Austria Ski Vacations: Schuss, There It Is

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NIEDERAU, Austria -- Over the past two decades in Europe, I've hit the slopes in France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. I've skied asbachelor, as part of a couple and now as a father with three children.

My verdict is clear: The best European skiing destination is Austria.

It offers more than enough vertical descent and white stuff on the mountains and the most après-ski charm, with even, arguably, the best food and wine.

Perhaps most important in these days of the weak dollar, Austria represents the most affordable Alpine destination. Our recent 10-day family trip over the New Year holidays cost only about $2,500 for lodging, lifts, ski rentals and food.

Locating an Austrian bargain is easy. Web sites such as Tiscover and Tyrolian Tours can be helpful.

On this trip, we stayed in the village of Niederau, near the famed resort of Kitzbuhel. Our apartment was located in a renovated farmhouse, two kilometers outside the village center, at the top of a steep, winding road that opened up onto a magnificent mountain vista.

Max Schellhorn, the owner, still milks cows in the morning. He also is a part-time ski instructor. Much of his income these days comes from tourism. He and his wife Karin greeted us with a glass of local sparkling wine. He had sleds for his own child and lent them to us. One evening, his mother, who also lives on the farm, baked bread with my children. Another day, she invited them to make fresh butter.

Such personal touch is common in Austria, and sets it apart from its alpine competitors. Because almost every hotel or apartment house is family-owned in Austria, accommodations are often well-maintained. Owners like the Schellhorns rent out apartments in their own properties and live on the site.

Bell-shaped baroque or thin, spiked church steeples surrounded by traditional, wood-shingled houses continue to dominate Austrian ski villages.

In contrast, most Swiss and French resorts are sky-rise affairs -- impersonal, corporate creations, often with a lot of concrete. Most famed French resorts, in particular, are of postwar construction and were built high above the treeline in a barren, lunaresque landscape.

Our spacious, three-room apartment in Niederau cost only €575 ($845) for the holiday New Year's week. In addition to apartments, Niederau and other Austrian villages also boast luxurious hotels, which often include a sauna and swimming pool. These run only about €120 to €150 a night -- and that includes breakfast and dinner.

Equipment rentals and lift tickets were much cheaper than in most French or Swiss resorts, and many discounts for children were offered. Lessons are cheap and available in English.

For serious skiers, France and Switzerland may still be best. Their mountains are higher than Austria's, and their trails are more challenging and varied. Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, rises to 15,700 feet above the village of Chamonix. Such resorts as Meribel and Val d'Isère benefited from massive government-led investment prior to the 1992 Winter Olympics, which were held near Albertville, France. These resorts have some of the world's most up-to-date ski facilities -- an elaborate web of chairlifts and cable cars that links numerous resorts together.

Austrian skiing infrastructure, for the most part, is much less snazzy. The Tyrolean Alps in the center of the country between Salzburg and Innsbruck are mostly less than 10,000 feet high. Niederau itself offers only a small slope with less than a dozen runs. Many ancient, uncomfortable T-bars remain in operation. Fortunately, a 20-minute drive away is the large skiing area of Wilder Kaiser, which connects half a dozen separate villages with 97 lifts and 669 miles of slopes.

Most were fun, intermediate level runs. While in many French and Swiss resorts, the main children's ski area is a small, flat expanse with a rope tow near the village, most Austrian mountains are so gentle that youngsters go halfway up the main mountain in a gondola and enter a true winter fantasy world.

If black diamond (expert) slopes are important, Austria does have some options. Another 20-minute drive away is Kitzbuhel, home to the famous Hahnenkamm downhill course. The country's highest mountains and, arguably, most challenging skiing are found in Vorarlberg, closer to the Swiss border, at the famed resorts of St. Anton and Lech.

When it comes to après-ski, Austria again outclasses its rivals. To be sure, France and Switzerland offer famed food and drink, including true mountainside gastronomic shrines. But most French and Swiss mountain cooking is based on hearty cheese and potato dishes, such as raclette or fondues.

Gasthofs, the Austrian version of home-style bistros, crowd all the ski villages. Traditional Austrian cuisine goes well with the outdoors: heartwarming schnitzels and roasts. Many resorts offer gastronomic restaurants, too. Local Austrian wines, though not yet on a par with Bordeaux or Burgundies, are fast improving -- particularly the whites -- and the best are far superior to anything produced in either Switzerland or the French Alps.

Finally, there's what my children consider the best Austrian specialty -- a warm slice of apple strudel, flaky dough on the outside and caramelized apples on the inside, topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.

Each day after we finished skiing, they would reclaim a visit to a cozy gasthof. I would quaff a beer. They would order hot chocolate and a strudel. When the order arrived, everyone was smiling.

Ferienwohnung Schellhorn
Herr Max Schellhorn
Sonnbergweg 351
6314 Niederau -- Wildschönau
ÖSTERREICH
Tel.: +43 (5339) 8661
E-Mail: max.schellhorn@aon.at

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