If you are a fan of winter sports or have a knack for doing adventure sports, or even just love to experience thrill and excitement, then I would recommend that Austria is a country worth exploring for you. If you ask a Dutch person why he or she chooses Austria, chances are that the word “Gemütlichkeit” will be used. It stands for coziness, comfort and feeling at home. You can taste it in the numerous chalets and hotels, in super cozy mountain huts and in the company of the friendly ski instructors, resort staff or locals. This ‘Gemütlichkeit’ goes hand in hand with the high level of service and hospitality that you experience throughout Austria. It immediately gives you a warm feeling. Picturesque hotels and guesthouses, often run by a family, welcome you with fluffy comforters and cozy rooms in which you can taste a warm and unique atmosphere. And the locals are ready for you with the best tips to make the most of your holiday.
I happened to make a trip to a beautiful village of Niederau in Austria recently with few of my family members. Niederau is probably the best known village in the Wildschönau, a picturesque settlement in a side valley above the major Inn valley town of Wörgl in the Austrian Tyrol. Niederau is just one the ski areas in the valley and, although it is the more popular, the villages of Auffach and Oberau also offer a good alternative for a winter holiday. For those basing themselves in Niederau, the most popular British destination in the Wildschönau, the link gives you access to five times the amount of slopes.
It’s always good to know a little bit of a historical background of the place that you visit. By talking to the locals and by keen observation, one can clearly understand that ‘winter sport tourism’ has become a billion euro industry in Austria and helped some towns like Niederau to attain formidable wealth. Most Austrian ski resorts are former farming towns that have grown into resorts which are much bigger than their original size. The fertile mountain meadows in the Wildschönau were settled many centuries ago by farmers who cleared the forests from the valley floor. These days farming is still an important part of the valley’s economy alongside winter and summer tourism. Summer visitors normally come for the traditional nature of the valley and for the mountain walking and some of the winter visitors are also there to take advantage of the unspoilt nature of the scenery – winter walking and snow show walking are growing in popularity. But most winter guests will be attracted by the ski areas outside the three villages of Niederau, Oberau and Auffach. Niederau especially has made a name for itself in the niche of school party skiing.
When to go
The ski season lasts from early December to late March. The best conditions for skiing are in mid-January, the coldest time of the year. Late February is a good time for sun-seekers. The most crowded time is the period from December the 25th until January the 2nd. Advanced skiers may want to avoid this time as slopes can be too congested to be enjoyable. All of February is also rather crowded because of school and university vacations. The least crowded times are early December, mid-January and late March.
My trip was in the last week of February which is considered as one of the most crowded times and for sun-seekers. The weather was lovely for most of the days with a few snow showers towards the end of the trip. The mood and vibe of the village when I reached there was a treat to watch. Cheap and cheerful Niederau, unfairly saddled with the reputation of being the entry-level beginner capital of Austria, was in full holiday swing with a young capacity crowd partying and enjoying themselves as if there was no tomorrow.
How to go
Unlike many countries, getting in to Austria for skiing shouldn’t imply flying to the capital city first. Depending on which place you are coming from, it is always better to check the nearest airport to the place you are coming to. For example, in order to reach Niederau, the nearest airports could be Munich, Innsbruck or Salzburg.
Most resorts are served by public transport. The skibus networks are normally very well organized and punctual and almost always included in the lift pass.
If you arrive in your own car, bear in mind that driving conditions can be challenging on routes to some higher resorts although roads are often cleared, gritted and salted very regularly. However, it is a good idea to take snow chains and to have some experience in winter driving.
We had such an experience when we drove to Niederau from south Germany. It was roughly a 6-hour drive which started at around noon. The roads are amazing and have eateries all along the way. The journey was filled in anticipation about the weather that we would get for skiing during the week in the beautiful village. Fresher the snow, better the skiing experience. Due to their proximity and the common language, most winter sport tourists in Austria come from southern Germany.
