Photo essay: Skiing the Arlberg, Austria

On paper, it’s one of the world’s largest linked ski areas, straddling the two region states of the Tyrol and Vorarlberg and joining up five world-renowned villages amongst many more. Ski Arlberg lays out more than 300 kilometres of ski slopes, accessed via 88 ski lifts, including the gleamingly new Flexenbahn gondola which closes the circle between the towns to create an intoxicating loop of skiable terrain.

Here in Austria, the piste and off-piste areas alike are open to skiers, and the velvety white landscape stretches out so vastly that there is seemingly an infinite number of ways to choose your own snowbound adventure.

Ask a local, and statistics about the area take on a much more charming tone.

“Arlberg is like a family,” says Wilma Himmelfreundpointner, the blonde, tanned action woman extraordinaire who is showing me around St Anton. “Each of the main towns has a strong character. St Christoph is traditional, Stuben is small and quaint, Lech is the elegant one, St Anton is the party guy and Zürs is the quiet family one. Their family name is ‘Arlberg’ and each one is proud of his own personality.”

For iron-thighed powderhounds, you can even try and see them all in one day via the 65-kilometre Run of Fame, covering 18,000 metres of vertical and using the resort’s complex web of lifts and gondolas. It may make for an excellent après-ski tale, but there are a few thorny issues that can stop you successfully completing the run.

First of all, the dozens of gourmet offerings both within the villages and on the mountain are too good to schuss past. From the giant house-baked pretzels and dedicated cheese server on breakfast at Arlberg1800 resort in St Christoph, to the dude-food extravaganza at the Trittkopfbahn’s barbecue restaurant; the famous kasespaetzli (cheese noodles) in the ultra-cosy Gasthof Mondschein in Stuben to the wonderfully presented historical skiing artifacts, charts and photos at the Museum Restaurant in St Anton; the impeccable style and service in the restaurant at the chic Hotel Kristiania in Lech or the sun-kissed terrace restaurants across the mountains that fill you with schnitzel and beer and kaiserschmarrn (rum-raisin pancake dessert)… it is a dedicated skier or boarder indeed who can stick to the plan.

Sleigh driver, Lech am Arlberg. Image: Jac Taylor
As the shadows lengthen in Lech, the bars burst their seams with revellers. Image: Jac Taylor

Then, of course, there are the famed wine cellars underneath so many of the hotels and pubs, with double magnums, jeroboams and nebuchadnezzars of the world’s most expensive wines nonchalantly lining the walls – Chateau d’Yquems and rare Pomerol drops rubbing shoulders with fine Austrian favourites. This is a part of the world where you must sit in the sunshine and work your way through a magnum of wine with your friends – not simply scarf a mountain hotdog and snap back into your bindings.

You’ve got the issue of all the other activities available to you as well. Happily, this is far from one of those ‘if you don’t ski, you’re nobody’ kind of places. St Anton and Lech have enough shops to fill the day alone, while the snow-muted streets of Stuben are made for exploring – duck your head into the little church for the most darling of scenes. The corridors beneath the Arlberg1800 Resort/Arlberg Hospiz Hotel in St Christoph are underground rabbit warrens leading to art rooms, music recital halls and practice rooms and more, and there is always snowshoeing, or taking a horse-drawn carriage ride into the forest around Lech. Just beyond, in Oberlech, stack on your winter woollies and sit in the minimalist artistic drama of the Skyspace dome, or take the gondola to the top of Lech’s slopes for a fondue night with an unbeatable view.

Finally, with many hotels here focusing on wellness, you’ll want to put aside some extra time for a treatment or three; the sizable spa area in the Arlberg Hospiz Hotel deserves a day on its own. Surely the Run of Fame doesn’t have to happen all in one day, anyway? Book a week, to be safe.  

Read more:

8 historic attractions that give Austria its charm

8 Reasons why you need to make Austria your next travel destination

Austria’s most unique hotels

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