Make tracks: Get set for some late-season snow in Obergurgl
The Austrian resort still has 50 days left in its ski season, and it is also ideal for families – whether they are beginners or experts
Saturday 12 March 2011
My wife skis like a little girl. By that I don't mean she wears pink all-in-one ski-suits, or that she needs help getting into chairlifts, or that she bursts into tears when she falls face-first into a snowdrift. I mean that she swoops down a mountain like someone who learnt how to do so when they were very young, and who trained on tricky non-carving skis: feet together, everything neat and tidy, fearless on a black run, elegant on a blue.
Given that she's been perfecting her technique virtually every winter since she was seven, such grace and skill is hardly surprising, but it is a little off-putting for those of us yet to master the dark art of the snowplough – the lowest common denominator for skiing beginners.
You see, my wife might ski like a little girl, but our two little boys (aged eight and five) had never seen a ski resort, and my own previous experience amounted to that of a skiing toddler. A day-and-a-half's tuition a couple of years previously had seen me master a painful semi-crouching position, interrupted by occasional extravagant collapses. The nursery slopes were where I belonged; there was no way I was going to keep up with the grown-ups.
This huge disparity between our respective competencies made the dynamics of planning a family ski trip rather complicated. Holidays are about spending time together, but it was clear that those of us with Y chromosomes were going to be in ski school for much of the day, while Supergirl whizzed down her mountain alone. For my wife, the answer to this conundrum came in the form of the Ski Club of Great Britain, membership of which entitles you to the company of other fearless adults and the services of a knowledgeable leader who takes you on daily tours round your chosen resort. And for us boys, it was all about the resort itself: Obergurgl, in the Austrian Alps.
Obergurgl. To British ears the name has a friendly, chuckling quality, particularly when pronounced in the local dialect, where a "gurgl" can easily be mistaken for a "google". In fact, and perhaps appropriately, gurgl means "throat"; the village lies at the southernmost limit of the Otztal Valley, a 65km rift in the Alps that sweeps through Austrian Tirol like a super-sized black run. Any further south and you'd be in Italy – and any higher up, you'd probably be in an aeroplane.
At 1,930 metres, Obergurgl is impressively snow-sure. This year it opened a week early, on 11 November, and it is due to close on 1 May, well after the Easter holidays – which themselves are unusually late this year – are over. For winter sports at the outer limits of the season, then, this is the place: Obergurgl still has 50 more skiing days to enjoy. And for family skiing with the minimum of fuss, it is just perfect.
For a start, it's tiny, a pretty clump of hotels and lodges clustered along the main valley road. The year-round population is just 400, and though it swells to several thousand during the winter season, the relatively low number of available beds means queues are kept to a minimum. The slopes, too, remained impressively empty throughout our stay – useful in terms of collision avoidance for novices. There's also little in the way of self-catering accommodation – the two small supermarkets are testament to that – and the number of guests on half-board tariffs clearly has an impact on nightlife. If yours is the sort of family that prefers to spend its evenings having it large in nightclubs rather than falling exhausted into your beds after a hard day's skiing, then you'll be better off in the larger hub of Sölden, to the north. No? Didn't think so.
Our hotel, the Crystal, was welcoming in that peculiarly Austrian way of being spotlessly neat, but at the same time pleasantly cosy. The main part is divided into two blocks, linked by a slender glass walkway across the road. Arrival, departure, dinner and – our favourite – an afternoon tea consisting of smoked meats, cake and as much pasta as you can manage, is handled in "Crystal East". The western wing, where we were staying, is the newer and sleeker option when it comes to the rooms themselves. Ours overlooked the lower slopes of the Festkogl, which rises to a staggering 3,038 metres behind the village; mornings began with the low thrum of snow ploughs making their way up the mountain.
Everything was pleasingly chic in a sturdy sort of way, with a gleaming bathroom and plenty of cupboard space for the absurd amount of winter weather gear we'd brought with us. There was an L-shaped sofa bed for the boys and a tiny balcony that we never ventured out on because it was always heaped with snow. The children clambered about on the wide internal window ledges instead, marvelling at all that crisp whiteness beyond.
On the face of it, Obergurgl's size should also make the logistics of getting three novices and an impatiently proficient skier to the correct chairlift at the allotted time fairly simple. And the position of our hotel, at the bottom of the Festkoglbahn lift, should have made things simpler still. (The Crystal has an underground link to the Scheiber ski hire shop, and from there it's all of 10 metres to the base-station.) But things are rarely simple when it comes to co-ordinating a pair of children untutored in the peculiarities of salopettes, thermal underwear and ski goggles. Breakfast, in the Crystal's vast dining room, demanded to be enjoyed at leisure while skimming through the weather report that was left for us each morning (bright sun, but a temperature of a boggling -18C when we arrived). Instead, the lateness of our hour demanded that we wolf down a slice of toast each and race downstairs to hire our skis in the company of Jed Price, our endlessly patient ski rep.
It was Jed who carried our poles as we rushed the 50 metres from the hotel to the ski school, our ski boots still unbuckled; it was also Jed who was in charge when it came to introducing our children to their teacher, Clemens, and thence to Bobo the penguin, the ski-school mascot. He was again invaluable when it came to pointing my wife in the direction of the Edelweiss & Gurgl Hotel (a two-minute shuttle bus away) where she'd been due to meet a man called Tony from the Ski Club of Great Britain at least 10 minutes previously. And when it became apparent that I'd left my ski helmet behind in the hire shop, it was Jed who retrieved it for me: it could happen to anyone, he said.
