TO MY mind, downhill skiing is too much like hard work. Long journeys from the airport to reach the resorts; dawdling in queues to take lifts up to the slopes; expensive ski passes; complicated clothing; the constant risk of a nasty accident. I have always wanted to enjoy everything skiing has to offer without all of that hassle. It turns out that for those in the know, the answer is cross-country skiing. If you want to test it out this season, Seefeld in Tirol certainly converted me.
Tirol hosted the Nordic skiing part of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics and this January it hosts the first-ever Youth Winter Olympic Games. That makes Seefeld’s sporting facilities world-class – in the summer, its altitude also makes it a popular training base for top football teams – the Dutch national team prepared there for the 2010 World Cup. Even downhill fans can feel at home – it’s where parallel turns were invented in 1933, and there are still plenty of opportunities to perfect your own if you want to.
But it is the extent of its cross-country facilities, with 279 prepared cross-country trails at all difficulty levels and a dedicated cross-country ski school, that sets it apart. That, and the ease of access to them. My wife and I were whisked from Innsbruck airport to our hotel in barely half an hour, in less time than we needed to gasp at the view.
Seefeld is a charming small town, where luxury hotels and celebrity visitors like Michael Schumacher rub shoulders with homely bed and breakfasts and couples and families from all across Europe – the average visitor’s age is 38. The cross-country trails stretch between five towns, allowing them all to retain a small scale and individual character. The others are Leutasch, Scharnitz, Reith and Mosern-Buchen (whose landscape is immortalised in Albrecht Durer’s great 1498 self-portrait, now in the Prado). But Seefeld is the area’s bustling heart and the best base for an introduction to the region – the others are easily reachable by bus if you want to ski their trails for a day.
We arrived at the end of January, when Seefeld hosts its annual snow festival, so the town was lively with teams of snow sculptors busily refining their creations – dragons, a pair of dancers, a hand holding a diamond ring.
We stayed at the Krumers Post hotel in the centre of Seefeld, from which we could walk in a few minutes to the start of the ski trails. We just had time to notice that, like so much in the town, the Post was elegant but understated, a very comfortable and rather British combination. Then we dashed out to ski.
My wife is an experienced cross-country skier, while I am a rank amateur, and both of us found plenty to enjoy. The main loop is easy enough for beginners, without being so flat as to be tedious for those with more skill, and there are plenty of more challenging trails at varying levels branching off. Set on a wide alpine plateau, the views are glorious.
If you don’t have your own gear, the hire facilities are excellent, and the instructors, led by an ex-Olympian and dressed in smart, BMW-sponsored yellow uniforms challenged my wife to develop her skate skiing technique while being very patient with me as I learned some classic cross-country skills (see the box on p.32 for more on the different forms of cross-country).
In truth though, one of the nice things with cross-country is that, while the better you are the easier it is and a few lessons certainly help, it is also possible to snap on a pair of skis and shuffle your way along, picking it up as you go – although after a few hours, my muscles were certainly noticing the workout.
Luckily, that gave us an excuse to nip back to the hotel and plunge into the Post’s extensive, brand new spa facilities. Aching muscles were pummeled away on the massage table and warmed in the range of saunas (modest British types should be prepared for European attitudes to public nudity, but should be reassured that, thanks to windows in the saunas, you can simply look at the view of the slopes outside instead), before we collapsed in the relaxation room – where you can laze on a waterbed, munching an apple and enjoying a wonderful view of the town. There are even reading lights and headphones with piped music to help you unwind, as you contemplate not only the prospect of a splendid, five-course dinner but the smug knowledge that, after a day exercising all the major muscle groups, you deserve to eat whatever you like.At the Post hotel, that’s just as well, because it knows how to indulge its guests’ appetites. On Sundays there’s even a special gala dinner with free aperitifs and a special dessert that gets brought into the dining room by a parade of waiting staff.
The next morning, appetites sharpened once again by the sort of sound sleep you earn exercising all day in the open air, we fuelled up for the day at the Post’s epic breakfast buffet – where an omelette chef was also on hand to whip up something a little more substantial. Then, we headed out in search of guns.
If you think cross-country still sounds a little sedate, a biathlon training session is recommended. It was huge fun, and again catered for a wide-ranging group that mixed overweight Sunday skiers with more athletic types, offering everyone a great morning’s entertainment.
