FOR ECO FANS
:: An alternative ski break at the St Martin Eco Chalets in the Austrian Tyrol
Careering headlong down a very steep, snow-laden slope on a bike doesn’t sound like the brightest move. In fact, it’s total madness.
I’m just about to express this view to my guide Herby, who has suggested the idea, when he tells me: “The old people enjoy the bikes. It’s much easier on the bones than skiing.”
Well, if the old people can do it...
You wouldn’t perhaps associate new-fangled fads like snow bikes with the uber-traditional image of Austria. But the region of Lungau, about an hour’s drive south of Salzburg and pulling in increasing numbers of Brits, is a prime example of how the country is embracing innovation.
Symbolic of this trend are the St Martin Chalets, an idyllic cluster of 10 homes nestling in a village at the base of the Grosseck-Speiereck mountain. Properties can sleep from four to 14, and would be ideal for a couple of families holidaying together. With classic wooden frontages and exposed larch beams, the chalets could have come straight out of Hansel and Gretel.
The owners, the aforementioned Herby and his wife Jodi, were determined to build something eco-friendly. So most of the timbers and the rustic tiles have been reclaimed and lovingly restored, and the walls are stuffed with sheep’s wool for insulation. A large, but remarkably quiet, bio-diesel engine provides the heat for all the chalets, and solar panels help out with the electric.
Austria is famous for the quality of its skiing, and Lungau does not disappoint. The area is well laid out to avoid bottlenecks, and the low ratio between the number of beds and the lift capacity should guarantee that queuing is kept to a minimum.
We try out the Brenter snowbikes at nearby St Margarethen. These are serious vehicles - almost like a chopper motorcycle but with skis instead of tyres. Another stubby set of skis go on your feet to help with balance and turning.
The first couple of descents are pretty terrifying. Despite Herby’s warnings, the temptation to stand up to regain control as you gather speed proved too powerful. I can confirm that this is only a good idea if you enjoy eating snow.
However, once you learn to keep your rear end on the seat, and realise that steering merely requires gentle leaning, it feels surprisingly natural - no matter how old you are.
:: St Martin Eco Chalets in Lungau start from £225 per night, with no minimum stay. Book through www.holidaystoaustria.com
FOR ADRENALIN JUNKIES
:: The charming French resort of La Rosiere
As we huddle together, bodies bowed against the screaming wind and snow rolling over us in waves, I can’t help but think I’d rather be back in the warm, cosy mountain shack, devouring more delicious homemade minestrone.
Our small group is heading across the San Bernardo Pass, at the heart of the Tarentaise Valley. The ski area is shared by the Italian resort of La Thuile and French resort of La Rosiere, one of only a handful of cross-border resorts in the Alps, where I’m staying for the next two days.
Since 1984, when the first lifts were installed to link the two resorts, there has been access to 90 miles of terrain, suitable for all abilities. The two-mile-long Berthod run in La Thuile, regarded as one of the world’s most spectacular, has hosted European and World Cup races, and is a must for expert skiers.
But unlike neighbouring Les Arcs and Val d’Isere, it’s generally quiet on the lifts and slopes, even in peak season.
As we make our way back across the border, the clouds begins to part, the wind drops, and we ski back into brilliant sunshine with spectacular views of Mont Blanc.
Our expert instructor Simon Atkinson explains the two resorts have their own micro-climates. So if it’s snowing in La Thuile, there is a good chance it will be sunny in the south-facing La Rosiere.
Our accommodation is the stylish Residence Les Cimes Blanches in Les Eucherts, which has a swimming pool, steam rooms and saunas.
The tastefully-styled chalets, the largest of which can accommodate up to 12 guests, are all at the foot of the slopes, allowing you to ski in and ski out.
Nearby there are restaurants, bars, a supermarket, bowling alley, ice rink, and ski schools, and the picturesque, tree-lined village of La Rosiere is just a 10-minute walk away.
If you want more than just skiing from your winter holiday, then you’ll find plenty of alternatives. Paragliding, dog sledding and snowkiting, are just a few of the activities on offer. La Rosiere also allows you to go in search of the freshest powder, as it remains the only French resort where heli-skiing is available.
Not wanting to miss out, the next day we swap our skis for snow shoes, and set out with our guide Xavier, from the ski and adventure school Evolution 2.
As we complete our descent through the forest and into the valley, the first stars appear against a backdrop of royal blue above the silhouette of the mountains.
With so few people around, this surely must be one of the best-kept secrets in the Alps. But I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t stay that way for long.
FOR LUXURY LOVERS
:: St Anton, in Austria, is not just for party animals
Historically a haven for hard-partying skiers, St Anton, in the Austrian Tyrol, has had something of a reinvention as a high-end winter destination, with the stunning Hotel Montjola leading the way.
This hillside hotel dates back to the 1930s, and has been given a comprehensive upgrade, breathing new life into a once tired-looking building, to create a luxurious venue that’s a perfect base from which to explore St Anton’s challenging slopes.
On arrival, I’m greeted by a warm, cosy reception and bar area, which typifies the owners’ attempts to maintain a traditional feel. But I’m pleased to discover the hotel has chosen to blend old with new, and that rooms have been kitted out with all the latest mod-cons.
A luxurious spa is the perfect place to relax after a hard day on the slopes, with a sauna, steam room and massages all on hand to ease those aching muscles - not to mention the all-important outdoor hot tubs!
There’s something extra special about sinking into a bubbling Jacuzzi in minus 10C air temperatures with snow falling all around you.
Five minutes away from the resort centre, some guests will prefer a short walk from the hotel down into St Anton to begin their day’s skiing.
But those who want to conserve energy can use the hotel’s complimentary shuttle bus.
Thanks to hotels like Montjola, St Anton really does seem to be going up in the world.