A Ski Resort in the Austrian Alps Gets a Dazzling Transformation

Andrew Phelps

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A Ski Resort in the Austrian Alps Gets a Dazzling Transformation

Dusk was falling as I arrived in St. Anton, so I set out for a quick stroll through the village, my city shoes skidding on the snow-covered sidewalk. I passed an onion-domed church, and traditional, half-timbered hotels, then paused and looked up at the ski run that swoops straight down to the main street. It was 7:30 p.m., three hours after the lifts had closed, but the piste was crowded with skiers. Some were moving at a snail’s pace, anxiously feeling their way in the half-light; others were slaloming down with abandon, apparently oblivious to risk. Others had already come to grief—the snow was littered with clumps of tangled legs, skis, and poles. Yet instead of shouts of pain and recrimination, there were only gales of raucous laughter, ringing out across the moonlit mountainside.

This, I would learn, is a near-nightly ritual in St. Anton. The resort markets itself as the “cradle of Alpine skiing,” thanks to its pivotal role in the early development of the sport. But a still bigger draw for many visitors is the unadvertised fact that it is also the cradle of après-ski.

Actually après is a misnomer; in St. Anton, the drinking takes place before, during, and after skiing, not just in the village but up on the mountain, too. There, the young, wealthy, and ski-mad from across Europe cluster together in rustic cattle sheds and hay barns converted into bars. After several hours of enthusiastic drinking, they clip back into their skis for a demolition derby of a final run, which ends, conveniently enough, not just beside St. Anton’s pretty, pedestrianized main thoroughfare, but within 20 yards of the local emergency clinic.

Video: The Ski (and Après-Ski) Scene in the Arlberg

The tourist office is not amused, concerned that such revelry—good-humored though it always is—lowers the tone. It has tried various ways of cooling the party, attempting, for example, to ban ski boots in restaurants at night (forcing merrymakers to change their footwear back at the hotel, where they might decide on a nap instead). But the authorities are fighting a losing battle. In St. Anton, the slightest pretext for a party—a few inches of fresh snow, say—is exuberantly seized upon, and this winter brings the biggest excuse in a generation.

The resort already had one of the Alps’ best ski areas, with pistes that stretch west to the much smaller villages of St. Christoph, perched on the Arlberg Pass at 5,900 feet, and Stuben beyond. But this winter will see the launch of three new lifts, built at a cost of nearly $50 million. These will stretch over the Flexenpass (a mountainous road over 5,000 feet high) to join Stuben’s slopes with those of Zürs, the next village to the north.

That in itself would scarcely be worthy of note outside St. Anton, were it not for the fact that Zürs is already connected by pistes and lifts to Lech, which is in turn connected to Zug, Warth, and Schröcken. The three new lifts form a kind of missing link that joins two halves of a chain, at a stroke creating Austria’s largest ski area, and arguably the most compelling in the Alps. The eight newly connected villages, known together simply as the Arlberg, will have every type of terrain—from wide-open nursery slopes to heli-skiing and powder-choked couloirs. And on top of the skiing, this scenic swath of mountainside will offer everything from rustic dumplings and tasting menus to fine hotels and farmhouse bed-and-breakfasts. Whether skiers come in search of riotous nightclubs or remote chapels, adrenaline or authenticity, all will be represented here.

Austria Ski
Lunch at the Hospiz Alm, in St. Christoph, where former guests have included Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and King Harald of Sweden.

Andrew Phelps

And it will be vast. Consider that an American big-hitter like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has 14 lifts, and Park City, Utah—the largest ski area in the U.S. by a hefty margin—has 41. The Arlberg will have 87 (and unlike the U.S. resorts, it doesn’t include surface lifts on the bunny slopes in its stats; it has another 25 of those). The link has been a long time coming. A lift connection over the Flexenpass was first proposed in 1925, and skiers have been asking for it ever since.

Early the next morning, I rented some skis and set out to explore the Arlberg. Forget lapping the same lifts and trails, going up just to come down—here, skiing is about journeying through the landscape, touring from one village to the next. And unlike purpose-built ski areas, where the trails are laid out to maximize space like the fairways on a suburban golf course, here the runs follow timeworn routes across the mountains.

