Austria's Ski Welt region, with its smattering of charming resorts (including the gorgeous Ellmau) offers such a vast amount of glorious skiing you’ll want to go back time and time again
I always thought people who returned to the same holiday destination year-in, year-out were more than a little unimaginative. With so much of this fantastic planet to explore, why would anyone want to go somewhere they’ve already been? Then I discovered the Ski Welt region of Austria. And having just enjoyed my fifth return visit I’m tucking into a very large slice of humble strudel!
Some places just hook you and reel you in. And the Ski Welt does so with the skill of a prize-winning angler - particularly the chocolate-box village of Ellmau and the consistently perfect Hotel Hochfilzer. The largest interconnected ski area in Europe, the Ski Welt has the Wilder Kaiser mountain range on one side and the Brixental on the other and includes well-known destinations such as Soll, Westendorf and Scheffau.
The 279km of runs, linked by 90 lifts on pistes dotted with more than 70 places to eat and drink, mean that even after five delicious weeks, our family – me, husband James and children Emily, 11, and Max, 10 - still haven’t skied anywhere near all of it. What pleasure it is to set off in the morning and, instead of going up and down the same runs all day, zigzag your way across a mountain from village-to-village.
The children safely ensconced in lessons at Dietmar Maier’s Schischule-Ellmau-Hartkaiser (from €40 for one day’s group tuition; €42 for adults), James and I skied from Ellmau to Going, then headed across to Scheffau and Soll before meandering over the back of the mountain to Brixen and finally taking the new eight-seater gondola the 5.5km and 1,020m up to Westendorf Choralpe. We were so tired it was all we could do to ski back to Scheffau, where we caught the ski bus back to Ellmau.
With this much piste to play on, we often found ourselves skiing for miles on perfectly groomed runs without seeing another soul. And at €181.50 for a six-day Ski Welt pass (€145.40 for children; based on 2008/09 season prices), that’s a lot of mountain for your money.
But it’s not just the great skiing that draws us back time and time again. Or Ellmau itself, set at the foot of the Wilder Kaiser and undoubtedly one of the prettiest villages in the region. It’s also the Hotel Hochfilzer.
Set in the centre of the village and almost on the slopes from which you can ski to the Hartkaiserbahn (Austria’s longest mountain railway, which takes you to the top of the Hartkaiser in four minutes - a great central point from which to start your day’s skiing), the Hochfilzer is, quite simply, one of the loveliest places we’ve ever stayed. Not because it’s ritzy and glamorous or has the finest dining and the most opulent suites – it isn’t and it doesn’t. But because it’s the equivalent to a week-long cuddle. Comfy surroundings, friendly service and yummy, wholesome, hearty food.
It says something about a hotel if you regularly see the same faces – and not just the staff's but the guests' too. We’re always warmly greeted by owner Ingrid and her right-hand woman, Claudia, with a glass of something cold and bubbly, after which we will go into the restaurant – where the food is typically Tyrolean, plentiful and varied - and see familiar waiting staff. In the bar, brothers Toni and Ivan will keep the open fires burning and the drink – local beers and fruity Austrian wine – flowing. And as the bar fills up, you’ll see a family you played cards with last year, a couple you chatted to in the hot tub the year before...
The hot tub is worth a mention of its own. Situated beside the hotel’s indoor pool complex (with its steam room and sauna suite), nestled in the snow, with the most fabulous views of the Wilder Kaiser and lit at night by candles and flares, it provides the most perfect way to wind down and rest those weary muscles after a busy day’s skiing.
If it’s wild après-ski you’re after, then the Hochfilzer (with its weekly farmers’ buffet and candlelit walk to the village ski show) or Ellmau (with its smattering of bars and single night club) probably isn’t for you. You’d be better off 10 minutes down the road in St Johann or heading over to Soll or Kitzbuhel. And, let it be said, the Ski Welt won’t challenge the would-be Michael Walchhofer; with only 11kms of black runs, the rest an almost 50/50 split of easy blues and moderate reds, it’s more suited to the beginner/intermediate/family market.
But if you're after a clean, very comfortable room in a well-equipped central hotel, with miles of magnificent skiing on the doorstep, it’s perfection personified! Dare I say, we might even be tempted back in the summer, when I hear the cross-country skiing track melts away to reveal a magnificent golf course, and the pistes transform into glorious walking trails and children’s adventure playgrounds...
Fly into Salzburg (transfer 80km) with Ryanair, or to Innsbruck (80km) or Munich (160km) with easyJet, then take the train to nearby St Johann or hire a car with Avis.
Where to stay
Standard double rooms at the Hotel Hochfilzer start from around €84 per person per night, half board. The Hochfilzer offers a cheaper alternative in its apartments opposite or its B&B just down the road.
In the resort
• Try the illuminated 4.5km toboggan run from Astberg-Ellmau-Going and the Ellmau tubing circuit for fast-paced fun.
• Avoid restaurants at the top of the main lifts, such as Bergrestaurant Brandstadl and the Panoramarestaurant Bergkaiser - they're busy and sometimes expensive. Instead, try the Tanzbodenalm or Rubenzahlalm a little further down the piste.