Austria offers a high density of ski resorts, second perhaps only to Switzerland in Europe. Austria’s ski resorts are not as spectacular and glamorous as the mega-resorts found in Switzerland and France, but they are cozier, less prone to mass tourism and a little cheaper.
As a general rule, the larger the ski resort and the higher the elevation above sea level, the higher the price. Ski passes will consume a large proportion of your budget. My simple advice would be that you book accommodation as far in advance as you can to cash in on the economic deals. Many hotels in Austria are family run and offer personal service and surprisingly good facilities at reasonable prices, especially in smaller resorts. Going to the sauna after the pistes to warm up and relax tired muscles, as well as fine dining is considered as important as the skiing itself by many Austrians. You’ll miss out on a great part of the Austrian ski experience if you book an accommodation without sauna facilities.
I stayed in Gwiggner apartment, one of the self-catering accommodation located in Niederau and providing a garden with barbecue facilities. The property is 600 metres from Lanerköpflbahn as well as Markbachjochbahn (gondola station). The apartment provides you with a flat-screen TV, a living area with a sofa bed, a master bedroom , a fully-equipped kitchen or kitchenette and a dining table. Other facilities like ski storage are offered. Ski school is available for a surcharge. Activities in the surrounding area include skiing, cycling and hiking. The property offers free parking.
The Austrian Alps are blessed with a wonderfully long and snowy winter season. Sometimes even well into the spring. Austria can look back on a long skiing tradition. It is therefore not without reason that the Austrian infrastructure is among the very best in Europe. You will find a large selection of perfectly maintained slopes up to and including powder snow on the ski routes and off-piste. The vast majority of Austrian ski resorts also have excellent snow-making facilities. The ski infrastructure is the most up to date with the ultra-modern ski lifts and ski equipments. Millions of euros are invested every year to realize new lifts and connections.
Professionals and ski schools
Everywhere in Austria you will find world-class ski schools, at all levels and with the most professional ski instructors speaking in a variety of languages to cater to a vivid group of skiers. You will find different slopes for every level, starting from the green runs for those who are using the skis for the first time to the most challenging black runs for professional skiers. In between the green and the black slopes, are the blue and red slopes. The blue runs are for those who have had a little bit of exposure to skiing earlier whereas the red runs are for advanced skiers who like to challenge themselves and wish to get their adrenaline pumping. I was one of those who had never used skis before. Initially, I joined a ski school for a 4-day course with each day having two ski sessions of two hours each.
Every season the ski instructors are ready to teach you the basics and technique of ski sport, whether you are a beginner or an advanced skier, or a snowboarder. I had got a ski instructor named Richard who was from Scotland and he had a great sense of humor while being very persistent about sticking to basic tips and tricks of the sport. It was indeed great pleasure learning from him. He always saw the funny side of things. From not being able to stand on the skis on the first day till doing one of the longest red runs in Niederau, I felt as if I had come a long way right in my first ski trip.
Family time with children
Families with children are more than welcome in Austria! The small guests are warmly welcomed and thought of everywhere. For example, in most ski areas you will find separate children’s slopes, with special lifts where the children can master skiing at their leisure and under professional supervision. If they don’t feel like it, they are not forced to do anything and they can play in the snow, ride a sled or make a snowman. To make the holiday even more affordable, the child-friendly ski areas often also offer special family rates for ski passes and ski lessons.
My ski trip was all the more special in presence of my niece who is just 9 years old and yet has a special set of skiing skills. It was great fun watching her ski and enjoy sledging on the snow.
I feel that the biggest takeaway from my first ski trip in Austria was that I learnt one of the most adventurous winter sport which was one of the things that I always had wished for after coming to Europe. Starting on the first day was really demotivating as I was not able to even stand on my skis. Somehow I managed to bite the bullet and shrug off my fears to successfully complete a red run towards the end of my four day course. I will cherish that feeling of achievement even though for other people it may be a pretty normal thing. With wonderful memories and great company of my family members, I would say that Niederau is indeed the snow paradise of the beautiful country of Austria.