It was a bright, clear day, and from the top of the Vallugabahn, St. Anton’s highest lift, I looked north, beyond Zürs and Lech, to a distant mountain called the Karhorn. The idea of skiing all the way to that remote peak, then continuing beyond it to the village of Warth—more than a two-hour drive from St. Anton—seemed absurd. But the new lifts will make the route possible for all but the most novice skiers, creating a sort of Alpine expedition—albeit on perfectly groomed pistes, with stops for glühwein and strudel along the way.

Such journeys might seem a little pointless if the villages were as interchangeable as the “ski factories” of the French Alps, with their convenient but characterless chain hotels and apartment blocks. But the Arlberg is defined by real, year-round communities, each distinct from the next. Boisterous St. Anton, for example, with its 2,470 residents and bustling streets full of boutiques, spas, and sushi restaurants, is a world away from tiny Warth (population 164), where outside a handful of hotels, the only bar doubles as the butcher shop. Elegant, upper-crust Lech, home of the world’s first heated chairlifts (one of which carries a different brand name on each seat: Hublot, Rolex, Moncler…) couldn’t be less like sleepy, humble Stuben, where the ancient chairlifts use a simpler heating system: take a blanket at the bottom, give it back at the top. Dialects change from one valley to the next; locals claim that personalities do, too. As Lech hotelier Gerold Schneider put it, “St. Anton is only a few kilometers away, but it’s a different language, a different culture, really a different mentality.”

Austria Ski
The spa pool at Hotel Tannenhof, in St. Anton.

Andrew Phelps

And everywhere, there are multiple centuries of history and tradition. After taking in the panorama from the Valluga, I skied down to St. Christoph, on the Arlberg Pass, for a bowl of goulash. My destination, the Arlberg Hospiz, was founded by a pig herder in 1386 as a refuge for travelers toiling over the snowbound, avalanche-prone pass. It saved seven lives that first winter and soon a chapel was added, followed by a 12-foot-tall wooden statue of St. Christopher, patron of travelers.

The position, hemmed in by huge banks of snow high above the tree line, remains austere, but today’s Hospiz is rather different—no longer a refuge but a five-star hotel known throughout Austria for its wine cellar (which tops out at $92,800 for a Nebuchadnezzar, a five-gallon bottle, of 2000 Cheval Blanc). Its clients are royalty and celebrities: photographs of their visits adorn the lobby, accompanied by small name plaques in case you don’t immediately recognize King Harald of Sweden or Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

Out on the sunny terrace, where waitresses in dirndls balanced trays on their shoulders laden with ribs, goulash, and kaiserschmarrn (fluffy shredded pancakes with plum sauce) I met Andy Butterworth, a jolly Brit who moved to St. Anton about 15 years ago and runs Kaluma, a tour operator that also offers a “gourmet guiding” service, helping guests navigate the maze of Arlberg après-ski etiquette, as well as its best restaurants. “To do St. Anton properly,” Butterworth explained, “you ski hard all day, party hard until eight p.m., then get to bed by ten, so you’re ready for the first lift in the morning.”

Lunch over, it was time to set off back toward St. Anton, where the après-ski was about to get under way. A little way above the village we veered right beside some trees and a 10-foot-high inflatable pair of lederhosen, a sign for the Sennhütte, the first in a series of bars that dot the trail as it descends to the village. We propped our skis against the chalet, then sat down at the long wooden tables outside, where a band played Austrian folk songs as the sun began to set. As families and groups of friends joked and compared ski stories from the day, Butterworth gave me a tutorial on the strange drinks that are unique to the Arlberg. We started with a Bauern Tequila (or “farmer’s tequila”)—a slice of air-dried ham resting on the glass instead of lemon, and shavings of horseradish in place of salt. Other favorites are the Heisse Witwe (or “hot widow,” a warm plum liqueur with cream), the Vodka Feige (vodka with half a liquor-soaked fig) and the lethal Jägertee (“hunter’s tea”—a blend of red wine, rum, schnapps, orange juice, cinnamon, and tea).

Austria Ski

Skiers hitting the slopes of Mehlsack, a mountain near the village of Lech.

Andrew Phelps

We finished our drinks and made our way through the gathering darkness to the Heustadl (literally “hay barn”), a wooden chalet with a temporary stage outside, where a classic rock band was in full flow. Next, we moved on to the MooserWirt, a former sheep barn now fitted out with 23 miles of pipework to keep the beer flowing from the cellars below, and finally to the Krazy Kanguruh, where après-ski in its modern, turbocharged form evolved at the end of the 1970s. Our goggles steamed up the moment we opened the door. We inched our way to the bar past tables groaning under the weight of people dancing in ski boots. St. Anton, Butterworth said, is pretty much always like this—a high-altitude cocoon of perpetual celebration. Outside, unnoticed by the revelers, it was beginning to snow.

