This winter, thousands of Brits will be returning to the SkiWelt – and finding new runs to ski, no matter how many times they’ve been there. Newcomers will arrive and simply be astonished at how much skiing there is.
Embracing seven major peaks and nine villages, the vast SkiWelt is Austria’s largest linked ski area and among the biggest in the world – a surprise to many who think France has a monopoly on such things.
In the east of Tirol, not far from the German border, the imposing rock faces of the towering Wilder Kaiser form a spectacular backdrop to the skiing. The SkiWelt is chock full of intermediate slopes, the system of 91 lifts covering the villages of Going, Ellmau, Scheffau, Söll, Itter, Hopfgarten, Westendorf and Brixen im Thale – it’s possible to ski all day without taking the same lift or the same run twice. There’s also a separate little ski area at the charming village of Kelchsau.
Of course, you don’t have to head out on an epic ski. You can just enjoy the local runs that are centred on each of the villages. Each has its own character, from rustic little Going to the more lively Söll, long a favourite with British skiers and boarders.
The runs above Söll are among the highest and generally more challenging, and being north-facing hold their snow well. At Westendorf, on the Choralpe, there are also some great testing runs, including the steepest in the SkiWelt, the Alpeseite. And although the skiing across the whole of the system has the reputation of being of the non-dramatic kind, there are still thrills to be found and plenty of off-piste in many areas – as well as three funparks.
The snow record of these villages is surprisingly good, given that none are particularly high. Primarily, this is sunny, fun skiing on rolling, wooded unintimidating slopes with lifts and runs stretching as far as the eye can see – family skiing par excellence. And it has a feature that sets it apart from many other huge linked areas – the skiing is on an integrated range of mountains surrounded by its villages. So if you find yourself far from home when the lifts close it’s not disaster. You have only to ski down to the nearest village and get home by inexpensive bus or taxi.
And the single piste map that covers this entire area is now much improved. So you’ve got a fair chance of being able to find your way around the 279 kilometres of runs! Wherever you choose to stay in the SkiWelt will give you good access to the skiing, with gondolas linking into the network or in Ellmau’s case a mountain railway. Ellmau is an attractive resort of traditional chalet-style buildings, with nursery slopes on the doorstep, and plenty of alternative activities such as winter walking on cleared paths and cross-country skiing.
Scheffau is one of the loveliest villages, its charming centre a kilometre away from the main gondola. It is possible to ski to the lift station, but you need to get a bus back. Hopfgarten is a fair-sized village off the main road with plenty of off-slope activities – and is a good alternative choice to Söll, as it has equally good access via its own gondola to the Hohe Salve.
Itter, a tiny rustic village, is a perfect getaway choice, yet again with its own gondola into the heart of the skiing – and with some great off-piste back to the village in good snow.
Westendorf has long been a huge favourite for beginners and intermediates. It’s a charming traditional village (once declared Europe’s most beautiful) with excellent nursery slopes – and also has good access to the rest of the SkiWelt. Once a bus transfer was needed between Westendorf and the rest of the SkiWelt, but a gondola link between the village and Brixen has changed that. Unconnected by ski, but the highest village in the SkiWelt, with its own lifts, is the peaceful village of Kelchsau.
Feeling peckish on the slopes? No problem – there are, astonishingly, more than 70 mountain huts scattered across the SkiWelt, all family run and many with table service.
Eat, drink and sleep SkiWelt
Across all the villages, the choice of accommodation, watering holes and restaurants is both vast and tempting. The array, and range, on offer means competition is keen and a holiday in the SkiWelt is always good value.
There are some surprises to be sprung here – and you can treat yourself to gourmet dining of the very finest. At Söll, the award-winning Schindlhaus restaurant has exquisite dishes prepared by brothers Christian and Marcus Winkler – dining is an adventure here. But there is excellent more modest cuisine to be found – great Italian at the Bella Vita, the Pizzeria Venezia and Giovanni. You can eat well in the Dorf Stub’n and the Postwirt, with good home-cooking too in the Eggerwirt. And another top tip is to eat at the Kornkammer, next to the bottom station at Söll, where chef Andi Lechner prepares delightful food in atmospheric surroundings.
The famous Stanglwirt hotel at Going has a great, and very atmospheric, restaurant. The historic Lanzenhof in Going is also excellent.
For a lively atmosphere and good food, you’ll enjoy the Gasthof Lobewein in Ellmau and the Ellmauer Alm is always popular. The Hotel Bär (Bear) has gourmet cuisine and the Hochfilzer never fails to please. But for an extra special treat, book a table at the Kaiserhof – a hotel whose gourmet restaurant has won Austria’s Restaurant of the Year title.
At Scheffau try the Weberbauer in the village centre for excellent good-value Tirolean dishes, and the Hotel Kaiser. In Hopfgarten, the vaulted Zeitlos restaurant is housed in a 16th century building – Zeitlos, appropriately, means timeless. In the Gasthaus Oberau try to book a table in the wine cellar, which seats just 15. If you like pork, order the Schweinsstelzen, with plenty of crispy crackling. Astrid in Hauser Stüberl is well-known for her Tirolean specialities, and the village also has a Chinese restaurant and a pizzeria.
