Triple treat in the white stuff
Empty slopes and gorgeous scenery impress Will Oliphant as he discovers a hidden Austrian gem.
Vorarlberg in Austria does not immediately spring to mind when thinking of skiing destinations, but it houses some of the hidden treasures that make a perfect winter sports holiday.
I did my best to find out what the slopes would be like in advance, but was surprised to see that there was scant mention of the area’s resorts.
But this could be the secret to its success. Tucked out of the way, this area is a goldmine of empty slopes and beautiful scenery in one of the most heavily snowed-on areas of the Alps.
We could not have been more blessed with the white stuff during our stay. After checking in at the impeccably refurbished Sonne Lifestyle Hotel we were whisked on to the slopes at Mellau, a stone’s throw from our front door.
There we found clear skies and the practically empty snow-filled slopes that would characterise our trip. Despite being a relatively small resort, with just seven lifts, Mellau has some lovely runs.
Tucked away behind the busier blues are a decent number of tree-lined reds and blacks, but none of them compares to the excellent ski road which took us back to the town at the end of the day. Even on a snowboard the relatively narrow runs were so thick with snow that it was a fast and easy descent.
And what better way to relax after a hard day on the slopes than in the warm embrace of the Sonne’s spa facilities. Along with a traditional Jacuzzi, dark wood sauna and steam bath are a host of extras at no extra cost, including a steam room with its aromatic smell and water jets, a similarly fragrant sauna and luxurious showers.
For those on bigger budgets there are also all the traditional services, including massage and relaxation rooms. Those feeling energetic will enjoy the stainless steel swimming pool which takes you out to the snow where braver types can roll around.
After the spa there was an impressive meal at the hotel’s restaurant, by which time we were more than ready for bed.
On day two a short car ride up to 1,400 metres brought us to Damuls, a larger resort with a great range of lifts and even a park for snowboarders.
There is some off piste which can be found with only minimal searching and is pretty much yours for the taking.
With 12 lifts, Damuls itself is not huge, but there are plenty of long runs down from the top of the mountain and its nine chair lifts and three T-bar lifts lead to some surprisingly varied slopes.
The area is one with big plans too. Damuls and Mellau are looking at getting a lift installed to connect the two which would turn it into a mid-sized resort and seriously increase the number of visitors.
As it stands, it is possible to buy a lift pass which covers all three of the area’s major resorts, as well as a number of others, and offers you enough in the way of slopes, parks and jumps to last you more than a week.
After a full day’s skiing our group was more than ready to sample the region’s cuisine.
Vorarlberg and Bregenzerwald, our part of the region, is famed for its cheeses. During the summer particularly the Bregenzerwälder Cheese Route is popular with tourists.
Any cheese fan is going to be in heaven. A traditional meal in the area is simply a dizzying array of cheeses with some token carbohydrates. There isn’t enough space to list all the types available but suffice to say, your tastes are amply catered for.
Nearly cross-eyed with dairy produce we stumbled into our nearby bar which turned out to be surprisingly lively. Mellau has only two bars and the region lacks some of the charged nightlife of other areas in the Alps.
The area prides itself on being a cut above the Ibiza-esque party areas like Soll and some of the French resorts, but remember, Austrians like a drink, and there’s fun to be found if you want it. Plus the local beer – as always in Austria – is excellent.
Another plus point for the area is price. Skiing is notorious for breaking the bank, and even the cheapest European resorts cost a pretty penny. But these resorts are reasonable. Beers cost about four euros and you could pick up a main course for under 10.
Day three saw us visiting the highest of our three resorts at Warth-Schrocken which starts at 1,500 metres and has 15 lifts.
Gunther, the chairman of the ski-lift company there, was our guide for our day and the best skier I have ever met. Obviously proud of what he has built there Gunther has invested heavily in lift technology and it shows. There are no ramshackle affairs here and you are less likely to be involved in the post-lift pile-ups that I have so often suffered.
Despite heavy weather – and between my many falls – we skied and snowboarded on some of the best snow I have ever seen and I’ll wager some of the best in the Alps this year.
Because of its height and position Warth-Schrocken picks up some of the best powder in the region.
Its north-facing slopes ensure great snow right up until spring but best of all are its acres of off piste.
Nearly every piste has a vast expanse of virgin snow on either side which seems to be shunned by locals but would leave most British skiers and snowboarders drooling.
The heavy snow meant that the predominantly local clientele had stayed away, which meant at times we had the piste to ourselves. Think about that next time you are dodging ski schools in France.
With the odd break for a coffee or a courage-bolstering beer we saw most of the pistes in a day and even had the chance to visit a snow park and time ourselves on the resort’s radar gun. I clocked a woeful 61kmph which was still my best-ever time and left me in a heap of bruises and nerves at the bottom.
Lunch took us to one of the many ski-to hotels and restaurants on the slopes for delicious meals of local cuisine. Goulash soup and schnitzel are not to be missed in a visit to Austria.
For anyone looking for huge amounts of apres-ski the area may not be to their tastes – although it is there to be found. But for families and people who relish unbridled amounts of snow you could be on to a winner in Vorarlberg.
Regular flights from Stansted Airport to Friedrichshafen from £50 return with Ryanair, including taxes.
The Three Taler or Three Valleys ski pass, giving access to Damuls, Warth-Schrocken and Mellau and at least six other resorts costs 160 euros for six days.
The Sonne Lifestyle Resort hotel costs from 149 euros per night.
For more information visit www.hotel-sonne-bregenzerwald.at.