Austria: Thick snow and traditional towns on a super ski break
Ski 2016/17 Special
Thick snow, traditional towns and Alpine landscapes make a super ski break for Conor Power and his son in Austria.
"Ski-fahren ist Knie-fahren!"
Our instructor Stefan smiles as he lapses into his native tongue. My 18-year-old son Colm and I look at one another. "You ski with your knees!" Stefan clarifies, before beckoning our group to follow in his tracks through the snow-misted mountainside.
We're in Kirchberg, in the Austrian Alps. The first couple of days were very snowy with poor visibility, but then, as now, we had Stefan to follow, doing our best to imitate his easy style as we cut over and back across the slopes like a flock of sliding ducklings.
This was my first time skiing in Austria. The big difference between resorts here and in France is that French ski stations are invariably purpose-built at the foot of the slopes. In Austria, the resorts are traditional towns with lots of old brown timber, ordinary people going about their day amidst the tourists and the occasional ruddy-faced farmer in Alpine lederhosen.
In short, what the Austrian set-up lacks in ski-in-ski-out convenience, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and authenticity. With an infrastructure only slightly smaller than France, the Austrians are also more ski-crazy than the French. That's reflected in the sporting statistics: no country has as many downhill champions as Austria, and every second face you see on the village streets bears the tell-tale signs of a regular skier: tanned head and bright eyes.
There's another thought on my mind. As I ski through the mists of the Pengelstein piste, I'm also trying to figure out what a teenager wants these days. I couldn't imagine what I'd wanted to do on a holiday with my father when I was 18. Go for a pint and stare longingly at eye-catching girls of international mystique, perhaps?
Bit by bit, however, we're starting to gel. Stefan guides us down slopes and up lifts all over the magnificent Tyrolean mountains and when the sky clears, so many tear-inducing beauty spots are revealed, I almost find myself weeping.
It's probably hunger. Sliding up to a cosy-looking pub, we remove our skis and clump inside to the warm Austrian interior. I follow Stefan's lead and order a great comfort plate of pork with potatoes and gravy, washed down with some beer and served up by a Corkman.
The Kirchberg ski area links in with several other areas. Your ski pass can take you to neighbouring areas such as Kitzbüheler-Horn and Jochberg-Resterhöhe, and you can use the excellent train and "Ski Bus" service to do so - free of charge. In Kirchberg itself, they have a great array of services for smaller ones too, and the age mixture on the slopes takes in everyone from toddlers to radical young dudes and golden oldies.
The second half of the week is full of brilliant sunshine. Colm and I finish with the instructor, leaving me to wonder if my teenager would get a bit stir-crazy being cooped up with his dad all this time. By now, however, we're used to the routine of getting up, having breakfast, walking down to the ski hire shop to pick up our gear and catching the bus for the short spin to the sunny slopes. In the evenings, Colm relaxes in the room or the bar, chatting online with his friends and/or girlfriend, while I go for a drink, or much-needed "wellness" reboots with healing steam baths and relaxing cups of mint tea.
The second half of the week is characterised by plenty of chatting and planning on which runs we'll do, where to stop for lunch, visiting Kitzbühel by gondola, and selecting choice sections of red and black runs that Stefan has already guided us through. When the last day arrives, and we have our final breakfast, my son sighs, saying he wishes the daily skiing didn't have to come to an end. He looks tanned, bright-eyed and healthy. There aren't many holidays that can do that to you.
We'd skied well, and spent so much time together without any argument it was priceless (we even had a legal pint or two together). Oh, and I discovered what today's teenager really wants: to be near warm food and a reliable broadband signal.
Stop for a midday meal of Tiroler Gröstl — a fantastic calorie-replenishing mixture of potatoes, onions, herbs, bits of bacon and more, topped with a fried egg. Yum!
How to do it:
Kirchberg is the venue for the next Topflight Today FM Ski Trip on January 28. Packages featuring the four-star Alpen Glück Kirchberger Hof Hotel in the town start from €885pp based on travel in March, but Topflight (01 240-1788; topflight.ie) also has apartments, three-star hotels and B&B-style options.
Prices include return flights from Dublin, Cork or Belfast, transfers, half-board stays, 20kg baggage allowance, taxes and rep services in resort.
You can also book through your local travel agent.
Milan’s Drei-Ecke by the bus-stop on Lendstraße, is a simple structure with an umbrella-like roof that opens up to let out the steam from partying skiers once the place reaches capacity. Elsewhere, the KC-Betriebs und Verwaltungs on Dorfplatz offers a more traditional set-up, with a locals/tourists mix, and a lot of people passing through on a kind of gentle evening’s mini pub crawl through Kirchberg.