by Felice Hardy
There are all sorts of reasons why you might be considering a trip to the Alps this season. If you’re an experienced skier or snowboarder, you’ll need little encouragement – the sheer delight of flying down a mountainside with the wind in you hair is its own reward.
But that’s not the key factor for everyone. For parents, it can be a great way to keep children busy and grinning ear-to-ear in a healthy and active way. Others love nothing more than taking in a mighty mountain panorama on the sun terrace of a mountain restaurant, piping-hot gluhwein in hand.
Several ski resorts are also reporting that couples who’ve stopped heading to the slopes in recent winters are increasingly reigniting their passion for the mountains – and perhaps for each other – by taking up skiing or snowboarding again.
It’s not a new idea: shared enjoyment of the slopes can bring couples closer together. I mean, why wouldn’t it? Only the most cold-hearted would fail to be seduced by log fires, stunning scenery, great food, and the constant exhilaration of carving down the hill all on a daily basis.
Depending on what you’re looking for, there’ll be dozens of amazing ski destinations that fit the bill. But if romance is the name of the game and you want an Alpine setting that fits, there’s really only one option: Austria.
Why Austria Is the Answer for a Romantic Ski Break
Explore the rolling pastures and pine forests of regions like Tirol and Salzburgerland, and you’ll find the place is dotted with chocolate box villages set against a backdrop of snowy peaks. The architecture, too, is magnificent: traditional chalets are invariably constructed from local timber and decorated with intricate heart-shaped fretwork.
When you step inside each mountain chalet – be it a simple bed and breakfast pension or a five-star hotel – and you’ll regularly find a spotless interior with a warming log fire or antique tiled stove, wood-panelled walls, hand-painted furniture and home cooking.
There are very few places in the world that offer all this, and certainly nowhere that delivers it with the consistency of Austrian skiing.
So where, exactly, should you go? Look no further than my personal shortlist of Austria’s most beautiful villages, and the top ten romantic resorts for the winter.
For Medieval Splendour, Try St Johann
The 16th century silver-mining town of St Johann in Tirol is one of the most gorgeous ski towns in the Alps. The traffic-free centre has cobblestone streets and pastel-painted buildings decorated with delicate frescoes.
The centre of this pretty but unpretentious Tirolean village is full of old coaching inns, offering plenty of quiet spots to hole yourself up in with a glühwein after a hard day of skiing.
Once you hop on a lift and leave the idyllic village behind, you’ll find the slopes are mostly easy-going – the snowsure side of Kitzbüheler Horn has 60km of pistes which will suit intermediates skiers (with plenty still to offer for more advanced ability levels). A toboggan run, ice-skating rink, and indoor pool at Panorama Badewelt (with a 62-metre water chute) mean non-skiing couples have plenty of entertaining ways to fill the day.
Those in search of large lift systems and dozens of bars or restaurants will be more at home in nearby Kitzbuhel, but what St Johann lacks in scale it more than makes up for in understated charm.
Alpbach Is a Perfect, Pocket-Sized Village
Alpbach is a small sunny settlement that is regularly voted the prettiest village in Austria. A green and white 17th-century church surrounded by wooden chalets and two medieval inns dominate the centre.
In the early 1970s the resort resolved not to go down the commercial route taken by some of its rivals. As a result it remains an unspoilt village where farming carries on outside the ski season.
However, the skiing certainly isn’t limited: a couple of years ago Alpbach linked up with Auffach in the Wildschönau to form the giant Ski Juwel area.
The nightlife is quiet and laid-back, and this is one of the factors (as well as its undeniable beauty) that makes it a excellent destination for couples looking for a romantic escape.
You’ll Find Lakeside Beauty in Zell am See
Zell am See was first established by a monastic order in the eighth century and was of great commercial importance in medieval times. The stately old buildings have been transformed over the years into hotels, boutiques and villas that are dotted along the shore of the beautiful Lake Zell.
There are several top ski resorts around the world near lakes, but Lake Zell is surely one of the most scenic – if not the most. As you’d expect in a lakeside resort with a busy summer season as well as a winter one, there are some lovely hotels – including five-star Hotel Salzburgerhof, and four-star Romantikhotel Zell am See which has rooms with panoramic views of the lake. Skiing is substantial – backed up by a snow-sure glacier on the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier above Kaprun.
The Heart of Family Skiing: Obergurgl
Obergurgl is where I learnt to ski and it will always have a special place in my heart. The first time I fell in love I was seven years old and his name was Walter; he was my ski instructor in Obergurgl and at 25 seemed ancient.
My heart broke when I had to fly home without him. Next year I was back again, but by then Walter had moved on to Squaw Valley and Pepi swiftly replaced him in my affections.
I returned 30 years later to find that the resort had grown, but remained the same charming village set around an onion-domed church, with a handful of shops and an outdoor ice-skating rink. Because the village is set at the end of a valley it doesn’t attract day-trippers or weekenders, so the pistes remain blissfully uncrowded and you never have to queue for a lift.
