Lech-Zürs in Austria is Europe's most beautiful village (or, strictly, two villages), attracting the world's beautiful people with its five-star hotels, perfectly-groomed slopes and epic snowfall
Lech and Zürs are beautiful twin villages in the Arlberg region of the Austrian Alps. Together, they comprise the ski destination of choice for various Royals and the rich and famous generally, who frequent the area's perfectly groomed slopes – making the pair, quite simply, the most exclusive ski resorts in the world. More than half of all visitors to Lech and Zürs are German, while the rest are made up mostly of Brits, Scandinavians and Austrians. Other international devotees include the King of Jordan, who reportedly likes to book an entire floor or two of the Hotel Almhof Schneider for his entourage.
Of the visitors who come here, about 70 per cent return year after year; it would appear they simply cannot get enough of a good thing. Lech and Zürs have an enviable reputation for pampering their well-heeled visitors and creating an aura of exclusivity. Not only have they introduced heated seats on chair lifts, but they literally close their doors when the day's allocation of 14,000 ski passes has been sold. No one else is squeezed on to the system, meaning those who are here can enjoy as much of their valuable time as possible skiing serenely on the corded pistes and not having to queue at the lift stations.
To accommodate their revered guests, Lech and Zürs have between them no fewer than six plush five-star hotels and 50 four-star establishments. Lech-Zürs clearly doesn't do things by halves, since Lech also delights in receiving nearly twice as much snow as nearby St Anton. Little Zürs, at a slightly higher elevation, can claim half as much snowfall again! The village of Lech is one of the most beautiful of any ski resort in Europe, while Zürs is mainly a cluster of luxurious hotels. If anything, it is the more exclusive of the two, with three five-star establishments among its 22 hotels, the rest being mostly four-star. Many celebrities like to stay in this slightly more remote village, due to its low-key profile and discreet distance from the spotlight.
The little hamlet of Zug is another peaceful, quaint enclave reached by cable car from Zürs. It makes a tranquil and tree-lined scenic base for those who wish to forego the bustle and brighter lights of Lech village. A fourth resort, Oberlech is (at 1,650m) a couple of hundred metres higher than Lech. It is reached only by cable car and is notable for its collection of hotels and restaurants which are all inter-connected below ground. This means utility deliveries – including the transfer of visitors' luggage – are conducted discreetly and out of sight. In this hamlet, there are no cars.
Despite their exclusive image, however, Lech, Zürs and the hamlets surrounding them comprise a serious ski resort. They are not at all like a glitzy St Moritz or Cortina d’Ampezzo, since people come here predominantly to ski and snowboard – and the villages remain refreshingly unassuming as a result. In fact, as well as the top-class hotels, there are a clutch of two- and three-star lodgings, while the village shops are much like in any other resort – geared mostly towards winter sports, but with a few designer boutiques to relieve some visitors of cash from their very deep pockets.
Lech and Zürs are linked by road, by off-piste routes (albeit for serious experts only) and by lifts to the stunning Alberg region of the Austrian Alps that also includes St Anton, Stuben and St Christoph. While covered by a single lift pass, the Arlberg resorts are split into two main sections – Lech-Zürs and the cluster comprising St Anton and the other two resorts just mentioned. Lech is linked by cable car, lifts and runs to the hamlets of Oberlech and Zug, and by lifts and runs to the higher Zürs. As is clear from the piste map (http://ski.intermaps.com/skiarlberg/en_west.html), Lech and Zürs are linked only in a clockwise direction starting from the Rufikopf cable car. There is also the highly enjoyable "circuit" of the area known as Der Weisse Ring – which, at more than 21km in length including detours, can take a full day to ski. Taking it non-stop and as a lap, the average skier or boarder will take two to three hours to complete it, taking in a varied assortment of blue and red runs over the surrounding peaks.
The Weisse Ring Race is an annual spectacle, involving a Le Mans-style start as the pack of competitors do a frantic Nordic push to start off, jostling their way across a plateau to get in front. The winner manages the circuit in less than 45 minutes! There are many exhilarating runs too from Oberlech, while the Rufikopf cable car will take you to the west-facing slopes of Zürs. Chairs take you up to the good intermediate slopes at Seekopf, and from Zürsersee to the east-facing and highest point in Zürs – Muggengrat. There is no lift access back to Lech from Zürs. Your options are the Zürs to Lech bus, or the long scenic route down the hill accessed via the Madloch chair.
