Austria's mountains may not be as large as those in France, but the country's small, family-run hotels and empty pistes make Austrian skiing holidays a treat. Stephen Wood reports

Every year at about this time, a letter arrives from a hotel in one of Austria's most up-market resorts. It always provokes mixed emotions. On the one hand there is the unhappy memory of arriving in a blizzard at about 1am on a Saturday morning and getting stuck halfway up the hotel's steep, snow-covered driveway. The hire car slithered backwards into a snowdrift, from which I had to dig it out without a shovel. Eventually, back down the slope, I put the car in a parking space which - as I discovered after a night in a pokey room whose facilities did not extend beyond a sink - was where I should have parked in the first place.

Every year at about this time, a letter arrives from a hotel in one of Austria's most up-market resorts. It always provokes mixed emotions. On the one hand there is the unhappy memory of arriving in a blizzard at about 1am on a Saturday morning and getting stuck halfway up the hotel's steep, snow-covered driveway. The hire car slithered backwards into a snowdrift, from which I had to dig it out without a shovel. Eventually, back down the slope, I put the car in a parking space which - as I discovered after a night in a pokey room whose facilities did not extend beyond a sink - was where I should have parked in the first place.

The displeasure of staying in this hotel was not short-lived. Snow fell continually for three days, and poor visibility prevented the helicopter from taking off to blast away the drifts. The pass out of the resort stayed closed. A brief visit turned into a very long weekend.

On the other hand the letter - a circular sent to past guests - serves, on an annual basis, to refresh a perspective. That bad experience was utterly exceptional. I had never previously had any serious complaint about an Austrian ski-resort hotel. Nor have I had one since.

This perspective is hardly unique. Ski-tour operators with experience of contracting accommodation in the Alps tend to have a very high opinion of Austrian hotels, where year-round business (summer is a busy season in Austrian mountain resorts) and the enduring tradition of family ownership has kept room-rates low ande service levels high. Take for example the Hotel Hochshober, near the base of the small Turracher Höhe ski area in Carinthia. It provides a torch, umbrella and vacuum flask in every room. Where else could you expect such sensible, guest-friendly touches in a four-star hotel?

The point is this: while France, with its huge, high-altitude ski areas, is unquestionably the best country for skiing, Austria is a better for a ski holiday. Not just because of the hotels, consistently good though they are. ("Consistent" is the word: apart from in Ischgl, over-designed, flashy hotels are rare.) Austria's mountain villages and valley towns also have an aesthetic appeal that the tower-block French resorts cannot hope to match. Among the towns, Kitzbühel - which might have been created expressly for picture-postcards - is the star turn, although Schladming's more austere, largely 17th-century centre is equally fine. Most of the villages remain traditional communities with families as ancient as the churches; so there's an old-fashioned commitment to the traditional warm welcome. And while Austrian cuisine is nothing to write home about (especially for non-meat-eaters such as myself), resort restaurants maintain standards of preparation and service to which few of their French counterparts still aspire.

Austria does have some relatively high and snow-sure ski areas. But on any quantifiable measure, France's ski areas are superior: they're higher, steeper and - most importantly - much bigger. Quantity isn't everything, though. There are many skiers who don't mind skiing the same run twice, and more who would rather explore country-lane pistes than hurtle down motorways.

There's a charm to the skiing which matches that of the villages. Much of it is attributable to the low altitude of the ski areas: wooded slopes are more characteristic than white moonscapes. The element of scale is relevant, too. It's hard to see the charm in large, crowded places, but most Austrian skiing is at the other end of the spectrum. The rush-hour feeling you get at the lift bases of big, linked ski areas at 8.45 in the morning is something only occasionally felt by skiers in Austria.

