If you're lucky, the weather will be not quite perfect as you reach Heiligenblut. Some chilling fog will be shrouding the valley, still to be burned off by the morning sun. You will feel you have entered a place of mystery. Then, as the fog swirls and eddies, you'll see the pencil slim spire of the 550-year-old village church piercing the mist and greeting the day.
You'll have arrived at one of the most mystical and atmospheric of ski resorts - Heiligenblut, somewhat inaccessibly tucked away in a blind valley placed in the far north-western corner of Carinthia, in the heart of Austria's Hohe Tauern national park.
It is a holy site steeped in both history and legend and for centuries a place of pilgrimage. The church holds a relic, allegedly a phial of Christ's blood brought to the village more than a thousand years ago. The name of the town, set at 4,226ft (1,288m),means Holy Blood
Heiligenblut - On the Mountain
While pilgrims still come to worship, skiers and boarders come to pay homage to excellent slopes, full of character and some challenge. For them the lifts take them closer to their own idea of heaven on nearly 60 kilometres of pistes under the protecting gaze of the Grossglockner, at 12,461ft (3,798m), Austria's highest mountain, and at the foot of the Pasterze glacier.
Set as it is in the shadow of this mighty mountain, Heiligenblut is something of an Austrian Chamonix in that it has a definite mountaineers' feel about it - it is a magnet for serious climbers as well as for skiers and boarders. The Grossglockner, which means Big Bell Ringer, was first conquered in 1800 and the peak actually consists of two pinnacles, the 'Gross' and 'Klein' Glockner. For those moved to make the climb as a diversion from the slopes, the ascent is a two-day affair with an overnight stop in a refuge.
The village is also the starting point for the famous Hochalpenstrasse, an engineering feat of a road that is a feast of hairpin bends zig-zagging between Heiligenblut and Fusch. It was built between 1930 and 1935 and reaches a height of 8,438ft (2,572m). In summer it is one of Austria's top tourist attractions and attracts more than 1.2-million visitors each year.
In winter, the usually snowsure slopes rise to nearly 3,000m, giving this lofty ski area a highly-respectable vertical of 1,700m, well over 5,000ft.
The skiing is spread across three peaks, the Hochtor, the Schareck and the Giadtroghohe. Many of the runs are satisfyingly long. From the top of the Schareck gondola combining the Fallbichlabfahrt skiroute, the Kasereck ski-route and finally the Talabfahrt slope from the gondola middle station back to the village can give a wonderful run of nearly nine kilometres.
On the far left of the ski area the Viehbuhel lift gives intermediates the chance of enjoying some high level blue cruising. To the far right of the ski area as viewed from the village the Fleissbahn four-person chair, topped by the Hochfleiss draglift, takes you to the highest point at 2,900-metres (9,510-ft). From here some steep red runs take you back to Fleissalm.
The Fallbichl black variation, often mogulled and challenging, is one to look out for accessed from Schareck. The Tauern blue run gives some of the best views into the Fleiss valley and the Weissen blue run is a beautiful wide piste from the top of the Fleiss charlift.
From the village the two-stage Rossbach gondola goes all the way to Schareck from where the 3.2-kilometre Fleisstal ski-route connects with Fleissalm. From the gondola middle-station, there is an entertaining way of reaching Fleissalm via the somewhat eccentric Tunnelbahn Fleissalm - a gondola 'train' which, as the name suggests, goes through a tunnel. Heiligenblut, which likes to market itself as 'The Top of Austria', has 13 ski lifts but the ski area feels bigger than that statistic would suggest because of the topography and the long runs.
For the 2007-08 ski season, a new 8-person gondola replaced the chairlift at Fallbichl to whisk skiers back to Schareck. A six-day adult ski-pass costs from 147 euros and at any time, a child up to ten skis free if with a pass-buying parent (proof of relationship required). As an extra incentive for selected weeks (but not main holidays) a week's hotel booking included a free ski-pass and ski rental.
There are no fewer than 12 mountain restaurants - one for about every five kilometres of piste. The Wallackhaus, off the blue Viehbuhel run, is excellent for food and a high end type of hut. The Spatzlalm is cosy with a sun terrace and the Schareck has the most fabulous views. The Schistadl Tauernberg looks out on a great panorama and has an authentic atmosphere while the Fleissalm serves lots of Carinthian specialities. The Skischmankerln is a lively après-ski bar at the Rossbach middle station.
Families are made especially welcome with children catered for in the 'Snowland Club' and 'Bobo Kid's Club'. This means that, while the youngsters are having fun and being looked after on the kids' ski courses, parents are free to make the most of the slopes.
Heiligenblut - Off the Mountain
This is an enchanting village, which in medieval times made its fortune from gold-mining, but is not really for those looking for a riotous time and a wide choice of nightlife. This is more a heaven sent opportunity for regeneration of body and soul along with wonderful skiing.
Accommodation options include six 4-star hotels and thirteen 3-star establishments as well as bed and breakfast guesthouses, apartments or a farmhouse.
While it is no party town, there are a few places to hang out and have fun. The village boasts a couple of bars and a disco, the Holy-Moely (can't escape religion here), as well as 19 restaurants and cafes, including a pizzeria, and a bakery.
There is a 10-kilometre network of cross-country tracks plus tobogganing and ice skating options, snow-shoeing and winter hiking trails. There is even an ice climbing park for the adventurous with instruction on hand ('kiss the ice with the ice-axe, don't smash it in'). To round off the other off-slope activities, there are indoor tennis and squash courts as well as ice curling rinks and sleigh rides.
And, of course, a visit to the Gothic pilgrimage church of St Vincent, built between 1460 and 1491 and containing the famous drop of Christ's blood brought in 914 from Constantinople by the Danish knight Briccius, is de rigeur. He was on his way back to Denmark when, near Heiligenblut, he was buried by an avalanche. His corpse was found when three ears of wheat grew from the blood he was carrying and broke through the snow. Sceptical? The atmosphere you experience in Heiligenblut will drive those thoughts away.
Heiligenblut - Getting There
The nearest airport is Klagenfurt from where the resort will pick up guests for a flat-rate of £30 (£15 children) and take them direct to their hotel.
For more information visit www.heiligenblut.at