New ski lifts have transformed the Arlberg in Austria, says Ben Clatworthy.
Throw away your ski bus timetable — the long-overdue linking of St Anton to Lech-Zürs means Austria finally has a world-class interconnected ski area. Just a few minutes ago I was tearing around in St Anton and now I’m being whisked over to Zürs — from where upmarket Lech is a mere stone’s throw — on a swish gondola, complete with heated seats and spectacular mountain views.
It hasn’t always been this way. Until this winter, skiing the full area was a laborious task, involving a return trip on one of the most overcrowded buses in the Alps. In peak season it could take an hour to go one way. First there was the wait, then the ultimate Alpine bunfight. Skiers would hurl their skis into the cage at the back before racing to grab a space. A lucky handful got a seat, the rest piled in more aggressively than on the Tube at rush hour. Many did it once and swore never to do it again.
Thankfully that fiasco is no more, with the opening of three new lifts this winter, including the futuristic Flexenbahn gondola, which spans the link, finally connecting the thrilling slopes of the Arlberg ski area — consigning the tatty bus to the scrap heap. The result is a hefty 305km of pistes and a ski area that rivals the French big hitters, such as the Espace Killy (Val d’Isère-Tignes) and Les 3 Vallées. “It took about ten years of planning,” says my guide, Markus Kaerlem from Skischule Arlberg, as we stand below the Flexenbahn.
I’ve always been a fan of the skiing in the cluster of resorts that make up the Arlberg. The slopes are challenging, the off-piste is out of this world and the après-ski isn’t too shoddy either. Then there’s the snow record. At the northern tip of the Arlberg you’ll find Warth, which has an average seasonal snowfall of 10.5m, making it the snowiest ski resort in the Alps. Neighbouring Lech records about 7m each season and, along with St Anton, currently has some of the best snow conditions in the Alps.
We spend the morning whizzing around St Anton, hopping on the Flexenbahn just before lunch. It delivers us above Zürs, from where we drop down to Trittalpe Berghaus, our lunch spot, for an overpriced and disappointing tiroler gröstl (onion and potato with a fried egg on top, €17 — about £15). From here it’s possible to join Der Weisse Ring, a marked ski route that winds its way around Zürs, Zug and Lech. It’s a great way to see the area, skiing a mix of blue and red runs, with just one tough section, the unpisted, moguled slope that descends from the circuit’s highest point, Madloch Joch, at 2,438m.
Or, for the ultimate ski-safari, take the first lift from St Anton at 9am and head all the way to Warth-Schröcken — the most remote resort — for lunch and then back again. Dubbed the Run of Fame, and signposted along the way, it’s a serious route with 65km of skiing and a thigh-burning 8,694 vertical metres — almost the equivalent of skiing down Everest.
I’m not feeling quite that adventurous though so I stick to the Der Weisse Ring, which can be tackled by competent skiers in an afternoon, before hopping on to the new lift back to St Anton in time for après-ski. Two bars, the Krazy Kanguruh and MooserWirt, are largely responsible for putting St Anton on the map as a serious party resort. Both pump out hours of Austrian oompah music and europop to a throng of rowdy skiers fuelled by beer and Jägermeister. If it’s your first time in the area, visiting both in one après session is a ritual, but for old hands, the more low-key Taps bar (below the Krazy Kanguruh) is the place to party, and a popular haunt with locals and ski guides.
Here I get chatting to a group of veteran ski guides who are discussing the recent heavy snowfall and where to find the best powder over in Lech. The new lift is also high on the agenda and the guides are proud that their beloved resort has finally become a world-class linked area.
They’re right to be proud. Austria had lacked a ski area to rival the big-name French resorts, but not anymore. What they’ve created here might just be the world’s best ski area. At least I think so.
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Ben Clatworthy was a guest of Scott Dunn (020 8682 5050, scottdunn.com). Seven nights’ chalet board at Chalet Artemis in St Anton is from £1,900pp, including flights, transfers, private chalet chef, host and in-resort driver service