The call of the mountains

Seasons come and go, each leaving an impression, each different from the last. It’s an annual cycle of varying temperatures, traditions and activities. And while Mother Nature can hardly be accused of playing favourites, when winter comes to Austria it is distinctly special and all embracing. During this snowy season, visitors will not only be enchanted by majestic mountains, festive town squares, and a vibrant cultural scene, but also the joy imparted by their Austrian hosts who unabashedly celebrate winter like it’s the best time of the year. And here, it just may be, but shhh…

The call of the mountains

There’s a whole lot of skiing to be done here, complemented by state-of-the-art infrastructure and stringent safety standards, a variety of accommodation from five-star luxury hotels to cosy family-run inns, and resorts teeming with alpine ambience (and of course an après-ski scene second to none!) For big time fun, Ski amadé has just the ticket - literally. One lift pass gives access to five of Austria’s top ski resorts, combining 760 pistes, 270 lifts and 260 huts. Hardly surprising that Ski amadé one of the most popular destinations for British skiers.  Another terrific value-for-money pass is the Kitzbüheler Alpen AllStarCard. Valid in 10 premier ski areas in Tirol and Salzburgerland, this multi-mountain pass opens up more than 1,000km of slopes and 356 modern lifts and cable cars. Kitzbüheler Alpen, and its four snow-sure holiday regions, makes up one of the largest and most popular ski regions in the world. High-quality, Tirolean hospitality, and family-friendliness are tops here.

Go the distance at Wilder Kaiser Brixental, Austria’s largest interconnected ski area, with 90 lifts linking 280km of slope. Stay in one of four charming villages – Ellmau, Going, Scheffau and Söll – that make up this attractive Tirolean resort region just an hour from Innsbruck. And, perhaps one of the most famous names associated with all things downhill - Kitzbühel. Set at 2,000m, this mountain resort has been attracting skiers since 1892 and is a fixture on the FIS Ski World Cup circuit, with the all-important downhill race on its famous Streif slope considered to be one of the most challenging races on the competition calendar. Kitzbühel offers 170km of groomed slopes, 53 lifts, and 230 square kilometres of backcountry with superb free riding possibilities.

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So, would it really surprise you to learn that downhill skiing began in Austria? St Anton am Arlberg is regarded as the “cradle of alpine ski”, and still today enjoys a reputation as a recreational region in the Tirolean Alps where snow is virtually guaranteed. Today, international guests can enjoy the same slopes where these downhill pioneers developed their technique; 340km of marked runs, 97 lifts, and over 200km of off piste terrain nestled amid colossal backdrops.

While for many, a ski and board holiday is an annual winter pilgrimage, for others time has passed and their confidence has waned. A new 2014/15 Ski Again initiative (booking now), launched by the Austrian National Tourist Office in conjunction with UK operators Inghams and Ski Total, invites anyone who hasn’t skied for five years or more, to return to the mountains and refamiliarise themselves with this popular winter recreation. Enticing and affordable packages are being offered at 14 of Austria’s top ski resorts which include flights, transfers, seven-night half-board accommodation, six-day lift pass, six-day ski hire and 16-hours of small group instruction.

Bring the family

It’s easy to feel young at heart when making a snowman, taking those first tentative steps on ice skates on a frozen lake, or catching snowflakes on your tongue, and winter holidays make such lovely family memories. For a unique experience, join an igloo building course for families and small groups in the Wildschönau Valley, or take a guided torch lit walk in Alpbach and take in the tranquillity of this gorgeous setting, voted Austria’s most beautiful village. The Alpbach and Wildschönau regions also combine to form Ski Juwel Alpbachtal Wildschonau – a real gem of a resort in the Kitzbühel Alps, ranked in the top 10 of Tirol’s 87 ski resorts and well-known for its family-friendly offerings and affordable pricing. Impress the kids and teens with sheer size and options at Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang, the world’s second-largest ski resort (based on annual visitor numbers) which, in addition to 200km of pistes, also offers up a host of other options – ever thought riding a snowcat would be cool? Do it here. Go karting on ice? Got it. The tallest treetop path in Europe? Check. Snowtubing? Let’s see who’s faster – mum, dad or the kids! Or, interested in freestyling? A learn-to-ride park designed for beginners will have you landing your first kicker in no time. Two of Austria’s highest winter resorts are a winter home away from home for many UK holidaymakers.

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The hamlet of Obergurgl (1,930m) is a traditional traffic-calmed resort set around an early 18th century church, with wide appeal as a family destination due to easy access to many blue and red runs amongst its 110km of pistes serviced by 22 lifts. A fifth of Obergurgl’s visitors are British and many families return year after year. A mountain link to neighbouring Hochgurgl (2,150m) offers access to some of the best doorstep ski atop the Ötztal Alps.  A combination of unspoilt scenery, traditional Tirolean atmosphere, and the friendly, intimate nature of the village make Obergurgl-Hochgurgl an incredibly attractive family winter destination.

A real taste of tradition and hospitality

Nothing tastes better than sitting down to a great meal after a day out in the fresh air. In the Zillertal the recipe is simple – outstanding ski mixed with a cuisine reflective of this Tirolean region, but with new and innovative twists. An impressive alpine world of 489km snow sure pistes, accessible by 177 modern lifts, is the setting for a host of award-winning mountain lodges and huts showcasing the Zillertal’s burgeoning culinary scene and offering some of the finest cuisine on the mountains made from fresh, regional products. Dishes are inspired by the natural products of the Zillertal, such as cheese made from pure pasture milk, bacon from the village butcher, and meat from local farms.

