St. Anton am Arlberg

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Skiing is Austria’s national sport & favorite hobby; the country has hundreds of ski areas serving a population about the size of WA & OR combined. Many of them are small local hills churning out the best ski racers of any country in world, but there are quite a few large resorts. Most famous among them is Sankt Anton am Arlberg, probably the most historic ski area in the world, consistently rated amongst the best, and a fixture on every avid skiers’ life list.

After leaving Munich and picking up Anya’s parents in Innsbruck, we boarded another train for the 1-hour, super-scenic ride to St. Anton and a much-anticipated family ski holiday.

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St. Anton (year-round population ~2500) sits at the end of a valley near the Arlberg Pass in the Tyrolean Alps. That pass was chosen for Austria’s primary East-West rail line and, later, autobahn, so today it’s the main route from Switzerland to Vienna and all of eastern Austria. The village benefited greatly from that easy access, and the world’s first cable car ski lifts were built there in the 1920s. After WWII it became an internationally-known resort, and people have been visiting ever since. Nowadays it’s popular with skiers & snowboarders from all over the world, but especially (judging by license plates & accents) with Swiss, Germans, Brits, Dutch, and Scandinavians.

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The highway and rail lines are now buried in tunnels, so what’s left is a beautiful, traditional-looking alpine village which is pleasantly free of traffic.  Three modern gondolas ferry skiers up either side of the valley where a nice system of mostly comfortable, high-speed lifts access a huge amount of skiing: although St. Anton is relatively modest compared to other European mega-resorts, if it were located in North America it would probably be the continent’s largest.

I say “probably”, because it’s difficult to compare European resorts with American ones. The North American model of operating a ski resort is to define boundaries and then make just about everything inside those boundaries “skiable”; that is, patrolled, safe from avalanches, and with major hazards (cliffs, etc.) marked. As such, North American resorts are measured in terms of “skiable acreage,” and visitors are more likely – and encouraged – to venture off the groomed trails.

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Europeans, however, use a system of “pistes”: a network of marked, groomed, and avalanche-safe runs with clear boundaries on the side of each run. Anything else, even the area between marked pistes, is considered backcountry and is skied at your own risk. At some resorts, particularly those that involve glacier skiing, off-piste areas can be seriously dangerous; unwary skiers die every year in the Alps, often just a few meters from a secured piste. European resorts are measured by how many kilometers of pistes they have, on the assumption that visitors’ goal is to cover as many kilometers of piste as possible (which is indeed what the majority of Europeans seem to want).

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That said, St. Anton is best known for its off-piste skiing and it attracts people like Anya and I, who aren’t much interested in scraping our way down the icy groomed runs that can sometimes be prevalent at resorts in the Alps. (Although their name is synonymous with snow sports, the Alps actually receive less than half the annual snowfall of many major American or Canadian resorts, meaning on-piste conditions are frequently icy by the standards of the Western US).

St Anton doesn’t have any glaciers (or crevasses) to worry about, and the threat of avalanches is reduced by skier compaction in popular off-piste/backountry areas. Although we (carefully) indulged in some of those areas, we mostly stuck to one of the area’s many “ski routes.” They aren’t groomed or “pisted”, but they do receive avalanche mitigation – mainly because not doing so would jeopardize the pistes & lifts below. The presence of these Routes is one of the factors that attracted us to St. Anton instead of its competitors; most resorts in Europe don’t have this and you’re forced to choose between groomed & safe or ungroomed & dangerous.

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St. Anton’s ski routes certainly didn’t disappoint. I won’t bore non-skiers with excessive detail; instead I’ll just mention two of the major Routes: the Schindler Kar and Mattun valleys. Each gives access to a huge amount of terrain – they’re of such a scale that they could make a decent ski resort in their own right. After getting a few inches of new snow a couple of nights in a row, they provided an extremely memorable day of skiing: high-alpine, sporadically-tracked (even in the afternoon) descents of 3000+ vertical feet into the clouds below. It was the kind of experience that only a handful of resorts in the entire world can serve up without the assistance of a guide and/or helicopter.

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Obviously, I’d recommend St. Anton – on a good snow year – to strong skiers who are comfortable on advanced runs at ski areas in the States. For others, though, my praise for St Anton would be a bit more reserved. Our group included my wife’s parents: a timid beginner who quickly ran out of easy runs, and a confident intermediate skier who didn’t appreciate the level of crowding on the pistes: there simply aren’t enough groomed runs for the amount of people St Anton’s lifts deliver to the slopes. On the plus side, though, we never had to wait in long lift queues.

Accommodations in town are mostly provided by small hotels, many of them family-run. Ours was a fantastic place named Hotel Gletscherblick (Glacierview) and it was honestly one of the best and most comfortable hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The room included half-board: a huge breakfast buffet complete with meats, cheeses, eggs, fruit, and delicious breads & pastries. Dinner, also included, was a full-service, 5-course affair, and every day the food was truly exceptional. The menu (salad bar, appetizer, a choice of different soups, two options for the main course, and dessert) leaned towards Tyrolean/Austrian specialties with some definite Italian influence mixed in (Austrians enjoy Italian food almost as much as Italians do). After-ski snacks were also served for happy hour: cakes, apple strudel, and kaiserschmarrn washed down with local beer and schnapps. We never had to eat lunch, and we never wanted for tasty beverages.

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The service was great – friendly & attentive, especially by European standards – and we all loved the the traditional Tyrolean decor. The German concept of gemütlichkeit (which roughly translates to “coziness”) is the best way to describe it, and it seems completely appropriate for a ski holiday. The only downside was that we had to take a bus to the lifts, and the buses were decidedly crowded & infrequent – probably the only major thing the resort could improve upon. To be fair, we were there on one of the busiest weeks of the year, when several European countries have school holidays- including the UK and Switzerland. (I know, I know, “the free ski bus was too inconvenient” is the very definition of a First World Problem.)

Is it better than skiing in the States? Hard to say. It’s different. Like most areas in the Alps, the skiing at St. Anton is almost entirely above treeline, meaning visibility is very difficult when it’s snowing, foggy, or just very cloudy – which is fairly often. They also don’t get as much snow as we do in the Northwest, and the “skiing” can sometimes more closely resemble ice skating than we’re used to. But when it comes to terrain, scenery, lift infrastructure, food, and just overall atmosphere, St. Anton surpasses anything we have on this continent. It easily ranks amongst my favorite trips – ever. If someone had offered me a job and decent place to sleep, I probably would have stayed. Maybe some day.

Our entire St. Anton photo album is on Flickr.

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