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.
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