Lech-Zürs is an excellent place for beginners and intermediates with perfectly maintained slopes to flatter the egos of the discerning guests who ski here. In terms of pisted terrain, it is not particularly a place to be recommended for experts – though there are real opportunities for un-tracked off-piste powder, given that the majority of people are skiing the superbly prepared pisted runs. Remember, too, that there is good access to surrounding areas in the wider Arlberg region – with the steeper terrain of St Anton and the Valluga bowls adding more thrills. (See my guide St Anton – pure Alpine adrenaline)
Beginners are well catered for here, with excellent snow conditions and perfectly groomed pistes. The Flühen lift, situated by the domed church in Lech, leads up to the gentle slopes where the ski schools operate. After gaining in confidence and ability, improvers can explore the easy blues at Oberlech – such as Weibermahd, which is also a ski-school meeting point. Best to try the schools in Lech (+43 5583 2355) or Oberlech (+43 5583 200)
This is true intermediate territory, with more than 50 per cent of the slopes suited to all types of progressive skier. There are smooth, gentle blue runs around Oberlech and varied rapid reds on the "circuit" from Madlochjoch down to Zug (red 33 and 33a), which are fast and fun blasts.
While there may be few really challenging black-rated pistes, there are some very tempting off-piste itineraries – and heli-skiing does a roaring trade here. Experts should check out the steep drop below Kriegerhorn (Südhang). There is plenty of un-tracked powder to enjoy from Rüfikopf to Lech, off the back of Trittkopf down towards Stuben, and also on the Zürs side around Madlochjoch.
The White Ring (Der Weisse Ring) Skiing the circuit clockwise from Zürs is a fabulous day's fun. It takes in about half a dozen lifts, a couple of bridges and perhaps a couple of scenic piste stops on the way. Start by taking blue run 3 over the bridge from Zürs to access the Zursersee chair. This links via a short run down to the Madloch chair, after which come the surging reds (33 and 33a) down to the scenic hamlet of Zug. Take the Zugerberg chair up towards Kriegerhorn; the next stage involves a welcome tow rope to connect to blue 34, which is the easier and shorter route round to Lech via Kriegerhorn. Alternatively, take blue 43 to access the Zuger Hochlift higher up at 2,380m.
There are some great short reds to check out before cruising any of the relaxed blues down into Oberlech. Then it's another blue (34) into Lech, to board the Rufikopf cable car up to 2,362m and a choice of sweeping reds or a blue (38) down through Schüttboden. Finally, head back down towards Zürs on the fast cruising blues (3,5 and 7) from Trittkopf – the highest peak, at 2,423m – to complete the exhilarating circuit.
This really is a great route for intermediates. My advice is to punctuate it with a stop at Oberlech, where the ski-to-door hotels dish up some superb food and have sunny terraces and views down to Lech.
LECH-ZURS AT A GLANCE
Number of lifts 33
Lift capacity per hour 45, 500
Snowparks (Lech only) One
Mountain restaurants Seven
Altitude Lech 1,450m; Zürs 1,720m
Number of runs 54
(six black, 19 red, 25 blue, four green)
Beginners pistes 27 per cent
Intermediate pistes 49 per cent
Expert pistes 24 per cent
Linked areas St Christoph, Lech, Zürs, Stuben, Zug
Pros and cons
Great for good intermediate skiers
Sunny, rarely crowded and snow-sure
Picturesque village, affluent clientele, luxury hotels
Good access to St Anton
Few challenging pistes for experts
Traffic intrudes on main streets in both Lech and Zürs
Can get cut-off in extreme weather
If dialling from the UK, prefix the numbers below with 00 43 and omit the first zero.
As many of the guests are on a full-board basis here, they tend to head back to base for their lunches. Zürs in particular has hotels that are ski-to-door. However, there are some excellent sunny terraces to be enjoyed, and the hospitality of numerous hotels – especially in Oberlech, at the foot of the Peterboden chair lift.
