Austria: Safari on skis
The Tyrol's resort names may be familiar but there are still some fantastic surprises awaiting skiers with their own vehicle. Stephen Wood slopes off on a safari
Look at the major UK ski tour operators' brochures, and you'll see that the same handful of resorts in Austria's Tyrol region appear in most of them. Kitzbühel, Obergurgl and Sölden, obviously: they have been popular with British skiers since the Sixties, and remain so.
Ischgl and Mayrhofen are newer favourites, the former (previously a German skiers' stronghold) for its extensive intermediate terrain, the latter partly because it caters well for snowboarders. Throw in a few less-familiar resorts – Alpbach, Seefeld and St Johann – and, as far as package-tour brochures are concerned, you've just about got the measure of the Tyrol.
But that isn't quite the whole story. For the Tyrol, which is considerably less than half the size of Scotland, has a total of 115 ski areas, with 387km of groomed pistes.
I can't tell you much about most of them: Ebbs, Fiss, Igls, Spiss and Vomp are no more than mildly amusing names to me. But last season I did extend my knowledge of Tyrol skiing beyond the norm, by taking a two-day ski safari in the Oetz and Paznaun valleys.
The Oetz valley is familiar territory to British skiers, because it runs up to Sölden and on to Obergurgl, near the border with Italy. Coaches transferring skiers to those resorts travel up the valley after turning off the A12 motorway, which runs east-west across the Tyrol. At the bottom, quite close to the A12, they pass the small ski area of Oetz, causing a ripple of excitement among the passengers. For the cable-car which runs up from the car park is often the first that they see on their way up to the mountains.
Many British skiers pass by, but few stop to ski. That's hardly surprising, given that Oetz has just 11 lifts and 27km of intermediate skiing, while about 30km further up the valley is Sölden, whose ski area stretches 1,000m higher than Oetz's and has 34 lifts and 148km of pistes on a variety of terrain, including some tricky stuff. Yet on a bright day, skiing on slopes that offer great views into two valleys, the attractions of a small area like Oetz are obvious. There are no crowds and no queues; and there is a wonderful mountain restaurant, the Balbachalm, which serves freshly made food at astonishing prices (my lunch, a trio of pasta parcels with cheeses and spinach, plus a salad, cost ¿7.20, around £5). True, it takes less than a day to ski all the slopes. But in the Tyrol there's always another ski area waiting to be explored, just along the road.
On a ski safari, a car is essential. Innsbruck lies in the middle of the Tyrol, so it's obviously the destination airport of choice for touring skiers. GB Airways flies in from Gatwick and Manchester. This season, GB Airways' new owner, easyJet, has moved in on its own account, with links from Gatwick, Bristol and – starting next Tuesday 8 January – flights from Liverpool.
At Innsbruck's gloriously located airport – in a beautiful, narrow valley – you can rent a car and head off either to Mayrhofen, Kitzbühel and other resorts in the east, or in the opposite direction towards Oetz, the Paznaun valley, and other points west. With a car, of course, there's no need to sleep where you ski – useful when resort accommodation is heavily booked, essential in places like Oetz, which is more a ski area than a resort.
A friend pointed me in the direction of nearby Langenfeld, and the Naturhotel Waldklause. The hotel turned out to be an exquisite place in a sylvan setting, elemental in its interior style (largely in wood, stone and glass, but with some primary-colour panels) and enjoying the very desirable amenity of a huge day-spa almost on its doorstep. The Naturhotel's own bathing amenities are good enough: the shower stalls are large, clear-plastic enclosures with proper, hinged doors, and the figure-of-eight bathtub in my room had a one-inch-thick slate surround cut perfectly to follow its outline. But the Aqua Dome, with capacity for 1,000 bathers, clearly offers more. It has all the facilities of a modern spa plus a trio of giant, elevated outdoor pools set in Martini-glass-shaped concrete enclosures, suggesting an expressionistic Olympic podium.
