Skiing, for me at least, is a bit like golf: no matter what your skill level you can enjoy it. You can find someone who is just as good, or useless, as you are. Just as the one good shot lifts the mood on the golf course, the one run at the limits of your abilities when you don’t fall over will bring you back to the slopes for more.
With each pastime the people who teach you seem to be the most helpful, polite people on the planet. They may laugh behind your back but never to your face. They are unfailingly encouraging, and miraculously, after half an hour, you do learn something and you can feel the difference.
I used to be a good golfer but these days I am rubbish. I was never a good skier. I never had a good run at it. But I take every chance to do a few days and I always enjoy finding my feet and feeling a little fear.
So it was with a happy heart that I headed off on Ryanair to reach Westendorf in Tyrol, Austria, armed with the knowledge that Austria had yet again been crowned with Best Ski Destination from Ireland by the Travel Agents Association of Ireland in 2019. Ski holidays were a growing Irish market until Covid put a halt to travelling. I will always be happy to get the numbers back up.
It is about a two-hour drive from Munich airport in Germany to Westendorf, though Ryanair also flies direct to Salzburg during ski season. I didn’t even notice the border. Oh, how I love the European Union.
Westendorf is a big village, or a very small town, at an elevation of 783m and it is about 15km from Kitzbühel.
I was soothed looking at the well-tended fields, saw a few deer, and hundreds of neat piles of wood outside well-kept houses until the mountains came into view and we began our ascent to the four-star Hotel Bichlingerhof in Westendorf.
A rapid check-in and it was down the road to a local restaurant for lunch. I demolished a spectacularly good hamburger and a glass of wine. Initially I asked for what I thought was a glass of rosé, but it turned out to be some high-powered, sticky, coloured schnapps. I passed on that in the daylight. I have standards.
Then the fun began. I am a sucker for modes of transport. I am happy to explore any way of getting from A to B that might be a bit different. I had been on a Segway before and loved it. But it had never occurred to me that you could put chains on the wheels and Segway in the snow.
Our group was given a short lesson and off we went crocodile style following our leader. He was strict. There were to be no races. He was never going to lose a customer. We were happy campers and we wended our way through the woods and over what was a golf course in the summer.
In the spirit of do everything once, this is a definite ‘do’. For a beginner it is a lot easier than skiing. We learned to slalom. Carefully. It takes a minute to get the hang of it but our guide wasn’t going to have any daredevils on his watch. The Segway does what you want it to. You just move your body and it seems to understand.
The theory of skiing is much the same, but unfortunately the essential connection between brain and skis doesn’t always work.
I got through a lot on my first day because no sooner had I taken a post-Segway shower in the comfortable Bichlingerhof than it was off for more food. I am a great fan of getting in a taxi and visiting a mountain or nearby village restaurant in these resorts. You always find something interesting.
The Brixentaler KochArt is an association of innkeepers that sources products from local farmers and producers, and shows the provenance on their menus. We ended up on a farm in Gasthaus Steinberg, a sustainable plot that even has its own fish lake and where a great meal was followed by another new experience: curling.
The restaurant has its very own curling track that I think is called a sheet, which would be appropriate as it is level, flat and made of ice. We weren’t too sure who won because we didn’t really know the rules and everyone cheated but we had fun.
Morning came too early. I devoured a huge energy-building breakfast at the hotel to prepare for skiing. This is a bit like riding a bicycle. Once you get going, it all comes back. The actual skiing is great but getting all the gear organised is a pain in the neck.
We headed to Skisport Hausberger where we were kitted out by the lovely Anita in perfect English. I hate the boots. They are hard to get into and almost impossible to get out of when you are exhausted. There are few greater feelings than putting on a pair of runners after a day in your ski boots when you never stood comfortably and went up and down stairs in trepidation. You only forget about the infernal boots when you are skiing, which I suppose is the idea.
Kitted out, I headed for the slopes and the panoramic views. There are 280km of slopes with 90 cable cars – 26km are marked easy, 35km very difficult, and the rest are blue and made for me.
