you are learning. You can also see your evaluation on Google Earth on the interactive Skiwelt trail map and look at where you skied.
If you are a beginner, the Skiwelt region is a great place to start especially as there is a bit of comfort with heated chairlifts and only one t-bar lift. That probably will have disappeared by next season. I have fond memories of t-bars, which usually involve falling off them. and a very funny memory of a friend taking an instructor with her as they went head first into a snow drift off the t-bar in Zell-am-See.
A curiosity on the slopes is the re-creation of a traditional Austrian farmer’s house. This house is hundreds of years old and was transported plank by plank up to the slopes to a place where visitors can see what it was like to live in the Tyrol in the olden days.
During the year there are lots of activities for adults and children at the house. When we visited, there was a great collection of snowmen and women for the children to enjoy. We had herb tea boiled over the wooden stove, served with the local version of brack.
Söll is a picture postcard Tyrolean village with traditional wooden buildings, a pretty church and about 30 restaurants and bars. Many of the building are very old and immaculately maintained. You almost expect some elves to appear to show you the way home. There are also some good shops for ski gear and clothing.
One of the nicest ways to explore the village is by sleigh and our trip with Martina was memorable. She and her horse-drawn sleigh took us on a ride past a rushing river, across snowy fields and down quiet side streets. The only thing missing was a glass of glühwein or schnapps to keep the cold at bay.
Having spent a few days in Söll, I can see why the Irish keep returning to this part of Austrian Tyrol. One of our group had fond memories of holidaying here 30 years ago, when they went for two weeks and stayed in family run pensiones. It would be lovely to spend two weeks in Söll, and boy would your skiing improve.
* Joan Scales travelled as a guest of Topflight, Ireland’s leading ski tour operating company, topflight.ie
Topflight operates flights to Austria from Dublin and Cork with prices from €349 for a week in pension accommodation. Salzburg airport is just over an hour away and there is access from Innsbruck and Munich.
Where to stay, where to eat and where to go
Where to stay
Ferienhotel Fuchs. Tel: 0043-5333-5279 or see ferienhotel-fuchs.at. Family-run hotel in Söll which operates with classic Austrian efficiency and functionality. The food is good and there is Wi-Fi for guests. A week in this hotel, half-board with flights and transfers will cost from €719pps, topflight.ie.
Bergview Haus. See bergviewhaus.com. Newly built apartments about 1km from the centre of Söll. Units can sleep from four to six. All have Wi-Fi. Irish-owned and managed, it has achieved a remarkable 28 excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. Prices are about €1,200 per week in ski season.
The Igloo Hotel (alpeniglu.com) at the Alpeniglu Village near the top lift station in Hochbrixen. Built each winter, it has a hotel, restaurant, ice exhibition and sun lounge. Spend a night in one of the seven suites and enjoy a drink at the ice bar, dinner on the ice table and a romantic torchlight walk in the forest. A VIP stay costs €185pps and includes dinner, breakfast and the necessary warm sleeping bag and reindeer skins.Go for dinner and have a romantic table for two with a glass of Prosecco and a bottle of wine for €90 for two.
Places to eat
Gipfelrestaurant Hohe Salvenbahn (Lift 22). If you think you know Austrian food, then Gipfelrestaurant will be a surprise. The cooking verges on haute cuisine, with light airy dishes and tasty entrées. Their version of the classic kaiserschmarrn, a kind of chopped pancake with apple, is delicious. There is a surprise in the bathroom, where you have a great view of the mountains from the throne, though you cannot be seen from outside.
Stöcklalm, Valley Station, Stöckl, (Lift 44). A great fun restaurant for a group. In the evening, there is a cauldron of glühwein bubbling over a wood fire and you can try your hand at archery. The best fun is to be had with the fondue. You can argue whether to put all the meat in to cook or to do it a few pieces at a time. Someone will always take over as mother.
Gasthof Hochsöll, (Lift 40). There is a definite western theme going on here. The wait staff wear check shifts, waistcoats and are very welcoming. Food is classic Austrian and lots of it.
Moonlight Bar, Valley Station. Just as you come back down into Söll the Moonlight Bar beckons. Here is the place to share the highs and lows of the day.
Salven Stadl in Söll. There are about 30 bars in the town so there is no shortage of places to go. You can party inside and out at Salven Stadl with DJs playing music from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It is one of the liveliest bars in the town and dancing on the tables is not frowned at.
Do not miss
One of the most fun things to do in Söll is the toboggan run. Take the lift up and get ready on your Rodeln(German for toboggan) for a hair-raising 4.8km hurtle down the mountain. The run turns, twists, shoots and dashes between trees, up banks, round bends and all at great speed. Use your heels to control the Rodelnand you will find yourself at the bottom, screaming to go again. The adrenaline rush is amazing. It’s even more exciting when you do it at night after dinner in Stöklalm. It costs €5 for the day, slightly dearer in the evening time. They give you a chain to lock your toboggan up when you go into a bar.