The Arlberg, Austria
Spanning the border between the Vorarlberg and the Tirol, the Arlberg region is famed for its microclimate of extremely productive snow clouds and home to two of Austria’s best ski resorts – St Anton am Arlberg and Lech-Zurs.
Skiing in the Arlberg
Spread across the 280km of slopes in the Arlberg region is a fantastic mix of wide-open areas for beginners, long cruising red runs and ski routes for intermediates and advanced, and serious off-piste challenges for experts including the north face descent off the back of the Valluga (2,811m) to Zurs. An excellent ski lift system throughout means queuing is not a problem and new lifts for 2013-14 ski season include a new ski lift connecting the ski areas of Lech and Warth-Schroecken (an extra 64km of pistes) in the Bregenzerwald.
Beginners and early intermediates will undoubtedly find confidence and their ski legs on the well-groomed nursery slopes above Lech, or the gentle slopes at Nasserein east of St Anton, while those looking to progress will appreciate the many broad and fairly easy runs between Oberlech and Lech. For any confident intermediates St Anton is one of the best places in the world to push yourself. Many of the runs (even the blues) are more challenging than you’d find in other resorts and moguls are a frequent occurrence.
Over the Flexen pass into Zurs and Lech there are some delightful and remote steep reds to tackle, and across the whole region are several ungroomed ski routes, which are great for that first taste of skiing off piste with the safety of being avalanche controlled. While challenging blacks are few and far between, for experts most of the appeal of the Arlberg ski area lies hidden valleys far beyond the piste markers, but easily accessible with a guide.
With its consistent snowfall, challenging slopes and vibrant nightlife, St Anton am Arlberg is one of Europe’s best ski resorts and attracts an international crowd including significant numbers of Brits. Immortalised in celluloid in the 2011 romantic comedy Chalet Girl. St Anton’s vIllage is busy and developed, but has retained its character. The pedestrianised main street in the centre of the village is bustling by day and the hub of the nightlife, with quiet suburbs spread out east and west along the narrow valley, namely Oberdorf and Gastig uphill to the west and Nasserein and St Jakob to the east.
St Anton is one of the few Austrian resorts with plenty of catered chalets, some more central than others, and there are lots of three- and four-star hotels too. A central locations ensure easy access to two impressive high-speed gondola stations serving the ski slopes on Galzig and Rendl, with plenty more ski terrain on Gampen served by a centrally located high-speed charilft and by the high-speed gondola from Nasserein.
Best for improving intermediates and advanced skiers and boarders, most beginners would be better off in Lech-Zurs, but St Anton’s ski school is first class and those that learn to ski here should be comfortable skiing anywhere. Rendl’s slopes, on the opposite side of the valley, should not be overlooked – they’re generally quieter than the main ones.
Apres ski starts on the slopes in some bars that you will no doubt have heard tales of – the Mooserwirt and the Krazy Kanguruh. Both are just above the village and the drinking and dancing spills out onto the slopes by the end of the day, then continues into the 80 or so bars and nightclubs, and approximately 70 restaurants to choose from in the village.
Just below the summit of the Arlberg pass is the tiny hamlet of St Christoph, with a high-speed chairlift connection to the ski slopes on Galzig including a long blue piste for getting back. Consisting mainly of a few smart hotels and restaurants – the most famous being the 5-star Hospiz Hotel and superb Hospiz Alm mountain restaurant with its vast wine cellar and large sun terrace – St Christoph has a reputable ski kindergarten and is generally a sunny spot without the crowds of neighbouring St Anton. Good for families with young children.
