Austria’s Biggest Ski Paradise: But Where Are The British?

The Ski amadé pass covers a vast area with some 25 ski resorts south of Salzburg where there are some relatively famous resorts including Schladming and Gastein resorts.
When I heard the name Hochkönig; I thought it was a great name for a beer but it was equally satisfying as a ski area to keep everyone happily refreshed. Lots of pluses before we even started, the local airport was Salzburg; it really was local as it was only about an hour and a quarter transfer to Maria Alm, one of the three villages within the Hochkönig ski area. Despite the proximity to Salzburg, being a place which is great fun as well as being a weekend destination, there were no lift queues, no crowded pistes nor any undue delays in service in the seductive ‘mountain huts’.
There are always so many checks and balances in choices of ski resorts; it is so much more complex than many summer holidays: beach; hotel; resort. Ski-in/ski-out (mostly modern resorts and too many fibs), proximity of hotel to slopes (Banff’s Sunshine Village – the scenery is good en route – but stay in the small hub on piste); mix of skills needed (Verbier for less than intermediates?), mix of skills in the party (Aspen; “see you for the après ski drinks; ‘bye”) and enough for non-skiers to keep you occupied (the superbly presented St. Oswald – bring a library). The list goes on.
Within literally a couple of minutes’ walk from most of the few hotels in Maria Alm there are some exploratory slopes including an excellent area for small children to play and learn. To gain access to the main ski area (overall; 120 kms of pistes served by 32 lifts) you need to take a five minute bus ride, a small sacrifice to get all the other benefits. The lift system is modern with relatively few drag lifts which are only on the short slopes; we would all like the height gained on the lift and the length of runs to be skied to be a multiple of the height gained, nature has not been too favourable. Nevertheless, it is an interesting and varied ski terrain whereby the most ambitious skiers can regularly meet up those less ambitious.
I skied in company and we covered much of the ski area spanning blues to a couple of black but pisted runs. A good way to explore blue and red runs without repetition is the Königstour which entails 32kms with linking lifts. As we were only skiing for the weekend, we concentrated on the groomed runs but there did appear to be some off- piste potential; a moguled slope looked very tempting. It was also tempting to visit two other smaller villages; Dienten and Mühlbach which looked attractive, but again, as time was short we really only saw the cluster of their rooftops from on high.
 
