Are you missing the snow? This may be ski season but we are all locked down and missing this special time of year to relish the delicious European slopes. I’ve asked award-wining travel/ski journalist Catherine Murphy to share some of her special ski memories with us and I’ve even got the photos to prove it…I have much to thank Catherine for but the introduction to rum spiced hot chocolate is my favourite…enjoy! Michelle
Irish skiers love Austria. Year after year it’s their number one choice for winter holidays.
But which Austria do they love?
Is it Salzburgerland’s healing thermal spas and Sound of Music legacy or the Tyrol’s reputation for fun with traditional lederhosen and Schuhplattler knee-slap dancing?
These regions offer quite different holiday experiences so let’s take a peek at both.
Bad Hof Gastein is a peaceful, pretty village in Salzburgerland’s Gastein Valley. Situated near Bad Gastein and Dorf Gastein, it’s famous for its thermal spas and ‘the cure’, a three week stint of relaxation and treatments taken by older Austrians, courtesy of the Exchequer.
Bad Hof Gastein takes wellness and comfort so seriously that a number of top hotels, including the Norica Palais, are linked to the resort’s Alpentherme spa by corridor. That’s right – wearing a dressing gown and slippers, you wander along a meandering corridor until you reach the wonder of the Alpentherme’s outdoor pool, swimming lakes and wooden sauna huts.
Peaceful, pretty Bad Hof may seem sleepy and relaxed but there’s plenty going on.
The resort is currently investing €85million in a high-speed gondola and other infrastructure. When it opens in December 2018, the new Schlossalm lift will whisk twice as many skiers up the mountain in record time, making it easier to reach the slopes.
Your skiing choices from Bad Hof are pleasantly varied. With around 208km of pistes in the area, most holidaymakers start by taking the gondola up to the Stubnerkogel mountain to ski the blues and reds around Bad Gastein and Angertal.
But that’s just the beginning. If visibility is bad or you’re skiing with young family members, take the free ski bus to the long open tree-lined runs of Dorf Gastein. If you’re a more advanced skier looking to go off-piste, take a bus to Sport Gastein for some free ride fun.
Bad Hof Gastein is relatively low at 840 metres but you can ski to well over 2,000m at Sport Gastein which means you can always find decent snow. If ski touring is your passion, look a little bit further to Graukogel.
Like the rest of the Alps, the Gastein valley is enjoying a very snowy winter. Just before Christmas, I skied smooth knee-deep powder with local instructor Christian Zehentner and had one of the best early season days ever.
In between powder laps, I took a short break to cross Europe’s highest suspension bridge for spectacular views of the Hohe Tauern national park and Austria’s highest mountain, the Grossglockner.
Attractions like this mark a new era in the Gastein valley, with the spa town of Bad Gastein also about to undergo substantial rejuvenation.
Off the mountain, there’s also plenty to do. Visit the healing caves of the Heilstollen where experts insist low levels of radon gas discovered during the region’s mining days are good for respiratory illness. Or opt for retail and cultural therapy with an easy train journey into Salzburg.
Take a snow shoe hike up into the forest at Angertal (€6 with a Gastein Pass) or a full moon snow snow hike at Sport Gastein. Book a ski and spa week or visit during St Patrick’s week when the annual jazz festival runs.
If food is a major part of your relaxation plan, sample the finest tastes of Salzburgerland with Gastein Ski Toque, special mountain hut menus created by seven Salzburg chefs. Dive into local dishes like trout menuire with parsley potatoes or dumplings with brown butter in restaurant Wirtshaus Tropfel in the village, Gipflstadl for hearty portions on the mountain and do not pass the Hirschen Hutt’n on the run down to Angertal without stopping for lunch and après fun.
As well as being home to the popular Today FM ski trip in January, Kirchberg enjoys a blessed position at the heart of two of the Tyrol’s best-known ski areas.
Clever holidaymakers realise that you can have the best of both worlds here as it’s situated between the SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental Ski World (try saying that after a couple of Schnapps!) and the Kitzbuheler Alpen area.
So in one direction you have access to the SkiWelt’s 280km of well-linked terrain that takes you through unspoilt farming villages and in the other, you have easy access to the slopes of glitzy Kitzbuhel, home to the Hahnenkamm and legendary Streif downhill course. In total, that’s a whopping 144 cable cars and 463km of accessible slopes.
Kitzbuhel – an easy train ride away if you want a break from the pistes – is gorgeous with its newly extended Christmas markets (for pre-Xmas visits) and historic resort centre. But Kirchberg, with its lively après scene, picturesque river setting and heated chair lifts, is also lovely and has the benefit of more reasonable prices than its upmarket neighbour.
Pick a hotel like the Metzgerwirt which is right opposite the ski school, ski hire, bus stop and a short hop from après ski bars in the evening. It’s typical of Tyrolean accommodation – cosy, friendly and family-run with good food.
Every ski resort is transformed by fresh snowfall and in December, Kirchberg never looked snowier or better.
The resort is popular with Dutch tourists so you may be lucky enough to find yourself with a Dutch instructor. I skied with Amsterdammer Lars Roerhorst whose skill on the slopes proved that people from countries with no real ski culture – like Ireland or the Netherlands – can become excellent skiers and instructors.
The slopes around Kirchberg are great for intermediate skiers who will feel their legs burn on the resort’s longest run, all 8.3km of it. It also has a growing freestyle scene and for intermediates who can’t get enough of the mountain, you can ski between 6.30 and 9.30pm on a couple of nights each week.
One of the real beauties of being based in Kirchberg is that you can go on ski safaris to explore different areas. When you buy the Kitzbuheler Alpen AllStarCard, all public transport is free with easy rail access along a 66km route that includes Hopfgarten, St Johann and Fieberbrunn. This adds a whole other dimension to a ski holiday in this region.
One must-do here if conditions are not too icy is the toboggan run on Gaisberg mountain. Toboggan down the slopes to drinks or dinner at the Obergaisberg restaurant. Afterwards, continue the run down to the resort or be clever and stay in the restaurant to watch your friends whizz past.
Gaisberg also has an illuminated ice climbing tower for night climbing but if that’s an adventure too far, try ice-skating, curling, cross country skiing, a visit to the Alpine igloo village or torch-lit walks through beautiful countryside.
Kirchberg is a popular choice for Irish groups so the après scene is important. Tirolerhaus is a popular late night bar while Eis Bar goes crazy between 5-8pm with a Dutch DJ and clientele. Resistance is futile – you will join that Conga line and you will have lots of fun. For the more hedonistic visitor, Heidi & Peter’s bar offers all-inclusive drinks packages.
Whether you choose to visit Salzburgerland or Tirol, there are a number of things that both regions have in common. Firstly, the growth in modern dining with a new generation of chefs ensuring that Austrian cuisine can compete with the best of French Alpine food.
Next, never mind solving a problem like Maria; how on earth do we solve the problem of… naked Austrian saunas? It’s a simple fact of life that swimming togs are forbidden in Austrian saunas so prepare to bare or spare your blushes and stick to the thermal water of the swimming pool.
Catherine Murphy travelled to Austria with Topflight Holidays (topflight.ie 01 2401700), staying at the 4 star Hotel Norica Palais in Bad Hofgastein and the 4 star Hotel Metzgerwirt in Kirchberg. Topflight offer weekly ski holidays to both resorts with prices including return flights from Dublin, Cork or Belfast, airport transfers, accommodation for 7 nights and rep services in resort.
Prices from www.topflight.ie half board staying at Hotel Norica in Bad Hofgastein in March with free entrance to Alpentherme Thermal Spa.