Kitzbühel shakes off its traditional image and embraces new ski trends
Kitzbühel, in the Tyrol region of Austria, is one of the "grande dame" ski resorts. It makes a virtue of tradition, with its charming old town centre and long-established hotels, a 70-year-old racecourse fit for heroes on the Hahnenkamm slope, and a ski-instruction heritage which goes back more than a century. By the turn of the millennium, however, Kitzbühel was beginning to show its age. Its history may be impeccable, but its future looked questionable. If not actually in decline, it was in no shape to attract a new generation of skiers and boarders.
Then came the U-turn. Since 2000, Kitzbühel has seen a series of improvements and innovations: the grande dame has had a facelift. Another largely historical aspect of skiing, rail travel, promises a renaissance this season. High-speed services may be the future of long-distance train travel, but there has also been a spike in interest in old-style Continental rail travel to the Alps, on services accessed by Eurostar. The expectation is that the number of UK skiers who travel by train rather than aircraft is set to grow, thanks to environmental concerns and a greater facility in booking rail travel for ski holidays.
Hence my trip in late November. In something of a "comeback" tour, I took a train ride from London St Pancras to visit Kitzbühel. The area of Austria to the south of Munich is well placed to benefit from any growth in rail travel from the UK. The Gare de l'Est in Paris, just 10 minutes' walk from the Eurostar terminus at the Gare du Nord, is the starting point for the City Night Line sleeper service to Munich operated by Deutsche Bahn, the German railway system. And from the Bavarian capital, fast trains run to Wörgl, in Austria. There, passengers can change to an eastbound train which stops at several destinations familiar to British skiers – notably Zell am See and Schladming, as well as Kitzbühel – on its way to Graz.
The night is not entirely restful, but the beginning and end of the journey are delightful. On the short walk between the two Paris termini, you transit from a shuttle service on a glorified Tube train to old-style, international rail travel, with its attendant romance. On the CityNightLine my fellow passengers and I would fall asleep in France and wake in another country. For those in the rear part of the train it would be Russia or Belarus rather than the more prosaic Germany.
Exploring the accommodation is a treat, too, thanks to the neat little sink-in-a-cupboard, the array of light switches, and the miniature hotel-room consumables. And stepping down on to the platform at Munich one feels very smart. Imagine: a journey of almost 600 miles from London without even seeing an airport lounge!
The rest of the journey went like clockwork. Fast, warm and uncrowded trains got me to Kitzbühel exactly on time. Appropriately enough, one of Kitzbühel's innovations is a new railway station. Set for completion this summer after two years' work, it is a sleekly beautiful thing, clad with stone panels, finished in stainless steel and glass, and equipped with a see-through lift. The architectural style is like that of a contemporary museum or art gallery. If trains didn't keep stopping there, you would never guess it was a railway station.
The other big improvement in the town's transport infrastructure doesn't look so striking, but is more important. A perennial problem of Kitzbühel's was its limited ski terrain. There is plenty more skiing in the surrounding area, but it was not lift-linked to the town – until the 2004/05 season. Then, the 3S cable car was opened, connecting the high point of Kitzbühel's main ski area with the slopes of Jochberg, to the south. The effect was to bring a further 13 lifts and more than 20 pistes within reach. This season, the investment in uplift has continued, with the installation of a new gondola and an eight-seat chairlift.
Even more striking is the way that Kitzbühel's hotels are changing. With Austria's reputation for hospitality rivalling Switzerland's – or, among those whose preference is for small, family-run hotels, exceeding it – hoteliers have been reluctant to give up the dirndl, the Gemütlichkeit and the Gothic-script signage, though all three seem a bit camp these days. But tradition is a double-edged sword, and can be blunt. For a mature clientele, the cosy Tyrol hotel probably seems pleasantly old-fashioned; but for younger guests, it probably seems unpleasantly old-fashioned, especially with the current rate of change in hotel-interior styles.
In Kitzbühel, change has come rapidly. Late in 2009, two new five-star hotels opened in the valley between the town and the satellite village of Jochberg. Both reflect tradition in the rigorous service standards of the uniformed staff and the predominance of wood in their decoration; but the big windows and huge spas, the mix of gourmet and "light" dining, and the in-room technology, are all firmly contemporary. Both hotels are sizeable: the Russian-owned Grand Tirolia has 82 rooms and suites, the Royal Spa 144. Their semi-rural setting in large grounds – plus an emphasis on golf – gives them something of a "country club" flavour.
Much more cutting edge, though not quite so new, is the four-star Hotel Kitzhof in town. Here, the existing property was redesigned when an extension was added in 2007/08. The style is "studied cool": bedrooms have slightly textured, white-painted walls with deep, treated-pine wainscotting and a palette of blood-red and grey in the soft furnishings. The Alpine allusions, such as black-metal silhouettes of skiers and snowflakes on the bedside lights, are restrained.
The Kitzhof is in every respect a marvellous hotel: its restaurant even offers an excellent buffet (which is normally an oxymoron). Equally oxymoronic is the showpiece indoor infinity pool in the spa. The water flows out of the pool across a curved mosaic "wall" on to a stainless-steel valance and then drops down a rock-slab wall. The mirror effect of the surface and the distortion of water refraction combine to eerie effect. It's a work of art, one you can swim in.
But as far as hotels are concerned, the big event this season is the advent of the small Rosengarten in Kirchberg, a few miles west of Kitzbühel. The 33-year-old local chef Simon Taxacher used to cook in part of his family's traditional, three-star hotel; with his restaurant having won two stars from Michelin for its decorative, nouvelle-ish cuisine, he is now expanding his operation. An extension to the hotel has given him a better kitchen and dining room, a cookery school, and a 26-room hotel.
Sadly, the hotel was not quite completed when I visited. Worse, the restaurant was closed, too. Taxacher gave me a jar of his jam as a consolation. It was delicious.
Travel essentials: Kitzbühel
* The City Night Line operates four times a week from Paris to Munich. A single ticket from Paris to Kitzbühel, in a six-berth couchette on the City Night Line sector, costs from €78. Contact the Deutsche Bahn booking office on08718 80 80 66(8p per minute) or at bahn.com/uk.
* For more information on trains to ski resorts visit snowcarbon.co.uk.
* Hotel Kitzhof (00 43 5356 632 110; hotel-kitzhof.com). Doubles start at €280, half board.
* Royal Spa Kitzbühel (00 43 5355 50100; kitzbuehelroyalspa.com). Doubles from €382, half board.
* Grand Tirolia (00 43 5356 666 15; grand-tirolia.com). Doubles start at €396, half board.* Hotel Rosengarten(00 43 5357 4201; rosengarten-taxacher.com). Doubles start at €250,including breakfast.
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