A lifelong skier and his son explore the sport's Austrian roots at the modern resort of St. Anton, home of the founders of many New England ski resorts in America.
A short walk from the main cable car that spirits skiers to St. Anton’s Galzig summit, there is a high-end restaurant tucked into a suitably traditional alpine chalet. Although the food and decor at the Arlberg Kandahar House are spectacular, my preferred apres ski destination was the Ski und Heimatmuseum secreted upstairs.
Without taking anything away from the challenges and delights of a week’s skiing in St. Anton with my 13-year-old son Joshua, I count the hour that I spent in the museum, which traces the development of modern skiing from the slopes of the Austrian Arlberg to the hills of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Colorado, among my most memorable ski moments.
Linking Austria & New Hampshire
Hannes Schneider, a native of St. Anton, is the father of modern skiing and the international industry it supports. Opening the world’s first ski school in 1921, Schneider established a method of graduated instruction, from snowplow to the wedel, and popularized a “buzz” about the sport — exotic, upscale, and refreshing — that remains as attractive today as it was in then.
Schneider moved to New Hampshire in the 1930s where he founded the Hannes Schneider Ski School at Mt. Cranmore in North Conway. My mother regularly rode the ski train from Boston to North Conway in the 1940s, and I made my first snowplow turns under the direction of one of Schneider’s instructors. As a kid I skied every winter weekend from the summit down the Arlberg, Kandahar, Koessler, and Schneider trails, named for their Austrian counterparts, oblivious to the history linking the slopes of St. Anton to America, and schussing too fast to care!
The Birthplace of Skiing
A generation of Austrian exiles labored hard to re-create their ancestral homes in the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, but there is little to compare to the experience of skiing the Austrian Alps. Spectacular mountain scenery never disappoints, nor does the mountain fare, and the small village of St. Anton, despite its international status, has not sold its soul to the demands of the market.
As I often do on my first day in any European mega-skiplex (the St. Anton region features 85 lifts, 260 kilometers of groomed trails and 180 kilometers of regulated off piste skiing), I opted for a guide. When my children were smaller I was concerned about finding ourselves many miles and ski lifts away from home at day’s end (or if the weather took a sudden turn for the worse.) Indeed I once found myself in the wrong country near the end of a day on the slopes! While Josh is an accomplished skier I still hesitate to explore such alpine expanses without the benefit of a day’s guided tour.
The main ski areas are to be found on the north side of town. On our first day we skied the less popular, and less crowded (although lift lines were never a factor anywhere during our stay), Rendl and Riffelscharte lifts, based a two-minute, free bus ride from the city center. The entire complex is above treeline and tops out at 2600 meters, but this white expanse can be deceiving. Well-marked groomed trails are easily distinguished from the oft-piste terrain nearby, but these marked out areas can experience concentrated ski traffic.
Formidable Slopes & Excellent Instruction
The skiing was challenging, all the more so because spring fog had settled over the peaks, making every turn an adventure. We preferred to ski off piste where we could take advantage of some new snow — somewhere between the fluffy powder that spoils those who ski out West and the heavy wet snows back East. If anyone finds a pair of sunglasses next to the Gampberg pomalift, they’re mine!
A glance at the St. Anton trail map reveals overwhelmingly moderate terrain. The advantage of the marked trails is that most are suitable for confident intermediates and marked accordingly. Caution remains a byword however. Always be sure that there is a suitable trail at the summit of the lift, especially when skiing with children or if you are limited to beginner trails.
And also remember, Europe is not into ego-boosting trail classifications. Expert here really means expert. If you have to ask yourself, or your friends, if you meet this test, stay on the red (intermediate) runs. And if you ski blues (intermediate) back home, spend some time on the blue (easy) runs before venturing up the scale. The local knowledge of hotel keepers, ski shop employees, and waiters can be invaluable in this regard.
Sadly, snow making, once unheard of, is an ever-increasing requirement at St. Anton and the Alps in general. Sixty of the 180 km of marked trails are covered so that the perils of global warning can, for the time being, be discounted when planning a trip. There was certainly plenty of snow during our late March visit.
Taking a lesson at the original Schneider’s Alberg Ski School (43-0-5446-3411) is an opportunity that should not be missed. There are a lot of great skiers on the mountain, skiing in the traditionl form that St. Anton made famous. No reason why some of this heritage can’t be passed on to you!
Skiing from the Galzig cable car introduces visitors to the massive range linking the town of St. Anton with nearby villages of St. Christophe and Stuben. These are linked by trails and lifts, making it easy to plan out a day’s skiing where no trail is visited twice. The trails accessible from the Galzig (2185m) and Valluga (2811) summits were both plentiful and enjoyable, while offering easy options for on piste dining and drinking.
Beyond the Slopes
St. Anton isn’t just about skiing and conspicuous consumption. Ski touring, ice skating, sledding and tobogganing are popular, as is the great network of winter walking trails. Young children can be pulled along these routes on sleds. To encourage parents to send their kids to the slopes however, the 10 EUR ($14) “Snowman Ticket” provides a season’s pass to the entire Alberg system to children born in or after 2000.
For those averse to snow and the cold, indoor swimming and spa options have multiplied in recent years to accommodate the explosion of interest in wellness and fitness. One of the best saunas I’ve found is located at the city sport center in Innsbruck, a main gateway to St. Anton. St. Anton boasts its own facility at Arlberg-well.com (43-0-5446-4001)
When we visited in March 2008, the exchange rate was punishing, but the 2008-2009 season, with rates discounted to appeal to more frugal consumers, promises to be a bit easier on those with dollars to spend.
Getting to St. Anton is easy. It is approximately one hour from Innsbruck by train, or, by air it is 65 miles via Innsbruck, 87 miles via Friedrichshafen, 130 miles via Zurich and 155 miles via Munich.
Tourist information and vacation planning help are available online at www.stantonamarlberg.com.
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