The first feat is getting off the chair lift without making a fool of yourself. It is actually easy. You just stand up at the right time and glide gently to your start point. In my early days I either timed it wrong or skied straight into some unfortunate people. Not so this trip. Even the button lifts, which I used to hate, were a piece of cake. You just stand there and let the machine do the work.
I only really lost it once on a run that was as difficult as I dared to try and was dark blue as far as I was concerned. When the control is slipping away, I try to select a spot to aim at for my crash, preferably a nice mound of snow. I could see none. I held on for dear life.
Somehow the turns got easier and I regained some composure. I am sure my instructor was disappointed as he was expecting a good laugh. To my great disappointment he hadn’t even videoed this heroic display.
On the same slope the next day I started to lose it again, but didn’t. It is always nice to have your progress commented on. Skiing instructors have excellent social skills. We conversed. Timo – as he’s called – tells me he is planning to go to medical school. I decided not to give him any broken limbs to play doctor with.
The rest of the day was mostly about food. There was a good lunch in the Sonnalm hut that was drivable from the village. I did some shopping, well, window shopping. I do not need Lederhosen.
Then, after a pleasant snooze, a taxi awaited and off to a fondue evening in the Zieplhof. Then back to Westendorf for one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life. But first some context.
There is beautifully cut and stacked wood beside most of the houses here. You would think that after a long day with the chainsaw the last thing anyone would want to do is go out and have a few pints and knock nails into wood with a hammer. You would assume there was not enough oxygen getting to their brains. In this era of virtual reality and screens who could get hours of endless fun from hitting nails into a tree stump? Well, everyone. Apparently, I was a very cheap child to raise as my favourite game was to take all the lumps of coal out of the bucket and count them and put them back in again. Then repeat ad nauseam to see if I got the same number. No expensive Scalextric need to keep me content.
And so I went to The Village Pub (I felt at home since my Kilkenny local is The Village Inn). The nail game was the best fun I have had since the coal bucket. I took to it with fervour. And all you need is a nail, a shared hammer and a tree trunk and you are laughing. “If I had a hammer ….” I finally understand the Pete Seeger song.
It is pleasantly competitive but you can’t get too far above yourself because you are better at hitting nails into wood with the thin end of a hammer. (Back home I bought all of the equipment. Well, some nails. I had a hammer. Barbecue guests have looked at me suspiciously. I did hear the word ‘doolally’. Sadly, they just didn’t get it).
The second day of skiing is always easier. The Talkaser at 1,770m was the culprit that filled me with ‘very dark blue’ fear on day one when my ski brakes failed. Day two, I treated it with the contempt it deserved. Timo, ‘almost a doctor’, was impressed, or faked it.
We had lunch at the newly renovated Alte Mittel, meaning that it is on the spot of the old middle station. With the spectacular view, they put in the biggest windows they could find. I had beef tartare, which was brilliant. Timo had what was called a half schweinshaxe, which I translate as most of a pig. I dread to think what the full one was like. The piece I tried was delicious, as was the obligatory hot chocolate with extra cream.
This is a kind of A to B to A to B holiday. If you have been eating then skiing is next. If you have been skiing, then eating is next. And throw in the nail game at nights.
I enjoyed my final meal in Restaurant Michlwirt where the felt-covered menu was very classy and, having a short memory, I went for the Aperol again. The perils of being a slow learner.
It was yet another meal under yet another crucifix. The country is very Catholic but I got the impression these were more like ornaments from an earlier era.
I ate a local speciality boiled beef with roast potatoes and spinach, and it was delicious. To make up for the dreaded Aperol, I discovered Haselnuss Schnapps.
Across the road to the cellar bar in the Jakobwirt Hotel where I fell into the company of a very friendly London crowd. Needless to say they were Remainers so we had a lot in common. I felt their pain. And dulled it with another Haselnuss Schnaps.
Of course, I could not pass the duty-free on the way home without heading for the sticky drink section and there it was. My new friend, Haselnuss. Of course I bought it. I knew as I did so that it would sit at the back of a cupboard for about five years.
Drinks have their place. And this one was perfect in snowy Austria to finish off any of the wonderfully enjoyable days I spent there.