Of course it isn't wise to generalise about Austrian skiing. To have skied the big-name resorts - St Anton, Lech and Zürs, Saalbach-Hinterglemm and Zell am See, Kitzbühel, Söll's SkiWelt area, and so on - is to have barely scratched its surface. There are (at the last count of which I am aware) 800 ski resorts in the country. Most have very limited skiing, but for example the Skiarena at Nassfeld, on the border between Carinthia and Italy, has 101km of pistes yet remains little-known to Britons. Anyone who does not fit into the traditional British mould - of the dawn-to-dusk, high-mileage skier - could have a good time in Austria with a hire car, skis and a proper map. Last year, the director of the Austrian National Tourist Office in London made a persuasive case for going on a ski safari from one Ryanair service (arriving at Friedrichshafen in Germany) to another (departing from Salzburg), spending a week in between on visits to half-a-dozen resorts.

To get a sense of how much we are missing by sticking to the old favourites, one has only to glance at the "News from the winter regions" section on the www.austria.info website. Going there in search of information about new ski-lifts for the coming season leads inexorably to a wander through the paths not chosen by British skiers. An area called Ski Optimal Hochfügen Hochzillertall has expanded for 2004/5, the document reveals; the Tannheim Valley has three new rails for boarders, one of them called "Flat Bastard"; and Waidring/Steinplatte has more snow-making equipment and a new lift with a "weather guard".

However, it is Bregenz Woods in the Vorarlberg that really caught my eye. This season its snow-sports school Au-Schoppernau is teaching "Skiing Choreography" as a method of learning and improving ski skills; the technique combines contemporary dance and classical skiing tuition in harmonic body movements with names such as "floating", "eating space" and "leaving colour trails". Having been unable to imagine I am a helicopter - as demanded by an instructor in Whistler - I think I might leave the colour trails alone.

The new lifts? The process of replacing drag-lifts with chairs continues, notably at Zell am See, Montafon and Ellmau; new six- or eight-seater chair-lifts have been installed at Ischgl, Flachau, Obertauern and elsewhere; there are new gondolas at Dachstein, Saalbach-Hinterglemm and Silvretta. The biggest news for 2004/5, however, is the 30-person gondola opening at Kitzbühel in December. Spanning the Saukasergraben Valley in a single sweep, it will link the resort's two main ski areas (Hahnenkamm/Pengelstein and Jochberg/Resterhöhe), thus enabling 3,200 skiers per hour to avoid the slog by bus and/or taxi.

Austria has its drawbacks, of course. The biggest is that many of the ski areas are too low to be naturally snow-sure. Snow-making machinery, now widespread, can supply cover for the pistes if the temperature is low enough; but as every skier knows, man-made snow is no substitute for the real thing. Climate change threatens to exacerbate this problem. Some Austrian resorts - those in the Arlberg region, Obergurgl and Ischgl, and any with glacier skiing - can be fairly confident about the future. Others cannot. The second drawback is, to many younger skiers and boarders, a definite asset: Austria's famously raucous après-ski. To those of a nervous disposition, such as myself, it is best to avoid any large bars near lift bases, particularly those playing martial music with a disco beat. Unfortunately, the après-ski lasts not just deep into the night but through to the following day. Or at least its soundtrack does. Early one December morning I set of in the Schmittenhöhe lift for my first day's skiing at Zell am See. The lift's top station is set in a rather beautiful spot, with a little wooden chapel and views up to 3,000m peaks and down to the see at Zell. But I did not linger there, because the grimmest Europop music was blaring out of huge speakers.

Zell am See is an environmentally aware resort: ski out of bounds there, imperilling young saplings, and you are liable to have your lift-pass confiscated. Yet polluting the environment with noise was apparently permissible. (I say "was" in the vain hope that noise abatement has since happened.)

I have banged on for years about the loud, ghastly music with which Austrian resorts try to spoil the skiing experience. And I will continue to do so until something is done, or I drop dead. I have a feeling I know which will come first.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) flies from Birmingham and Southampton to Salzburg. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Salzburg, Linz, Klagenfurt and Graz; it also serves Friedrichshafen in Germany, which is convenient for many resorts. Austrian Airlines (08701 242625; www.aua.com) flies from Heathrow to Vienna and Gatwick to Innsbruck. BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies to Vienna from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Austrian National Tourist Office (0845 101 1818; www.austria.info/uk)

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