St. Anton, Austria: The cradle of alpine skiing
Updated: Jul 16
As soon as we returned from our ski trip to Zermatt, we knew we were forever hooked on skiing in the Alps. We started to research and plan our next destination and recalled that, while we were checking in for our flight from Logan Airport to Zurich, we struck up a conversation with a large group nearby who were all heading for St. Anton, Austria. They extolled the virtues of the slopes, while describing the outrageous après ski scene. Something about that conversation intrigued us. We had never heard of St. Anton before (full name - Sankt Anton AM Arlberg), but upon further review, this was the real deal - a worldwide destination for snow sports enthusiasts and partiers alike.
Interestingly, St. Anton is considered the birthplace of alpine skiing with a surprising connection to New England. Hannes Schneider was the founder of the Ski Club Arlberg, the first ski club in the world in St. Anton. In the 1930's, Schneider emigrated to the USA and founded the Hannes Schneider Ski School at Cranmore Mountain in North Conway, New Hampshire. To this day, ski schools all across the USA teach the Arlberg method of skiing, which progresses from snowplowing to parallel skiing on edge, just as originally developed in St. Anton. Okay, enough with the history lesson: We were hooked, and our flights were booked. We couldn't wait to get back to the beautiful Alps for our next ski adventure.
We arrived in Zurich the day before Jennifer's birthday, taking a train straight from Zurich to St. Anton in just three hours. It was a lovely tour of the outskirts of Zurich which were lush and green rolling hills, farmland, grazing cattle, and Swiss chalet style homes. As we left Zurich far behind, we started to weave through mountainous terrain and the snow cover grew deeper and deeper and our excitement about hitting that first ski trail was increasing by the mile. Upon arrival, we checked into the beautiful Valluga Hotel, located right in the heart of St. Anton. It is a relatively small hotel, beautifully styled in traditional alpine architecture and a short walk to all the town has to offer. The ski lifts are walkable, but they also offer a very convenient shuttle every morning, so we took advantage of that.
Our first night was a mellow one, after a long night and day of travel. We bopped around town, looking for a place to have a drink and we wandered into Arlberger Dorfstubn which is located in the Hotel Kristall, right in the center of town. Seeking a drink and a pre-dinner bite, we sat in the bar area up front. We ordered two tall glasses of Austrian lager and a Tyrolean version of charcuterie.
Wow did that hit the spot! Perhaps it was because we were famished. Or that the portion was enormous. Or, that it was the eve of Jennifer's birthday! Whatever it was, it was the best meat and cheese platter we'd ever had, and I vowed to come back on another day for round two! Originally intended as a warmup appetizer before dinner, we soon realized that we were full, and it was getting late, so we skipped dinner. Afterward we wandered around town for a while, taking in the sights and sounds of après Ski in Austria's most famous après destination. The slopes had been closed for hours yet there were still skis sitting in the racks outside the bars. People were walking from place to place, still wearing their ski boots. There are pubs, cafes, bars, music lounges, and night clubs that don't close until 5am. There is truly something for everyone. We scouted the action out for the rest of our trip. But for tonight, we were ready to rest up for a fresh start in the morning.
St. Anton is but one town in a series of towns that make up the largest connected ski resort in Austria - Ski Arlberg. Let me tell you, it is massive! It covers 216 miles of trails with a total of 87 different lifts to assist you in making your way from one end to the other. There's also an enormous amount of open, ungroomed terrain here. "Off Piste" skiing (off the trails) in untouched powder was available everywhere you looked, even though there hadn't been a good snowfall in several days. One of the things we love the most about skiing such a vast resort is that it is constantly new. You never ski the same trail twice and every turn, every lift, every stop at the bottom is a new adventure. It is real alpine exploration rather than up and down the same hill over and over.
We started our first day by getting a feeling for the peaks surrounding St. Anton. Given the lack of recent snowfall, the conditions on the well-traveled trails were uncharacteristically scratchy and even a bit icy in spots. Being from New England, this was nothing new for us, but the Europeans are more used to fluffy and loose stuff, and were finding this a bit treacherous, as evidenced by a fair number of fallen skiers sliding sideways down the trail in the vicinity of the slick spots.
