Venture into Austria’s core and be mesmerized by spectacular panoramas, adrenaline-filled activities and budget-friendly prices
After a five year break from ski holidays I decided it was high-time to re-attach myself to a decorated piece of fibreglass and throw myself down a mountain. Only problem was that my previous ski buddies had decided against a winter soiree so I faced the prospect of either indefinitely putting my ski wear to the back of my wardrobe or doing the unthinkable and going skiing, alone. Not one to pass on a travel-related challenge I opted for the latter, and found it surprisingly rewarding.
Working with a tight budget I opted for a week in Bad Gastein, a pretty mountain village nestled in the heart of Austria and only a short distance from Salzburg, which is conveniently serviced by a range of budget airlines. After a quick flight I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by airport stewards only too happy to direct me towards town: Bus 2 transports you directly from the airport to the central train station, costing less than 2 euros and taking little over 20 minutes and from here a rustic train takes you deep into the mountains. Over 90 minutes is spent cutting through dramatic scenery with sheer cliff faces within spitting distance and, while the traditional train lugs at a snail's pace, its vast windows demand to be looked out of, suggesting this is a train for daydreamers.
The main street of Bad Gastein is lined with hotels, shops, quaint buildings and bars but deviate from here and you’ll be rewarded with winding narrow streets and waterfalls. Centrally located and a mere stagger from the train station, Euro Youth Hotel Bad Gastein is a great place to meet people and caters for various budgets with accommodation ranging from newly refurbished 15 bed dormitories (sounds horrendous but was actually incredibly well spaced with the strategic placing of beds lending it the feeling of privacy) to private rooms complete with en-suite, TV and balcony. The beds are sleep inducing and there’s ample space for ski equipment. Rates (15 - 80 euros per night) include a traditional Austrian breakfast that’ll keep you fuelled till lunchtime too. This hostel houses a restaurant and consequently there are no kitchen facilities available for guests to use, however the restaurant does a mean range of reasonable priced home cooked food: 7,50 euros gets you a generous omelette and salad whilst a three course menu of the day feast will only set you back 10,50 euros.
On the piste
As usual in ski resorts Saturday is the main changeover day, so Sunday morning queues in the rental shops were to be expected but the pain of this was somewhat subsided by the 20 per cent discount I received as a dormitory guest, and the obligingly efficient staff at First Descent ensured I was on the slopes before the clock had struck 9am.
Having not boarded for half a decade I was nervous at the prospect of hitting the slopes again: would it all come back to me, like riding a bike? Or would I spend all day unwittingly eating snow and merely dreaming of linked turns? With a snowboard under my arm and goggles on my head I trundled off to the gondola: who needs trial runs on the nursery slope when you can have them at the summit? 15 minutes later, 2,246m higher and three turns into my first run I realized, to my horror, the back binding was kaput (my token German phrase, luckily). Thank the lord for blue runs, middle lift stations and a sense of humour. My initial failure to check my equipment was duly noted, and a lesson learnt.
The Gastein Valley lift pass offers more than 200km of primed piste, with the opportunity of either skiing or catching a bus to neighbouring Bad Hofgastein, Sportgastein and Dorfgastein. Red runs account for most of the piste, yet there’s a fair amount of blues and easy reds for the beginners, some fantastic off-piste for the experts and a snowpark for the freestylers. Restaurants are scattered amongst the slopes and provide perfect respite after a few hours of hard skiing. A mixture of gondolas, chairlifts and T-bars cut through and above thick snow-capped trees, offering sublime mountainous views all round. The ski season runs from December to May, with the best snow conditions generally being in February.
Felsen Therme (www.felsentherme.com), a thermal bath, is located merely 50 metres from the hostel door, and is the perfect retreat after a hard day on the slopes. Numerous pools, a sauna, and tropical temperatures are guaranteed to ease away those muscle aches, and a discount ticket (14,50 euros for three hours) from the hostel will leave more in the wallet for the après ski.
The daily closing of the piste is synonymous with the opening of bars and Bad Gastein offers decent choice in this sector. Silver Bullet (www.silverbulletbar.com) is normally the first stop for many with its nightly live music and wide range of drinks. The walls are adorned with stuffed animals and a huge balcony overlooks a dance floor that takes evening into night.
Located on the main street Heggies is about the size of a house, yet the mirrored walls make it feel much larger. Inside, music plays out louder than the chorus of Scandinavian voices that fill the venue, and numerous drink offers ensure it’s a firm favourite with the seasonnaires. Closer to home, Euro Youth Hotel has a great bar hidden away at the back of the building. Decked out in oak and wrought iron it’s a cave-like place with a fittingly Neanderthal bar game that involves hammering a nail into a block of wood, using the thin end of a hammer. I never did quite understand it.
I may have been a solo traveler but it certainly did not make me a social recluse: the town was safe, the bars were welcoming, the people were friendly, and Bad Gastein, I concluded, really was rather good.