It’s Ischgl for Couples That Like to Party
An unorthodox choice in a list of ski resorts characterised by their quiet charm, Ischgl is for couples that would sooner dance together into the wee hours than curl up close by a log fire.
This is the birthplace of the mountainside music festival, a badge Ischgl has worn with honour since 1994 when Elton John opened the season, and continues today with the Top of the Mountain Festival. Past concerts have featured Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Sting, Bon Jovi, Deep Purple, The Killers, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, Kylie Minogue, The Scissor Sisters, The Killers, and – last year – Robbie Williams.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is therefore a resort full of the 20-somethings you’ll find in other resorts that carry a ‘party town’ reputation. The largely upmarket accommodation and smattering of Michelin-starred restaurants means the typical Ischgl-goer is at least ten years older than that.
The skiing’s not half bad, either. 45 frequently-upgraded lifts serve 235km of slopes which, especially after a big night at Pacha beneath Hotel Madlein, are regularly free of crowds.
If you like largely intermediate skiing with dramatically long runs and you love to party, I can think of no better place in Europe for a ski holiday than Ischgl.
Innsbruck Doubles as a Romantic City Break
The colourful old city of Innsbruck is always associated with Emperor Maximilian I who ruled here in the 16th century and built the city’s iconic landmark, the Goldenes Dachl – or golden roof.
The city has its own international airport, which is surrounded by towering mountains on either side of the valley. You can ski locally in Igls – the setting for the Men’s Downhill of the 1976 Winter Olympics which was won by Austrian legend Franz Klammer. Snowboarders head for Axamer Lizum, which is set 1000m above the city and is as close to purpose-built as you will find in Austria.
With some lovely architecture – not least the grand Habsburg palace and baroque cathedral – Innsbruck is very different to the other locations on the list simply because it’s a city. To that end, the options for restaurants and non-skiing activities far exceed equivalent ski resorts. Which makes Innsbruck a great fit for anyone who considers skiing or boarding to be only a secondary interest.
Royal Flavour: Lech and Zürs
From the late Princess Diana, the Jordanian and Dutch royal families and Princess Caroline of Monaco to Boris Becker and Vladamir Putin, Lech and its neighbour Zürs are a favourite of royals and celebrities. The two villages are quiet hideaways and very smart indeed, so it’s really no wonder that they have such a history of rich and famous clientele.
The traditional village of Lech – which also served as a film location for Bridget Jones’ Diary 2 – lies on the banks of a river, with a large collection of lavish four- and five-star hotels. It’s an ideal base for people who prefer a flattering piste to a tricky challenge. If you want something more testing, head over to St Anton, which is on the same lift pass.
Steep and Deep Lovers Should Go to St Anton
St Anton is the place for couples who are excellent skiers, as they will be tested to their limits. Beginners might find St Anton’s ski area intimidating, with the exception of party animals who are mainly here for the nightlife.
The world-famous resort is at the heart of the Arlberg area and the village is a blend of old and new, with a pedestrian zone lined with shops, bars, cafés and traditional hotels.
There are lots of romantic places to go while you’re here, including the Underground On The Piste bar which has live music and lots of atmosphere, and The Museum restaurant where you eat in front of the fireplace in what feels like someone’s large private home.
Sumptuous and Sophisticated: Seefeld
Seefeld is a stylish and sophisticated town with an attractive pedestrian main street a bit like a small Innsbruck or Kitzbühel. Plush hotels with gourmet restaurants, a casino, and an impressive health centre attract visitors who don’t necessarily come here to ski downhill.
Which makes it a great option if you’d prefer a winter wonderland experience to an intense week of skiing. You can wrap up warm for a romantic sleigh ride, walk along some of the many mountain paths, or try Seefeld’s raison d’être: cross-country skiing on the 279km of trails.
Several hotels have a great spa setup too, so if you fancy chilling out with your feet up or going for a couples massage then this is a fine place to do it.
Wildschönau Is a Wild and Beautiful Valley
I once spent a month in the Wildschönau, which is a quiet valley containing four classically-pretty villages – Niederau, Oberau, Auffach and Thierbach. The largest village is Niederau, with its chalet-style hotels and attractive tree-lined slopes.
I’ve always thought the most attractive village is tiny Oberau, which has a treat in the form of the 12th-century Tirolean inn, Gasthof Kellerwirt. The inn has belonged to the same family for six generations, serves excellent food and holds wine tastings in its cellar.
There’s plenty to offer on the slopes, too. Auffach was recently linked with Alpbach in the neighbouring valley to form the Ski Juwel area, doubling the size of the accessible terrain. Considering Wildschönau is just 45 minutes from Innsbruck by car, there’s a lot to like about this valley.
Felice Hardy is co-editor of ski information website Welove2ski.com.