Dennis and I have been wanting to do a European ski trip for a while now, but we never quite got around to it during our Canadian ski season because the conditions were always so good.
Since a number of European ski resorts stay open right through spring, we decided to opt for a spring ski break instead. And when it comes to spring skiing in Europe you can't beat Austria! So we packed up our bags and ski gear and headed to Lech, Austria for a week of skiing.
Now skiing in April may be considered low season, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. As long as you choose the right resort, a spring ski break can have some great advantages. My personal favourite being that the warm sunny weather makes for ideal après-ski conditions on the mountain terraces!
Three flights and one bus ride later we finally arrived in Lech am Arlberg! This wasn't the easiest alpine resort to get to, but I suppose that's part of its appeal. Sitting in a narrow valley surrounded by mountain rimmed plateaus, Lech is a vision of alpine neatness with its snow covered houses, hotels and a very old church that was built in 1390.
Once a humble farming village, Lech has become the winter hideaway of the well-heeled and well-known and combines a beautiful setting with superb skiing. People watching in the main street of Lech was an activity all in itself, as in the thousands of euros in designer clothes that would strut past - some good, and some not so good.
An important tip, regardless of conditions or terrain, don't forget to don your most glamorous ski outfit. I noticed that in Lech, the european ski style race was definitely won by neon ski pants paired with an equally loud jacket. It's all about getting noticed here! This was certainly a contrast to Dennis and I's ski wardrobe - monochromatic with lots of black, grey and white. But when it came to après-ski, the trophy fashion item was without a doubt a massive fur or fuzzy statement coat. From what I could tell, grunge doesn't fit in too well in Lech, but you could try to go it alone.
Now, Lech is not the place to go if you want an extreme après-ski experience. St. Anton has plenty to offer in that department! Lech is a very traditional Austrian ski resort with traditional Austrian culture, and thus they're approach to partying is more refined. That isn't to say it's staid, there is always a lively atmosphere, but Lech is not, at heart, a hard core party town.
Austria is a German-speaking country, and needless to say, Dennis and I's ability to grasp the der-die-das of it all was pretty much non-existent. Thankfully, this wasn't a problem in Lech, as most people spoke some degree of English. So long as we knew how to order a bier and a wiener schnitzel, and say danke, then we were fine.
We stayed at this hotel based on recommendations from a few members of my family who stay here every year for their ski holiday. However, our initial impressions were somewhat underwhelming.
Since we were staying here for a week, we decided to book a junior suite to ensure maximum comfort and plenty of room for all our gear. Unfortunately, the room was much smaller than what we had expected and was definitely NOT a suite! I would say it was more akin to a standard room at an average hotel back home. I will forever be amazed at the value for money of hotels here in North America versus those in Europe.
On a more positive note, the location of the hotel was great, right in the centre of town and just a few steps away from the ski lifts. This is a family run hotel and the hotel owner, Martin, was great - welcoming, friendly and very helpful - I had asked him if he could give me a few recommendations on some fabulous Austrian wines to take home, and he kindly obliged - recommending some of the finest wines from Austria!
When we booked this hotel, we decided to spring for the half-board option which included an extensive breakfast buffet and a 5-course dinner with salad bar and cheese board for the duration of our stay at the Sandhof. The food was traditional but good, and we got to sample all the classics - Semmelknödel (dumplings), Fritattensuppe (sliced pancake soup), Weiner Schnitzel (no explanation needed), Tafelspitz (boiled beef) - I left this to Dennis - and last but certainly not least, and my personal favourite, Spätzle (Austria's answer to mac & cheese). There was also a fondue dinner and an Austrian evening with live traditional music.
The staff were nice, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that they were overtly friendly. And we did notice that there seemed to be varying levels of service depending on whether you were a first timer to the hotel or a repeat visitor. In my opinion, none of this should really matter and everyone should receive the same level of service and attention regardless of familiarity.
This place has got it all... Great food, superb design - a mix of traditional alpine style and sleek modern lines - and an atmosphere you would normally find at a beach club. We ate here twice for lunch and the food was always yummy - I loved the pizza and the Asian stir-fried dishes. The ambiance was buzzy, the music was super cool and the outdoor terrace and bar have fantastic panoramic views across the valley. This is the place to go for a sunny lunch with glorious views!
One of the best mountain restaurants in Lech, Rude-Alpe boasts traditional wood panelled dining rooms and a lovely sun terrace with great views overlooking the village of Lech. The food was hearty and consisted of local specialties and traditional Austrian cuisine. The service here was by far the best out of all the mountain restaurants we visited in Lech - fast, attentive and friendly!
No trip to Lech would be complete without a gastronomic pilgrimage to St. Christof to dine at the Hospiz Alm. We stopped in here for lunch and although the food was good, the wine was by far the highlight! If you're a wine aficionado like me try and get a quick tour of their bomb shelter cellar - it's one of the best stocked cellars in the area! From the classic decor to the red and white tablecloths and lederhosen clad waiters this place has bags of traditional character. And in case you need anymore convincing, there's also a slide alongside the stairs down to the bathrooms to assist inebriated and overfed patrons! What more could you ask for!
Located at the bottom of the piste, right in the heart of Lech, this popular outdoor bar (with heaters) is predestined for a bit of après-ski people watching. Now in order to après in style you'll want to skip the hot toddy and opt for a glass of rosé champagne instead while you watch skiers finish their last runs of the day. It's the perfect place to sit back, relax, and soak in the majestic mountain peaks while you let your eyes wander.
The Arlberg region consists of eight linked ski areas - Lech, Zug, Warth, Zurs, Stuben, St. Anton, St. Christof and Sonnenkopf. A lift pass to Lech will get you access to the entire Arlberg region, including Zurs, Stuben and St Anton. In all, the pass covers 305 km of slopes and 87 state-of-the-art chair lifts and cable ways.
The lift system is incredibly well planned as it allows you to ski continuously to any of the eight linked ski districts and villages. The infrastructure of the lifts themselves was also quite impressive with fancy high speed chairs, perspex covers for extra warmth and protection, as well as padded and heated seats!
The skiing and snowboarding terrain at Lech and the associated resorts consisted mainly of open mellow interlinked pistes that were mostly suited to intermediates. There was certainly some great off-piste terrain in Lech, however most of the really challenging stuff was in St.Anton. But since few advanced skiers venture over to Lech the upside for us was that the off-piste areas didn't get tracked out as quickly and we managed to score a few great powder finds.
One thing that is definitely different when it comes to skiing in Europe versus Canada is that the mountains are virtually devoid of trees! This has the advantage of being able to access more terrain, but it also comes with the disadvantage of poor visibility on bad weather days.
It wasn't exactly a great season when we visited, and the snow conditions were far from ideal. The south-facing slopes got pretty slushy by the afternoons, but some of the north-facing slopes held their conditions well and made for some enjoyable off-piste riding.
Most of the time we would go on little ski tours and move from one drinking and dining establishment to the next. And if the weather was nice, we'd add some sunbathing to the agenda!