Austria: Hey mum, come back when I'm less busy
Travelling solo with a small child shouldn't spoil your fun on the slopes. Just choose the right resort and hotel, says Sarah Barrell
Sunday 27 March 2011
I'm only one day into a long weekend's snowboarding and I can't sit down. I'm not bruised, or at least not much, but euphoric. Conquering the slopes after a four-year hiatus is a triumph. But my elation is mainly fuelled by smug satisfaction – the kind that comes from proving my spouse wrong. No amount of debate or sulky silences had convinced my husband that taking a three-year-old skiing would be anything other than an exercise in masochism. So I'd set out as a solo-travelling parent, with wishes of "good luck" rather than "have a good holiday".
But luck wasn't needed. Alpbach, a teeny resort in the Austrian Tyrol, an hour from Innsbruck, is a dead cert for a ski holiday with a small person in tow. With its little Lutheran church, narrow winding roads and thick pine forests, this is a model Alpine village. Uniform, timbered buildings come with over-hanging eves and balconies dressed with snow in the winter and geraniums in summer. It's easy to see why conservation-minded Alpbach has been named prettiest village in the Alps in national polls.
Our hotel looks like it was made out of white icing-sugar-dusted gingerbread and elicits an "ooooh, pretty" from my pre-schooler, Ella. We're staying at the Galtenberg, a member of Kinderhotels, an organisation comprised of 33 independent Alpine hotels that meet its high childcare standards. Given this child-centric focus, I'm surprised to find a complete lack of primary colours and plastic toys – instead there's a neat lobby bar surrounded by chunky wooden tables, smart leather seats and a couple of cowhides draped here and there to complete the "boutique" look.
But a tour of the premises reveals a spacious spa, with saunas and an indoor-outdoor pool overlooked by the slopes – all open to children. Childcare is free – up to 56 hours a week (usually a hefty extra at ski hotels) and centres on a large crèche with soft-play area, ball pit, craft tables, and a team of multi-lingual nannies.
The local ski school teaches children from three upwards, and the nursery slope is clumping distance from the hotel's boot-room. Some Kinderhotels have recently introduced "Nappy Ski Courses" for children as young as two.
Austria's lack of high-altitude, linked ski resorts can make it a winner with young families seeking small villages with lifts and facilities on the doorstep. Kit-fitting takes half an hour in a quiet rental shop and I only have to lug board, skis, poles and helmets a few hundred yards back to the hotel. There are not enough miles of piste here to satisfy keen wintersporters, but for me, a rusty, intermediate boarder, there's plenty. The resort tops out at 2,100 metres, but with 70 per cent snow-cannon coverage there's enough white stuff around.
Staff at Schischule Alpbach are led by Sepp Margreiter, a former ski racer who now zips around the slopes in a "sit-ski" after breaking his spine in a logging accident. Sepp's school has taught generations of British skiers. The resort has had strong connections with the UK since the 1950s, when a British colonel stumbled across its postcard-perfect slopes while on leave from Germany. It became a favourite for regimental exercises and a training ground for British Junior Alpine Skiing.
Ella's ski-school nerves are almost instantly calmed by her avuncular instructor, a limber British expat in his 60s, who all the local children call "opa" (granddad). I leave her "making pizzas" with her skis (a cute way to teach the triangular snowplough shape) and head off into the sunny, hay-scented mountains. There are 100 working farms in Alpbach – the same number as a century ago. Most of the ski instructors spend summer tending their cows and winter herding tourists.
Under the patient watch of instructor Tomas Margreiter (Sepp's son), I spend the mornings out to pasture on wide blue runs, before navigating long reds that go from the top of the Wiedersberger Horn into Alpbach Valley. Here I break for lunch with Ella, out of choice rather than necessity – parents don't have to be present. She's hopped-up on Gummy Bears (the instructors' bait of choice) and raring to go, so we cram in another couple of hours before school's out and we head to the pool.
By the end of each day, Ella totted up five hours on the nursery slopes, an hour in the pool and she still insisted on going to the kid's club before dinner. Which left me, unbelievably, with time for a pre-prandial sauna. Dinner was equally civilised, with venison, wild boar and excellent local cheese served in the hotel's soft-lit, grown-up restaurant. Children can eat in the kid's club but most parents prefer to dine en-famille, or, as we do by the end of the week, as a group of families who've palled up at ski school.
It couldn't be more convivial. It's easy to see why Alpbach has so many repeat visitors, returning year after year to this little home-from-home in the Alps. Inevitably, plans have been mooted to lift-link Alpbach with resorts in the neighbouring Wildschönau Valley. Many locals believe this won't increase trade but just through traffic. The first road along Alpbach Valley wasn't built until 1926 and this relative isolation bred Alpbach's easy, small-town charm. Long may it remain off the beaten piste.
How to get there
EasyJet (easyjet.com) offers return flights to Innsbruck from £59 return. Sarah and Ella were guests of Kinderhotels (kinderhotels.co.uk), at the four-star Hotel Galtenberg (galtenberg.com) in Alpbach, which charges €136 (£119) per adult and €27-50 (£24-£44) per child (0-16 years) per night, staying in a small family apartment. All prices are full board and include 56 hours of childcare per week and transfers from Innsbruck airport. Ski passes cost €30 (£26) a day or €143 (£125) for six days; children (up to 15) go free. Kinderclub Ski School (skischule- alpbach.at) costs €189 (£165) for six days (10am-3pm) including lunch.
Alpbachtal Seenland Tourism (alpbachtal.at); Tirol Info (visittirol.co.uk).
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