One pool is 16 metres in diameter, and full of brine heated to 36C; another is a whirlpool pumped full of bubbles; the third is a "massage pool" with underwater jets and the added frisson of a geyser which erupts regularly from its centre. A different sort of frisson is provided by the Austrians' relaxed attitude to nudity: go to the Aqua Dome in the evening (it closes at 11pm) and you must expect potentially embarrassing encounters in the salt grotto with courting couples.
A little more than an hour's drive from Langenfeld, as far up the Paznaun valley as one can go in winter, is Galtür. In summertime the Silvretta Pass beyond is actually passable, if you pay the toll; but in winter Galtür is a dead-end, and therefore quiet and peaceful. Its ski area lies above the 1,584m-high village, surrounded by snow-covered mountain faces. The sense of enclosure makes the disastrous avalanche in 1999, which killed 31 people, seem almost predictable: all the slopes appear to funnel down to the village. (In fact, the avalanche penetrated areas that were historically safe.)
Galtür's terrain is largely intermediate, though there is plenty of off-piste skiing on the area's almost tree-less moonscape. The uniform, brilliant-white aspect is somewhat disorienting, especially on the long run down to the Kopssee, a man-made lake that lies on the border between the Tyrol and the Vorarlberg region to the north. As you head down to a final crest, the view is white-on-white, the variation in tone between snow and ice almost imperceptible. Only as you cross the brow do you realise that a swift turn is necessary to avoid the transition from skiing to skating on thin ice.
The Galtür area is small, with only 40km of pisted skiing; but for a low-to-mid-level intermediate, the terrain is ideal. And under spectacular blue skies, the setting was exquisite. Unfortunately, the weather changed as I headed back down the valley to Kappl.
From the piste maps, it was clear that Kappl was the pick of the three destinations on my ski safari. But nothing was clear up on the mountain. My guide took me up to the area's highest point, at 2,720m, in the hope that visibility might be better there – good enough, even, to look down on St Anton's Rendl slopes in the next valley, with which the Kappl ski area should soon be connected. No such luck: the clouds had closed in. There was no point in searching for the eight-kilometre-long, Lattenabfahrt descent. We just felt our way back down the direct route, and did a few runs on Kappl's lower slopes.
The weather did not, however, obscure the charm of Kappl, which is one of a string of settlements running along the side of the valley. Small enough to retain the character of a mountain village, Kappl is about as far removed from a "ski resort" as it could possibly be – though perhaps not for long. Once that link with St Anton is built, Kappl will go straight into the ski brochures.
Rooms at Naturhotel Waldklause (00 43 5253 5455; www.waldklause.at ) cost €204, full board.
A day pass at the Aqua Dome (00 43 5253 6400; www.aqua-dome.at ) costs €22 Mon-Fri, €24 at weekends and on bank holidays
Off the beaten track
Early this season, I went on another short ski safari in Austria, this time carrying a pass that accesses Tyrol ski areas as much as 175km apart. The White5 pass, new this year, is valid in the glacier-skiing areas of Kaunertal, Pitztal, Sölden-Otztal (pictured above), Stubai and Hintertux.
For skiers, the great virtue of glaciers is that they retain their snow cover for long periods, in some cases (as at Hintertux) permitting year-round skiing. The drawback of them is that glacier-skiing areas are small (and shrinking).
It is the problem of marketing that led the five glacier-skiing areas to join forces. Sölden and, to a lesser extent, Hintertux are resorts that offer some skiing on a glacier, and a lot more elsewhere on the mountain: they are proper ski destinations. The others are not. Hence this pass, valid in any of the areas for a total of 10 separate days of skiing this season between 1 October and 12 May. It costs €290. The idea is that pass-holders will ski for a few days before the normal Alpine season, plus a few days thereafter; should snow cover be poor on the Tyrol's regular slopes in mid-season, the pass will be good then, too.
There is a thrill to getting ahead of the crowd, and skiing in the Alps before others have even booked their holidays. And glacier-skiing isn't difficult: you ski on snow, not ice; and the gradients are rarely steep. But this pass, while obviously very handy for people who live in Innsbruck, seems a non-starter for British skiers. The case for a three-day pass, say, might be made: a safari like my own, but visiting glacier-skiing areas, would be appealing – especially if the areas chosen were relatively close together. But 10 days? I don't think so.