Today, the villages of the Arlberg may be places of leisure, but their past could hardly have been more different. For hundreds of years, these were bleak, isolated farming communities, struggling with thin soil, steep ground, and at least four months of annual snow cover. Grinding poverty was the norm—so much so that in the 18th and 19th centuries, many villagers couldn’t afford to feed their children and would send them away each summer to find work in the child markets of southern Germany (the Cincinnati Times Star ran an exposé of the practice as late as 1908). As they crossed the Arlberg Pass, leaving their homes behind, the children would chip a splinter from the statue of St. Christopher at the Hospiz, carrying it with them throughout the summer in the hope that it would help stave off the devastating homesickness.

The Arlberg’s transformation was in great part down to a single man. Hannes Schneider was born in Stuben in 1890, the son of a road builder. Jobs were scarce and the village threatened by depopulation so, at age 17, Hannes trekked over the snowy Arlberg Pass to seek work in St. Anton. There, the Hotel Post hired him to teach guests how to ski, an activity just beginning to evolve from a means of transport for mountain farmers into a leisure pursuit for tourists. Hannes quickly set about putting his mark on the nascent sport, adapting the upright stance and telemark turns long practiced by Scandinavian farmers into a forward-leaning, crouched position much like the one taught today. In 1920, he set up what locals claim was the world’s first ski school, and the same year starred in Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs (“The Wonder of Skis”), the first of several films that established his reputation as the Alps’ first celebrity instructor.

Wealthy enthusiasts from across Europe and the U.S. came to learn Hannes’s “Arlberg technique,” while other ski resorts around the world sought the prestige of hiring an Arlberg instructor, creating a diaspora of experts from the area. Herbert Jochum from Zürs, for example, went to Aspen and coached the women’s U.S. ski team; others traveled from as far as Australia and Japan, places about which their fathers—farmers and laborers—could only have dreamed. Schneider himself ended up at Cranmore, a modest ski area in New Hampshire, to which he had escaped after having been imprisoned by the Nazis. When he and his family got off the train there, in February 1939, he was welcomed by a crowd holding up an archway of ski poles. “It isn’t the Arlberg,” he told his son as they looked over the low hills, “but we are going to love it here.”

Austria Ski
A view of Lech.

Andrew Phelps

Back home, the incoming tide of tourism reached different parts of the Arlberg at different times—one reason the villages remain so different from one another today. St. Anton was first—the number of hotel beds soared from the late 1950s onward as skiing went from aristocratic diversion to mainstream holiday activity—then Zürs and Lech. Stuben (population today about 90) was comparatively overlooked, stuck on the far edge of St. Anton’s ski area. This winter’s new lifts will finally change all that, putting Stuben in the center of the united Arlberg. Already there have been a number of new openings. The modest wooden house where Hannes grew up has been renovated and relaunched as a supremely luxurious rental chalet, filled with modern art and available to rent for $38,600 per week.

After three days in St. Anton, I took a late-evening cab ride over the Flexenpass to Lech, a village of 1,503 residents that is the second-largest in the Arlberg. Perhaps it was the lingering effect of too much hunter’s tea, but when I woke there the next morning, the place seemed somehow dreamlike, a bubble of refined living at 5,000 feet. At my hotel, the Kristiania, I ate breakfast beneath a Lichtenstein, drank coffee from a silver pot, then set off into the village. Elderly couples in fur coats were walking arm-in-arm beside the river; a family was climbing into a horse-drawn carriage. Here, the ugly mundanities of modern life seem to have been banished. The village parking garage is hidden underground beside the 14th-century church, and polluting oil generators have been replaced by four eco-friendly biomass plants that pipe hot water to every house. In Oberlech, a part of the village that sits slightly higher on the mountainside, even roads have been done away with. The chalets and hotels are joined only by footpaths and ski pistes, while supplies are delivered via a Disney World–style network of underground tunnels.

Austria Ski
Night falls on Stuben, a small town in the Arlberg mountain range with a population of 90.

