When the sparklingly new Flexenbahn cableway first whirled out across the white, pillow-soft snows of the Klostertal valley, the Arlberg region became the largest connecting ski area in Austria. But with 305km of thigh-aching splendour, where should you start?
Squeezed out towards the far west of Austria, where the country quietly narrows towards Liechtenstein and the roads twist and trail like untied shoelaces, the rugged Arlberg region offers the Alps at their most understated.
There are no flashbulb bulges here; no Matterhorn or Grossglockner for the cool breath of the Earth to chill. Instead peaked lumps slump like a herd of exhausted elephants, a snow-covered mass of wrinkled grey rock; beheld from up high it’s as if Hannibal’s hulking rear-guard never actually crossed the Alps, but created them entirely.
Flexing its mountainside muscle
Seven ski resorts make up the Arlberg region (St Anton, St Christoph, Stuben, Zürs, Lech, Schröcken and Warth), but it’s taken a €45 million cable car to finally connect the lot. Whereas most cableways offer little more than a seat and an interminable conversation with a stranger boasting about where they’ve skied, the new Flexenbahn produces something a little more memorable.
If you can, board from Zürs first. The trip to Stuben takes six minutes, but for half of that you'll be pretending not to speak any language invented since the flint tool, before the car suddenly judders over a supporting tower with a ‘is-this-going-to-come-loose?' rattle and dangles over the Trittkopf massif.
A noisy rustle of nylon and a clumsy clatter of ski poles will ensue as the car dives almost vertically down the deep, ash-coloured scars of the mountain in a feat of engineering worthy of its own note. When the snow falls thick enough, experienced off-piste powder hounds can descend the slender couloirs beneath with controlled bounce and panache, the inexperienced usually require a helicopter.
The Run of Fame (and other routes of renown)
In truth, yellow-bellied beginners and buck-kneed braggarts needn’t attempt anything of the sort. As the tape measure kicks off down the hill, clocking up an imposing 305km worth of prepared pistes, there are more than enough accessible runs to get air-lifted from, if they so choose.
Among them is the newly created Run of Fame, a 65km-long, breakfast-to-beer downhill circuit that sews together all of the resorts in the Arlberg region. Starting in St Anton and ending in Warth (or vice versa), this curated collection of lifts and runs rarely requires anything more difficult than pulling on your skis and pointing downhill, but take care in St Anton where a couple of trickier reds schuss past scented spruce like a runaway train.
There’s also another rewarding ensemble that unfurls in St Anton: revel in the clear, cloudless skies at the start of run 78 before it thinly untangles its way down the mountain. It cuts into breezy blue 56, before eyeing up the chalets along piste 55 where many stop for a breather. It then curls smoothly into piste 50, past a couple of mountainside drinking stops, and onto the bustle of the village.
Lunch in Lech
For all its smoke-filled cigar lounges, consummately-stocked wine cellars and delicately arranged culinary foams, Lech still manages to pass itself off as an isolated farm village when the grand drapes lift each winter. Hemmed in by the same stirring mountains that ordered the first wooden huts and a delightful pear-domed church around the tinkling sonata of the River Lech, this 1450m-low village is where royalty prefer to ski.
Princess Diana, King Willem-Alexander and Brad Pitt have all cut runs down its moderately straightforward pistes, which fan and flow over the shoulders of the Mohnenfluh massif. You’ll need blue blood or a bottomless bank account to stay over; indulge in a lengthy lunch instead. Lech has a staggering collection of Michelin stars and Bib Gourmand honours, so tender dry-aged steaks, sherry-glazed shallots and edible flowers are easy to find, but eating out on the mountain doesn’t mean culinary cataclysm.
Take Schlegelkopf (schlegelkopf.at), the restaurant at the top of the lift with the same name. While its charcoal façade has all the charm of car part factory in an industrial estate, the food is sublime. Expect spicy soups with beef lollipops and juicy lamb with mashed potato served as though it’s been mown down by a piste basher. It’s all delivered to a dining room with vast panorama windows that peer out across the white plumes of the valley like a captain’s bridge.
For something the bank manager will approve of, try Der WOLF (derwolf.ski) in Oberlech. Erected entirely of soft, blonde wood like a Scandinavian kit house, this clean-lined restaurant is lit almost exclusively by the sun’s rays reflecting off the snow. Their hearty bowls of tuna Bolognese and button-popping pumpkin and duck breast risottos will see anyone through to their evening Glühwein.
Après ski in St Anton
The Arlberg valley is littered with tactlessly-lit drinking shacks, where thick wooden tables rock and rumble with the stomp of ski boots. Cocksure barmen in furry Russian hats peddle frothy, over-priced beers and sticky, tonsil-burning firewater. In these places, the only noise louder than the deafening thud of overplayed Euro pop is the electrifying cackle of sexual lust amongst young ski workers. Unfortunately, not all bars in the region are this good.
To ensure you get the full fool spectrum, slam back the schnapps at either MooserWirt (mooserwirt.at) or the Krazy Kanguruh (krazykanguruh.com), the notorious imbibing dens near the bottom of the Galzig piste in St Anton. It’s hard to say what you’ll lose first, your inhibitions or your hotel room keys, but one thing is for sure: the high-altitude, lax-attitude drinking at these infamous boozing chalets is joyfully ruinous.
Daniel Fahey travelled to Lech with support from Lech Zürs Tourism (lechzuers.com) and VIP SKI (vip-chalets.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.