Back in snow business: Conditions are perfect on Schladming's championship pistes
Austria cut off: that sums up the headlines this week, with thousands of skiers in leading resorts such as Ischgl and St Anton unable to escape following what was reported as a season's snowfall in a few days. By now the roads should be clear, the skiers home and the prospects fine for the rest of the winter.
This is good news for the World Cup skiers who will converge on Schladming, in the province of Styria, on 24 January for the annual men's night slalom. (Despite the fact that most of the 50,000 visitors to this event end up fairly pickled on the mountainside, the evening rarely sees anyone get hurt and is very good natured.) It also bodes well for next year's FIS World Championships, which are due to be held in the resort.
Considering it is championship territory, Schladming has plenty of wide, tree-lined runs. The resort is part of the Ski Amadé area, which advertises itself as having 860km of pistes, although this is a bit misleading. While you can ski all the resorts in the area on one pass, they are not all connected by lifts. However, Schladming opened a new lift last season linking the Reiteralm to the other three mountains overlooking the historic town, making its 111km of interconnected pistes a sizeable area in its own right.
Austria's resorts are generally lower than in France – Schladming's highest peak, the Hauser Kaibling, is 2,015m. However, even if the country hadn't experienced such generous snowfall of the past week, it would no doubt have been well prepared. Austria, along with the Italian region of Süd-Tirol and Andorra, leads the way in snow-making and snow moving.
I tried the exhilarating blast of the men's Championship run from the Planai peak – more than 1,000m of vertical drop. The wide, uninhibited turns left me with my legs feeling like a mix of concrete and jelly when I arrived at the futuristic stadium in the centre of town.
Happily, I then began to feel sensation return to my body as I unwound in the eucalyptus scent of the Hotel Royer's steam room afterwards. (Austria is very, very good at hotel spas; in France you often have to head to the local swimming pool for a dip.)
Of course, if you're fiercely competitive, you'll soon be itching to get back on the slopes. And you'll want to know how fast you're going compared with everyone else. Schladming has a couple of runs where, for €1, you can time yourself going down a slalom course. My time was not enough to beat Dave, the Crystal mountain escort who offers a free guiding service to anyone travelling with the tour operator. But I am now ready to act as an armchair commentator, knowing the runs as well as I do.
Just before the recession, Austria accounted for less than a fifth of the package ski holiday market – half that of France. Last season it had a 27 per cent share, closing the gap on France's 32 per cent.
One reason is the value for money. Unlike in neighbouring Switzerland, for example, eating on the mountain is still affordable. Admittedly our waiter at the busy mountain hut we stopped at, in a typically Austrian bombastic style, issued us with the yellow and red cards he carried in his leather pouch for dithering over our orders. But that has to be better than paying the equivalent of a fiver for a coffee.
While Schladming has its share of jolly après-ski, its medieval town centre, with outdoor cafés, shops and historic buildings, offers respite from all that. And if, after a few days, enduring the plain silly mannequins that adorn the Larchkogel lift becomes a bit wearing, you can really get away from it all by exploring one of Austria's most extensive networks for cross-country skiing.
After I managed to persuade my brother-in-law – a resolute downhill skier – of the sport's merits, we did a tour of the far side of the valley. For a beginner, he proved so adept that we raced until dusk, with the mountain tops glowing pink around us in the setting sun. The region has nearly 500km of delightful trails, crossing babbling brooks, through dense forests and over fields, with plenty of interesting things to see and do, such as the biathlon course, which you can try for €10 using laser-powered rifles.
In fact, the area delighted locals so much that they decided to get their kit off while skiing and formed a naturist langlauf club that closed only recently when its founder retired.
And for those who miss the high-altitude panorama, the Dachstein glacier, at 2,700m, has downhill and cross-country trails. For children, the sculptures in the ice palace, deep inside the glacier, will be the draw. For us it was the view standing on the glass floor of the Sky Walk jutting out from the cliffs, with a paraglider flying above and beneath us.
The view from up there stretches from the border of the Czech Republic in the north, to Slovenia in the south. And this winter, as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but an entirely snow-covered landscape.
Travel essentials: Schladming
* Salzburg airport is served by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe. com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).
* Transfers by train and airport bus cost €17.60 one way (00 43 5 1717; fahrplan.oebb.at).
* Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) has a week's half board from £529 per person with flights from Gatwick and transfers to Hotel Kirchenwirt. Prices at the Sporthotel Royer start at £769. A six-day lift pass starts at €195.50.
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