My European friends smiled and raised their eyebrows when I told them I was planning a visit to Kitzbühel. “High society,” they said. “Famous downhill.” Indeed, the Hahnenkamm, first staged in this medieval Austrian city in 1931, remains the world’s most famous downhill race and also its steepest, topping out at a slope of eighty-five degrees—in other words, nearly vertical. Every big-name skier in the past half century has competed here, from Jean-Claude Killy to Bode Miller (who’s reputed to have partied the nights away).Far lesser known is that in the summer the city’s primary sport is golf. There may not be any sheer fairways, but make no mistake: You are in the mountains. Watching a well-struck drive execute its parabola in the thin Alpine air is sure to take your breath away—as will negotiating some of the cart paths, which I did with both feet on the brake. Two championship courses and two nine-hole layouts are close at hand, as is the Schwarzsee, the in-town lake known among local golfers as the twentieth hole. It’s an ideal spot for sunbathing and hoisting a lager or two after a round.
What no one prepared me for was how simultaneously thrilling and, well, cute Kitz is. Set in a high valley in the Tyrol region amid the Wilder Kaiser range, the city is positively magical. All around town purple blossoms twine from flower boxes on the façades of Tudor chalets. Horse-drawn carts circle winding streets lined with beautiful people who stroll in and out of boutiques and mountaineering stores. White cattle graze on green hillsides, their neck bells tinkling faintly. At night, there’s high-stakes action at Casino Kitzbühel, and in nearly every restaurant, buxom blond (and occasionally brunette) waitresses flounce around in dirndls, the national dress. I started to see Kitzbühel as Vail with cobblestones, charming chalets and hale Austrian hikers carrying telescoped walking sticks. Oh, and golf clubs, too.