Revel in Lech's low-key luxury

This exclusive Austrian resort might not be cheap, but your hand-me-down salopettes won't look out of place and the skiing is hard to beat, says Simon Usborne

When it gets busy at Lech, a sign on the road from St Anton lights up and asks would-be skiers politely to take their custom elsewhere. Sales of day ski passes are strictly capped. What could be worse in perhaps the world’s most civilised resort than sharp-elbowed hordes? Separate signs might also inform newcomers: “fur optional”; “multiple credit cards required” and “Jägerbombs verboten”.

Lech’s reputation for exclusivity precedes it not only on the road, which I navigated in a snowstorm in, thankfully, a quiet bit of last March. The former farming village in the Arlberg region of Austria, known as the cradle of skiing for reasons I will discover, is just a 20-minute drive from St Anton. But unlike that resort, which I’ve only skied while too young to indulge in its famous nightlife, Lech is a model of Alpine sophistication.

I worried it might be too grand, in the way of that handful of exclusive resorts favoured by royals, celebrities and the designer boutiques that serve them (think St Moritz or Aspen). My girlfriend, Jess, had never skied and proposed to do so in my mother’s hand-me-downs. Would she be allowed anywhere near a heated chairlift? If I dared to summon the “bath butler” available at my hotel, would he deign even to draw me one?

Happily, there is another side to Lech. I will not reveal here the unexpected ease with which you can ski there on a tight budget – you really can’t – but you can ski in great comfort without feeling judged or particularly bothered about who else is around. It’s posh but not pretentious, chic but not showy. Mother’s decade-old grey salopettes will do just fine.

The Kristiania encapsulates this tone, as well as the history of the valley, its bath butlers notwithstanding. I had hoped to meet Othmar Schneider, the Austrian Olympic champion who built the place in the 1960s, in the village where he grew up and learnt to ski. In 1952, he won a gold medal in the slalom and a silver in the downhill at the Winter Games in Oslo. He named his hotel after the Norwegian capital, formerly known as Kristiania.

Schneider also represented one of several generations of pioneering ski instructors who exported the latest techniques from Arlberg. He followed in the impeccable tracks of Hannes Schneider (no relation), the father of skiing as we know it, and was a contemporary of Stein Eriksen, the Norwegian legend of the sport. They and others fanned out from here, most notably to burgeoning US resorts. Sadly, Schneider died just before Christmas 2012, aged 84, leaving his hotel in the safe hands of his effortlessly hospitable daughter, Gertrud. She has continued the personal approach established by her father, who initially only wanted a place where friends could stay.

With the help of her mother, Irmgard, she turned a guesthouse into an idiosyncratic boutique hotel, filled with old and modern art, including works by Roy Lichtenstein, among others, and tapestries and furniture from the summer family home on Lake Constance. One of my bedside tables had come from Gertrud’s childhood playroom, she told me.

Trinkets and skiing cups won by Othmar abound, but the decor, while eclectic and occasionally kitsch, works, a feat most notably pulled off in the basement Kaminzimmer restaurant, with its wood panelling and expansive tartan banquettes.

After a wintry 90-minute drive from Innsbruck airport, with its runway wedged among vertiginous peaks, and roadside scenes of skiers to make your knees twitch in anticipation, I piled into a fondue feast – cheese, then chocolate. I had to take the lift back up to my room that night. You come here to ski rather than to be seen, however thick your wallet might be, and Gertrud knows the best guides and instructors in town. While Jess had her first lesson with leather-faced Gerhardt, I scored a day with a top ski guide, Christoph Mueller.

We first strolled the 10 minutes or so down to the middle of Lech, a pretty, low-rise arrangement of chalets and smart hotels, overlooked by the church of St Nicholas. On the eastern side of the central river, the Rüfikopf cable car rises above a secluded nursery slope, connecting Lech to Zurs and the rest of the famous White Ring mountain circuit.

I did that later, stopping in Zurs for a lunch of deer sausage and sauerkraut. First, Christoph took me the other side up to the Juppenspitze before an untracked, off-piste descent to the neighbouring resort of Warth.

We needed to hike and catch a bus to get back into Lech, but a newly opened gondola now links Lech and Warth, significantly expanding the valley’s skiing area. It also opens access to Warth’s exceptional snow record: almost 11 metres (36ft) each winter – three times that which falls in St Anton, and more bountiful even than in Lech. For intrepid intermediate skiers or powder-seekers such as me, the new link makes the Arlberg valley only more rewarding. Buses (or, more likely, your hotel’s fancy mini-van) link St Anton with Lech if you’ve skied that way and want to end the day with some after-hours shooters and oompah bands.

Instead, Jess and I swapped ski stories instead in Lech’s still lively Skihütte Schneggarei, a modernist barn that’s the best in town for a sort-of-affordable pizza and a beer. It stays open late, too, if you have the energy. Dinners otherwise tend to be fancy. There are fine restaurants in the other hotels – the Gasthof Post, Tannbergerhof and Hotel Arlberg – or else try the Hüs Nr 8 for a simpler supper of cheese spätzle and fondue or Fux restaurant for Euro-Asian fusion and steaks.

Before a second and, sadly, final day on snow, we returned to the Kristiania to pretend to be swanky in its main restaurant, where breakfast is also served on white linen, with beautiful views over a small frozen lake to Lech. Before eating, I kept it real, however – by Lech standards at least – by managing to bathe without assistance. I’ve rather regretted it since.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: International Project Coordinator / Account Coordinator

    Circa £26,500 DOE: Guru Careers: An International Project Coordinator / Accoun...

    Guru Careers: Plumber / Maintenance Operator

    £25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Plumber / Mainten...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen