Everest, Denali, the Matterhorn … you’ve heard of those. But how about the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena? The highest peak in Germany, the Zugspitze also forms a border with Austria; while it might not be such a familiar name to British skiers, it is truly one of Europe’s landmark summits. Standing 2,962m above sea level, a great hunk of limestone armoured with a glacier, its most impressive attribute is the incomparable views it affords from the top, when on a clear day you can see across four countries: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, as far as Munich’s TV tower and Switzerland’s 4,049m-high peak, Piz Bernina.
Of course, as all skiers know only too well, there’s always the chance of a total whiteout just at the moment you reach the top, but if the weather’s on your side, a staggering 360-degree panorama awaits. If you’re not so lucky, there are far worse places to wait out the clouds, as a host of activities and attractions can be found at the top. The museum Faszination Zugspitz tells the history of the mountain and the Tiroler Zugspitzbahn cable car – Tirol’s first – built in 1926.
Not surprisingly, the pinnacle gets busy on bluebird days, but while the majority of the crowds come from Germany’s leading resort, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, on the north-west of the mountain, those in the know prefer the seven quaint Austrian villages to the east, which together make up the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena.
Just like the mountain itself, there are many different aspects to this charming and relaxed ski area of 88 miles (142km) of pistes, which is devoutly beginner- and family-friendly, but hides a few secret thrills for advanced skiers to winkle out.
Uncrowded, easy to access and with lovely gentle beginners’ runs, the ski area is perfect for families learning the ropes, with the added advantage of snow-sure glacier skiing on the Zugspitz. Once the kids feel more steady on their skis, they can have some fun on the little jumps in the many fun parks, in the Tiroler Zugspitzbahn section, Biberwier and Lermoos, or even try the kids’ halfpipe in Wettersteinbahnen Ehrwald (it’s OK to just slide down the flat middle when you start out!). There’s plenty of fun to be had off the slopes too, with night toboggan runs in some villages, free guided winter hikes or snowshoe walks from Lermoos, including some in which you can hike with cuddly llamas, or wearing head torches to find a route through utter darkness – seriously thrilling for kids. Little ones will love to snuggle up under blankets for a horse-drawn carriage ride too, available from Lermoos or Ehrwald, while no fewer than two ice rinks and three curling tracks can help even little tots take their first step towards being able to perform spins and triple salchows. Beginners and intermediates will certainly be happy here, and more experienced riders won’t be bored either.
It’s often these small, lesser-known enclaves that result in the best powder days of your life, where there’s far less competition for the off-piste lines. Best known as an excellent base for beginners and children, the picturesque village of Ehrwald has the advantage of the learner slopes being at base level, just a short walk from the hotels, and with magic carpet lifts that mean novices don’t have to tackle chair lifts. Likewise, the other ski areas in the group, at Biberwier, Bichlbach and Berwang (try saying those after three flugel cocktails) in neighbouring valleys, and Zugspitzplatt, a high bowl on the peak, have lovely reds and blues for improvers and families gaining confidence. The resorts are linked by a free shuttle bus.
For more experienced skiers, instructor Lisa Leitner, who runs the Tiroler Skischule Ehrwald ski school, recommends the runs off the Ehrwalder Wettersteinbahnen lift, where the Austrian ski team trains. “They like them because they’re long, with lots of different terrain – steep then flat then steep,” she says. “It’s a small area but very varied.”
Her top tip for off-piste fun is a trip to the village of Lermoos, where you can hire a guide to discover steep, pristine powder in the beautiful backcountry, where the only tracks are your own.
Whatever level of challenge you take on during your stay, you’ll need plenty of stops to refuel and get loose in the scattering of timber-built mountain inns and foodie huts. In Ehrwald, the family-focused Confetti-Alm restaurant is the perfect place for children to warm up by an open fire, though adults may prefer Der Sonnenhang restaurant, which offers free shuttles from all the villages to those who book dinner, and has a great selection of delicious local wines. If beer is more your thing, make a stop at Stadl-Bräu, Tirol’s highest family brewery, at the Hotel Thaneller in Berwang, which brews three beers from local spring water. Alternatively, head to Gamsalm, where you can enjoy classic Tirolean food with Italian influences on the impressive sun terrace, where you can relax and take in the views after a day of skiing.
This isn’t a crazy après ski area, but the liveliest options include Tirolerhaus up on the mountain next to the Ehrwalder Alm lift top station, where the outdoor terraces turn on the party vibes on Saturdays with live music and DJs, plus night tobogganing – on Fridays only – until 10pm, which is family-friendly too. Lermoos’s Lahme Ente is the place for a boogie at the tail end of the day. So now that you’re in on the secret, just don’t tell everyone.