Five ski areas, two major resorts, and all the favourite Austrian ski holiday clichés ticked off… despite only leaving work on Thursday afternoon and returning Monday morning.
We head to Gatwick for a 4.45pm flight to Salzburg, landing at 7.45pm local time (an hour ahead). After quickly collecting our bags – one of the advantages of flying to a smaller airport – our private transfer shuttle whisks us to the Hotel Österreichischer Hof in Bad Hofgastein where we arrive a mere hour later.
To make the very most of our four day trip we then jump in a taxi to Bad Gastein, 10 minutes further up the Gastein Valley, to experience the resort’s zip line. Under peer pressure, I am buckled into a harness and dispatched into a chasm. Through the screaming, I am just able to appreciate the beauty of the waterfall tumbling through the town centre as I sail over it.
The walk back up through the faded grandeur of this 19th century radon-therapy resort, wreathed in mist from the hot falling water, is much more my pace, especially as ends at Ginger N Gin – a fun cocktail and sushi bar beneath the baroque Grand Hotel.
We skip breakfast at our hotel so we can catch the first lift, at 8.15am, at the Gastein Valley’s highest resort Sportgastein, a 20 minute taxi ride away from our hotel in Bad Hofgastein. You can also get there using the regular bus service – free to use for lift pass holders. At Sportgastein we take the resort’s one major lift to the 2,509m Kreuzkogel peak where we enjoy 360-degree views of around 400 peaks. It’s a prelude to the main reason for our early start – an on-mountain breakfast close to the summit (€45pp).
It’s in a curious construction, a ball constructed from glass and metal triangles that also serves as a refuge for climbers. We climb inside to find pastries, bread, jam, hams and cheeses, yoghurt, fruit, coffee, juices and sparkling wine. Plus a young fellow whipping up eggs in a pan… in a geodesic dome – the Buckminster Fuller English breakfast, if you will.
Sportgastein only has 18km of pistes but each is long – around 1,100m from top to bottom. As well as uncrowded fast red and blues, there are three ungroomed itinerary routes – Golden Powder, Golden Rush, Golden Ride (thankfully, the names stop there).
After exhausting the possibilities, we still haven’t burnt off breakfast, so we hop on the free bus to the valley’s largest ski area – the connected slopes of its two significant resorts Bad Gastein and Bad Hofgastein. At the heart of the Gastein valley, the area offers 86km of red and blue pistes, half above the treeline, half into the trees.
At one point we ski up to the Stubnerkogel suspension sightseeing bridge, a terrifying 140m thread of metal across a chasm. This time I don’t overcome the vertigo and stick to photographic duties.
After we’ve finished skiing some of my companions avail themselves of Bad Hofgastein’s 36,000sqm Alpentherme baths, others the hotel’s own Celtic spa which involves homeopathic treatments rather than sectarian chanting. For me, relaxation comes from a warm shower and a lie-down with Neil Young on Spotify, so I take a pass.
That evening we take the bus to the edge of Bad Gastein and a rickety chair lift up to the Bellevue Alm, a 15th century mountain hut, where we have a couple of drinks. An argument seems to break out as a space is cleared and two blokes start slapping each other about. But, since they’re wearing lederhosen and a third man is playing an accordion, it soon becomes clear this is traditional Schuhplattler dancing.
The fastest way back down again is via the Rodelbahn – a floodlit toboggan track to Bad Gastein. Feigned reluctance and faux nervousness soon gives way to shoulder-to-shoulder tobaggan racing as the speed picks up. Modesty forbids I say who won, ahem. (Lift up and tobaggan down is great value at €6.50pp).
Afterwards I enjoy another Austrian tradition at the upmarket, traditional Wirtshaus Schweizerhof restaurant once we’ve got the bus back to Bad Hofgastein. Here I enjoy a juicy Wiener Schnitzel, made properly with veal and served properly mit Preiselbeeren und Petersilienkartoffel (loganberries and boiled potatoes with parsley).
Our plan is to make our weekend break a two-centre ski safari. To do this, we extravagantly hire a taxi (€90 between us) to deliver our bags to the parallel valley, Grossarl, dropping us at Dorfgastein – the lowest resort at 850m in the Gastein valley – to ski over. This is a family-friendly area, so we have to tone down the speeds, but there are interesting variations, with steep, bumpy pitches through the woods.
On the insistence of a nostalgic Arsenal fan in the group, we stop at the Wengeralm for lunch. Again, the Austrian cuisine is spot on – plenty of Kümmel (caraway) in the Tiroler Gröstl fry-up, and an egg on top.
A long, pisted ridge provides the link to Grossarl, which we cross over in the afternoon, finding several wide reds where we can pick up the speed again. Eventually, we stop at the Alpentaverne terrace for the obligatory beer, Williams schnapps and a disco version of Country Road’.
Below, we spot our new base – the Grossarler Hof is a beautiful four-star superior hotel, a glamorous version of a chalet, complete with water wheel in the lobby.
Before dinner we take a walk through the quiet, pretty village then take a horse-drawn sleigh ride back to the hotel.
Dinner in the main hotel restaurant features an Austrian hotel staple – the salad bar (featuring celeriac remoulade) – as well as plenty of local meats, vegetables and cheese.
The owners’ commitment to local produce continues after dinner, as a local schnapps producer has been invited to host a tasting. The variety is amazing, including rowan, elderberry and cinnamon.
Grossarl has a unique programme of daily activities, known as Berg Gesund (“mountain health”), which are free to any guest staying in a hotel. In winter, these include snow shoe treks, ice climbing, Ski Kiriki (dawn skiing on empty slopes – cockerels say “kikiriki” in German) and guided ski touring. Hold up – free guided ski touring? We’re in!
Grossarl is on the edge of the Hohe Tauern National Park and, equipped with rented kit, we meet our guide, Matthias Mach at the Hüttschlag trailhead. It’s a perfect Sunday stroll in the sun, through old-growth evergreen forest, fording streams and passing huts before emerging into alpine meadows. A simple packed lunch from the hotel goes down well, before the descent. The ski down isn’t in perfect snow, but overall, the day out recharges the soul’s batteries.
Afterwards I’m almost tempted to rest my tired legs in the hotel’s spa – it’s built from local alder wood and fragranced with alpine herbs – but the red leather stools of the Grossarler Hof’s American bar win out.
We take our last night’s dinner in the hotel’s Jagastub’n restaurant where we honour the hunting lodge setting by eating plenty of game dishes.
We head downstairs to the wine cellar, where hotelier and sommelier Markus Andexer keeps a fine collection of seriously good Austrian wines (the sort that rarely leave the country). And he’s set up a cellar bar that is very comfortable to linger in. Believe me.
Checking out at a leisurely 9.30am after a big breakfast buffet (and ibuprofen), we’re checking in at Salzburg airport just 45 minutes later, and I’m at my desk working by lunchtime.
Need to know
British Airways has daily flights to Salzburg from Gatwick. Nightly room rates at the four star Österreichischer Hof in Bad Hofgastein are €82.50; at the four star superior Grossarler Hof €123. The Grossarlerhof is a Niche Destinations hotel. All activities, airport transfers and taxis in resort can be booked through the hotels or via the tourist offices.