A Rounded Ski Resort
Hochkönig is not a ski area that attracts the ambitious skiers who inhabit the St Antons and Val d’Isères of this world where you always need to watch out. There was only our friendly ‘pocket missile’ Sabrina from the Ski amadé; extraordinary speed and style in total control; poetry in motion. In skiing we all take beautiful scenery as a given but here it was captivating, however some might be distracted by the Wi-Fi coverage which is freely available across much of Hochkönig ski area.
Of general appeal to skiers and non-skiers alike are the numerous ‘mountain huts’. Most are converted old buildings that have then been extended in a similar style. The Tiergarten was one such ’hut’, a word that really did not fit as this was a big building with equally big character using massive timbers throughout. The size of their servings was more American style rather than for anyone wanting to ski in the afternoon. The Steinbock Alm was very modern and sleek with fabulous views from its panoramic windows. Very civilised, particularly as we enjoyed a wine tasting of Austria wines; a Gürner Veltliner – the quality up there with the Alsace and a Cabernet Merlot; big in aroma, surprisingly soft on the palate. Their reputation is solidly back on track after the scandal of decades ago.
Austria’s Largest Ski Area
Ski amadé amongst other services, offers a ski pass taking in 25 villages, including those in Hochkönig, with 270 modern lifts and 860 kms of skiing on 760 pistes. There are five regions including Schladming (I can recommend everything about the resort but you really must have insurance that covers the very challenging toboggan run) and the Gastein Valley. Obviously, the pass covers the largest area in Austria’s skiing. When I have had a week’s skiing, I have invariably had at least one day skiing in a second resort for the different terrain and individual challenges.
The village of Maria Alm had everything there for most skiers, including the highest spire in the whole Salzburgerland region. The village was attractive with mainly modern traditionally styled chalets and other buildings, but you would not visit for the general architecture of the place, nevertheless, it was enjoyable to walk around and explore. There seemed to be good quality and inexpensive B&Bs as well as hotels. The supermarket holds a wide range of foods and drinks, the latter included very good value wines.
I did not find any nightclubs as such but there are plenty of bar. I found a tiny bar where locals were playing a popular game of hammering nails into a tree trunk; not so easy when the head was only as thick as a screw driver. It had obviously been a good night on the schnapps and beers, as they were missing their target by generous margins. Our hotel, the four star’ ‘Hotel Eder’ in the very centre of the village had a very lively Saturday night with live music and was probably the most popular for nightlife in the village.
Evening Adventures
I was a little dubious about the invitation to ride on a horse drawn sleigh to reach our dinner restaurant, the image of the majority of the passengers seen elsewhere in glitzy resorts does not normally fit my profile. A minibus took us on to a very real working farm with a range of buildings around the farmyard which included a large farmhouse, barns and stable plus a garage where a large, old sleigh with runners awaited us. The artisan farmer clad in traditional clothes played his role as coachman (we gathered later that he has quite an extensive tourist business empire) and harnessed up a pair of heavy horses each of which weighed 900 kilos. The horses duly meandered through the snow covered byways in the silence of night with falling snow dampening any extraneous noises. Although our blankets kept us very warm, we stopped for a quick homemade schnapps or two before reaching Hinterthal’s award winning Almbar restaurant. Despite ordering two starter course local dishes, I was more than replete.
The following evening, we headed out to the Kronreithhof restaurant again for a good meal comprising local dishes (plus other options), we needed a little warmth from alcohol as we were to ride toboggans in the moonlight down the mountainside under the clear, star studded sky. The mile long course was not steep but still provided a fun experience. The conservative riders sat upright and so had effectively a very unstable equivalent of a short wheelbase. By lying prone, steering with hands and feet resulted in a smooth and easy descent despite a bit like a poseur trying to look ‘racy’.
Inviting Hotel
The 4* Hotel Eder in Maria Alm has 74 bedrooms from a grand suite (my rating 4*+) to a small but well-presented en suite room (3*). The hotel was deceptively large and had many facilities whilst retaining a good intimacy. For every guest there was an individual place in numerous public rooms laid up for breakfast. The buffet self-service area had a novel way of conserving and presenting food, the glass topped, illuminated cabinet draws were a good touch. I consistently could never find the appropriate room for breakfast (and in the large spa area) was a bit embarrassing. What I could find easily was the swimming pool; the indoor element had fully glazed walls (and ceiling) looking into the dining room. The outside element was reached through an automatically sliding division; the water was seriously warm and it steamed outside. Despite being in the hub of the hotel, the view was fabulous; the massive church spire was just next door, looking magnificent as snow was falling. A jocular game approximating to water polo took place using multiple snow balls, all good fun.
The spa was comprehensive and of excellent standards, the rest and reading (recovery!) areas particularly well decorated and furnished with walls covered in dried moss. Strangely and frustratingly, the main spa features did not open until 11.00.
The hotel was cleverly configured with the bedrooms/suites (biggest 40 sq. m. complete with a private sauna) and were simply styled with light coloured pine. I also liked the fun idea of horseshoes for the handles to the wardrobe in my room. Booking a small, less expensive room, guests nevertheless had access to high quality facilities which would not normally follow at that room rate.
Unusually for me, I joined a group which melded extremely well both on the slopes and socially. Whilst I always want to know about what is available and find out who the resort will suit, this time I observed the experiences of fellow guests who ranged from a first time skier, through a solid ‘snow-plougher’ admirably striving to advance his skills, to the very accomplished UK ski instructor Richard Hardingham who’s quiet, wise words were very helpful indeed.
Hochkönig (www.hochkoenig.at ), this ski region proved to be a beautiful, peaceful and ideal for skiing and off the slopes to get the best out of everything for a weekend or longer. A great find.
 
Norwegian Air; we flew the ‘new kid on the block’ (www.norwegian.com ); weekly flights Gatwick/ Salzburg from £29.90 each way. My words, not theirs; “A low cost model with new ‘planes and standards more often found in higher profile airlines which includes free Wi-Fi”.
Ski amadé (www.skiamade.com), offers a comprehensive series of ski packages from dining and ski passes through accommodation to Hi-Tech innovations of hiring Smart goggles. These goggles provide a mass of information including lift queue status to calorie burn count and widespread free Wi-Fi.
Austrian National Tourist Office: www.austria.info
Insurance; Ski and global travel: the family firm of MPI Brokers: www.mpibrokers.com
Hochkönig (www.hochkoenig.at) ski region takes in three villages; the largest is Maria Alm, the others are; Dienten, and Mühlbach am Hochkönig.
Richard Hardingham; International ski instructor and Snowsport England Coach. Provides private tuition for those in and west of London from total novices to competition level experts. Email: hardingham@talktalkbusiness.net
Hotel Eder, Maria Alm (www.hoteleder.com/en