Skiing in Austria is like nowhere else and that is because of one simple fact: the Austrians are the undisputed Kings of the Après Ski. Throwing themselves into post-piste drinking with a verve and abandon the after ski activities can sometimes take your breath away.
In the beautiful little resort town of Ischgl in the Tyrolean Mountains, the slogan to attract tourists is “Relax, if you can”; and like so many Austrian resorts I have been to it lives up to its reputation as a land of huge steins of lager, oompah singing and people dancing on tables or tottering home after midnight with a ruddy glow on their faces and ski boots still on their feet.
Sometimes it almost feels as if the skiing is just the appetiser to a full diet of drinking and raucous enjoyment in the darker hours.
And for those keen on a little sobriety, there is still plenty to enjoy on the slopes. Here is our guide to getting the best out of the town.
Despite its reputation as a party town, Ischgl still takes its skiing seriously. It boasts a massive pisted area – more than 230km of runs are available in total as well as a pretty decent off-piste terrain. Plus, it is snow sure, which is music to the ears of any serious ski lover.
The top point, the Palinkopf, is 2,865m and the resort’s authorities and the lift company also invest in artificial snow. I skied at the end of November and while a number of runs (around two thirds of the skiing area I’d estimate) were not open at what was the very first day of the season, quite a few were, thanks to the 1,100 snow cannons (yes, that is right, 1,100) which work away ensuring Ischgl has a guaranteed opening at the start of the season. In fact, three years ago the resort spent a million euros getting the snow cannons in gear and having suitable slopes in time. It’s an investment recouped almost straight away through the sale of lift passes. While other places like the trendy nearby St Anton weren’t due to open for at least a couple of weeks, Ischgl was already in business.
As for the skiing itself, the pistes have big sweeping runs enjoyable for all skiers and the Swiss border crosses the slopes, allowing skiers to pop down the way for what is known as a duty-free run in the Swiss resort of Samnaun.
It can get a bit bottled-necked in the central skiing station of Idalp, at lunchtime and at the end of the day. The snow on the lower slopes (non-existent in December) means skiers are forced to take a gondola back to Ischgl down at the bottom or (if there is snow) brave a hazardous, packed and slushy ski home. But one of the benefits of Ischgl being a party town is that the mornings are relatively quiet. Even on a clear morning, more than half of the resort seemed to be tucked up in bed nursing their hangovers.
The new lifts
As well as an investment in snow cannons, Ischgl has heavily invested in some superb lifts that ensure small queues and a warm and comfortable ride up the mountains. Warm? Yes. Warm. It’s not a word normally associated with travelling up a slope for a ski, but a new 26-person gondola from the town to the top of the mountain has heated seats, as did two of the chair lifts I took. The heat was generated from an innovative new design that uses the movement of the lift to generate the warmth, like a bike dynamo generates light, so it’s environmentally-friendly too.
At the top of the station is the breathtakingly-designed restaurant and shopping area called the Pardorama. From far away it has the look of a Bond villain’s lavish mountaintop lair. Luckily, there is no Blofeld or Scaramanga plotting global domination inside, instead it’s kitted out with the best facilities, spacious walkways, and a modern and cosy dining area that serves excellent food (Austrian mountain cuisine does seem to be the most improved in the last 20 years). Most importantly, however, it is flanked on every side by huge windows that afford what has to be one of the best dining views in the whole of the Alps.
The Apres ski
Sometimes the relentless drive to enjoyment and drinking and singing naff Eurotrash songs (there was one called Amsterdam that rattled around my head for the whole visit) can feel a little wearing. Ischgl, as I think we have established, probably isn’t the resort for the teetotal skier whose idea after a long day on the slopes is a bath, a nice dinner, bed and maybe just the one glass of wine. No, this is a place for the person inclined to a little more than that. If you want to throw yourself into the ultimate Austrian après, I’d recommend Niki’s Stadl. Run by the eponymous Niki, who is something of a legend in the town, the bar in the centre of Ischgl is in a wooden building with a warm and cosy interior and a balcony area all pointing down to the main object of interest: Niki’s DJ booth. A recording artist with his own studios in Ischgl, his sets include romantically-charged power ballads and catchy tunes (some about the resort itself). It’s up to the skier or boarder how many hours they spend, whiling away the hours downing gluhwein or lager.
Another unique facet of the Ischgl resort – the season opening and closing concerts. Once dominated by Austrian rock and pop artists and DJs, the town now attracts some of the biggest names in global music ranging from Elton John to Kylie Minogue, The Scissor Sisters and Bob Dylan.
This year the first of their opening season concerts was a passionate two hour set from English singer James Blunt, who is adored in Austria and Germany. A 20,000 strong crowd crammed into the local car park where he performed. In May the closing concert is always held up in the mountains near the warmer central Idalp station.
Radio Times travelled with Erna Low which offers a selection of hotels with flight packages from the UK to Ischgl in Austria. Stay 7 nights’ half board in the Hotel Ballunspitze in Galtuer start from £820 per person including flights
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(pictures: Konrad Bartelski)