After familiarizing ourselves during the morning, we decided to make our way over to Lech, another well-known connected Austrian ski destination. It was a good distance to get there and back before the end of the day, so we needed to get moving. At the bottom of the trail in St. Christoph, we approached the lift taking us toward our destination and we discovered something about lift lines in Austria. There are not often lines, but when there are, they are chaos! There are no ropes to guide you in an orderly fashion. There are no lift workers to direct you. There is only a huge snowbank funnel, steering crowds of people on skis trying to inch their way forward toward the lift. As the funnel grows narrower, people start to jockey to get ahead, poles are mashing poles, everyone's skis are getting stepped on by people in front or behind. No fights broke out but there were definitely some tense moments as this incredibly disorderly "system" slowly crept toward the lift. Finally, we were on the lift and the rest of our journey was relatively seamless in comparison.
The trails into Lech were scenic and uncrowded. Up and down some good fast trails we went, until we came to a long and relaxing approach that seemed to go on for miles and miles, with a soft gradient that was super relaxing as the town of Lech grew closer and closer. We cruised into town in the early afternoon, just in time for lunch. Lech is a lovely town, smaller and more glitzy than neighboring St. Anton. The ski slopes tower over the center of town on both sides, with a beautiful river running through the middle. We popped off our skis and clomped through town in our ski boots, finding a suitable spot for a delicious lunch, not to mention Jennifer's favorite trailside drink, Bailey's and hot chocolate.
At this point it was midafternoon, and we needed to start heading back toward St. Anton before the lifts started to close. We squeezed in a few fun runs in Lech and vowed to come back another day, though our plan was to take the bus the next time so we could make it a proper full day. The Arlberg ski area has a wonderful bus system from town to town. They are inexpensive, regularly scheduled, and every bus is adorned with ski racks.
Back to our hotel we went, to get ready for Jennifer's birthday dinner. We made our way to our dinner reservation at Hazienda, located in the M3 Hotel. This restaurant has a great reputation for leading the "Gastronomy Scene" in town, so it seemed like a perfect choice for a celebratory dinner. The food was superb, with incredible presentation and impeccable service. Anyone that knows Jennifer knows that dessert is her favorite course, and the Austrian chocolate torte complete with accompanying mystical cup of flowing fog did not disappoint.
After dinner we revisited some of last night's scouted locations, looking for some fun. We remembered a lively place with live entertainment that we wanted to check out. The Murrmel Bar was just around the corner and the thumping drums and wailing guitar were calling us in. We weren't quite sure what to expect, but looking through the large windows it sure looked like fun. We squeezed inside, into a packed place with quite a wild party atmosphere. It was steamy hot; the band was playing loudly, and the crowd was raucously singing along. Yeah, this was gonna be fun. We grabbed a couple of drinks from the bar and found a small corner to get semi comfortable.
Did I mention the band? Well after doing a double take, we realized that the band was actually a one man show. "Gunar" is an incredible solo performer who turns this bar into a rock concert every night. He plays the guitar and sings with wild abandon while using an electronic system to enhance his playing with drums and bass. The songs were all familiar as Europeans love English language rock music and everyone in the audience knew all the words. From AC/DC to Queen to Oasis to Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline, the place lit up every time he started a new song. We saw multiple people climb up on the bar with their ski boots on, dancing away to Gunar's performance, expecting a bouncer to toss them out at any moment, but just the opposite happened. The crowd cheered and the bartenders cheered louder. If not for Jennifer's hand clenching at my shoulder to hold me back, I would have been up there next! Feel free to join in as you watch the video...
The next day was a day off from skiing so we could explore St. Anton during waking hours and take in all it had to offer. It is incredibly scenic, with ski slopes and lifts everywhere you look upward, and shopping, cafes, and restaurants everywhere along the main drag. Outdoor dining in the middle of winter is a thing here, as it is in most of Europe. After enjoying the hotel spa in the morning, we departed and grabbed a coffee and hot chocolate at a sunny spot overlooking the mountain, heater above us and sheepskin blanket for our laps. We window shopped our way up the street toward the St. Anton Museum.
The building was built around 1910 as a seasonal getaway for a German industrialist, but the exquisite mansion changed hands a number of times in the 20th century before St. Anton acquired the building in 1971 to preserve it for future generations. This is a really cool place, full of history of St. Anton and importantly, the evolution of the sport of alpine skiing, which by all accounts originated and flourished here before becoming a worldwide pastime.
After the museum, we decided it was time to experience one of the town's famous on-mountain après ski bars for a late lunch and then who-knows-what. Having taken the day off from skiing, the only way to make it there would be to take a bus up a windy road to the Mooserwirt bar. We arrived at 2:30 pm and things were relatively quiet. We sat at the bar and ordered some Hefeweizen and burgers while doing some people watching. This place is one of two large destination bars that sit slope side about 1/2 mile from the bottom of the mountain. You ski right in, and then after having way too many drinks, you ski down to the bottom. Get your fun in early because this is not a late-night haunt. The places close at 8pm, which is actually 4 hours after the lifts close.