At Brixen they are justifiably proud of the Hubertus Stub’n, where chef Rainer Goy concentrates on Austrian dishes using local produce. The Talhof is always popular too. Although Itter is small, there’s a good range of places to eat. Hans Ager at the Itterwirt presents venison from Tirolean forests, freshly-caught trout from local streams (Hans is a keen angler), and the substantial Brauernbratl, roast pork, potatoes, carrots and leeks. TheTirolerhof has international cuisine and the Rossl has a very Austrian menu.
The Fuchswirt in Kelchsau, housed in a building dating back to the 14th century, has become something of a gourmet restaurant under chef Klemens Konrad with ‘modernised’ Tirolean specialities. The village also has a pizzeria, the Dorfwirt. In Westendorf the Klingler and Berggasthof are highly recommended.
Après-ski starts on the slopes by early afternoon – and some SkiWelt huts are of particular note, such as the famous Rübezahl, on the main run back to Ellmau. It’s a popular film location and open late for a last beer or gluhwein before the final slope home. Also in Ellmau, head for O’Malleys, the Heldenbar with live music, Pub 66 and Otzi’s nightclub.
Scheffau boasts the Tanzbodenalm, near the top gondola station, as well as the excellent Waldhofalm and the Red Bull by the base area. Make a note too of Garry’s Inn on the nursery slopes at Westendorf or the Moskito Bar in the village where the partying goes on until the early hours, as well as the popular Bruchstall. From afternoon until the early hours at Söll there is the Hexenhalm, the Moonlight Bar, the ever popular Whisky Muhle (recently refurbished) and the lively Salvenstadl with live music and live football on the big screen.
For après-ski the Bar-Pub Ambiante in Hopfgarten is cosy and popular, the Rundell is good for coffee and cakes after skiing as well as beer and schnapps, and the Silver Bullet in the village centre, often with live music, has been attracting skiers and boarders for more than 20 years.
The Six Pence Old English Pub is also well-known for ice-cream, coffee and cakes. Just like a typical English pub – not ! The Salvista Stadl in Itter can be busy from mid-afternoon and stay that way until midnight. Kelchsau has the Apres-Ski Hut, which does what it says on the tin.
The Papalapub in Brixen has everything you need for après-ski with a terrace and umbrella bar to boot (and the Brixner Stadl rocks too!).
From basic, clean and comfortable to sheer luxury – it’s all here. In Söll the historic Hotel Postwirt, the oldest building in town, is in the centre and full of character. The Hotel Tyrol is quietly located just 200-metres from the centre and you’ll be well looked after there by the Schernthaner family.The luxurious Alpen Schlössl is fabulously set, although way out of town.
At nearby Going, the five-star Stanglwirt is both famed and fabulous and the place to treat yourself to some luxury – great food and an excellent spa too.
Or you can also taste five-star pampering at the Hotel Kaiserhof – and ski down to the main lifts. We also enjoy the Bär at Ellmau as well as the central Alte Post, the Hotel Sport Ellmau, the Hochfilzer and the Schönblick.
Hopfgarten has the four-star Sporthotel Fuchs superbly located next to the Salvenbahn gondola. The Gasthof Unterbrau is a popular three-star choice, with guests well looked after by Marcus and his family.
In Westendorf, the four-star superior Absolut Vitalhotel Schermer on the outskirts of the village has a fabulous spa and indoor pool. The four-star Hotel Schermer is extremely welcoming and renowned for its superb cuisine and fresh farm produce.
The classy Residenz Hubertus in Brixen has a loyal clientele, with good reason. As well as hotels, most villages in the SkiWelt have accommodation in farmhouses – usually extremely comfortable and a great way to keep costs down and get to know the real Tirol! The accommodation in farms can be self-catering, bed and breakfast or sometimes half-board.
What’s happening in the SkiWelt during the 2010-11 season?
December 10 to 12: It’s the weekend of the Winter Opening in Söll – with great package deals to test the first snow and get involved in major partying (check the deals on www.skiwelt.at )
January 20: At Westendorf there will be a Hahnenkamm Warm Up night slalom at Westendorf – and expect to rub shoulders with race stars.
February 4 to 6: Jump and Freeze – more than 100 daredevils from all over the world will gather in Westendorf will don crazy fancy-dress costumes to leap in all sorts of wacky vehicles across a ditch into a pond of icy water. A 10,000 crowd is usual, with prizes for the longest jump as well as the daftest costumes and modes of transport.
March 4 to 6: Austrian Masters Shred Down Contest – an international freestyle event at Westendorf.
And through the season, you can experience a magical world of ice at the Alpenglu village at Hochbrixen, with ice restaurant, ice bar and sculpted ice figures – and book a room at the Ice Hotel.
Blue runs – 120 kms.
Red – 132 kms.
Black – 11 kms.
Ski routes – 16kms.
Nursery slopes in every village.
Total length of pistes – 279kms.
Ninety-one lifts in total, 210 kms of run covered by snowmaking, more than 70 mountain huts.
Every village in the SkiWelt has a toboggan run, some up to 7.5 kms long. Two are floodlit, with tobogganing possible until the early hours. Söll has Austria’s biggest night-skiing area, with 10km of runs.
Resort guide by Rob Freeman