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Skiing Zürs and Lech

Greetings from the bunny hill, where I am very happy. If no one objects, the bunny hill is where I would like to remain. I enjoy going to the top of the small slope and then clutching a towline alongside people no taller than my knees. It pleases me to warm my face in the bright Alpine sunshine as I glide downhill under the proud and watchful gaze of my Central Casting instructor, Peter Happ.

I find this so thoroughly amusing, I could continue going around in pointless but satisfying loops for the rest of my time here in Austria. And yet, oddly enough, Happ does not consider this a valid idea.

I am here in the Austrian Alps to learn to ski. I am doing this at an age when most of my fellow baby boomers are focused on getting their first Botox injections or salvaging their 401(k)'s. From the general tenor of things, I surmise that conversation in my age cohort will soon be turning to topics like turkey-wattle necks and bowel motility.

There are lines in life that must be drawn. Taking up difficult sports is a well-established method for flouting the horrors of time. Leni Riefenstahl, the legendary filmmaker and Hitler's lapdog, once lopped two decades off her personal chronology to obtain a scuba-diving license (she claimed she was 51). Riefenstahl lived another 30 years to achieve her centenary. To start skiing in my forties would, at the minimum, I felt, cut down on the shock when the dreaded AARP card finally came drifting through the mail.

Or so I thought in New York, when the chic hamlet of Zürs was a spun-sugar period confection in a glossy brochure. Now I find myself in the bowl of a valley surrounded by serrated peaks and populated by jolly red-cheeked people who make a point of telling you that they had boards strapped to their feet before they could walk. Everywhere I turn are tiny figures scrawling volutes down the mountains or else boarding helicopters to head into some backcountry avalanche zone. The reverberant thwack of helicopter rotors adds to the scene a dissonant note of Apocalypse Now.

"You see that?" says Happ, raising a heroic arm toward some imposing slope. "In a week you can ski it!"

Even though I do not entirely share Happ's confidence in my potential, I have nevertheless invested in a Prada parka and some Teflon ski jeans. This is not the first time that I have relied on dumb faith and some well-chosen wardrobe items to carry the day.

"You're high," I remark to Happ.

"Not really," says Happ, who is not yet attuned to New York sarcasm.

"Don't worry," he adds. "You'll see."

With that, we return to our snowplow lesson. Sooner than I can believe, it leads me away from the bunny slope and onto something that to my eye resembles the Matterhorn and that is ascended by means of a mechanized castration device known as a Poma lift.

"How do you like the view?" Happ asks from the crest of a hill where a group of four-year-olds is happily snaking along, hands on waists, behind an instructor. Despite a growing vertigo that I attempt to mask with nonchalance, I am forced to concede that the view is gorgeous. It is true that Zürs's pristine beauty, like that of many of the world's most appealing places, is not entirely immune from kitsch and narrative claptrap. In Hawaii, for example, one is often directed to Maui's Seven Sacred Pools of Kipahulu, which do not number seven and were never sacred except to the press agent who concocted the idea. Likewise, in the Austrian Alps, I find, one is gently encouraged to partake in an image of high-altitude rusticity that may have more to do with Disneyland than with the Alps.

But who cares?When I check into the delightfully staid Hotel Zürserhof I am greeted by the owner and presented with a drink and a room key. The hefty metal key is markedly different from the plastic wafers most hotels now use for induction into the global hospitality machine. This small hunk of metal symbolizes to me a delicate but important transition. "In a high-tech world,people are thankful for a human touch," the hotel's proprietor, Willy Skardarasy, accurately observes. A porter gathers the luggage and leads me to commodious lodgings in an inn that was once a farm belonging to a certain Count Tattenbach, who came to the Alps in the 1920's to treat a persistent pneumonia, stayed on, and eventually began to take in paying guests.

Tattenbach fled the country for Costa Rica at the beginning of the Second World War, never to return. The Skardarasy family took over the inn and built it into the largest hotel in Zürs, a place where 65 percent of the guests book the same rooms annually—among them the regents of Jordan, who came for 20 years. That hardly counts as a record; not long ago a room at the nearby Sporthotel Lorünser was hung with a plaque dedicating it to Mort Stone, a retired photo editor for the New York Times, who has spent winters there for half a century.

The reasons for guest loyalty to the Zürserhof are hardly mysterious. Once installed in my suite, with its adjacent dressing area and bathroom large enough to accommodate a Mini Cooper, I yank back all the curtains. The view is of low slopes mantled in a fresh coating of powder. A lone Alsatian couched on a snowbank warms itself in the late-winter sun. Like a consumptive from a Thomas Mann novel, I feel confident that a cure has been found.


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