Kitzbuhel is one of the great classic resorts; interesting and beautiful mountains, varied standards of skiing all well covered and complemented by a resort centre that sets the standard for the travel industry. However, its reputation faded as they failed to invest in new skiing infrastructure resulting in slow and inadequate lift capacity for ‘eco’ reasons.
All is now forgiven as a new regime was happily installed, resulting in a comprehensive and modern, very largely queue-free lift system; the mountains look to be in very good fettle despite the larger number of skiers. The icing on the cake is that some of the latest lifts have heated, leather seats. I particularly liked the convenience of a one-stop shop of the main lift station whereby everything you need from loos, through remote un/locking lockers to kit hire/purchase are conveniently located. The facilities on the mountain also work well. Rather too tempting for some are the mountain restaurants/bars/ ‘huts’ some of which offer a varied choice from quick refreshments to lingering lunches. The service is generally good even at peak times. Some of us are rather taken with their traditional apple straddle and cream which seemed to feature fairly prominently on other gateaux. Much skiing is needed to compensate for the calorie count.
At last we get to the skiing; there is great variety from the ‘magic carpets’ on the nursery slopes through a well-balanced selection of graded, prepared runs to off-piste runs which include some less demanding slopes for those wishing to develop their skills without heart-stopping descents.
My ski guide Hans Haas has a very easy-going manner which must have suited his main career of an organic dairy farmer with eleven milking cows (and six daughters) but that did not stop him skiing with verve. My request to get in as much skiing in as possible and to cover as much of the mountains as well was taken literally even though we had poor visibility over most of two days. However, as much of the mountains are covered in trees, it obviously was so much better than resorts with extensive wide open spaces. We did not ski on the Kitzbuheler Horn mountain which has mainly easy runs but we effectively ‘skied out’ the slopes from Kirkberg to beyond Jochberg. We were only able to cover that expanse as our chats were limited to the time on the lifts as we skied each run from top to bottom without stopping except for perhaps ten seconds when a particular feature was pointed out.
I like to ski straight over the usual resting places or ledges on runs where the pistes below take on a different character; i.e. steeper. I have only once had another ski guide who also shared my enjoyment, on that occasion we were skiing very fast as I followed about 30 metres behind her. I watched her head to gauge the drop on the further side of each ledge only to find at one point her head was visible but that was because she was literally flying and the slope dropped away steeply; for once I did not take a tumble on my flight. Hans‘ reasoning was that when he is coaching, the longer his pupils dally, the more feared they are of the steepness of the descent so he encourages them to bite the bullet and go for it. More fun all round. However, that approach does not always apply in Kicking Horse, the most demanding (scary) resort I have skied. Some cliffs have snow on them, some do not; a guide is essential as following the tracks of near suicidal skiers is too much for me.
Many of the 215 kms of prepared pistes within the Kitzski area are well maintained and flatter people’s style and should surely tempt them to take on some of the pisted black runs. They might be steep and quite long but there is usually plenty of width if you cannot take the centre line. It is only your head for heights that has to be overcome. However, the infamous Hahnenkamm World Cup run needs some respect as it is a different challenge. When watching a race on television, I always think the challenge is really over on the final run on the flattening slope to the finish; try skiing it straight. I have misjudged when to take it straight too soon more than once only to find it to be sheer ice and none too smooth.
When skiing with a guide, I do not navigate and just enjoy the experience, the only problem being that I never remember the runs’ names. Nevertheless, I did note that the signposting was consistently very good – Italians do things really well or really badly; signposting is one of their biggest failings apart from in the Dolomites. However, when skiing on my own I could not work out how to reach an elusive lift and ended up following an off-piste trail that was simply two ski tracks which lead me away from the downhill runs into the middle of nowhere. The only noise was birdsong and the tranquil beauty astounding. Great as a one-off but speed is my drug of choice.
The resort reflects its historic wealth from silver mining, i.e. it has some splendid buildings which grace particularly the main street plus a few large churches. Apart from the earlier ski lift issue, the locals have really got their act together with their historic buildings in the centre. They are well preserved whilst the buildings are mainly commercial premises; that use has not adversely affected their appearance. For example, the small protruding, hanging signs on each shop have mainly black with white lettering so they merge into the streetscape. I cannot recall seeing any neon signs and other significant jarring intrusions. Zermatt for one, should really up its game and copy Kitzbuhel’s lead.
There is a wide choice of bars and restaurants around plus some hotels in the centre which is quite quiet at night. The 5*Weisses Rössl lacks nothing in luxury but I would suggest its style does not really relate to the great character of Kitzbuhel but the wine cellar was duly impressive.
As Salzburg’s airport is only 50 miles away from Kitzbuhel, a weekend ski break works well, it is worth considering the 3* Gamshof hotel, nothing fancy but its position is good and it offers good value for the money.
My choice would be a really characterful hotel a few minutes shuttle away in a quiet spot with great views; the 5* Tennerhof hotel. Documents from 1416 show a large farm house existed on the site, it evolved into the present building in 1679. The scale is intimate with lots of private niches in an Alpine fashion. There are some lovely bedrooms and suites and to add some modern history, Ian Fleming went to school in the resort and stayed for many months in the hotel and then returned frequently thereafter. His habitual room is named after him. Essentials such as a good spa and an award winning restaurant complete the package for a very comfortable and relaxing holiday.
There are plenty of diversions for non-skiers to the extent that “I did not have time to ski”. We were intent on filling our time when not skiing with lots of other interests too.
The appeal of a slow ride around a ski resort in a carriage with the passengers who often seem rather embarrassed at the attention was rather lost on me but our host had organised a dinner in …. And we were to go in a sleigh. First we drove to a farm a distance from Kitzbuhel; it was very much a working farm with the large farmhouse surrounded by barns. We transferred to a former ‘farm vehicle’ of a sleigh, i.e. it was an antique of some age, it had latterly been fitted out with some seats and two heavy horses were harnessed up.
It snowed hard but we were well wrapped up and we stopped for a homemade grappa or two en route as we glided along the snow covered country road. No cars, no houses along most of the way which made for a surprisingly pleasant experience.
We visited the small but inevitably very picturesque village of Aurach which boasted a vast church which matched the size of the portions we ate dinner at the charming, traditional Hallerwirt restaurant.
Kitzbuhel now lives up to its world class classic resort reputation in all respects, the appeal is very wide from gourmets who can indulge themselves both on and off the mountain, through mixed ability skiing parties to those looking for off-piste and Hahnenkamm challenges.