Valley highs in Austria: 'The lure of a ski trip remains too much to refuse'
An early season ski holiday opens up a world of snowy slopes, strange sauna rituals and Christmas markets for Kevin Doyle
Somewhere in a book there is a picture of me on a mountain beside the definition of 'love/hate relationship'.
I love the slopes - but as two broken arms, a smashed face and a crooked nose, among other cuts and bruises will attest, the slopes hate me.
It's not that I've been an outrageous thrill-seeker. Some of those injuries were acquired on Croagh Patrick without so much as a hint of snow in the air.
So in theory, I should probably shun any and all opportunities to take on the piste. But I can't. The lure of a ski trip remains too much to refuse.
A ski holiday has the great ability to render meaningless our genders, ages and even abilities. Of course, some of my new comrades on the bus from Munich to Austria's Bad Hofgastein plan to head straight for the black slopes, but that doesn't make them any more braver than those of us who have learned our limitations.
One man's hill is another man's Everest.
As I list the stories of previous battles, some of my fellow skiers take an extra hard gulp of their mid-morning beer to hide their looks of horror.
But it's okay, I reassure them. Older and wiser, I no longer have any naked ambition when it comes to skiing. I can't wait to saunter along with the 'intermediate' group and let the pacemakers plough their own furrow.
Besides, it's the week before the ski season officially starts, so there's plenty of room for mistakes.
Previously, I always ruled out a December trip, believing it was better to wait until after Christmas. That was a silly assumption. With just the locals for company, there are times in this snowy Austrian paradise when it feels like we have the whole resort to ourselves.
At just 857m, Bad Hofgastein is one of the lower peaks in the Gastein Valley, but there are other spots - such as Schlossalm and Bad Gastein - within reach for the venturesome types. For those of us who are happy just to be upright, there are nice, soft runs on which to rediscover your snow plough and even a bit of parallel skiing.
At a glance, the maps make it look more daunting than it actually is for a beginner/intermediate. There isn't an abundance of blue slopes, but the reds are more than manageable if you're willing to take your time.
Back at our digs - the four-star Hotel Norica in the pedestrianised centre of the town - our crew regroups to share updates on their initial escapades. As I had pre-warned them, mine was pretty mundane. I loved every minute of it and only a few soft landings to report.
What I hadn't anticipated, however, is that on this ski trip, my main adventure would come at a temperature of more than 50 degrees.
Previous holidays of this sort had been "lads' trips", staying in apartments and spending the evenings exploring every bar in town until the small hours.
But with the luxury of a hotel that has an underground tunnel leading to a 32,000m2 spa, I have to give it a try.
Austrians believe the sauna is the epitome of wellness and relaxation. And they don't do it by halves.
Entering the Alpentherme, I know that clothes (even Speedos) are frowned upon, but I assume I'll get away with wearing my towel. Not so. It's all or nothing - and at this heat, all is not an option.
If you're unsure of the etiquette, the natives will not be long setting you straight with a wagging of the finger. One even calls the supervisor because I had the audacity to sit on my towel rather than just discard it at the door.
This is one of the weirdest places I've ever been. An underground village of wood, stone and glass with indoor pools, heated outdoor pools, a selection of saunas, an infrared cabin and dozens of naked men and women (of all shapes and sizes) who are taking it all very seriously.
My first instinct is to grab that towel and leg it back to the sanctity of my hotel room for a hot shower, but after a few minutes it becomes a bit liberating. There's definitely nothing sexual about this place, and it will certainly make for a good story in the pub later.
I wander into one sauna, big enough to accommodate around 40 people, just in time to be locked in by a man that is allowed wear a towel. With him, he lugs bottles of beer which are passed around the dimly-lit room while he performs some sort of ice-breaking ritual in German. I've no idea what's going on, but the temperature keeps rising. When it ends 15 boiling minutes later, there's an automatic queue for the cold showers.
By the time we take the 90-minute drive to the town of Kirchberg two days later, I've detoxed two more times in 'Sauna World'.
Ski-wise, Kitchberg is only a short distance from the more famous Kitzbühel, but will save you a few euro when it comes to food and beer. Being ahead of the masses does mean the nightlife isn't as hectic as you might expect on a ski holiday too - which might suit some people.
On the other hand, there's always the potential to create your own fun as my group does by somehow convincing our resort rep, Colin, to reveal his alter-egos of Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner, Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger among others.
Many pints of beer later it starts to seem like the hallucinations of somebody losing their mind to altitude, but the photographs suggest otherwise.
One tip. If you do decide to ski pre-Christmas, make sure to set aside an evening for a visit to the markets. The one in Kitzbühel starts in late November and, as you might expect, is filled with nativity scenes, storytelling, pony riding and carol singing. However, it's the idyllic and tranquil setting that's the real attraction.
That and the warm Glühwein, served at €3.50 a glass. Or if, like me, you're more adventurous at the bar than on the slopes, try some mulled gin for €6.
A parting glass, before going back to the real world.
Kevin travelled as a guest of Topflight (01 240 1700; topflight.ie), which has seven-night packages to Bad Hofgastein and Kirchberg in Austria from €799pp, including flights, transfers and 3-star accommodation (4-star rates start from €899/€999pp).
Bad Hofgastein and Kirchberg are between an hour and 90 minutes from Salzburg - perfect for shopping or a trip to the Christmas markets (Nov 22 to Dec 26). See salzburg.info.
What to pack
A balaclava and lip balm sounds like the oddest combination in a suitcase, but they are two things every skier should bring. Use of the balaclava depends on the cold but it's nice to have the option. Lip balm, on the other hand, will be used morning, noon and night.
Take Three: travel tips
Bad Hofgastein has been investing. A new Schlossalmbahn lift due to open this December will more than double passenger capacity from 1,400 to 3,000 people an hour.
March 23-30 is Ladies Week in Gastein - during this time you can get a free lift pass with each one you buy, and there are lots of special offers (including in hotel spas).
Fancy a close look at world-class freestylers? Red Bull Playstreets takes place in mid-February, with 4,680m2 of snow piled up for stunts (and parties) in Bad Hofgastein.
Read more:On the Piste: Six ski tips (and six of the best deals) for the 2018/19 season