Sölden: Dare to be different

Sölden is off the map for many British skiers lured by the refinement of nearby Obergurgl. It’s time for that to change, says MattCarroll
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The Independent Travel

Amazing views, excellent snow and some of the liveliest après action that Europe has to offer. Austria's Sölden resort has everything you could want for the perfect ski holiday – and yet every season thousands of Brits drive straight past it without batting an eyelid.

The reason lies about 30 minutes further up the road: the neighbouring resort of Obergurgl. Located at the top of the Ötztal valley, it's been a favourite with British skiers for decades – many returning every season. Now Obergurgl is a fantastic ski-in, ski-out resort; having been there myself I can vouch for its great pisted runs. But how about trying something different for a change?

After all, it's easy. Guests staying at Obergurgl can obtain a combined lift pass that includes a day's skiing in Sölden. So, having gone with the pack and based myself at Obergurgl, I joined a group from the Ski Club of Great Britain and headed 7km down the valley. Beyond the combined lift pass, my little green membership card meant I was also entitled to a free guided tour around Sölden with a ski club leader, rather than having to fumble about with the piste map, trying to find my way.

The Ski Club has leaders in 35 resorts across Europe and North America, whose job it is to show people around. Each of them undergoes a comprehensive training course before taking to the hill, then heads out to the resort of their choice for a three-week stint in exchange for free board, lodging and lift pass. Nice work if you can get it.

For ski club members it means you can arrive at a strange resort and immediately immerse yourself in the surroundings, knowing you'll be seeing the best of things. Plus – if you're travelling alone – it means you have a group to ski with.

After meeting our leader, Sarah, at Giggijoch, the mid-mountain station, we jumped onto the Silberbrünnl chairlift for the first run of the day. This can be an intimidating experience when you're with strangers, but there was no pressure to race to the bottom. Besides, the scenery was too good to go tearing downhill. The town of Sölden is a lot lower than Obergurgl, but the bulk of its ski area is above 2,000m, giving you magnificent views of the surrounding peaks.

After a couple of cruisy blues to get the legs going, we headed over to Rettenbach, one of two high-altitude glaciers linked by a tunnel, where the view prompted the usual fumbling through pockets for our cameras. At the edge of the piste, just a few steps from the cable car, the landscape fell away and we could see all the way to the South Tyrol region of northern Italy.

From here, we circled the mountain and popped through the snowy subway leading to the Tiefenbach glacier, which was bathed in warm sunshine. The views are spectacular from this side, too, especially if you head to the top of the Tiefenbachkogl (3,309m), where there's a glass walkway jutting out the back of the mountain.

Everything in Sölden had a refreshing sense of space, including its 150km of pistes. From the top of Tiefenbach, there's a long, wide blue that allows you to lay out some huge carves, safe in the knowledge that there's no one nearby.

It's only at après ski time that things get tight. After lunch at Gampe Thaya – a 300-year-old hut with wonky walls and steaming bowls of soup on the menu – we headed back down the valley to Sölden, to "make party".

The nightlife here is in a different league to Obergurgl. By 3.30pm it was already jumping in Fire and Ice, the steamy glass cylinder in the centre of town where dancing on tables is de rigeur. In between the customary "oompah" classics, the spiky-haired DJ mixed a selection of quality Euro-pop that sent the sweaty crowd wild with excitement. And then the sparklers came out.

Yes it was daft – and maybe a bit dangerous – but it was a while since I'd had that much fun with my ski boots on. Conveniently, it started fizzling out by 8.30pm, giving us plenty of time to head back up to Obergurgl for a sensible meal at the Hotel Edelweiss and Gurgl in the centre of the village.

The next morning we met up with Sarah again, to see what Obergurgl had to offer. The ski area above the town is linked by gondola to Hochgurgl next door. After another high mileage day where I didn't need to reach for the piste map, we ended up at the Nederhütte – the après hangout just above Obergurgl – where an Eighties rock band was just getting going.

Try as I might to remain customarily cool and aloof, it wasn't long before I reached for the air guitar. Guess I must have picked up the habit in Sölden.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with the Ski Club of Great Britain (020-8410 2000; skiclub.co.uk), which offers a variety of action-packed winter holidays in their Ski Club Freshtracks programme. The club leader service is free to members and is available in Obergurgl throughout the winter season. Membership costs £58 a year, £21 for under-24s and £90 for a family. Non-members can try the service for a day, free of charge.

Staying there

The Hotel Edelweiss and Gurgl (00 43 5256 6223; edelweiss-gurgl.co.uk) in Obergurgl has doubles from €95 per night, including half-board and access to the spa.