Andrew Phelps

I met up with my guide, Luis Lankmayer—red ski-school outfit, deep tan, 55 “but I feel 35!”—and we rode the lifts up out of the village. He pointed out his family’s beehives, then led me to a long off-piste run called the Schneetäli. We started on a steep face that was cloaked in deep powder, delicious waves of cold snow flying up into our faces with every turn. As the gradient eased, we followed a frozen stream, slaloming around bushes that grew tighter and larger the lower we dropped, eventually gathering into a dark, silent forest. There were tracks of deer and rabbit, but we didn’t see another skier. Then at the bottom, after a push and skate over some fields, we emerged, hats, beards, and jackets caked with snow, in the hamlet of Zug.

We followed the smell of baking to a tiny chalet, which was built in 1780 and served as the village school until 1963. The building is still owned by the community, but last winter it reopened as a restaurant, the Rote Wand Schualhus. Inside, we ate warm cheese dumplings in a room that reminded me of a dollhouse, its ceiling, floor, walls, and window frames entirely wooden. I ordered a Coke, but was met with an apologetic smile. Here they only serve local products, the waiter explained, offering me a long list of apple juices instead.

The upstairs of the Schualhus is a more high-end gastronomic restaurant that serves a 12- to 15-course, $200 tasting menu and is open only at night. We went up for a look after lunch, and found three chefs busily whisking and dicing. One turned out to be British, and, in a reversal of the age-old Arlberg tradition, said he had come to make his career (as has James Baron, a 30-year-old Englishman gunning for a Michelin star at the Hotel Tannenhof in St. Anton). It struck me that the two floors of the Schualhus are the new Arlberg in exquisite miniature: luxurious, of course, and in touch with global trends, but also deeply connected to the region’s rural identity.

Austria Ski

The Museum St. Anton am Arlberg, which documents the history of skiing in the region.

Andrew Phelps

Perhaps the key is that the miraculous elevation from poverty has been so rapid that much of the tradition and culture has survived intact, the links with the past remaining close and clear. Lech’s backstreets may be lined with luxury cars—Porsches, Mercedeses, and Audis, all with the obligatory ski rack—but here and there you still catch a farmyard smell outside a barn where cattle are overwintering. And, with only a couple of exceptions, the hotels are still owned by local families rather than corporations or absentee billionaires. The luxurious, art-filled Kristiania, for instance, is run by Gertrud Schneider (a surname that rings like an echo around these valleys). It was built as a home by her father, Olympic ski champion Othmar, whose mentor was Hannes himself.

Later that evening I met another Schneider, Gerold, Gertrud’s cousin and owner of the Almhof Schneider, a five-star, 53-room hotel that evolved from his family’s farmhouse. “My family have lived on this land since 1451,” he told me as we looked around an old barn he has converted into a multipurpose art venue, Allmeinde Commongrounds, with an exhibition space and accommodation for visiting artists. We sat at a long wooden table surrounded by books on art and architecture, drinking a superb Grüner Veltliner and talking about past and future projects: sculpture by Antony Gormley, photography by Alex Hütte, and an installation by U.S. artist James Turrell, high on the mountain above Lech.

On my last day in Lech I set out with Luis, my guide, and a young man named Quentin who was working at the Kristiania for the winter before heading to Yale University and had been roped in to carry our picnic. We skied over to Warth, rode up its chairlifts, then climbed for 20 minutes to reach the Karhornsattel Pass, starting point for an off-piste route back toward Lech. In other parts of the world, backcountry ski routes have macho names—Apocalypse Couloir, Delirium Dive—but in true Arlberg style, this one was named after a 19th-century priest, Father Müller. He was the first person in Warth to buy a pair of skis and, having practiced at night to avoid the ridicule of his parishioners, used them on this route to visit a colleague in Lech.

Beyond the pass we skied on sunny, open slopes, stopping to watch a family of steinbock move along the ridge. Then, halfway back to Lech, our lunch destination appeared like a mirage among the gleaming white snowfields. This was Bürstegg, a place made up of a chapel and a couple of barns and chalets, their ancient wood blackened by the sun. Quentin laid out our simple picnic on the rickety, hand-hewn wooden terrace of one of the barns: cheese, mountain ham, gherkins, and crusty bread cut with a horn-handled knife. I hung my jacket on a scythe left by the door and listened to the drip of snow melting from the eaves.

