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Sunday 20 April 2014

Travel: It's downhill all the way in charming Austria

AUSTRIA

SCENIC: The Austrian Tirol has pistes for all level of skier and is the perfect place to brush up on your skills, while admiring the panoromic views

AS I headed off to ski in Austria, I was afraid. Not of the skiing, but that I would have forgotten all I learned on my previous trip back in 2010. I worried it would take me the entirety of the short three days we had on the slopes to get my ability back.

I needn't have worried. On arrival in St Johann in the Austrian Tirol, I was lucky to find wide and relatively quiet slopes, enabling me to get prepared, in a short space of time, for the skiing that lay ahead. I found my skiing feet, taking in the surrounding panoramic views of the white peaks glistening above the villages.

It's a great resort for skiers of all ages and abilities. That first day, I surprised myself by conquering a few challenging runs.

When my legs started to burn, I retired to a mountain cafe, where I had difficulty choosing between what I felt was a well-deserved glass of mulled wine, made up with traditional festive spices, or a heart-warming, smooth-tasting hot chocolate. The tipple won out in the end.

That evening, coming off the slopes feeling quietly confident, I explored the charming town of St Johann before making for my base, the cosy Hotel Post.

Apart from skiing, the big selling point of Austria is its traditional home-cooked food. It's a good combination, as skiing works up such an appetite that the prospect of the regional dishes awaiting you in the comfort of a mountainside restaurant make the thrilling runs down the slopes all the more do-able.

The culinary treat extraordinaire of the few days away had to be at a restaurant called Angerer Alm. Annmarie Foidl, chairwoman of the Austrian Association of Sommeliers, runs the world-class restaurant, along with her daughter. Situated above St Johann on the Kitzbuheler Horn, there's a wine cellar located underneath the restaurant, a bit like a secret chamber, where our group joined a wine-tasting.

After wolfing down a type of cheese soup known as 'Graukase suppe', followed by wild tortellini stuffed with game and concluding with apple fritters, I was concerned about getting down the mountain. Thankfully the slopes were empty on my descent, as I got my heart rate up and did big S shapes to make it a smooth ride.

I soon collapsed into my beautiful room which had a log cabin feel, with ski engravings on the walls.

Westerndorf, Europe's third largest ski area – and home to 84 restaurants – was to be the surroundings for the second part of our trip.

Westendorf is part of the SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental, Austria's largest inter-connected ski area, with more than 279 km of piste and 90 lifts, with something for all levels of skier. Winter sports have a long tradition here, dating back to as early as the 1950s, and the highlight for me was night skiing in the picturesque mountain village of Soll, one of the nine resorts of Skiwelt.

For any avid skier, it was spellbinding having a playground of 10km of floodlit piste to play around with in Austria's biggest night skiing area. Great illuminated toboggan runs are also available and it brought out the speed devil in me as I swished down an array of runs.

Austrian Alpine skier Christina Ager, who celebrated her World Cup debut in November 2013 when she came fourth in her race, is from this mountain area.

As the night drew to a close, next to Ager's parents' mountain inn, we feasted some more in Stockl Alm, a mountain restaurant, eating all the quintessential Tirolean dishes, including goulash soup, deer stew with spatzle and cranberry jam and for dessert an out-of-this-world, sumptuous and unforgettable Kaiserschmarrn, a kind of shredded pancake.

I have regularly dreamt about this sweet course since returning home and I long to sample it again. And the skiing too, of course.

 

GETTING THERE

Alison travelled to the Kitzbuhel Alps in Austria, with Topflight, which has just been voted Ireland's best Ski Tour Operator for the 20th consecutive year. You can call Topflight on (01) 240 1700, or in Northern Ireland on (02897) 521168, alternatively contact your local travel agent or log on to www.topflight.ie for packages to Austria, France, Andorra, and Italy.

In St Johann in the Tirol Alison stayed at the beautifully restored 3-star Hotel Post. The town has great bars and restaurants and a sports centre – free to use if you stay at the Hotel Post. Prices start at €608 for one week, including flights from Dublin, Cork or Belfast, transfers, and accommodation, as well as full luggage allowance.

In Westendorf, the three-star Hotel Post Westendorf is highly recommended for families and beginners, as you just have to cross the road to get to ski hire, ski school and beginner ski area. If you like a little bit more luxury there's the four-star Jakobwirt Hotel in the centre of town. Prices for the Hotel Post in Westendorf start at €670 and prices for the Hotel Jakobwirt start at €940. All prices include flights, transfers, accommodation, and full luggage allowances.

The night skiing at Soll is recommended, and also the exhilirating toboggan runs. Great for a group night out.

To make the best use of your ski holiday, ski school is highly recommended, not just to stay safe, but to gain local knowledge as well as learning a little. Topflight also recommends that adults use a ski helmet. In most countries, children must wear a ski helmet.

 

TAKE TWO

1. Kaiserschmarrn

This popular dessert and hearty cuisine is a type of pancake, which gets its name from the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, who was very fond of it. The main ingredients are flour, eggs, sugar, milk and butter. Other ingredients such as nuts, cherries, plums, apple jam, or small pieces of caramelised raisins and almonds, can be added. It can also be eaten with hot lingonberry jam, sprinkled with powdered sugar.

2. Tobogganing

The simple sled, a traditional form of transport, was once a means of bringing hay to the valleys from farms high up in the hills, or of bringing firewood to the mountain huts. Today, however, it's been transformed and carries one or more people down a hill at speed. You don't have to be an Olympian to try it. Tobogganing at night with exciting turns makes it all the more exhilarating under the lights.

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