Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Where to Ski in Austria, Lech-Zug am Arlberg, Zurs, Stuben, St. Anton

As usual, the price of all this free content is limited resources.... I can only tell you about what I did/ saw. I don't have a team of reporters out scouring the country, so the expertise of this entry concerns the Arlberg cluster of Austrian resorts near the Swiss border.

We started with the plan of skiing in Austria because British high-end tour operator Scott Dunn (we love Scott Dunn) has chalets there. Our friends stayed at his place in Zermatt when we were there a few years ago, and we were quite jealous of their accommodation, especially the private spa-floor in the chalet, and the cool private chef who cooked breakfast and dinner every evening. Our much-less-nice hotel wasn't much cheaper. Our friends were sharing the chalet with strangers, who turned out to be some rich, young, childless Brits of around the same age as we were. If I remember correctly, I was not the only person at the table to have written and published a novel—interesting dinner companions. Anyway, our friends have also stayed at a Scott Dunn property in St. Anton. We considered it for this trip but it didn't work out $$$-wise for our dates. And that turned out to be very much for the best.

St. Anton is the biggest, most party-oriented, most English-touristy of the cluster of resorts in the Arlberg area. It has the jock-reputation because of a face—I could look up the name, but hey, this is a blog, Valluga, maybe?—that's very extreme, must be skiied with a guide, etc. Awesome, if you are the kind of extreme skiier who can appreciate the terrain, but probably not necessary for most of us. We didn't ski there, but we went into the town one evening, and felt like we were descending from village to big city after mellow Lech and tiny Zug. It was much busier, more English-speaking, the crowds seemed younger.....

It's so difficult when you're wading through ski guides to understand which of a million resorts to choose from, what the terrain is really like, etc. In terms of Arlberg, the resorts of St. Anton and St. Christoph are connected by lifts, forming basically one area; a separate area is the resorts of Lech, Zug, Zurs and Oberlech. It's possible to ski with a guide from the St. Anton area all the way to the Lech area, and might be a fun day-long venture. As seems to be usual with these European mountains, most of the on-piste terrain in the Lech-etc. lift group is pretty easy blue (beginner) runs, with a few pockets of red (advanced) and one or two blacks (extreme). There are a lot of flats, making it difficult for snowboarding. The joy of the Lech area is skiing what's known as a "ronde,"—a round—of the "White Ring." You can pick up a map of "der Wise Ring" at the bottom of the Stubenbach gondola. The idea is that you traverse the terrain in an enormous circle, peak after peak, spectacular view after spectacular view. This, as we discovered, is a great way to spend the day, providing that sort of relaxtion-with-a-purpose that the modern workaholic really needs on vacation. It's like a bar crawl or any other party where certain "goals" have been set. And speaking of bar crawling.... plenty of stops for champagne or schnapps around Der Wise Ring. Oh yes.

Now, would you choose to stay in Zurs, Lech, on the mountain at Oberlech, or Zug? Lech is small and very pretty, but still the only "town" of the cluster, with a main street with lots of open-air apres ski action at night. We would have been perfectly happy staying there. (See hotel recs.) Oberlech is a stop on the mountain known for having all the various venues connected by underground tunnel; Zurs supposedly has the highest-end accomodation but our local friend described it as "a truck stop on the way to Lech." Didn't look that bad to me. Also, the way the lifts are set up, you can only go in one direction around the ring, and, in my opinion, the best terrain was closest to the Zurs lifts. So really, nothing wrong with Zurs either.

And then there was our darling little Zug, which was basically a cluster of hotels with restaurants and one charming cafe. This was a magical Alpine experience, totally quiet, surrounded by gorgous peaks, only one lift going up and one run coming down, the rest of it untrammled mountains, a mountain stream, a walking path through the forest for the 2km trek down to Lech, a cross-country skiing loop. For us, who did our partying with our ski-boots still on and then were home for dinner and an early bedtime, the lack of nightlife here was no problem. Also, there are free buses that run every 20 min, so even if you do want leave Zug, it's easy to get around. Getting back down to Zug at the end of the day was a bit of a pain—the return runs are either expert off-piste or a long, switchbacked riverbed-run with a lot of flats and a 300 meter hoof at the end. However, starting the day from Zug is awesome, since the Zug lift leads to the best restaurant on the mountain, the Balmalp, where we stopped in first thing for a shot of the Rote Williams.....


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