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Slope off to some place more exotic

AFTER a decade of boom in the number of Irish skiers making their first tentative turns on the mountain, there's now a whole generation looking for steeper hills, bigger resorts and more choice.

For years, St Johann, Westendorf, Sol and Zell am See were at the centre of the Irish skiing experience in Austria, with Kitzbuhel around the corner providing a dash of the exotic and a hint of what might be available with a bit of exploration.

Topflight pioneered the idea that skiing could become an accessible holiday for ordinary Irish people and it's no surprise that forward-thinking company chief Tony Collins is now moving from traditional resorts to more challenging ski arenas.

Saalbach Hinterglemm is high on the list of Austria's great ski destinations, and on a crisp day in December, it's no mystery why.

The ski area covers more than 200km of mixed blue-and-red terrain with black scattered throughout and plenty of scope for adventure on off-piste routes from Saalback at the head of the valley through Hinterglemm and across a necklace of lifts.

Although the nearby Grossglockner, the tallest mountain in Austria, dominates Salzburgerland, Saalbach Hinterglemm cannot boast ultra-high elevations. But the area is rarely without snow in season and during a flying visit in early December, they were well into their second big dump -- with a third one expected.

Skiing in December is a secret pleasure known to very few, and with good reason. For several years in the 1990s, many resorts stayed green up to Christmas and only the highest areas in France and Switzerland could boast reliable snow.

But the last few years have seen a return to excellent pre-Christmas conditions and there's always good value for those flexible enough to drop everything. For the second successive year, there is a base down in Saalbach that should last to April and it has been cold enough to keep the snow-making system pumping through the night -- and can cover 90pc of the area with more than 460 machines. It has been cold for weeks now and it's easy to see why everyone in Saalbach is wearing a huge grin.

Most of them wake up and eat their breakfast against a breathtaking backdrop. They can ski during their lunch break and, in the case of the ski school run by Hannes Furstauer, they can get paid to do it, too. How bad is that?

Evi Herzerltanz certainly grins a lot and if you are ever lucky enough to stay in her hotel in Saalbach, you'll see why. Built with 400-year-old timber and boasting an extraordinary foyer filled entirely by a skeletal 50ft, mirror-bedangled tree, the hotel is stuffed with saunas, pools and the householder's own paintings.

Evi is one of Austria's top artists and exhibits around the world when she's not in Saalbach.

Bad Gastein is just a short hop from Saalbach and within easy reach of Munich and Salzburg, and the famous old spa town has some serious skiing attached -- but not just in the mountains. Scratch the surface and you'll also find a young heart in an old town. Just look up Red Bull Playstreets on YouTube.

Freeriders ski across buildings and over roofs, with huge crowds packing the narrow streets below. Spectacular stuff. The old stuff isn't bad either. Bad Gastein is home to a "Wellness" industry, with a tradition stretching back into the mists of time.

This is not the kind of thing that Irish skiers have been used to, but when you mix world-class relaxation with an impressive ski area, the attractions are obvious.

Paul Hyland travelled to Saalbach and Bad Gastein with Topflight and stayed at the Hinterhag Hotel, Saalbach, and the Grand Park Hotel, Bad Hofgastein. For more details, visit www.topflight.ie