AS A FORMER editor of outdoor adventure magazines, I have scaled mountains in the French Alps, paddled rivers in the northern reaches of Canada, covered multi-day hikes across Europe, and driven solo across Namibia. Yet there is one adrenalin-fuelled activity which has so far pretty much beaten me; one that is all about balance and grace and finesse and oh, so smooth turns. Yes, you’ve guessed it, skiing.
I first ventured on to the slopes in Austria about eight years ago. My instructor actually managed to tempt me on to my first Blue run on my last day at the resort. I made it to the bottom, before wiping out trying to stop!
A couple of weeks ago I was in the resort of Kandersteg in Switzerland’s Bernice Oberland, where I was presented with the opportunity of skiing or snow shoeing. I initially convinced myself to have yet another go at skiing, but after a sleepless night I opted instead for the snow shoes. After an exhilarating 10k hike in deep snow, my legs went into multiple cramps that same evening. Perhaps I should also mention that on a skiing trip to the Engadine region of Switzerland, I was heading up the mountain on a lift when the back of my jacket got caught, and I had tremendous difficulty in wriggling free, eventually landing in a crumpled heap on the compacted snow and damaging my left shoulder. This resulted in multiple visits to hospital under the care of a physiotherapist for a frozen shoulder. I guess you get the picture now of my continuous misfortune.
The point of all this rambling is that Inghams Holidays kindly invited me to St Johann in Tirol, where I have a room at the Hotel Brückenwirt in the centre of the village. The plan is to participate in the company’s ‘Ski Again’ initiative, run in partnership with the Austrian Tourist Office.
The initiative is aimed at enabling skiers and boarders who have ‘gone missing’ for five years or more, to get back on the snow with Inghams. Instruction is in small groups of fellow returners, in order to maximise one’s experiences and headway. Inghams’ package deals include a free lift pass, great savings on ski/boot hire and three days’ tuition. I am assured that getting back to the slopes will prove to be great fun.
Hotel Brückenwirt is a 4* boutique, family-run establishment of traditional Alpine charm, and will be new to Inghams Holidays for the 2016/17 winter season, so I believe I am one of the first bloggers to check it out. The hotel is situated by the river, and comprises 45, clean and pleasantly furnished rooms. I am handed a key to the double room Romantica, where I find complimentary still and sparkling water, bathing robe and slippers, hairdryer, flatscreen cable television, and a safe in the wardrobe. Double glass doors lead on to a large wooden balcony. The hotel has a games room, spa area, and a Finnish and steam sauna, so there is a pleasant place to relax after a fun day on the piste.
After check-in, I take a steady stroll to the Schischule (ski school) Wilder Kaiser where I am collecting my boots, poles and skis. Without any prompting, I am fitted out with the colour green, which matches my ski jacket, and which no doubt will also match the colour of my face when I reach the top of the slope for the first time.
St Johann in Tirol is located in the centre of the Schneewinkel area of the Kitzbühel Alps, where the surrounding communities offer a wealth of opportunities for winter pursuits, including downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, winter hiking and, of course, apres ski. There are a total of 115km of pistes in six resorts covered on the ‘Schneewinkel’ area lift pass, and St Johann itself has 59 runs for beginners, 46 for intermediates and 10 for advanced skiers.
The lifts in the town take visitors to a network of groomed slopes which are easily accessible. The region includes the ski areas of Pillersee, Reit im Winkel/Winklmoos, Steinplatte in Waidring, as well as lifts in Kirchdorf and Erpfendorf.
For lovers of off-piste recreation, there is a large network of cross-country slopes leading to every corner of this lovely region, and you can also add to the mix an ice-skating rink and a natural toboggan run. Winter walks are also organised on a daily basis.
Historically, the region was hugely popular up to about twenty years ago, at which time a steady decline set in. The mountains went quiet as winter sports enthusiasts drifted away in search of more modernist locations, at higher elevations, with a larger choice of ski lifts and runs.
With the Alpine chocolate-box attraction having gone stale, St Johann in Tirol found itself suffering at the hands of modernist ski utopias with their pristine slopes, great apres ski, chalet maids and house chefs. Functionality and tradition had gone out of the window. That, it has to be said, is so undeserving of this lovely Alpine village.
And yet, in an odd sort of way, that is proving to be its salvation. For, slowly but surely, the visitors are heading back to this attractive, all-year-round resort, which blends perfectly into the landscape, the icing on the cake being the mightily impressive craggy peaks of the Wilder Kaiser mountain range, itself a preserved area.
With the 4* Sporthotel Austria in St Johann already an option for Inghams’ guests, the Hotel Brückenwirt is perfectly positioned by the semi-pedestrianised baroque village centre with its abundant shops, cafés and bars, and a 10-minute walk to the ski school.
With the village emerging from under its blanket of snow, today’s holidaymakers can once again experience one of the classic family destinations in the Tirol; one where modernity shakes hands with a snapshot of tradition.
Scandinavian company SkiStar has also seen the potential, with major plans for investment. SkiStar owns and operates Alpine destinations in Sälen, Åre and Vemdalen in Sweden, and Hemsedal and Trysil in Norway. According to Mats Årjes, SkiStar’s CEO: “St Johann is a good place to establish SkiStar in the Alps. Through our knowledge, the destination’s geographical location and a positive hotel expansion in St Johann, we see potential for developing the destination. We see our establishment in the Alps and St Johann as a challenging, exciting step forward for our business model via the skistar.com portal and obviously for SkiStar as a company.”
For my first evening I opt for the more informal Restaurant Platzhirsch. There is a rustic feel throughout, with assorted chairs and an eclectic mix of distressed tables. The part-mirrored ceiling hangs over magnificent antlered animal skulls underlit by spotlights. Also adorning the purple walls are heavy, draped tapestries.
My starter is THE most amazing beetroot soup scattered with strands of horseradish. It is hot, spicy, and utterly delicious. For my main course I choose roast sirloin of beef with onions, potatoes and green beans with bacon. I am too full for a dessert, although the strawberries and ice-ceam is tempting, so I opt for a coffee.
I peer out the window at heavy snowfall, and decide to head outside to do a live stream on Periscope. What a magical evening. The trees hang limp over the river, their branches laden with snow, whilst parked cars lay veiled under a heavy white cloak.
The next morning I walk to the Schischule Wilder Kaiser where I am to meet instructor Georg Weihs. I collect my gear and stand outside the premises. I am then approached and asked if I am the journalist from England, and instructed to walk 50m to the group meeting place housed under a large umbrella, outside Bar Rex, the centre for apres ski in the village.
Georg is nowhere to be found, so I instead join a group new to skiing under the instruction of Tini, beginner supervisor. She tells us we are heading off to the ‘killing fields’, actually the nursery slopes, where we begin on one ski, then two, before steadily side-stepping further up the incline as we grow more confident in skiing back down the fall-line.
After almost two hours, Tini says we are now ready to use the running line, which takes skiers to the top of the nursery slope. Basically, you grab the line in one hand and let it pull you up.
Over lunch, John asks Tini: “Where should we end up by the end of the week?” to which Tony pipes up: “Which hospital?” Quite a prophetic comment, as on day three, one of our group, 14-year-old Arnie, is stretchered off the mountain, having been taken out by a snowboarder.
Back on the nursery slope, we spend the next two hours working on our turns and snowplough stops. Slowly, it is clicking into place, and all too soon we are back at Bar Rex for a long, cold beer. Half-past three, and it is already packed.
St Johann in Tirol sells itself as a great destination for families and recreational skiers. Judging by the number of children on the slopes, it is clearly having an effect. The instructors are fantastic with the kids; the large infant area and nursery slope simply perfect for the beginner. It is also a pleasure to see that the region has maintained its original charm, with welcoming mountain huts and Tirolean specialities peppering the slopes.
The next evening I am guided into the Restaurant Ambiente, and enjoy a salad plate followed by Tirolean bacon with a small garnish; clear beef soup with strips of pancake; pan fried champignons with tartar sauce (I opt for this rather than the cordon bleu with parsley potatoes and cranberries); and Bavarian cream with orange salad. The waiter then takes me through to the bar to finish me off with an Austrian schnapps. Fresh air is in order, and I stroll along Redford Promenade, a tree-lined path which follows the course of the fast-flowing river. The path joins up with Roviniemi Promenade. I cannot fathom why it is named after a town in Finnish Lapland, until a sign informs me of the twinning arrangement made in 1989.
St Johann sits at 659 metres above sea level, and the 17 lifts make 42.5km of slopes accessible to skiers and boarders on the snowy side of the Kitzbuheler Horn. Add to that numerous facilities including a toboggan run, a panoramic pool complex and ice-skating rink, and you have pretty much the perfect destination for winter fun for the whole family.
Images | © Michael Cowton |Essential Journeys
Inghams is offering 7 nights, half board at the 4* Hotel Brückenwirt, St Johann in Tirol, Austria, from £689 per person departing 18 March 2017. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Innsbruck and resort transfers. For more information or to book visit www.inghams.co.uk or call 01483 791 114. For more information on holidays in Austria, see www.austria.info
Inghams ‘Ski Again’ package is from £246.50 and includes a 6-day lift pass (low season), 6-day ski hire, and 3 days refresher ski lesson.
Hotel Brückenwirt, Kaiserstr. 18, A-6380 St. Johann, Tirol
FURTHER IMAGES CAN BE FOUND AT https://essentialjourneys.co.uk/st-johann-photo-essay/