“So glad you’re here”: the oft repeated words from hotel and restaurant owners who have just emerged from a strict lockdown and are, for the first time in months, welcoming tourists. We had chosen the Arlberg region (specifically St. Anton and St. Christoph) for a pre-Christmas ski when all things Covid were looking up.
As departure loomed, uncertainty rose. Stories of cancelled trips circulated amongst friends. Our own plan had been to ski as a family of five but the inability of the Austrian and UK authorities to agree Covid pass terms meant that only my 11 year old and I could travel. Teenagers with a single jab were “verboten”.
So, the day after Tirol was released from lockdown, Tabitha and I were aboard the first flight into Innsbruck. From the immigration official to the taxi driver to the reception staff at the Hotel Schwarzer Adler in St. Anton to our ski guides, the sentiment was the same: finally tourists were back.
I had been to St. Anton previously on a “boys trip” and enjoyed some spectacular off-piste skiing days. My wife, long bored by my stories of adventure, wanted a taste of what the Arlberg region had to offer families.
First stop kit rental. As a family we always rent – the kit is usually outstanding and the hassle and expense of owning and transporting ski equipment just isn’t worth it. Small but important things smooth out holidays for families, and one of those comes courtesy of the excellent rental service from Alber Sport, located on the piste directly opposite the Galtzig gondola. Not only top quality equipment but a depot service that avoids the daily trudge through town with skis and boots.
Not having skied for a couple of years, Tabitha wanted a quick practice before meeting our guide. Unfortunately my inability to read a ski map meant that we missed the perfectly simple and aptly named Happy Valley blue run that brings you down to St. Anton. Instead, our warm up run was a challenging black. My reputation for “getting us lost” was growing.
Thankfully Erich Schweiger, our guide, would soon be in charge. Erich (aka “Naggy”) is a St. Anton legend. Anyone who is asked by the commune to move the family chapel from the middle of the piste to accommodate skiers is clearly part of the scene.
His first stop was the “Osthang” piste where most of the beginner and intermediate classes start. Facing east it catches the early sun, is very wide and the perfect gradient for teaching. Erich found half a dozen similar pistes where we were able to practice all sorts of exercises designed to eradicate the bad habits Tabitha had picked up skiing behind me for too long.
Both St. Anton and St. Christoph (which lies 500 meters higher along the same Arlberg valley) cater wonderfully for families. St. Christoph is smaller and quieter with most of the post skiing entertainment centered on the hotels. Hotel Maiensee and Hit the Sky Hotel are particularly suited to families.
St. Anton has more variety to offer. We tried the indoor climbing wall and the trampoline park. There is of course an ice rink but the highlight must be the floodlit 7km toboggan run.
For the first day we cruised around the Kapall and Valluga parts of the resort – great variety for all manner of skier from beginner upwards.
On our second day I headed out with George Henderson, a very highly qualified British ski instructor, to see if we could find some off-piste that wasn’t the dreaded breakable crust – a snow condition that’s more likely to twist a knee than provide enjoyment. He managed to sniff out a few good descents on the sunny slopes of the Zürs area (now linked via a new gondola system to St. Anton/St. Christoph) but with nothing but blue skies this was a day for piste skiing.
Snacking and lunching are key to family morale. Any good guide knows this. Arriving at a restaurant with Erich is like arriving with an A-lister. Two restaurants we particularly enjoyed for their sunny terraces and cosy interiors were the Senn Hütte (just above St. Anton) and the Arlberg Thaja in St. Christoph. At the Senn Hütte I resisted the offer from Tania, the owner, to try her award winning schnapps post lunch but vowed to return.
St. Anton’s reputation for vigorous après-ski stems from the famous Mooserwirt. We return to the more family friendly place – the Senn Hütte – to take up Tania on her schnapps offer. She joined us and explained that this particular version was made from the seeds of the “arle” bushes which themselves give the “Arlberg” its name. Delicious.
For families in particular the hotel is as important as the skiing. Quality hotels abound in St. Anton. We were treated like royalty (some of whom had actually stayed here) in Hotel Schwarzer Adler which was established in 1570 to cater for those about to cross west over the Arlberg pass.
If you can forgo some luxury in exchange for something a bit different, another treat for families is the adventure of staying in an alpine hostel. The Ulmer Hütte (alt. 2,288m) is ideal. Not luxurious, but comfortable and the sense of remoteness (arrival is via chair lift and a short ski), is palpable. The darkness contrasts with moonlight reflected off the snow and perfectly compliments the schnapps, creating a special atmosphere.
St. Anton has a long-established and well-deserved reputation for off piste skiing. Each year hundreds of ski bums descend on St. Anton and pray for powder. But there is plenty of skiing and more besides for families as well. When Covid permits, Tabitha and I are now duty bound to show the rest of the family.
Need to know
Tourist Office: stantonamarlberg.com
Hotels & Restaurants: chwarzeradler.com is an outstanding hotel in the middle of St. Anton;
ulmerhuette.at is a mountain hut at 2,288m;
arlberg-thaja.at is an excellent St. Christoph restaurant and sennsationell.at is an equally excellent St. Anton restaurant
Ski Schools & Activities: go to skischule-arlberg.com and ask for Erich Schweiger or George Henderson; or visit arlpark.at for the trampoline and climbing centre
Resort Information: The resort has 88 lifts covering over 300km of piste, plus 200km of backcountry terrain.
Getting to St. Anton & St. Christoph by air: 100km Innsbruck; 127km Friedrichshafen; 193km Zurich or 236kms Munich.
Travellers from the UK can enter Austria without the need to quarantine provided they are either triple vaccinated or double vaccinated following recovery from Covid. You will also require a negative PCR test no older than 48 hours at time of entry.