St. Anton, Austria Travel Guide

Ski Resorts in Austria: St. Anton

St. AntonCredit: Wikimedia

Austria's most challenging ski resort is a no-nonsense town located at the bottom of the Arlberg pass. In the 20th century, it was ruled by express trains whistling down the track between Zurich and Vienna, making for an unnatural divide between the slopes and the main street that often led in long waits at the level crossing. Staging the 2001 World Championships at last released the funds to move the station to the south of the town and placed the trains underground, making an open space in the heart of the resort. This has been landscaped around an artificial lake that is utilized for skating and curling in winter. At the same time, lifts were set up across the lower slopes, enhancing the potential for ski-in, ski-out all over the resort. Nasserein, previously a poor relation known for its bargain basement living accommodations, is now directly linked by people-mover to the Gampen mid-station. At the other end of the scale, the super-rich gravitate towards the Arlberg Hospiz in the glitzy hamlet of St. Christoph, efficiently locked into the bigger picture through a gentle blue run from the Galzig mid-station.

St. Anton's reputation is built upon tough skiing and an indomitable party spirit that keeps the streets alive to the sound of music till the last merrymaker goes home. This occurs shortly before the hotels start serving breakfast, creating a buzz that lasts around the clock. The evening action centers on the long pedestrianised main street, home to all the best bars and clubs. By Austrian standards, the feel is exceptionally international, with Brits, Swedes and Germans brought together by Antipodeans looking for a winter season, or in several cases a new life, in the Alps.

Although St. Anton has slopes for snow users of all skills and ambitions, experts are the ones who will profit most from its wide network of challenging runs. The main event is the Valluga right above the town, accessed via three cable-cars, the first to the Galzig mid-station, the second to the Valluga Grat - the starting point for the tough descents down Schindler Kar and Mattun. Initially black pistes, they have been reclassified as ski routes, a clever device that shifts the responsibility from the resort (which no longer patrols or prepares them) to the skier (who takes on them at their own risk).

The last cable-car is a 15-person cabin to the Valluga peak, the launch point for the off-piste classic down to Zurs. As the top segment has a short 'fall and you die' stretch over rocks, passengers are only granted to take skis and boards when they're accompanied by a mountain guide. Then again rules are made to be broken: on fine days, devoted powderhounds contend to make the climb on foot prior to launching themselves into the void. The Valluga network links up readily with more mellow slopes on Gampen and Kapall, the exceptions being the traditional Kandahar men's downhill and the new Fang downhill, made for the World Championships. The downside to all this glorious terrain is that it's south-facing, which means that the snow is quickly corrupted by extended sunny periods, particularly when the temperatures are high.

The Rendl, on the other side of the valley, fills the gap in times of need with snowsure slopes serviced by a gondola and a series of chairlifts. The area is quite popular for off-piste, with great visibility in the forest on stormy days and the potential for exploring the back country over the top of the ridge without climbing.

Be warned: Austrian mountain meals can badly damage your hips and nowhere more so than in St. Anton, which provides the full range of dumplings, sausages and Tiroler grostl, followed by Kasierschmarrn, a pancake-led mega-calorie pudding. Look for these in the Rodelalm, a rustic forest hideaway with an open fireplace, and the Sennhutte with its large sun terrace and live music when the lifts close. The Verwall Stube is the top gourmet option, specialising in bouillabaisse and fish, while the Hospiz Aim shares the mighty Hospiz wine list, believed to be 'the largest in Europe' and certainly one of the most expensive. The ice bar has also come to stay, in conjunction with meals at the Kapallstube, the Ulmerhutte and the Rendl which has bravely diversified into 'wok dishes'.

There is no shortage of alternative sports options, particularly since the opening of the Arlberg centre at the base of the slopes; facilities include a huge indoor/outdoor pool with waterfalls and jets, three saunas, a steam bath and a well-equipped fitness room. The Pizzeria San Antonio in Nasserein has two ten-pin bowling lanes.  St Anton's museum provides insights into the town's history, especially the building of the original railway tunnel that opened it up to the outside world at the start of the 20th century and its transformation into a pioneering ski resort. The Museum Restaurant is a delight for food, drink and ambience: order your dinner and stroll round the exhibition when it's being cooked.