It was heavenly, and as far removed as you could get from standing in line in the giant cafeteria of a mainstream ski resort. But it is also in many ways a memento mori—a note to the sophisticates of Lech and the party animals of St. Anton to remember how lucky they are. For Bürstegg is a ghost village, abandoned in 1898, and a reminder of what could have happened to all the Arlberg’s communities if skiing hadn’t come along to save them.

The Details: What to Do in Today's Austria

Getting There

Innsbruck, about an hour’s drive from St. Anton, is the closest airport to the Arlberg, but Zurich and Munich host far more international flights. Both Zurich and Munich are between two and three hours from the Arlberg by car. Rail transportation to St. Anton is also available from Zurich or Innsbruck.

Hotels

House Hannes Schneider: This is the ultimate address for ski fanatics. The childhood home of the “father of modern skiing” was transformed last winter into a sleek six-bedroom private chalet. It’s on the main street of the village, and is a short walk from the Albona lifts, which access some of the Arlberg’s best powder skiing. Stuben; househannesschneider.at; chalet from $38,580 per week.

The Kristiania: An elegant, art- and antique-filled retreat with 29 individually designed bedrooms. Enjoy the views over a frozen lake a few minutes’ walk from the village center. Lech; kristiania.at; doubles from $360.

Lechtaler Hof: Warth, the northernmost of the Arlberg villages is reputedly the snowiest place in the Alps. It gets an average of 36 feet every winter, so this 20-room, sleepy place is ideal for serious skiers or those seeking a peaceful Alpine escape. The property has good, locally sourced food and the kind of genuine warm welcome that comes from being run by two generations of the same family. Warth; lechtalerhof.at; doubles from $246.

Reselehof: Built in 1490, this is the oldest guesthouse in St. Anton. The original, six-foot-thick walls promise guaranteed peace even in this party-loving town. The 13 rooms are simple but characterful. St. Anton; reselehof.com; doubles from $175.

Restaurants

Murmeli: A local favorite. Skiers brush off the snow then settle into the smart dining room for a long lunch. Expect refined versions of Austrian classics—including the perfect Wiener schnitzel—served with superior wines. Oberlech; murmeli.at; entrées $20–$38.

Museum Restaurant-Café: This beautiful 1912 chalet sits at the edge of the village, serving as a ski and local heritage museum during the day and a restaurant at night. Its oak-paneled rooms, lit by candlelight, are one of the Alps’ most romantic places to eat. St. Anton; museum-restaurant.at; entrées $20–$36.

Rodel Alm: A cozy retreat beside the piste and toboggan run. Dry your gloves by the roaring fire while diving into the Tiroler Gröstl, a hearty local specialty of fried potatoes, beef, bacon, and onions. St. Anton; rodelalm.com; entrées $13–$29.

Rote Wand Schualhus: An 18th-century chalet which once housed the village dairy and school. Downstairs, the Jausestuba offers casual daytime dining—strudels, dumplings, salads—while the upstairs Chef’s Table offers a 12- to 15-course tasting menu for 16 guests at night. Zug; rotewand.com; entrées $11–$18; tasting menu $200.

Activities

Arlberg 1800 Contemporary Art & Concert Hall: The latest evolution of the Arlberg Hospiz is a huge subterranean contemporary art gallery and concert hall. The gallery has changing programs and artists in residence, and the concert hall has hosted everything from neoclassical string quartets to Chris de Burgh. St. Christoph; arlberg1800.at.

Backcountry Skiing: The Arlberg is a great place to learn to ski powder. Visitors can hire their own private mountain guide (around $380 per day, try St Anton Classic; stantonclassic.com) or sign up with a ski school for off-piste group lessons (around $135 per day, try Piste to Powder; pistetopowder.com). Kaluma (kalumatravel.co.uk) can also arrange guides in all the Arlberg villages.

Heli-Skiing: The Arlberg is the only place in Austria where you can heli-ski. Unlike in Canada or Alaska, it doesn’t require a week in a remote lodge, as you can simply pay for an individual helicopter drop-off. Your guide will hand over the cash when the helicopter arrives to collect you at the Flexenpass, much like catching a taxi. Possible runs include the Schneetäli (starting at 8,038 feet) and Mehlsack (8,700 feet). Both descents will take an hour or more. Ludesch; wucher-helicopter.at.

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