Skiing: Big on slopes, low on profile

Ischgl is so popular with Germans that it doesn't bother promoting itself to other skiers. Which means that the British are missing out on an Alpine jewel
Imagine the absurd situation if in Paris the Dutch tourists all chose to go to Montmartre, the Britons to Notre Dame, the Germans to the Eiffel Tower. But it's a little like that in the Alps. For no very obvious reason there are - among those Europeans who have little or nothing in the way of skiing in their own countries - marked national preferences for particular resorts. A destination to which one group is attracted may be shunned by others. So Serfaus has become a largely Dutch-speaking enclave of Austria; British skiers congregate en masse at Val d'Isere; and, as I discovered at the end of November, the Germans have made Ischgl, a resort on Austria's border with Switzerland, their own.

So low is Ischgl's profile in this country that British skiers could be forgiven (I hope) for believing it to be a small, sleepy Alpine village, populated by farming folk and their cattle, while a minor branch of the Von Trapp family provides apres-ski entertainment with a sing-song around a log fire. If the resort depended on our business, it would be like that: on average, British skiers occupy only 93 beds there per night. But it doesn't. A whopping 72 per cent of Ischgl's guests are German (Austrians make up a mere six to seven per cent), and their enthusiasm for the place has turned it into a throbbing ski town with 9,300 guest beds - as many as nearby St Anton.

Instead of farm buildings, its largely pedestrianised main street is lined with big hotels, built in overgrown-chalet style, but often with glamorous lobbies that owe more to South Fork ranch and Middle Eastern banks than to Alpine tradition. So valuable is the Deutschmark here that Ischgl makes little effort to attract British tour operators with special terms (Inghams is currently the only big operator serving the resort), and doesn't even mind losing a nationality or two: a spokesman laughed off the defection of the Scandinavians, once a big presence in Ischgl, by suggesting that "they probably found the cost of accommodation was eating into their alcohol budget". The resort doesn't even bother to advertise, promoting itself merely with a season-opening event and a concert at the end of April, with big-name singers (among them Elton John, Diana Ross and - oddly - Bob Dylan) performing half-way up the ski slopes.

If Ischgl throbbed more urgently than usual when I was there, and the sound of oompah-disco music marched more purposefully out from beneath the Silvretta gondola (where there is an open-air bar), that was because it was the resort's opening weekend. A fashion show featuring the Euro- supermodel Laetitia Casta, with a gala dinner to follow, had drawn the crowds, and more than a dozen TV crews. They were shooting everything that moved, and quite a few things that didn't. It was even suggested that I might like to offer to the Austrian nation my view of Ischgl, and of the solitary cloud in its otherwise blue sky - namely the effect that last season's avalanches (which cut off the resort for a week) might have on this season's business. Having, in the couple of hours that I had been there, learnt little except how ignorant I was about the place, I made my excuses and they left.

The following day provided better entertainment, starting with the ride in the Silvretta gondola, which sweeps through two valleys (and a beautiful new mid-station, with a massive, exposed, timber structure) on its way to Idalp, the 2,320m centre of a huge swathe of intermediate skiing made up of 200km of pistes. With wide, effortless runs, you can cover the ground pretty quickly, at least downhill; going up, there is an odd combination of fast six-seater or quad chairlifts and some long-haul drag-lifts that traverse the ski area for a kilometre or more.

Apart from the cross-border run down to the bowl of Alp Trida in Switzerland, one or two of the pistes stand out: the pleasantly tricky (for me) black run off the 2,872m Greitspitz, the long, scenic reds (one groomed, the other not) from the 2,864m Palinkopf down the southern extreme of the ski area to Gampenalp, and the excellent drop through the trees to the Silvretta base.

While it was possible to ski that red run right down to the resort, the descent into the valley of Samnaun, in Switzerland, was closed - not enough snow, apparently, although the cover was excellent elsewhere for so early in the season. So instead of merely riding back up the slope in the Doppelstockige Pendelbahn, I took a return trip. The word "Doppelstockige" means double- decker: the Twinliner cable-car does indeed have two decks, allowing a total capacity of 180 passengers. The smaller, upper deck (the car is in the shape of a pyramid, with the top chopped off) has seating for 10 people, and when it's empty, it offers a very civilised ride. But those who lack a head for heights should stand well back from the front of the car when it swings over the ridge for the final, steep drop into the valley.

After the journey on the hi-tech Twinliner - the driver's dashboard has enough knobs, screens and flashing lights to keep a recording engineer happy - Samnaun proved a bit of a disappointment (starting with the lavatories at the lift-station, quite the smelliest I've encountered in the German- speaking world). A former principality, the Samnaun area is now effectively part of Switzerland, but it maintains its duty-free status and the tiny village, a bus-ride away from the cable-car, has become a sort of rustic, outdoor airport terminal.

Its residents seemingly survive on a diet of perfume, cigarettes and liquor - quite a cheap way to live when a bottle of Famous Grouse costs only SwFr17 (about pounds 7). The only shop I found that sold more substantial provisions was the corner-shop equivalent of Harrods' food hall, its stock limited to such delicacies as dried wild meats and Cirpiani-brand spaghetti. Maybe that's why there's a double-decker running from the village up to the Ischgl ski area: so that Samnaun's inhabitants can go and buy fruit and veg.

On the way back up on the Twinliner there were 178 empty spaces. This was the Monday after the opening party: the crowds had gone, the TV crews, too, and below the almost deserted slopes, Ischgl was delightfully placid. Half-closing the eyes, one could believe it to be a sleepy Alpine village, populated by farming folk and their cattle.

Further information on www. or from the Austrian National Tourist Office (0171-629 0461)