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Monday, January 19, 2009

On the piste


My travel piece on skiing in Austria in last Saturday's Independent...

I would like to think of myself as being a man of the world, yet when it comes to that tricky three-letter ‘s’ word, I must confess to being a late bloomer. All of my friends had done it, and loved it, and yet here I was, still a virgin at aged 27. I guess I had kept putting it off because of the usual anxieties. What if I wasn’t any good at it? What if I’m laughed at? What if I get hurt?

Yes, skiing for the first time is a milestone in every person’s life, and last month I finally became a man (so to speak) when I took part in a group ski trip to Austria, which has been voted Ireland’s favourite ski destination for the past three years.

Being a complete ski virgin, I had no gear or equipment whatsoever, but managed to cobble together what was needed from my more travelled-friends and from the Great Outdoors store on Chatham Street in Dublin (01 679 4293, www.greatoutdoors.ie) where I was able to rent my ski jacket and salopettes (pants) for e59, with a refundable deposit of e30.

My group took the two-hour flight to Munich on a Saturday morning and then had a three-hour coach transfer to Salzburg in Austria (the break-taking Apline scenery en route eases the pain considerably).

Later that afternoon we arrived in the village of Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang, one of Austria’s most popular ski destinations, comprising of 200kms of interconnected piste known as the Ski Circus.

The next morning it was time for my first lesson. My trip was last minute, but if you have time, I’d strongly recommend packing in some lessons in either the Ski Club in Kiltiernan (01 295 5658 or www.skiclub.ie) or the brand new Ski Centre in Sandyford (01 293 0588 or see www.skicentre.ie).

Luckily for me, Saalbach boasts an excellent ski school run by Hannes Furstauer (http://www.skischule-saalbach.at or call 0043(0)6541 8444) and I was promptly assigned my own instructor named Anneka. “Be gentle,” I begged of her.

A private instructor for a four hour session will cost about e160 depending on the season. In my view that’s a steal, but sweet mother of all that’s holy, do you have to work during those sessions. Skiing is an incredibly fun activity; learning to ski, on the other hand, is hard graft and requires a lot of patience.

After one session I discovered muscles that I never knew I had. You especially feel the burn in your thighs, knees and shins (from leaning forward so much into the clunky, heavy ski boots).

When I started my first lesson I couldn’t even stand upright on my skis. I fell, I screamed, and there may have even been a tantrum as I lay flat on my back in the snow. However, by lunchtime, I could do my left and right turns on the beginner slopes, with little eight-year-old Austrian natives whizzing by me just to keep me humble.

Whatever doubts I had about my ability to learn skiing, I never for one second doubted my abilities to master the après ski. That afternoon, we set up shop in the hopping Ski Bauer Alm for some hearty, carb-loaded food (skiing is not the time for dieting or the pursuit of haute cuisine), washed down with gluhwein and pints of Edelweiss, all while the sound system pumped out the kind of glorious, manic Europop you can only find in the Germanic countries.

Everything you might have heard about apres ski is true, and for the initiated, all I can advise is to try and keep pace, and just go with the flow. That’s how I ended up with my gang in a pub high up in the mountains, dressed in Lederhosen, leading my table in a rendition of Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music, before hiring toboggans and whizzing back down to our hotel.

The next morning, I had my second lesson with Anneka. It was a glorious, sunny day, with ideal conditions, and within an hour, she decided I was ready for the T-Bar lift to the top of the beginner slope. Needless to say I fell more trying to master the lift, than the actual incline.

After that, we caught the cable lift up the mid-section of the mountain, where I managed to ski down in the snowplough position almost perfectly in her tracks. Not too bad considering it was only technically my fourth hour skiing. That’s the advantage of the private instruction.

The next day we moved on from Saalbach to the beautiful Bad Hofgastein in the renowned Gastein Valley, a town seeped in old world imperial architecture and charm. The Valley sports over 250km of piste and is a popular choice for intermediate and advanced skiers.

The Angertal area is the ideal spot for children’s ski school and general beginners. There are several superb schools in the Valley offering private instruction and ski guiding. For my first morning on these slopes I had my own guide, Patrick, and for the afternoon, I joined up with two others from my group and their instructor, Fritz Kettinig, the head of the Angertal Ski School (http://www.schneesportgastein.com or call 0043 (0) 6432 / 7475).

Fritz informed me that he actually taught President McAleese and her husband Martin to ski in recent years, and he graciously took me under his wing for the rest of my stay. If it’s good enough for heads of state, then it’s good enough for me.

There’s a different vibe entirely in Bad Hofgastein than in Saalbach. There are a wide variety of runs for all levels on the expertly groomed and maintained slopes that reach elevations as high as 2,700 metres above sea level.

Stepping up my crash-course in skiing, I managed to stay upright on one or two red slopes, but stuck mainly to the largely level blue runs that were just glorious to ski upon. The conditions were only tough on my last morning when there was strong wind and blizzards. I foolishly got ahead of myself and tried to master my parallel turns, and ended up with a bloody nose for my troubles.

That may have been my only injury (miraculously!), but at this stage in the holiday my body was aching all over. This is where Bad Hofgastein’s other big attraction comes in to play. The area is known the world over for its thermal springs and healing caves, and indeed offers full holiday health packages for specialist treatment of ailments like arthritis, asthma, bronchial illness, and skin disorders (see www.gastein.com).

We went to the AlpenTherme (www.alpentherme.com, 0043 0 6432/8293-0), a massive complex housing six health, recreation and adventure areas, featuring air bubble beds, thermal water massages, water slides, an enclosed children’s cinema and a sauna world, though this is one area where the cultural gap between the Irish and the Austrians is most pronounced: everyone using the sauna was completely naked. It’s worth casting off your inhibitions to give them a try.

A four-hour ticket costs e20.50, and there’s also a massage and beauty service upstairs. After a 25-minute half-body massage (costing just e28), there wasn’t an ache left in my body. All there was left to do that point was take in the stunning scenery, party in the cracking Silver Bullet pub (make a point of kissing the mounted bull on the wall) and be happy in the knowledge that my first experience as a skier just left me gagging for more.

GETTING THERE:

We travelled to Austria with Topflight (www.topflight.ie or call 01 2401700), flying to Munich and then transferring by coach to Salzburg. There are value deals available for those who can fly out on January 10th, 17th and 24th, starting from e769, which includes Topflight charter flights to Salzburg, transfers and half board four star accommodation.

WHERE TO STAY:

In Saalbach, we stayed in the Hinterhag Hotel (http://www.hinterhag.at, 0043 06541 6291)), run by local artist Evi Herzeltanz and her son Seppe. Suites start from e75 for four people sharing. In Bad Hofgastein, we stayed in the five star Grand Park Hotel (www.grandparkhotel.at, 0043 0 6432 63560), which offers winter ski packages in January and February from e463 midweek rate (flights and transfers need to be arranged separately).

Bad Hofgastein also has the four star Sendlhof Hotel (http://www.sendlhof.co.at, 0043(0)6432 3838), with prices starting from e1099 half board, with Topflight charter flights, transfers and rep services. There are also special offers for January 10th and 17th from e899.

WHEN TO GO:

January can be a good time to hit the slopes as it is quieter with less lift queues. There has already been excellent early snowfall in Austria so ski conditions are expected to be good right up until April.

THREE GREAT THINGS TO DO:

  1. Pick your slope of choice and ski until 3.30pm, and then hit the bars for après ski. The boots become easier to walk in as the evening goes on!
  2. Take a ski-doo up to a mountaintop pub like the Spielberghaus in Saalbach (http://www.spielberghaus.at) and then toboggan back down afterwards.
  3. An afternoon in the thermal spas in Gastein restoring body and mind – and bombing down water slides.

1 comment:

Derek said...

Like your blog, it brings back memories of learning to ski in Italy many moons ago.

The spas and saunas are great, they are building a new one, just down the road from Sallbach close to Zell am See, it will be called Spa-world- Kaprun it should be ready for the 2010-2011 ski season.

Happy days.