It's a kinder surprise in Austria's Alps
Jo Kessel explores a resort that lets children swoosh down the slopes for next to nothing
Saturday 07 December 2013
It's rare I warn my family not to expect too much from their holiday, but that was how this ski trip began. The reason? I'd picked our destination not because of the facilities of the four-star hotel Kirchleitn-Dorf Kleinwild in Austria's Southern Alps, but because in Bad Kleinkirchheim-St Oswald (home to Austrian ski champion Franz Klammer) children ski for €1 a day. For that sort of money they had no right to expect much.
Upon arrival, my sense of caution seemed justified: it was raining so hard that snow was being washed off the mountains, and I had to ask for an umbrella.
Our hotel was set in a private car-free village, a cluster of log cabins clinging to gentle slopes. Brandishing our room key, we approached the cabin which housed our apartment. I reminded twins Nathalie and Gabriel (10) and Hannah (seven) to lower expectations. Key in lock, door ajar. "Wow," Hannah gasped.
Constructed from 400-year-old pine, it was utterly luxurious, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchenette and a vast lounge. There was a ski-boot warmer, a balcony and ... "What's this?" Hannah tugged an old-fashioned ski, the door-handle to a kiosk labelled "Physio Therm Infra Red Cabin". She sat on the banquette inside and switched it on. Cue a build-up of intense light, heat, meditative music and a personality change. Never has she stayed so still or quiet for so long.
I kept waiting for the catch as we kitted ourselves up. One euro-a-day ski passes for the children. Check. Free ski hire, too. Check. My husband and I given a promise to refund the children's ski-school fee if they failed to progress? Check. Still raining? Oh, yes.
A sublime night's sleep was broken by sunlight edging over the crest of the mountains. What a relief: the pistes were still snowy.
The hotel's owner was Wolfgang Schneeweiss (which, oddly, translates as "snow white"). While we fuelled up on breakfasts of bacon omelettes and muesli in the hotel's main restaurant, he announced that today was the annual Franz Klammer competition, where punters could race against the most successful downhill skier of all time.
Franz Klammer is to skiing what David Beckham is to football. Growing up, I'd watched him win a record five downhill World Cups on Ski Sunday. I dashed to the Brunnach cable car, 300m away. Up the mountain, the competitors' hut and steep drop towards the slalom was intimidating. I queued, watching others descend until my turn. I trembled as the invigilator planted my poles the other side of the gate and then it was: drei, zwei, eins, go!
I'd like to say I was stylish and speedy, but in truth curving tumble-free around the poles without snowploughing was my limit. Franz did it in 37.78 seconds. Me? A rather less awe-inspiring 2 minutes 10.67 seconds.
"I was petrified up there," I told Franz, who was at the finishing-line. "Did you feel that when competing?" "No," said Franz, his eyes twinkled manically, "I felt great."
Bad Kleinkirchhiem-St Oswald consists of two sister villages connected via a ski lift and free shuttle bus. We were staying in St Oswald, the quainter of the two, so small it has just one shop – Intersport (after days of eyeing up a stylish ski jacket I finally succumbed).
The hotel itself is part of the Austrian Kinderhotels group which caters for families. As part of their service, the hotel's children's club staff delivered and fetched my brood (at no extra charge, not even a euro) from three-hour morning ski lessons. They then supervised lunch and entertained them, giving me the freedom to whoop down wide empty pistes (100km of predominantly intermediate slopes) on freshly groomed corduroy.
The cosy mountain restaurant, Gschwandlhutte, on the Nockalmbahn run, was my favourite. Its steaming bowls of noodle soup were tasty, filling and a bargain at €3.50 (£2.90). Meanwhile the children were busy learning Gangnam-Style rapping from their ski instructor Anze (who hails from across the border in Slovenia). She had them zipping – to their delight and my horror – down black runs in no time.
The infra-red cabin in our lounge – so relaxing it nearly induced slumber sitting upright – wasn't the only panacea for tired limbs. Entry to the Romerbad Spa is included on the lift-pass. Immersion in the outdoor thermal pool was sublime, steam skimming the surface, blurring the view of a piste not yet attempted: a Franz Klammer World Cup course. Not just black: double-black.
Perched at the top of that run the next day, I wished I was still viewing it from the spa. The 80-per-cent gradient went on and on, with plenty of hard crust on the snow to deal with, which caused my teeth to chatter from friction. As I reached the bottom, I knew it was something I would never attempt again.
That night, the bottle of velvety Austrian pinot noir was more welcome than usual, as was the themed dinner, a treat of Carinthian specialities. The thick "yellow soup" laced with cream and laden with vegetables was heavenly and it was followed by dumplings and roasts so succulent we returned for seconds and thirds. The regional cheeseboard was tasty too.
As the week drew to a close it transpired that, even had we arrived with the highest of expectations, we would not have been disappointed. Our stay couldn't have been more family friendly and the children's ski instruction was the best we've ever had. The hotel's children's club was a hit too, with Hannah shooing me away whenever I tried to pick her up. Better still, I got to race against Franz Klammer.
In fact, I'm proud to say that I was a prizewinner. I'm less proud to admit that my prize was for coming last.
Jo Kessel's latest novel 'Weak at the Knees' is set in a ski resort in the French Alps (£5.95: amazon.co.uk)
Jo Kessel travelled with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) which flies from Stansted to Ljubljana, just across the border in Slovenia, from £59 return. Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) also flies from Luton.
Hotel Kleinwild (00 43 664 134 5056; kirchleitn.com) offers an all-inclusive week in an apartment for a family of four (including two children under 14 years) from €1,659 (£1,376). The hotel is also bookable through Kinderhotels (0845 0822 422; kinderhotels.co.uk).
Ski hire (badkleinkirchheim.at) is free for children up to 10 years. Children's ski passes cost €1.
To ski with Franz Klammer visit: badkleinkirchheim.at
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