countries, writes Tania Alexander
Austria used to be the most popular destination for the British skier. In recent years, however, it has declined in popularity due to the soaring schilling and the poor snow record in their often low-altitude resorts. The pound is back now to just under 20 schillings which means prices are considerably cheaper than they were a couple of seasons ago and the snow shortage problem has been insured against by the installation of snowguns in many resorts.

Austria is undoubtedly a wonderful place to ski. Most of the resorts are in small farming communities - authentic rustic villages rather than soulless purpose-built resorts. New developments have been carefully put together in traditional wooden style - you are very unlikely to see any architectural eyesores in Austria. Instead, you'll fine pretty picture- postcard buildings with wooden balconies and painted stucco that look good with or without the snow.

Style

Gemutlichkeit is the Austrian word used to describe that inviting blend of cosiness, warmth and friendliness that pervades this small country. The locals in the resorts are very welcoming and seem to have much more time for you than other ski nations. Skiing in Austria is a more leisurely affair than in other countries. Instead of surly lift men, the Austrian ones will politely slow the lifts down for you and even wipe the snow off the seat before you get on.

Accommodation

Accommodation is of a very high standard. Austrian apartments are much, much larger and of better quality than you'll find in France. The majority of ski packages to Austria are hotel or guest-house based. A pension haus is a family house where you can get bed and breakfast. A gasthaus is like an inn with a restaurant. Most resort hotels are family-run and very clean and comfortable.

l Hotel Gastof Mondschein (0043 55 82 511) Stuben: Elegant old chalet- style building which dates back to 1739. This four-star hotel has a wonderful collection of antique furniture and oil paintings. The rooms are fully modernised and there is a cosy wood-panelled lounge and bar with a log fire.

l Pension Wetti (0043 5334 6348) Westendorf: Simple Tyrolean-style pension about 200m from the centre of Westendorf and 250m from the nearest ski lift.

l Hotel Sonnblick (0043 6541 6408) Hinterglemm: Good value and friendly three-star family run hotel in the centre of Hinterglemm linked to the Saalbach ski circuit.

Eating

Austrian cuisine is meat-based with lots of schweinefleisch (pork) and kalbfleisch (veal). Alpine specialities include leberknodelsuppe (liver dumpling soup), kartoffelsuppe (potato soup with sour cream and caraway), schinkenplatte (cured ham with gherkins and pickled onions), kasespatzle (little dumplings with cheese) and germknodel (sweet steamed dumplings filled with plum jam and served with hot butter and poppy seeds).

Panorama Alm on the Kohlmais slope in Saalbach is a good place to stop for lunch and the owner often gives out free schnapps.

Paznauer Taja is a rustic chalet on the slopes in Ischgl, with wonderful views, a table restaurant and often a live band on the large terrace.

Rasthaus Ferwall St Anton. For a truly romantic night out take a 45-minute sleigh ride out the old inn in the forest at Ferwall which specialises in local game.

Apres Ski

The apres-ski in Austria is a major attraction. There are usually plenty of little rustic hutten on the slopes where you can stop off for a quick schnapps in between skiing. This national firewater is guaranteed to warm you up on the coldest of days, and there are also several delicious hot drinks such as jagatee (tea with schnapps), grog (tea with rum) or the famous gluhwein (hot wine with water, cinnamon, cloves and sugar). In the Arlberg there are ice bars outside in the snow where they play oom- pah pah music. Wherever you go, be it the ski lifts, tea houses, bars or restaurants, you're likely to hear their jolly national tunes. The Austrians love to sing, play instruments and dance. Their famous tea dances range from stomping about in ski boots in a little ski hut to smart, full- scale hotel functions. Austrian tea rooms are enough to tempt the staunchest calories counter with apfelstrudel (flaky pastry containing thinly sliced apples, raisins and cinnamon) and sachertorie (chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam). In the evening, many of the bars have a dance floor - unlike in France there is no entry fee. In the less-commercialised resorts, these are good places to meet the locals and watch them dance cheek-to- cheek in old-fashioned waltz-style.

Kitzbuhel: Great nightlife for all ages with everything from young throbbing bars to smart cafes and a casino. Popular apres ski bars with young Brits include The London Pub and Big Ben.

Lech: A good place for the over-30s to come who prefer to pose rather than ski. Lots of outdoor bars in the village to show off your designer clothes, plus great shops for looking for new outfits. The Krones Ice Bar has a nice setting by the river where you can sip champagne.

