When ‘bad’ is good at a ski resort in Austria
A descent through powder on a wide gentle slope brings you to a small market in Kirchberg, where gluhwein turns this into a very merry start to Christmas
Bad Gastein, which is above the resort and town of Bad Hofgastein in Gastein valley, Austria
I meet a former ballet dancer in the tunnel that runs from our hotel to the Alpentherme swimming pool and spa in the Austrian town of Bad Hofgastein. “Bad” is good in this case, meaning “bath” in German. That liaison stretched my post-ski exercises into a special zone. We danced beneath the waves – keeping our heads above them, natch – and the ski muscles melted. It does help that the water naturally emerges from the ground at 42 degrees and is rich in minerals which, say the authorities, stimulate the body’s healing process and reduces inflammation and pain.
We arrive early in the ski season, into a storm, and awake to a colossal dump of snow that continues to fall, in white-out conditions. Our ski guide is thrilled, and as we emerge from the chair lift I look gratefully along a gentle piste disappearing into the fog – this resort is known for its cruising red runs – but he heads to the edge of the run and bids us follow him into the abyss.
Good skiers who live in resorts are not going to saunter down pisted blue runs on powder days if their fellow sliders are up for it, and so we jump into the deep white and, in my case, crash and occasionally float to the piste below. And so we descend the mountain, across paths and into beds of snow, until we reach a wood-rich chalet for lunch where hearty dumplings and chips showcase the comforts of Austrian country fare.
The resort and town of Bad Hofgastein is in the Gastein valley, a couple of hours from Salzburg airport, with Bad Gastein above it and Dorfgastein below. It is very much a regular town – rather than solely a ski resort, especially in this quiet inclement week before the package companies arrived – and it entices non-skiers to its vast health centre.
Our hotel, the very comfortable and functional Hotel Norica Palais, has its own spa as well as that tunnel-access to the municipal Alpentherme. It means you can either have a quiet swim in the hotel pool and use its sauna, or head to the aqua-metropolis.
But, as is the rule in Austria and Germany, you must take your kit off, so if you’re on your own the coupley hotel spa can feel a bit disconcerting, whereas the municipal spa has all sorts of sauna configurations, including a ladies’ only area. Finding a crowd of similar souls makes it easier to bear.
Most of the runs are intermediates, although there are testy reds (such as the H32 to Angertal) and some blacks, and great off-piste. One of the resort’s highlights is the longest run in the central eastern Alps, the Hohe Scharte North, on which you can ski and ski, lift free, for 10.5km to the valley floor.
We keep it traditional on our last evening in town, at the Wirthouse Tropferl restaurant, where a menu of mainly meat and potatoes replenishes calories lost on the slopes, and locals sit on stools at the bar sampling the range of beers.
The fabulous snow continues in Kirchberg, a small town that neighbours the more famous Kitzbuhel; which it shares a ski area with. We drive to the Christmas market in Kitzbuhel which runs down the high street, selling wooden decorations whose homeliness contrasts with the bling offered in the shops. It turns out that if you add Swarovski crystals to some designer runners you can escalate the price to over €1,000.
The market extends into a square where blazing braziers play fire with health-and-safety, but beneath the falling snow we embrace the hot metal and cup gluhwein in our heat-seeking hands. A brass band mooted to start at 6.02pm begins bang on time, playing to national stereotypes, and the scene is set.
Again, because of blizzards, we feel, rather than see, our way down the slopes of Kitzbuhel – which extend to 215km . The off-piste is extensive, and we follow our whooping guide to in-the-know powder snow beside and between pistes.
And one afternoon, after our guide leaves, we get lost in the mist and head down through what could have been a field or piste – I still don’t know – but it is a heavenly descent through powder on a wide gentle, bumpy slope between tall pines. The snow falls in great globs, and we arrive to a small, seasonal market in Kirchberg where more gluhwein turns this into a very merry start to Christmas.
Emma Cullinan travelled to Austria with Topflight. She stayed in the four-star Hotel Norica Palais in Bad Hofgastein and the four-star Hotel Metzgerwirt in Kirchberg.
Topflight offer weekly ski holidays to both resorts. Prices include return flights from Dublin, Cork or Belfast, airport transfers, accommodation for seven nights, 20kg baggage allowance, all taxes and the services of Topflight’s in-resort team.
A week in Hotel Norica Palais starts from €1,119pps (travelling on March 9th or March 16th) including accommodation on a half-board basis and free entrance to Alpentherme Thermal Spa. Four-star hotels in Kirchberg start from €939pps per week.
For further details see topflight.ie