It's the calm authority of people like Jed that you need on a family skiing holiday, when everything is excitingly complicated and you've yet to find your snow-legs. His final act on that first morning was to introduce me to Thomas Giacomelli, my ski instructor for the next three days. He quickly assessed my pitiful standard of skiing, and I obliged with a couple of the spectacular falls I'd perfected last time around. Oddly, he found nothing to disturb him unduly, and we were soon heading up Rosskarbahn chairlift for a tour of the blue runs.
The Obergurgl lift pass also grants access to the Hochgurgl ski area, which lies just to the north and slightly higher up the mountain (at 2,150 metres) than Obergurgl itself. In total, the two resorts muster an impressive 110km of ski run, divided almost equally. (Obergurgl just pips Hochgurgl with 56km compared with Hochgurgl's 54km.) They're linked by the Top-Express gondola, which runs at a fearsome height over the Königstal and Ferwalltal valleys. With three lifts running into Obergurgl and similarly easy access to Hochgurgl, this is a true ski-in, ski-out resort, which simplifies the logistics of picking children up from ski school, and arranging where to meet for some après-ski entertainment.
Yes, we even managed a bit of that. The Nederhütte ("We rock you to the limit" is the extravagant claim plastered on its roof) lies half way up the Hohe Mut, and is a place of exotically large lager glasses and loud, artless Euro-pop from 4pm. After dark, a skidoo shuttle takes those unable to stand, or unable to stand it any more, back to their hotels.
Meanwhile, our skiing was progressing nicely. The boys took to ski school as all children do: with a slightly cocky ease. And Thomas was soon gesturing me down red runs as if it were the most natural thing in the world. After three days, he left me in the care of my wife ("You must ski a little slower," he said, "or he will fall over") and the pair of us took a tour of the slopes of Hochgurgl. We became particularly fond of the swoopy runs accessed from the Wurmkogl chairlift, which tops out at the glass-walled Top Mountain Star bar (3,082 metres) and a stunning viewing platform.
Just as it's important to look at what's ahead of you when you're skiing, it's important to look around you when you pause for breath. Obergurgl is known as "the diamond of the Alps", and the setting certainly is spectacular. The views from the restaurant at the top of the Hohe Mut (2,670 metres) are a case in point: 21 white-washed peaks over 3,000 metres laid before you as you slurp your hot chocolate.
And when you've skied enough? We passed a strange afternoon at the Aqua Dome thermal spa, which lies a half-hour taxi ride away in the resort town of Längenfeld. Strange because it wasn't really a dome, more a collection of outsized cones and dishes, and strange because it highlighted a cultural difference in the approach to swimming between the Austrians and the British. Whereas we view a leisure centre as somewhere to go for a few brisk lengths, the Austrians are happy to spend hours either naked in a sauna, or submerged in a salt bath, or snogging in an adults-only pool. The setting, though, was stunning, particularly in the three outdoor pools, suspended above the ground like giant saucers and ringed by spectacular mountain scenery.
Back in Obergurgl, we spent our evenings splashing, fully costumed, around the hotel's own sleek sauna/swimming pool area, then working our way through its spectacular five-course meals. We finished early one night in order to try the floodlit toboggan run in Hochgurgl. The 3km track runs down from the midway point of the main lift and is easily the most terrifying thing I did all week. The boys loved it, in a slightly panicked sort of way; I ended up with a face full of snow (remember to bring ski goggles and helmets).
And there was real delight on our last day, when we skied together as a family for the first time. The warm foehn wind had blown in overnight, reducing visibility and closing the lifts of the upper slopes. So, led by our children, we skied in and out of the trees near the Bruggenboden chairlift, which serves a sheltered low-level ski area. The boys showed off their moves, their parents transfixed at the matter-of-fact way they'd absorbed this new skill.
A week in Obergurgl had shown us the way to the sunlit very-high-uplands of future family skiing holidays. So what if my wife skis like a little girl? My sons now ski like little boys. And one day I may even be good enough to catch up with them all.
Travel essentials: Obergurgl
* The writer travelled to Obergurgl with Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights' half board at the four-star Crystal Hotel from £845 per person, including return flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and resort transfers. (Flights from other UK airports are available for a supplement.) Six days of ski and boot hire starts from £108 per adult and £42 per child. A six-day adult lift pass starts from £189 per adult and £119 per child. Inghams also has a late-season deal at Obergurgl, staying at the three-star Pension s'Hoamtl. The price of £459 per person includes return flights from Gatwick and transfers, departing 26 March.
* The nearest airport to Obergurgl is Innsbruck. The writer travelled with easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), which flies to Innsbruck daily from Gatwick, twice weekly from Bristol (Fridays and Sundays) and twice weekly from Liverpool (Thursdays and Sundays). BA (0844 4930787; ba.com) flies from Gatwick daily except Tuesdays and Thursdays.
* The Ski Club of Great Britain (0845 45 807 82; skiclub.co.uk) hosts a Ski Club Leader in Obergurgl from December to April, offering a varied skiing programme suitable for all standards except beginners. The service is free as part of the Ski Club of Great Britain membership, and Ski Club Leaders currently operate in 34 resorts across Europe and North America. Membership of the Ski Club costs £56 a year for individuals and £87 for family membership.
* Aqua Dome, Oberlängenfeld 140, Längenfeld (00 43 5253 6400; aqua-dome.at). Open daily 9am-11pm. Family tickets for two adults and two children from €58.50.
* Hochgurgl's toboggan run is open from 8.30am-4pm daily (€5 per person), and 7.30pm-10.30pm on Monday and Thursday (€13 per person)
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