A pretty village on the western side of the Arlberg pass, Stuben is linked by pistes to Rauz where a long high-speed chairlift connects to the main ski area above St Anton. There’s excellent skiing locally on the north-facing Albona for intermediates and above, and while the nursery slopes in Stuben offer an alternative to Nasserein, there is little to bridge the gap between them and the challenging reds higher up. Best for advanced skiers and experts, Stuben has an unrivalled snow record and is home to some of the best off-piste skiing in the Arlberg including the 1,500m vertical Albona north face – one of the longest uninterrupted off-piste descents in the Alps accessible by chairlift – and plenty more. There are just a couple of hotels and bars in the village, yet Stuben has earned its place in ski history as birthplace of the pioneer of downhill skiing, Hannes Schneider.
Among the best luxury ski resorts in the Alps, Lech is always a pleasure to ski and stay, with heated chairlift seats, purposefully uncrowded slopes (the lift company limit the number of lift passes they sell) and a superb selection of upmarket hotels and restaurants attracting a well-heeled sophisticated clientele. Great care is taken to make its visitors feel valued and while four- and five-star hotels may dominate the centre of the pretty village, there are some cheaper pensions and three-star hotels on the outskirts and excellent ski-in, ski-out accommodation on mountain at OberLech – surrounded by gentle sunny slopes and great base for a family ski holiday.
While many visitors may come simply to shop and stroll around in their furs, snowsure Lech has offers excellent skiing – long cruising on well-groomed reds being a highlight and plenty of more challenging terrain for experts both in Lech and Zurs, heli-skiing included. You can seriously blow the budget eating out in Lech and the Rote Wand in Zug is an excellent place to do so, while the modern and stylish Fux restaurant is noted for its good food and excellent wine list, or for a more down to earth meal there’s cosy Café Fritz. Apres ski is refined – centred mainly on hotel terrace bars (weather permitting) especially the 5-star Krone and the 4-star Tannbergerhof, the main spots in Lech.
Zurs is a collection of mainly ski-in, ski-out four- and five-star hotels, purpose built in traditional style, and a great base for those who mostly want to ski as there are few other attractions in the village, late nightlife excepted. At an altitude of 1,720m, good snow is all but guaranteed, and there are some good gentle runs and a nice kindergarten area, but the main appeal comes from the away-from-it-all long red runs on both sides of the valley and the off-piste routes they access.
Apres ski is focused around the hotels, as is eating out (if you’re not on half-board in your own hotel) – a livelier time can be had down the road in Lech, 10 minutes away and served by regular buses.
Known as the family skiing area of the Arlberg, Sonnenkopf has about 30km of runs, mainly suited to beginners and intermediates. In addition, there is some interesting lift-accessed off piste that doesn’t attract the crowds that St Anton does. Approximately 15km to the west of Stuben and 27km (30 minutes) from St Anton, in good conditions it’s worth visiting for a day but is a little too small to warrant more than a short stay.
The Arlberg, with its dramatic mountains and consistent snowfall, is a haven for off-piste. Unfortunately, this is widely known so to get the most out of the area and avoid the crowds go with a local guide (an essential safety precaution, regardless) and try and avoid the busier weekends. The highlight, and key bragging rights route, is the North Face of the Valluga, which eventually ends in Zurs, but also worth exploring are the quieter back bowls of Rossfall, accessed from Rendl, and the long runs down to the Langen forest from Albona above Stuben are outstanding. Around Lech, a different demographic and fewer powder hounds means the fresh snow lasts longer with many routes starting from the top of the Steinmahder chairlift or the Trittkopf cable car above Zurs.
Getting to the Arlberg
The Arlberg is well served by three airports. Zurich, just over two hours by road, has the most scheduled flights arriving from the UK. Innsbruck is closer – around one hour east of St Anton by road, but doesn’t have daily flights from the UK, and Friedrichshafen is an hour and three quarters away, but has no scheduled flights from the UK. If travelling by train to the Arlberg by train, Langen am Arlberg is 10-15km from Lech-Zurs and St Anton has its own mainline station. If driving in winter the two alternative approaches are from the east or west via the SS16 / E60 Arlberg Schnellstrasse toll road. The road (198) between Lech and Warth is closed in winter because of avalanche risks.