When it comes to skiing holidays, you won’t find me battling down a black run in a blizzard or getting up at dawn to carve fresh tracks on virgin powder. But atmosphere is something I am choosy about; I want to go somewhere that has charm and character, somewhere that has life both on and off the piste. Just a 45-minute drive from Innsbruck, the Wildschönau and Alpbach valleys tick all of those boxes. Steeped in Tirolean culture, the mountains are dotted with pretty villages, handsome wooden farmhouses, onion dome churches and a great choice of family-run hotels and restaurants serving up hearty Austrian fare. And it’s good value too, making it an ideal choice for families and first-timers.
The Ski Juwel Alpbachtal Wildschönau is one of the larger ski regions in the Tirol, with 68 miles of pistes. At its heart are two mountains, the Wiedersbergerhorn (2,128m) and the Schatzberg (1,903m), which are linked by cable car. Between them they can cater for most levels of skier, but families and novice skiers will particularly appreciate the wide, gentle nursery slopes around the villages of Inneralpbach and Niederau. Intermediate skiers can take their pick from a variety of attractive, meandering runs, such as the 2.5 mile tree-lined run that sweeps down from the Pöglbahn station towards Inneralpbach. Those in search of more challenging terrain will find some rewarding black runs and off-piste skiing above Niederau and at the top of the Wiedersbergerhorn. There are two snow parks where boarders and skiers can work on their tricks, and you can try night skiing at the Reither Kogel, whose slopes are floodlit every Friday and Saturday from Christmas until the beginning of March.
Where to stay
The villages of the Wildschönau and Alpbachtal valleys offer a perfect antidote to bland purpose-built resorts. For chocolate-box Tirolean charm, few places can rival Alpbach, which has been voted Austria’s “prettiest village”. New for this ski season is Die Alpbacherin, a four-star boutique hotel with smart rooms, a spa, infinity pool and restaurant specialising in regional food. If you want to be right on the slopes, the hamlet of Inneralpbach, a little higher up the valley, is a good option, with a smattering of family-friendly hotels, a small microbrewery and direct access to the lifts. Niederau is perfect for first-time skiers, with a string of good-value family-run hotels, many of which are a short walk to the slopes. We enjoyed the warm hospitality and excellent home-cooked food of the Wastlhof hotel in Niederau, which has spotless rooms and a great indoor pool and spa. The hotel recently opened a new wing across the road with family-friendly apartments overlooking the ski slopes.
Where to eat and après-ski
If downing shots and dancing into the small hours is your idea of après-ski heaven then you might want to look elsewhere. The scene here is lowkey: think cosy mountain huts serving locally-brewed beers and hearty meals brought to your table by lederhosen-clad waiters. This is dairy farming country so cheese and cream get star billing on menus. I still daydream about the brezensuppe (pretzel soup) I tasted in the Gasthaus Thalmühle in Oberau – a rich beef broth laced with pretzels and topped with melted cheese and fried onions. Another great place to try out regional specialities is the Böglalm hut in Alpbach. On sunny winter afternoons skiers queue for schnitzel and spazln (the Austrian answer to gnocchi) cooked up in huge pans on outdoor stoves. Wash it down, like the locals do, with a shot of krautinger schnapps, which is distilled from turnips and which only a handful of families in the Wildschönau valley are licensed to make.
Things to do
When you tire of hurtling down the slopes on skis or a board, you can hurtle down them on a toboggan – there are runs in Niederau and Auffach. Or you can buckle up for a ride on the Alpbachtaler Lauser-Sauser – an Alpine coaster that gives the thrill of high-speed sledging on rails. Learn how to drive a piste basher at Reith im Alpbachtal or to build an igloo in Niederau. The Alpbachtal Seenland card and the Wildschönau card offers lots of discounts and benefits, including unlimited travel on the ski bus, free guided snowshoe walks and free use of the cross-country ski trails.