Words Leslie Anthony
Photos Mattias Fredriksson
When the bad weather came, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley left Paris for a place where the rain would become snow sifting down through the pines to cover the roads and high passes.
The Hemingways took the train all the way to Austria, landing in Schruns on the country's western tip. They spent the winter of 1924-25 nestled in Hotel Taube, where Ernest wrote, Hadley played piano and they both skied as much as they could. The pair were fond of skiing behind the village of Tschagguns across the valley - a pitch that ended at a fine inn with chamois horns on the walls where, after a day on the snow, they could find beer, kirsch and song.
Hemingway was Austria's first ski bum and you get the idea from The Snows of Kilimanjaro and A Moveable Feast that he found it a timeless and authentic place. Almost a century later, little has changed. Modern skiing may have been invented in Norway - thank you, Sondre Norheim, the father of Telemark skiing - but no culture took that ball and ran further with it than Austria, which created an industry of instruction, manufacture, racing and some 300 ski areas dotting such regions as Arlberg, Innsbruck and Montafon - the alpine souls of a country where skiing is a way of life. And yet despite this heritage, when it comes to tourism, Austria has been a sleeping giant - until now.
In the past few years, the country has followed the rest of the resort world in embracing terrain parks, freeriding, backcountry skiing, ski-area amalgamation, slopeside lodging and a range of secondary activities, recovering the destination status it relinquished to France in the 1970s. Austria is now a haven for those looking for that rare combination: real culture, real value and real skiing. If you go, base your trip around one of these three areas...
Arlberg's Great Circle Route
Perhaps the best place to get a sense of Austrian skiing is on Arlberg's Great Circle Route, linking St Anton to St Christoph, Stuben, Lech-Zürs and back to St Anton - a legendary circuit covered by one ski pass, which has 262km of piste and 180km of off-piste that can be enjoyed by any intermediate skier.
After ascending from historic St Cristoph to St Anton's highest peak, the rarified alpine world you overlook differs from similar eyries in Switzerland and France, revealing why the Austrian Alps, in particular, seem made for skiing. Fully 62 per cent of the country is mountainous and 10 per cent above treeline, yet the 85 lifts and cable cars ensure the peaks are served up in comfortable bites. Descending, soaring mountains funnel you toward Zürs, where you hop a quick bus to Stuben, known for hidden slopes that hold powder long after storms.
Touring your way back towards St Christoph, you can observe the "turn-farming" for which the area is known - hundreds of parallel tracings in the powder like hands wiggled through icing, their symmetry suggests why Austrians are the best powder skiers in the world and consistently win World Powder 8 titles. This area is known for its wide-open expanses of powder, which are some of the best in Europe.
Back at St Anton, you're likely to land in the madness of après-ski at the upstart Mooserwirt (www.mooserwirt.at), which has snatched pole position from the Krazy Kanguruh (www.krazykanguruh.com) as the place to meet your 500 new best friends. At 4pm, massive trays of beers and shots make the rounds on the arms of brawny biker-ballerinas whose balance is tested with every pirouette, holding 10kg of liquid aloft while being buffeted by a reeling crowd that is likely to be table-dancing already.
Shifting bar loyalties are only part of the changes occurring in Austrian ski country and you understand the renaissance better in places like St Anton's venerable Hotel Valluga. Originally erected in the Tyrolean style that represents all things "Alpine", it has recently been renovated in the ultra-modern style that says "Scandinavian design chic". Naturally, it's owned by Swedes. And the staffis Spanish - an extension of an international vibe that goes back a century to railway construction through the Arlberg Pass, when an influx of foreign workers began a tradition of cross-cultural pollination. St Anton's diverse roots are celebrated in its well-planned museum and during the resort's weekly on-snow history show - an experience not to be missed.
Get there There are direct trains from Salzburg to St Anton, taking around three hours (www.raileurope.co.uk). Book a rental car at www.norwegian.com
Stay Hotel Valluga, recently renovated in chic design style, has a new pool and spa. www.vallugahotel.at
Innsbruck And Nordkette
The Sound of Music is the definitive Austrian film, an ode to life, love and freedom in the Alps. Likewise, the country's mountain towns and regions ring with familiarity to the world's skiers: Stubai, Ötztal, Zillertal, Hintertux, Ischgl and Schladming. You nod as you pass the signs and when you arrive in a storied resort you've never visited before you simply say, "Of course." The most evocative of these is Innsbruck.
Having hosted the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympic Games, and the first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games last year, Innsbruck is winter sports' best-known metropolis. Sandwiched by green-skirted mountains, nine major ski areas cluster above the universities, industry and cobblestoned centre of the old Tyrolean capital, long a cultural crossroads and gateway to other ski regions. Reached on streets that climb from the city to the village of Hungerberg, where a tram appears amid posh hillside houses. Nordkette seems far removed from the race gestalt apparent at other city areas. It's steep, and the freeriding platoon here is dominated by foreigners and expats who, on its many bottomless powder days, pretend the great skiing is a secret that only they know about. Foreign voices - Swedish, Norwegian, American, German - scatter in the wind offthe top in the 180-degree skiing available on this massif, which starts with three huge couloirs above the tram. Below, open bowls lead to gloriously treed gullies often stacked with feathery pillows. In the forest, you'll find steep lines, wide lanes and deep snow all leading back to a road that deposits you directly at the tram. It's perfect. And you haven't even been to Montafon yet.
Get there There are direct trains from Salzburg to Innsbruck, taking around two hours (www.raileurope.co.uk). Book a rental car at www.norwegian.com
Stay The boutique Alp Art Hotel has 25 rooms, with a slick take on homely traditional homely wood design, with a spa, sauna and access to nearby baths. www.alparthotel.at
The newly amalgamated area of Silvretta-Hochjoch - a diverse domain of every type of skiing imaginable, rife with super-fast and ultra-modern lifts - spans both sides of the once-sleepy Montafon Valley high above Hemingway's hideaway of Schruns. You can spend days exploring this monster and rarely ski the same piste twice, and never feel that the development in the area has intruded on the intimacy of skiing the region's myriad deep folds.
Montafon's intersection of occasional modernity and coddled posterity is also on display during popular ski tours to places like the Wiesbadener Hütte below Austria's highest peak, Piz Buin, and at the Gargellan ski area. High up on Gargellan it's all 21st-century refinements, while on the lower mountain, open-sided stables, musty barns and wood-beamed restaurants recall the medieval winterscape of Bruegel's The Hunters in the Snow, an impression reinforced by the occasional whiffof manure.
In Schruns, you'll likewise find Hotel Taube little changed, with its half-moon doorways from another age, old brass locks and hand-shaped porcelain sinks. In the hotel's scrapbook are cracked sepia photos of Hemingway outside the hotel with his buddies, their hickory skis with dangling leather bindings leaning against the wall. Walking through the hotel on its creaky floorboards evoques a bygone alpine era, and, if you're lucky, the sounds of a beer and kirsch party might rise up the stairs from the bar. Austria may be modernising, but it hasn't lost sight of its past.
Get there Book a rental car at www.norwegian.com
Stay Hotel Taube is still run by the same family as in Hemingway's day, with friendly staff, good food and a charming, old-world vibe. Book at www.hrs.com