Whether at a finely set table, on the ski slope, or at the hotel reception, visitors will be charmed by the special nature of Austrian hospitality. In Austria, enjoy a holiday that’s memorable not only for the inevitable happy moments, but those times of unexpected surprises and delightful extras. A fine example is found at the high altitude ski resort of Turracher Höhe (from 1,400m to 2,205m) on the border of the provinces of Carinthia and Styria, offering 38km of top quality slopes and convenient ski-in/ski-out access from almost any accommodation. The area is proud of its “holidays amongst friends” image due to the traditional huts with a genuinely warm welcome. Highlighting a level of unrivalled hospitality is Turracher Höhe’s unique slope butler service, now in its 14th year pampering guests with complimentary treats, catering to their needs, and offering assistance. Be sure to keep an eye out for the “butler mobile” cruising the slopes!

Sure, we all like to be treated a bit like royalty when on holiday, so why not book a stay in Lech Zürs am Arlberg, a favourite ski destination of royals and A-list celebrities. With an enviable location in the snowiest region of the Alps offering outstanding slope variety and perfectly groomed slopes, the stylish twin villages of Lech and Zürs offer luxurious hotels, high-end boutiques and a sophisticated après-ski scene. Despite its exclusive reputation and pampering amenities, this resort area in the province of Voralberg still maintains an unassuming air, so don‘t worry about a royal title, all are royally and warmly welcomed in typical Austrian fashion.

A winter warmer

The popularity of combing ski and spa makes perfect sense in Austria. After all, the country is well-known for a long-standing spa tradition, with historical records noting patronage even by Austrian emperors and other nobility at its spa towns and resorts throughout the past century. Carinthia, Austria’s sunny southernmost province, is spoiled with a mild yet snowy winter climate due to its unique geographic location within the Alps-Adriatic region. Winter holidaymakers can rest and play in many of Carinthia’s immersive spa towns, located in convenient proximity to the slopes, many of which are counted amongst the best in Austria. The 24 ski resorts across the province offer a combined total of 900km of piste and range from a formidable 3,000m above sea level to lower altitudes, which are popular family destinations. And while you may not be in Rome, you can still “do as the Romans did” at Warmbad Villach, a Carinthian spa town known for its thermal pools and mineral springs, once used by the ancient Romans en route to Italy. There are 130km of downhill runs and groomed cross-country trails less than half an hour away and the World Cup slope of Bad Kleinkirchheim is just a few kilometres away. For those less sure of their ability, an abundance of family-friendly slopes can be found around nearby Villach.

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The gorgeous all-season resort of Zell am See-Kaprun is another ski and spa hotspot. Here, in Austria’s picturesque Salzburgerland region, guests can glacier ski at 3,000m and then enjoy a panoramic sauna at a sprawling mountain spa all in one day. The new 1,000m-long Black Mamba slope on the Kitzsteinhorn glacier covers 290m in altitude, and offers an inclination of up to 63 per cent - a real challenge! Around 41km of slopes, 18 cable cars/lifts, five free ride routes and three snow parks with Austria’s biggest super-pipe complete the offer on this glacial mountain, where snow is guaranteed from October to June. Back on more horizontal footing, the wellness oasis of Tauern Spa, with pretty mountain peak views, offers some 20,000 square metres of spa facilities including saunas, steam baths, indoor/outdoor pools and treatment rooms. After a well-deserved rest and some pampered down time, head to the medieval (and traffic free) town centre of Zell am See where there’s plenty of lively après-ski in a wide assortment of restaurants and bars.

All is calm, all is bright…

In 1816, in a small village near Salzburg, local priest Josef Mohr penned the words to what would become one of the world’s most-beloved Christmas Carols. Now, each year on Christmas Eve, people gather at a tiny snow-bedecked chapel in Oberndorf to sing Silent Night in celebration of this special song and the spirit it represents. It’s a safe assumption that the country that can pinpoint the location of where Silent Night originated, does much to honour and celebrate the Advent season. Christmas markets across Austria are magical places where both young and older look on in wonder at the twinkling lights, smell the aroma of traditional treats, revel in the sounds of music, and delight at the homemade crafts. Skis on your wish list this year? Already imaging future winter getaways? Check out lively Innsbruck, a three-time Olympic city, hailed as the capital of the Alps. Explore the city’s historical and well-preserved Old Town in the morning, then, when the call of the surrounding mountains becomes irresistible, make your way to the base station of the Nordkette cable car (right in the city centre), and be on the slopes some 20 minutes later and 1,400m higher! From 15 November 2014 to 6 January 2015, Innsbruck’s six main Christmas markets come spectacularly to life, including the Altstadt Christmas Market which counts among the most beautiful and romantic locations in the entire alpine region. At the Marktplatz Christmas Market don’t miss the 14-metre high Swarovski crystal tree, and, for something truly memorable, be sure to catch a ride on the Hungerburg hybrid funicular railway taking you up the Hungerburg where a Christmas market with magnificent views of Innsbruck awaits!

In Association with: austria

For more information please visit: http://www.austria.info/uk/winter

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