Best in Rufikopf
Panorama Restaurant am Rufikopf (05583 2336 501) As its name suggests, a wonderful view is available from the sunny terrace overlooking the village of Lech.
Best in Oberlech
As most hotels in Oberlech are on the mountain, as it were, they qualify as piste-stops because you can ski to the door. Zürs hotels are all on the mountain, too, and offer some gastronomic delights.
Burg Hotel (05583 2291) Does a fine schnitzel, a popular lunch stop.
Hotel Goldener Berg (05583 2205) Excellent restaurant with a great range of schnapps, and a small terrace.
Mohnenfluh Hotel-Restaurant (05583 3311) Higher up the mountain, this place serves really good homely food. Also has a terrace.
Rud-Alpe (05583 418250) Located above Oberlech on the Schlegelkopf, this lovely chalet has a sunny terrace and several cosy dining rooms inside.
Best in Zürs
Albona Nova (05583 2341) at the Albona Nova hotel. Recommended for an evening meal to remember, this restaurant has won the praise of many major food critics. Reservations essential.
Best in Zug
Gasthof Hotel Rote Wand (05583 3435) Great for its fondue bourguignon with lots of varied sauces, together with soups and strudel.
Palmenalpe Restaurant (05583 3312) Situated at the top of the Zugerberg chair, this cosy mountain hut makes a welcome resting place – whether you are skiing the circuit, or heading up towards Zuger Hochlicht.
Best in the evening
Fux (05583 2992) A rather, er, phonetically-challenged favourite In Lech. Downstairs is an American bar and steakhouse serving exotic crocodile, alligator and ostrich steaks as well as beef steaks. Upstairs is a Euro-Asian fusion restaurant and a lively bar with a wide selection of cocktails.
Montana (05583 2360) in the Hotel Montana, Lech. Good food and the best wine selection in the village.
Restaurant Italiener (05583 3734) In Lech. The best Italian food in town – great pizzas and pasta, with an excellent antipasti buffet. Good value.
Edelweiss (T: 05583 2662) in Zürs. Along with the Albona Nova, this is one of the best restaurants in the Lech-Zürs part of the Alberg region. Reservations essential.
Nightlife in Lech and Zürs may offer a more sedate contrast to nearby St Anton. However, there is a very nice mix of lively bars and a friendly and fun atmosphere as dusk draws in, with a surprising choice of places to hang out. This usually means getting warmed up in Oberlech with its collection of hotel terraces thronged with people, plus live music. Down in Lech village there is a wonderful ambience on the main street, with bars set up with gas heaters selling glüwein and schnapps well into the night.
Best in Oberlech
Hotel Montana (05583 24600) The Hotel Montana's champagne bar provides a bubbly place to start the early evening.
Burg Hotel (05583 2291) Very popular after the slopes close, this bar has a large, crowded terrace with live music pumping out to get you in the party mood.
Best in Lech
Tannbergerhof (05583 2202), on the main street. Renowned for its glüwein served in dainty porcelain, this is very lively and the most popular place for Brits. Open until late, it has cheap shots, a happy hour and a club downstairs. Live music and good DJs.
Fux (05583 2992) Again, hard to say with a straight face – but with a lovely location right on the river. The two bars tare great for dancing, live music and DJs. There's jazz early in the night, and Fux has become Lech's coolest and funkiest place to hang out – with an excellent choice of malts, too.
Side Step (05583 2551) In the Hotel Krone. There's a 70s music disco vibe going on here, and in the early evening Side Step battles for attention with the Tannbergerhof opposite on the main street. With an ice-bar outside and the music cranked up, it's a winner.
Best in Zürs
Hirlanda Hotel (05583 2262) Situated on the main street in Zürs, this is a popular bar for locals and a good place for a quiet drink.
Zurserl (05583 2662) This lounge bar in the Hotel Edelweiss is good for live music and DJs. Gets lively later in the night. Good place for a dance.
Vernissage (05583 2271) Located in the Robinson Club Alpenrose, this is the best place to end your night with good music and dancing. Very popular and busy after 11pm.
Hotel Alpenhof ( 05583 2191) A good piano bar for a relaxed drink.