St Anton: A serious partying place with apres-ski starting as soon as you take off your skis. The Mooserwirt has taken over from the Krazy Kangurub as the first pit-stop in the final run home where you can have a dance in your ski boots before you've even returned home for a pre-dinner bath. Plenty of other entertainment from karaoke to late-night discos.

Best for Beginners

Alpbach: A chocolate-box alpine village with an excellent ski school and nursery slopes in the village itself.

Westerndorf: Friendly resort with confidence-building skiing for beginners and a good ski school.

Neukirchen: Wonderful little village in the Oberpinzgau region of Salzburg, relatively unknown to the British skier. One of the nicest places in the Alps to learn to ski.

for intermediates

Saalbach: There are easy enough pistes for an intermediate to make it round the whole Saalbach/Hinnterglemm circuit (200km of pistes). Lively apres ski and a nightclub set in a huge beer barrel.

Kleinwalsertal: 80km of pistes, the majority of which are blue runs ideal for cruising. Good snow record. Territorially Austrian, but the only approach is through Germany. Local currency is the deutschmark, the beer is Bavarian but the atmosphere is Austro-Swiss. In order to send a postcard home, you'll need an Austrian stamp, but will pay for it in deutschmarks!

Ischgl: Linked to duty-free Samnaun in Switzerland, this offers 200km of pistes Lively apres ski and good snow record.

Best for Experts

St Anton: This is Austria's premier resort for experts. Lots of steep descents and superb off-piste. Pace yourself as the apres-ski is as frenetic as the skiing.

Stuben: This tiny village is a queue-free backdoor into the pistes in the St Anton/Arlberg ski circuit. It's smaller and quieter than St Anton.

Zauchensee: One of the very few purpose-built resorts in Austria, linked to a three-valley lift system with 100km of pistes. Convenience skiing at its best with good snow conditions - at 1,350m, it's a high altitude by Austrian standards.

for snowboarders

St Anton: This is a great free-riding area with lots of steep terrain. There is a new fun park and 100m half-pipe in the Rendl area. It's not, however, ideal for beginners.

Schladming: Good for beginners/intermediates. Fun park and half-pipe specialist snowboard school.

Zell Am See: Good fun park and half pipe plus the Kaprun glacier, with another half-pipe and fun park and plenty of powder. Only drag for boarders is the number of drag lifts.

Value for money

Austria is becoming much better value again now that the schilling/pound exchange is more in our favour. Last season British skiers paid 20 per cent less than they did in 1996 and things look favourable again this season.

Getting there

The easiest and most popular way to get to Austria is to fly. Depending on which resort you choose, you have a choice of flying to Salzburg, Zurich or Innsbruck - Austrian resorts have easy transfers as most of them are less than two hours away.

Lauda Air (0171 630 5924). Flights direct to Salzburg. Swiss Air (0171 434 7300) has flights to Zurich from where you can then get a transfer for a connecting flight to Innsbruck.

Tour Operators

Airtours (01706 260 000). Chalet accommodation in Ellmau, Obergurgl/Hochgurgl, Soll, St Anton and St Wolfgang.

First Choice (0990 557755). Hotel and chalet accommodation in Mayrhofen, St Anton, Seefeld, Alpbach, Niedeau/Oberau, Soll, Ellmau/Scheffau, Westendorf, Kitzbuhel, Saalbach/Hinterglemm and Zell am See.

Inghams (0181 780 4444). Hotel, chalet and self-catering accommodation in Alpbach, Badgastein, Bad Hofgastein Bad Kleinkirchheim, Ellmau, Filzmoos, Galtur, Hinterglemm, Hochgurgl, Igls, Ischgl, Kaprun, Kitzbuhel, Lech, Mayrhofen, Neustift, Niederau, Obergurgl, Obertauern, Saalbach, Seefeld, Soll, St Anton, St Wolfgang, Westerndorf and Zell am See.

Made to Measure (01243 533333). Hotels and apartments in Alpbach, Altenmarkt, Badgastein, Bad Hofgastein, Filzmoos, Galtur, Gargellen, Hinterglemm, Igls, Ischgl, Innsbruck, Kitzbuhel, Lech, Mayhofen, Neustift, Obergurgl, Obewrtauern, Saalbach, Schladming, Seefeld, Serfaus, Solden, St Anton, Zauchensee and Zurs.

Mark Warner (0171 393 3168). Chalet-Hotel and chalet accommodation in St Anton.

Neilson (0990 994444). Hotel and apartment accommodation in Ellmau, Hinterglemm, Kaprun, Kitzbuhel, Mayrhofen, Niederau, Saalbach, Schladming, Soll, Westerndorf and Zell am See.

Further information from the Austrian National Tourist Office (0171 629 0461).

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