As I pulled up outside my hotel in Lech, a very overweight fox ambled across the road in front of our coach. I took it as a sign of good things to come.
I were in Lech to enjoy some early season skiing and although the Alps had experienced one of the lowest December snowfalls anyone could remember, I was assured the snow making machines were working round the clock to ensure skiers would not be disappointed.
Lech is an old farming village set in the Arlberg mountains. It’s an attractive resort with hotels built in traditional chalet style and a gurgling river running right through the heart of the village. Lech and its higher linked neighbour Zürs are the most fashionable resorts in Austria. Lech offers wide, often treeless runs more typical of the US than Europe. The fairytale village is populated with ultra-stylish skiers – both the Austrian and German royal families ski here and the hotels and restaurants are swish. Even the ski lifts have heated seats.
Princess Diana, Brad Pitt and King Willem-Alexander have all laid tracks down Lech’s sublime pistes.
However, a quick visit to the ski hire shop for kit revealed why Lech is a cut above conventional ski resorts. Serving the many beautiful people in town, the fabulous Strolz (strolz.at) looks more akin to an expensive nightclub than ski shop, with its fur-clad sofas and log fires. It provides all the ski wear, party dresses and chunky knits you could ever need, plus labels ranging from Alexander McQueen and Dolce & Gabbana to Moncler, if you really want to blow the budget. Here, staff don’t just hand you your ski boots – they help you put them on.
But the real reason for my visit was to experience Lech’s brand new £37.5m Flexenbahn cable-car system, which makes Lech-Zurs the largest connected ski resort in Austria. The Arlberg ski area now has 87 lifts and 305km of runs, making it by far the biggest linked area in Austria, on a par with Val d’Isère-Tignes in France.
The state of the art lift-system means you no longer need to rely on a bus service to get you between the two halves of the Arlberg. It effectively closes the loop between Zurs and Stuben/Rauz. Starting in Zurs, you can take the Trittkopfbahn I to the new intermediate station and either continue on to the top station of Trittkopfbahn II, or use the new Flexenbahn to travel to Alpe Rauz, Stuben. The Flexenbahn, starting at the Valley Station Alpe Rauz, will have the travel time of six minutes and can transport up to 2,400 people an hour.
Cameras are a must, with breathtaking views over the Klostertal valley and towards the Arlberg pass or St.Christoph. If you start out in Alpe Rauz, Stuben, you can easily explore the St Christoph and St Anton ski areas before continuing up the new Albonabahn II to Stuben, or heading back to Zurs.
I took the opportunity to brush up on my carving skills between Zürs and the furthest reaches of the St Anton ski area on empty snow-cannoned pistes. Reports of poor snow conditions in the Alps had worked to our advantage, keeping the crowds away and leaving us with empty pistes to ourselves.
I stopped for lunch at the achingly cool Schlegelkopf, the restaurant at the top of the lift with the same name. Here hungry skiers tuck into spicy soups, beef lollipops and juicy lamb and mash. Admiring the views from the giant panorama windows really makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. Another – slightly more wallet-friendly – recommendation is Der Wolf skihutte in Oberlech. Built entirely from pine, and resembling a giant Scandinavian sauna, the restaurant is almost exclusively lit by the sun’s rays reflecting off the snow. Staff serve up hearty bowls of tuna Bolognese and pumpkin with duck breast risotto to defrost frozen skiers.
After a gruelling day of eating and schussing, there’s no better way to soothe the aching limbs than a massage in the spa at Hotel Theodul. Here sports masseurs from Alpine Sports Physio, a company run by former professional footballer Alex Haddow, tackle anything from relaxation to torn muscle physio. Brad Pitt and Tina Turner are said to be among their regulars.
Finally, a day on the slopes wouldn’t be complete without the inevitable après ski. I slurped mulled wine at the Hotel Goldener Berg while enjoying Euro pop under the outdoor bar’s gas heaters before heading for dinner at Haus No 8, a large wooden building as enchanting as the gingerbread house Hansel and Gretel stumbled upon, covered in snow with glowing orange windows.
No witches here, but friendly staff in traditional Austrian dress served up classic fondue washed down with steins of cold beer.
As I peered out of the snow covered window I began to realize why that Swiss fox hanging around my hotel was so fat.