There are 121 ski areas in Austria's Tyrol region. Some of them are very small: the skiing at Hoch Imst, above the Inn Valley, about 50 kilometres west of Innsbruck, amounts to no more than nine kilometres of pistes, for example. Some are quite substantial: at St Anton, about 45 kilometres further along the valley, the skiing stretches for 127 kilometres. Tyrol does have still bigger areas such as Ski Welt, where a handful of resorts have made lift connections between their slopes; but such relationships are rarer in Austria than in France, where ski areas have linked up as frequently as couples at a wife-swapping party.
For this season, however, two average-size resorts have broken into Tyrol's top 10 biggest ski destinations by installing a new lift. The gondola, which cost €13.5m, runs up and down the east side of the Alpbach ("alpine stream") valley, forming a link with the slopes of the Wildschönau ("wild, beautiful valley"), near the 1,903m peak of the Schatzberg ("treasure mountain"). Opened in mid-December, the lift permits both Alpbach and Wildschönau to boast 145 kilometres of slopes.
The names of the two valleys and the mountain on which they meet conjure up a romantic idyll, as does the name of the new area: Ski Juwel. But it has not been all sweetness and light here. Though the new gondola's route is hardly straightforward – it makes a surprising, 90-degree turn near the midway point – the installation was swiftly achieved: work began only last June. But reaching the deal for the link was an arduous task of more than a dozen years.
British skiers' favourite destinations, France and Austria, have different attractions. France's slopes are bigger and higher, but its purpose-built resorts are often forbidding; in Austria the terrain is more limited, but charming villages and good-value, family-owned hotels compensate for that. Tradition is a big part of their appeal, yet it is easy to forget how far these mountain communities have come. Some have endured for 1,000 years, mainly as the home of hill farmers and – for a while – miners extracting minerals. They now have big hotels, fast ski-lifts, Wi-Fi zones and flashy nightclubs, and attract guests from all over Europe, but for most of their history these villages were impoverished, isolated places whose people were suspicious of outsiders, particularly those in the next valley.
Alpbach village dates back to at least 1150, but only in 1926 did it become accessible by road. A British Army major named Billy Patterson, who came across the place in the 1950s while stationed near by, gave it such a boost in the UK that at one time 25 per cent of Alpbach's skiers were British (though today it is more of a German stronghold). Locals have a high opinion of their village, but so do others: when Austria's ORTF television station held a competition in 1983 to find the country's most beautiful village, Alpbach won. It owes its attraction in large part to a bylaw passed in 1953 requiring all new buildings to follow the traditional architectural style, with a ground floor of concrete or stone and wooden-clad façades above (to a maximum of three stories). The place is not cluttered with ski lifts, because the main base for Ski Juwel is down the road at Inneralpbach.
The next valley, Wildschönau, is more pragmatic – necessarily so since it has four separate villages. Regular shuttle buses link Niederau, the main village, and little Oberau with Auffach, from where lifts climb up the Schatzberg; and a ride on the bus makes it clear that this is an area devoted more to commerce than to strict planning controls. Local heritage goes largely uncelebrated, except in Oberau's Kellerwirt hotel and restaurant, which is a history lesson in itself.
Here, in a building whose origins go back to the mid-12th century (when it was a monastery), you can eat and drink in a wood-panelled bar which was once a courtroom, or in a vaulted former wine cellar with a host, Hans Keller, whose family has owned the establishment since 1826. The drink most appropriate to the location is a turnip Schnapps which, thanks to a royal warrant, is made exclusively in the Wildschönau valley. Once you get past the hint of silage on the nose, it is rather good.
Both valleys established a niche in the Austrian skiing market: Wildschönau as a cheap-and-cheerful, lively destination, and Alpbach as a classier resort with slightly more challenging skiing. But in a competitive market, niches became less viable. Alpbach's slopes are visible from the Auffach area, and it was clear that the appeal of both valleys could be broadened; so talks about a lift link began back in 2000.
Forward-looking Wildschönau, where Austria's first chairlift was apparently built in 1945, always made the running. Its desire for the proposed gondola was greater: the bigger of the two resorts, it had more guest-beds to fill (about 8,500 to Alpbach's 3,500) and the link would give it access to the latter's trickier slopes. More conservative Alpbach (which didn't get its first chairlift until 1960) was less enthusiastic, concerned that its image might be tarnished by crowds of skiers from less-exclusive Wildschönau.
Unfortunately, the gondola would run entirely across Alpbach territory, so planning consent, capital investment and local permissions all had to come from members of that community. The reason why the gondola takes its peculiar, L-shaped route up the Schatzberg is that a farmer whose fields lay on the direct route refused to let it pass over them.
A bigger obstacle emerged at Alpbach's mayoral election in 2005: it was won by a candidate who had pledged to block the gondola. Thereafter, progress was very slow until pressure from the regional authorities led the mayor to change his mind. Finally, agreement was reached, with the unusual condition that Wildschönau would pay half the cost of a lift built in a rival's valley. There will, ultimately, be a piste running down the same slope once the exact route and funding can be agreed; but, for now, you can ski only 2km down from Schatzberg to the gondola's mid-station, and must ride the rest of the way down.
Ski Juwel is already a success: although the gondola added 10 per cent to local lift-pass prices, it boosted sales by 20 per cent. But what is it like to ski? Some say that when two small areas are linked the likely outcome is merely duplication, not a proper, big ski area with a range of types of terrain; and they might take Ski Juwel as a case in point. The skiing is consistently pleasant, sometimes invigorating, and the views are varied and gratifying. But the terrain rarely goes beyond the intermediate range.
There are, however, other things to be said in the area's favour. The new eight-seat gondola takes skiers on a proper journey, from one valley to the next; and the marked difference between them makes that journey all the more interesting, at least for skiers willing to explore the villages. Holidays to Ski Juwel are good value, too, particularly in Wildschönau where Crystal offers a week at the four-star-plus Sonnschein, in Niederau, from £565. Transfers from Innsbruck take little more than an hour, and some of Wildschönau's shuttle buses make the 20-minute trip from Niederau to the nearby mainline station at Wörgl.
Finally, the qualities that attract British skiers to Austria – charm, authenticity – are better displayed in small communities than in busy resorts such as St Anton and Ischgl. My fellow skier and I were guided around Ski Juwel by Max Schellhorn, a ski instructor, holiday-apartment owner, farmer and – in summer – JCB driver. On the chairlift down to Auffach from the new gondola we asked about his family. There, straight ahead, was one sister's house; below the lift was his other sister, waving at us from her balcony (as instructed by Schellhorn on his mobile).
On our way back to the hotel, he suggested, we might stop at the farmers' produce shop in Oberau to buy some butter made from his cows' milk by his mother. Sadly, Anna's Butter was out of stock, but that didn't really matter. The point had been made: although Ski Juwel's ski area is now one of the 10 biggest in Tyrol, its villages still seem delightfully small and local.
Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) has a week at the four-star Hotel Sonnschein in Niederau from £565pp, including Thomson Airways flights from Gatwick, transfers and half board. A six-day lift pass starts at £176. The nearest airport is Innsbruck, served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Bristol, Liverpool and Gatwick, BA (0844 493 0787 ba.com) from Gatwick and Monarch (08719 40 50 40; flymonarch.com) from Manchester.
Ski Jewel: skijuwel.com
Max Schellhorn: ferienwohnung-schellhorn.at