Skiing in St. Anton

A Village in Austrian Alps is Transformed for a New Era

On The Town | Isabella Vatter | December 2006 / January 2007

Photo: Creative Commons

Only days left until most of the ski resorts in Austria and Germany open for the new season. Everyone is waiting for that one decisive factor: Snow. This fall’s mild temperatures have made snowflakes the most coveted holiday gift. Still, preparations at the resorts have taken their normal path.

"It’s not an altogether new situation; we’ve waited for snow before" says Richard Walter, director of a ski school.

So while the alpine world is waiting patiently for winter, we have a little time to figure out where to swing our skis and battle our boards.

For me, it is the little village of St. Anton. I grew up there, at least during the winter months, as my grandfather ran a lumber business and provided the wood for many of the houses built in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s full name is St. Anton am Arlberg, but we just call it Anton or Stanton as does the large English-speaking community. And objective or not, it is one of the "Best of the Alps."

Coming from Munich the short two-hour drive takes you over the infamous Fernpass, an extremely curvy, winding road with steep rocky mountains on one side and a gaping fall on the other. When ice and snow hit Austria and Bavaria, this route becomes adventurous to say the least. And yet, I have always loved the drive, seeing it as a hurdle one must overcome to receive the reward at the other end.

And it’s worth it!

St.Anton is part of what is called the Arlberg region and lies on 1.304 meters right by the border to Vorarlberg, beside the river Rosanna. This tiny town only has about 2.500 inhabitants but as of the 1st of December each year, the resort will welcome over 150.000 visitors. It used to be a sleepy, secret spot for ski lovers, hidden away between better-known resorts such as Lech and Zürs.

But the world discovered St. Anton in 2001 as all eyes turned to the slopes where the skiing world championships took place. For this prestigious event, the town underwent major changes, constructing more hotels, lifts and restaurants.

They even closed down the nostalgic-looking train station to build a high-tech wellness hotel at the bottom of the slopes with a stunning warm outside pool and a wide offer of treatments to satisfy the international guests. It was replaced by the new and highly modernized Franz-Josef train station, which opened just in time for the championships.

St. Anton woke up from its 100-year sleep more modern and impressive than ever before. 110 kilometres of prepared slopes with 70 kilometres of deep powder runs and 41 lifts to take you there, Stanton has really become a technological, as well as natural, winter paradise.

We always stayed in an apartment house located directly on the slopes, which meant having the luxury, still available today, of falling out of bed and directly onto our skis. A short ride takes you down the Moos, at the end of which you can either take the gondola or the chair lift.

The gondola called the Galzigbahn was completely renewed for this coming season, boasting a spaced-out glass architecture with 28 cabins fitting 24 persons each, working in a ‘Ferris-wheel’ manner, setting new standards in efficiency.

Standing in line has its own rules at St. Anton.  Unlike America, where people quietly crawl forwards in an orderly fashion, here it is all about ruthless effectiveness. You must stay focused and quick, move forward, don’t fall asleep and plan ahead. There are also ‘security’ guards who organize the crowds, making sure that each seat is taken, meaning that very often you will end up in a lift with strangers instead of your friends. This may seem harsh or over done, but it ensures shorter waiting times and more time on the slopes.

Once you get there, speed and efficiency seem to be the rule again. Instead of lazing around, or chatting, people race off downhill. Here skiing is a sport, not a social engagement.

The slopes have been designed to encourage this athleticism; long runs of varying stages of difficulty lead straight into more slopes and variations, sometimes skiing partly through the woods, knee high in deep powder, or negotiating a field of moguls. The longest run, from the Valluga down to the valley, will have you skiing for twenty minutes.

And yet, it is not just the technical perfection of the resort that distinguishes it. The town has an aura of familiarity that is special, a kind of casualness and relaxed fun with no dress codes or celebrity hypes. There are only a few shops, offering essentials rather than extravagance, and the bars and nightclubs are meeting places for young and old, skiers and boarders who are not there to flash the newest trends, but to get excited about the virgin powder ride they deflowered in the morning.

In St. Anton life is easy; the day is spent hitting the slopes and trails, with occasional breaks in one of the cosy huts for some Jagertee and Tirolian Gröstl and maybe a few late-afternoon après-ski hours before relaxing in a bathtub scented with the typical Kiefernlatschen essence. Should the weather ever be unbearable, the off time is used to cuddle up in front of the TV, watching a movie or going to the cinema. Since these lazy days are a rarity, they should be fully enjoyed.

The nights, though, can be crazy, for which the many Australian, Swedish and American guests and employees are in the end responsible! Glühwein and Schnapps in the Krazy Kanguruh bar on the middle of the last slope, then on to the Funky Chicken for some spicy grilled chicken and dangerous Margaritas which provide the base and motivation for the live music acts and more beers at the extremely cool and comfy Platzl.

Many young people come to St.Anton for the winter months to work as bar staff or ski instructors. The hard-earned money is spent mostly on the ski passes, which unfortunately aren’t cheap (day pass: €40, 50, 18-points card: € 219.00 season pass: €650). Then again, considering the size of the ski area and the incomparably fast and effective lifts, the prices are reasonably appropriate.

Despite the celebrated down-to-earthness, there are still several excellent restaurants such as the prestigious Hospiz or Verwallstuben, which offer star cuisine for special occasions. Here, finally, you will be able to flash your latest mink-coats and cashmere Mukluk’s.

But above all, St. Anton is about skiing. It is the reason why people travel around the world to come here; it is what everyone talks about, and it is what you will see on any television in every bar.  No matter how long the night is, drinking, singing and dancing at the infamous Mooserwirt, everyone will get up in the morning to be the first on the beautiful and exciting slopes of the Arlberg.

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    the vienna review December 2006 / January 2007