Staying in Lech and Zürs means luxury and sophistication, with most hotels rated four- and five-star. Zürs is conspicuously smaller than Lech, yet still manages three five-stars among its cluster of 22 luxury ski-in/ski-out hotels.
Best in Lech
Hotel Arlberg 5* The luxurious Arlberg is where Princess Diana used to stay when she visited the Alberg region. A glorious and inviting log fire greets guests, before they settle into spacious, comfortable rooms with lots of amenities. Excellent spa, outdoor whirlpool, restaurant and bar.
Gasthof Post 5* Small (38 rooms) but beautiful and cosy, this old post office was turned into a five-star hotel and has kept its old-style charm. It may look familiar, as it was the location for the film Bridget Jones the Edge of Reason. Great bar, and a good spa with a swimming pool.
Hotel Almhof Schneider 5* Tannberg 59. Offers beautiful furnishings and a more contemporary style than the Gasthof Post. Very expensive and exclusive – but, strangely, does not accept credit cards.
Hotel Kristiania 4* Omesberg 331. This friendly, family-run hotel is just a five-minute walk from the village centre. It has nice bright rooms and excellent food; a good four-star choice.
Hotel Tannbergerhof 4* A Lech favourite, this centrally located hotel has a relaxed and comfortable ambience with a great spa and pool.
Aurelio SD Tannberg 130. Classified as "super-deluxe", Lech's newest and most luxurious ski and spa lodge has 19 stunning, individually styled rooms. It offers all the comforts of a five- star hotel in a fabulous, contemporary boutique-style setting. Doorstep skiing – and very close to Lech centre.
Hotel Angela 4* Ideally located in Lech, this hotel has a spa and massage facilities, as well as a useful supervised children's programme that is great for families.
Best in Zürs
Hotel Zürserhof 5* One of the best hotels in the world – and one of the most luxurious in the Alps. Beautifully designed in a traditional style with modern touches, it has all the amenities you could wish for. They include a fantastic spa, a swimming pool, tennis facilities and a keep-fit centre.
Thurners Alpenhof 5* As with all the hotels in Zürs, this one offers doorstep skiing. Though part of the Small Leading Hotels of the World stable, it is not as sumptuous as some of the other five-star hotels. However, it makes up for this with the quality of the service and food provided.
Hotel Albona Nova 4* Nicely located next to a lift, the Hotel Albona Nova is a great place to stay if you want luxury and a top restaurant on-site. Amenities include an indoor pool, sauna and massage facilities.
Haus Küng 3* Offering that rare thing of budget accommodation in Zürs, this hotel is situated next to the Trittkopf gondola. It's a lovely, cosy b&b with 18 rooms, serving good breakfasts –a good-value choice.
Best for families (Oberlech)
Goldener Berg 4* Not only is the nightlife quieter in Oberlech, but the Goldener Berg has a free kids' club with activities for children aged three and upwards. This is a great place to relax, with several saunas, a steam bath, a swimming pool, plus mud and massage treatments. There is also a superb gourmet restaurant with a huge wine cellar.
Best in Zug
Gasthof Rote Wand 4* This old-style hotel with traditional interiors has an indoor pool, a health club, a sauna, a fitness room, a children's playroom and a babysitting service.
Best budget hotels
Gasthof Alpenblick 2* Located in Zug, near the Rote Wand, this is a great place for a family stay.
The nearest airports are Innsbruck (60 miles from the resort), Friedrichshafen (87 miles), Zürich (125 miles) and Münich (156 miles).
Major railway operators run services from within Austria itself, and from Germany and Switzerland to the resort.
From Friedrichshafen or Zürich, head for the Alberg tunnel and on to the resort. From Salzberg, head for Innsbruck and from there take the Landeck road to the resort. From Munich, go via Fernpass, Imst, then Landeck and on to the resort.
Tourist Office (05583 21610, www.lech-zuers.at). Open 8am-6.30pm Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm Sun.
Taxis A seriously useful service for the price is Night Taxi James (winter only). Running from 7.30pm to 4am, this regular mini-bus service will take you anywhere in the Lech and Zürs area for just €4.
For private Taxis in Lech call 05583 25010.