As we munched on our burgers and ordered another round, the place was starting to get packed. The muted background music stopped and the sound system starting loudly playing "The Final Countdown," the famous 80's tune by the band Europe. The crowd lit up and the place started getting crazy. The music was a mix of English language rock music and German language tunes, and the crowd was singing loudly along to every song. We were both impressed and bewildered when John Denver's "Country Roads" came on and the place went berserk, and everyone cheered and knew every single word! It seems to be quite a hit in this part of the world for reasons unknown. We wandered around past the basement dance floor, surrounded by a balcony, to the outdoor patio filled with a couple of hundred people jamming away as the DJ spun his music. As we wandered outside, we embraced a new favorite tune called "Living Next Door to Alice" by Smokie. This tune was vaguely familiar in a mighta-heard-it-once-or-twice before kind of way but apparently it was a #1 hit in Europe and became a phenomenon when audiences started enhancing the lyrics. Listen to the video below to join in on the fun and pay attention to the crowd.
The next day we followed through and took the bus over to Lech for a full day on the far side of the Arlberg. The bus was a short 30-minute hop through the mountains and past some gondolas and dropped us right in the middle of the action. Ski lifts on our left and right, and bars, restaurants and shops all around.
We had a blast skiing around the area and over to the not-too-distant town of Oberlech and back. We even happened upon the BMW slalom course, which surprisingly was not closed off to the public and beckoned a couple of runs. The day was a little warmer than usual and drizzled on and off. The afternoon brought even darker skies and it seemed to threaten storminess at any moment. Halfway up the lift, that threat became reality and for a brief time, the mountain belonged only to us. Read more about that moment in our previous travel serendipity blog post, moment #6.
On our final day in St. Anton, we once again hit the slopes. There had been some late-night snowfall the past couple of nights. Nothing monumental but enough to freshen up the trails and make the conditions much improved. We headed off-piste a few times, carving fresh tracks in new powder. This place is so vast that in spite of thousands of people being here you can easily make a slight left or right and find your way into powder that has not been touched, dance around a bit while cruising through its softness, and work your way back to the main groomed trail. We set out to hit as many trails as possible on the slopes on the near side of the Arlberg, with our sights set on après ski at St. Anton's other notorious slope side bar - The Krazy Kangaruh. In late afternoon we made our way down the trail heading in the direction of St. Anton and the bar appeared on the left, with skis and poles lined up all over the place outside, the thumping music and busy bartenders beckoned us inside.
We had an incredible final day on the mountain, and we were ready to go out in style. We ordered drinks and settled right in to the Austrian après vibe. It is so much fun to be surrounded by German speakers singing along to some of our favorite tunes. A few refreshments later, the sun was sinking low, and we realized that we weren't so sure we wanted to ski down the rest of the mountain after dark after a couple of more libations. The trail was unfamiliar, and it would be dark, like pitch black. We decided to head down the hill, safely while the sun was still up, and back to the hotel to get ourselves ready for our last night in St. Anton. Smart move.
We bounced around a few places for cocktails before dinner, finding ourselves in front of the main lift at the bottom of the hill. Shortly after 8pm we observed the empty trail was suddenly full of people skiing out of the darkness and down to the bottom in a very disorderly fashion. Countless people were stumbling and falling, laughing and singing out loud the entire way. A few couldn't quite stop and ended on the pavement. It was hilarious to watch as we realized that the Mooserwirt and Krazy Kangaruh had just closed and emptied out, and this was the nightly procession of drunken skiers making their way through the darkness and back to town. We were relieved that we did the smart thing and made our way down early and before the next round. Yet somehow, we were a bit disappointed that we weren't taking part in this nightly ritual of mayhem. It looked fun! After dinner we finished our final night with last call at our favorite place, the Murrmel Bar and another amazing performance by Gunar.
St. Anton met all of our expectations and more. We highly recommend it to everyone. Whether you have a thirst for crazy steep trails, wide open fresh powder off-piste skiing, or tall glasses of Austrian beer and party music, this place has something for everything. Just make sure you are familiar with the lyrics to "Country Roads", or you will feel oddly out of place amongst the rowdy Europeans singing along! Prost!
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