It’s hard to generalise about Austrian skiing. There are large ski resorts and tiny villages; famous resorts and hidden gems; resorts that are quiet at night and ones thronging with bars and clubs; resorts with pretty treelined runs and others with high snowsure glaciers; resorts renowned for their freeriding and those known for their immaculate piste-grooming; resorts with amazing artificial snowmaking and resorts which get more natural snow than anywhere else in Europe. But there are two traits that that almost all Austrian ski resorts share.
The first is “gemütlichkeit”. English-speakers often translate this into a phrase borrowed from another language: ‘Apres ski’. And it’s an understandable error, given that Austrian ski resorts are renowned for what happens when the lifts close – whether it’s huge open air rock concerts or folk music festivals; oompah bands or Europop; schuhplattler (slap-dancing) or piano bars; famous DJs or an unknown duo churning out a medley of famous hits that everyone can sing along to. And somewhere people will be dancing with ski-boots on; it might be in a small umbrella bar at the foot of the home piste or in a temporary unnamed igloo bar high on the slopes; or in a smart hotel’s designated tea-dancing room; or in a large crowded apres-ski bar half-way up the mountain. But whatever the venue, from about four o’clock onwards, Austria’s mountains really do come alive with the sound of music, merriment and mirth like nowhere else in the Alps.
Gemütlichkeit however, means far more than dancing and singing accompanied by rivers of beer and schnapps. It also means friendliness and cosiness, often shown in the welcome you receive in the family-run hotels and guesthouses that lie at the heart of most Austrian ski resorts. In some villages you can almost see it when you first arrive and glimpse the traditional alpine buildings huddled around an onion-domed church. And you can certainly taste it in the meals they serve which almost define ‘comfort food’ at its very best and most delicious.
The other common trait you will observe is how seriously the Austrians take their skiing. They might disguise it with fun but never forget that this is Austria’s national sport. Not only are the stars of the world cup races widely celebrated, but the ski resorts tend to have a ‘do it whatever the cost’ ethos when it comes to making sure they will continue to attract winter holidaymakers well into the future. Huge sums of money are invested each year and it shows. Small ski resorts link up or share lift passes with neighbours to offer more runs to visitors. Large ski resorts have efficient free ski buses. Low-lying resorts protect their pistes with reliable artificial snow-making. High-altitude ones make their lifts more comfortable in bad weather. And almost everywhere you visit, lifts queues are the exception, not the norm.