The facilities are Olympic standard, naturally, and the sheer challenge of trying to go from skiing at pace to lying prone and firing at targets, before getting up to ski some more (including penalty laps if you miss too many targets) is exhilarating. Soon we were ready for some well-earned beers and lunch on the ski centre’s rooftop cafe, enjoying watching everyone else gliding over the snow. From our rooftop eyrie, we could see the Olympia Sport and Congress Centre, and decided to pop in. If you’re staying in a bed and breakfast without spa facilities, this is the place to come. For a small fee there’s access to a big indoor pool and a range of beautiful saunas at different temperatures, one with a panoramic view. The centre also holds the local cinema, if you really need a change from the landscape. Then it was back into town where the snow festival was getting into full swing. As the afternoon shaded into evening, ice bars serving gluhwein and food stalls from local restaurants were interspersed with DJs and the completed, glittering snow sculptures.
Locals and visitors thronged the main streets and by the time the local star Gregor Glanz was performing, the town square was packed. Fireworks soared, gluhwein warmed and I was already mentally booking my return ticket. I’ll be there over Christmas this year. See you on the cross-country trails.
Double rooms at the Krumers Post hotel in January 2012 start at €112 per person per night for half board. Visit www.krumers.com/en
For more information, including holiday packages, visit www.seefeld.com
SEEFELD IN TIROL | FURTHER HIGHLIGHTS
● When we visited, the weather was almost uncannily perfect: bathing us in crystal air and hours of bright sun. While it may not always be quite that good, Seefeld is a wide alpine plateau, which does give it more sun for longer, and it benefits from plenty of fresh snow with little winter fog to spoil the view across the valley.
● For night owls who fancy a spot of crepuscular cross-country, you can keep sliding along despite the fading light thanks to a night-trail between Seefeld and Mosern. From Monday to Friday, 5pm to 9pm, you can enjoy this 3km long floodlit run. There is also night-time cross-country in Leutasch.
● For those determined to point their skis only downhill, there’s a small but excellent alpine ski area, admittedly one that is perhaps more suited for beginners and younger skiers. There are 48km of slopes and around 30 gondolas and lifts available, from 1,200m up to 2,064m. Snowboards are also well catered for in Seefeld: the Crazy Hole fun park has 12 obstacles. Again, there’s skiing by floodlight – in Leutasch and Seefeld, you can often go skiing at night. In the region, five ski schools look after both beginner skiers and those who want to improve their technique.
● If you prefer to be out and about without skis, the region offers more than 140km of cleared winter walking paths, and we enjoyed several glorious walks in the crisp air. You can take a short walk near the town, there’s a good one around the lake that only takes about an hour, or take an extended winter hike up among the ski trails. Guided snow-shoe hikes with experienced mountain guides can also be laid on for trips into the undisturbed countryside. Or for those who prefer to see the sights sitting down, there are five toboggan runs – as well as horse-drawn sleigh rides.
● Seefeld is not just for winter sports. A year-round resort, it actually gets an equal number of visitors in the summer as the winter, when the melting snow turns its ski trails into hiking and biking paths. There are 650km of waymarked trails, mountain and climbing routes and 250km of mountain bike trails. Twelve indoor and twenty outdoor tennis courts, a championship golf course at Wildmoos and three swimming lakes mean this alpine setting is a wonderful place for an active summer as well.
XC SKIING | NEED TO KNOW
● Langlauf, Nordic skiing, XC skiing... cross-country has many names, but the essential principle is the same. Rather than simply letting gravity push you down slopes, you can also go uphill and along the flat, propelled by sliding motions somewhat reminiscent of ice skating. You don’t have to pay for expensive passes or take elaborate cablecars and chairlifts to get onto the trails, which often run almost straight from your hotel. Originating as a means of transport and hunting in the winter months, today there are two main varieties. Classic cross-country involves skiing in groomed ruts, while in the more challenging version called skate skiing you ski on snow that has been groomed flat. Both make for fantastic exercise, but it is exercise of a very low impact kind, making cross-country a sport that many continue into their old age. There is a far lower injury risk than downhill. The sport has a reputation for being slow and hard work, but really it has something for everyone. In a venue like Seefeld, as well as flat tracks where you can glide along and enjoy the view there are plenty of more difficult loops all the way up to black level. You can also try out the biathlon, in which you have to alternate fast skiing with accurate rifle shooting despite an elevated pulse. You can try it without the snow in Hyde Park and at other venues on rollerskis. www.rollerski.co.uk. It is sometimes possible in Scotland (see for instance www.slochd.co.uk) but you have to go to Europe or further afield for the best trails. As well as Austria, top destinations include Scandinavia, Switzerland, Italy and France. A company like Exodus can help find the right holiday for you: www.exodus.co.uk.