TRAVEL: Austrian slopes are ideal for all

MBCH JAN AUSTRIA 1
MBCH JAN AUSTRIA 1
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Ski veteran Jan Henderson samples the delights of the Austrian slopes

I don’t really know why, but for the 30-odd years I have been skiing in Europe I have stuck pretty much with France, and to a lesser degree Switzerland and Italy – the delights of Austria had passed me by.

My loss – on the evidence of a late-season visit to the Austrian resort of Schladming.

Last season was not a vintage one in much of the Alps for snow conditions – good early snow and not much more, was the story – and how resorts dealt with that shortfall by making their own snow and husbanding the stuff they actually had, varied widely from country to country.

If Schladming is representative, the Austrian resorts seem to have it well sorted – in early March their slopes were still in fantastic condition, from mountain top right down to the otherwise green valley bottom.

It’s quite strange to start a run at the top of a snow-covered mountain in a true winter environment and end it a few minutes later on a tongue of snow sticking out into green pastures where spring already seems to have sprung – and great credit to the resort for keeping the snow in such good condition the whole way down.

The Schladming/Dachstein area offers 175 kilometres of piste, although the 125 kilometres of the 4-Peak ski area out of Schladming itself are the ones most will be tackling.

For those familiar with the massive ski areas on the Trois Vallees, Espace Killy or Paradiski, 125 kilometres may not seem like a lot – but there’s plenty to enjoy on the fully-linked four peaks of Planai, Hochwurzen, Reiteralm and Hauser Kaibling out of Schladming.

And if you’re more at home on the steeps of Argentiere and Chamonix you may not find anything very challenging on Schladming’s mostly broad and well-tended pistes – but that’s not the point of the place. It’s good for beginners, but is mainly a resort aimed at intermediates – and here it succeeds spectacularly.

The resort is not hugely high (all four mountains are around the 2,000-metre mark), so most of the skiing is through the trees, and the wide pistes that sweep from top to bottom are a real joy for intermediates looking to improve confidence and technique. There’s also a good sprinkling of mountain restaurants for when you want to refuel and rest those aching legs.

If you’ve not had enough when the lifts close in the late afternoon there’s also the opportunity to try some floodlit skiing from 7.30 to 10pm most nights on the three-kilometre Hochwurzen piste – well worth a try, as it offers a very different experience to daylight skiing.

Also well worth the effort is an evening trip to the seven-kilometre floodlit toboggan run that winds down through the forest from the top of Hochwurzen – once you’ve got the hang of braking it’s exhilarating fun, but hard work... and you’ll fall off a fair few times and end up covered in snow. The drink at the bar at the foot of the course will be well-earned.

One of the downsides of the big purpose-built French ski areas is that the resorts themselves can be fairly grim, characterless and concrete – but Schladming is a complete contrast – a large, bustling town dating back to medieval times, with a good variety of shops, cafes and bars to explore once the skiing has finished for the day.

The Austrians certainly know how to relax and enjoy themselves, and the bars and restaurants are friendly and welcoming. They also seem to find any excuse to dress up and party – the weekend we visited, an annual festival seemed to have everybody in carnival mood and wearing fancy dress.

They also enjoy their food – and especially meat. We visited a typical traditional restaurant in the heart of town (apparently a favourite of one of Austria’s most famous sons, Arnold Schwarzenegger) where a vegetarian would have cut a lonely figure. In fairness, there was a token vegetarian option – but it was definitely carnivore heaven, with meat dishes in an abundance of quality and quantity.

The Sporthotel Royer, where we stayed, also had a high meat quotient in both its vast breakfast buffet and its evening meal offerings, but also a bigger choice for those slightly less carnivorous amongst us.

The hotel, some five minutes’ walk from the main Planai gondola, offered comfortable accommodation and had a good range of facilities including large indoor pool, indoor tennis, sauna, steam room and well-equipped children’s playroom – making it an excellent base for a week’s family skiing in Schladming.

With a manageable two-hour transfer from Salzburg airport (clock the amazing Red Bull Hangar-7 directly opposite the main terminal buildings) Schladming makes for a really viable alternative to the big French resorts I’ve been used to.

Would I go back to Austria? Definitely!

For more information on Crystal holidays to Schladming visit www.crystalski.co.uk