To find the true treasures in life, it can be rewarding to seek out the quiet, lesser known ones as they may reveal qualities beyond their description and image offering very individual experiences. You find it in anything from chefs through to skiing resorts; Slovenia hides lots of treasures including the acknowledged “ world’s best female chef”, dig deeper and there is much more to find. Aspen, St. Moritz, Gstaad and Courchevel 1850 are known to all. However, Austria’s Lech/Oberlech am Arlberg resort is not on everyone’s radar, despite patronages from the Monaco, Dutch and Jordanian royal families as well as the UK’s Princess Diana and the princes. Hollywood stars including Arnold Schwarzenegger also come to avoid the limelight whilst on holiday.
This relatively small resort is tight knit, it lies in a picturesque valley with a river meandering through the middle with a church spire adding to the attractive scene. The friendly atmosphere is rather genteel, but not too precious. Amongst the attractive buildings, there are plenty of bars and restaurants and just enough shops for retail therapists. The shopping is also a little different; they even have their own interpretation of Harrods with the Strolz department store; their ski shop opposite is surely unequalled in its splendour. And, where else would you find a magnum of red wine at over 600 Euros in the local supermarket? On the other hand, they are very real as I had a very palatable red under a local ‘Krug’ brand at 12 Euros.
There are no large hotels but there are now quite a few highly luxurious chalets which are world ranking, including one that is overall, the world’s most expensive. They line the side of the valley up to the largely car-free Oberlech where the best views can be enjoyed. The interior designs differ but obviously at this level it is not at all about price but choosing a style that suits your tastes.
Arguably, Lech’s best small hotel, the Aurelio Hotel & chalet – nominated one of Austria’s “Leading Boutique Hotel: 2019”. The hotel and their ‘Aurelio Club’ next door comprise a total of two suites and 16 generous rooms. The 1,000 sq. m spa and wellness centre is big enough to get lost in with the 18m. pool being the hub of activities and, indeed, relaxation. The security is efficient but discreet, whilst the 46 staff are personable; they are quick to fulfil every request as they genuinely wish to ensure everyone enjoys their experience. The three in-house alpacas are fun but not so obliging. The hotel’s vernacular design hides the modern facilities inside, if not enjoying skiing the uncrowded slopes, a drink on the sunny terrace just watching the skiers go by is a temping diversion.
The Aurelio now has three new sister chalets in Oberlech; the Arula chalets – nominated in the World Ski Awards “World’s Best New Ski chalet: 2019” and the nearby Mimi chalet. They, and the Aurelio are all ski-in/ski-out.
The presence of cars spoil many resorts but Lech surely leads the way by gouging out the mountain to create large, unseen car parks, the Aurelio included. However, the Arula chalets are not near a road but nothing daunted, it took two years of excavation to create an underground car park. At the far end is a glass wall behind which is a party room with exotic graffiti decoration. A lift takes you down through five floor levels opening on to a long passageway – could be a lair in a Bond film. Opening the door at the far end you enter a hallway; with a chalet on either side, each with their own spa, cinema room, pool and sun terrace. The tonal qualities of the translucent Himalayan salt wall was a marvel. The chalets can be booked together or individually with a total of 29 beds (21 and 8), staffing is flexible including butlers 24/7. The architecture of chalet Mimi is no less impressive; the chalet comprises four double bedrooms and a bunk room. Not forgetting the spa, entertainment room and heated outdoor Jacuzzi with panoramic views.
The area covered by the ski pass is 300km also includes St Anton, Zurs and St Christoph. Their picturesque pistes are varied with few black runs but there are some very achievable challenges for intermediates with the famous 22km ‘White Ring’ around Lech and Zurs with a total height difference of about 5,500m. There are some lovely slopes to ski on the Oberlech side in the morning as the queues on the main lift from the resort on the Rüfikopf side are a disgrace for a resort of this stature. Far better to use the Aurelio’s Bentley courtesy car for a short ride to another queue free lift just round the mountain. Apart from that glitch of a lift, the ski terrain features varied interesting experiences, the pistes are well prepared and lift queues are not an issue.
After skiing, choose a bar along the main street and bask with a refreshing drink in the sun or seek out the ‘Hus No. 8’ bar/restaurant for its traditional cosy style. Go modern on the slopes and you will surprisingly find well-designed ski lift buildings, but more particularly the sleekly designed Der Wolf bar/restaurant sets the style of today. Nearby the restaurant is a short slope with a speed indicator; it’s fun for all ages and abilities to put their skills to a test.
Very aware of the quality of the environment, Lech has reduced their CO2 emissions and improved air quality by building a biomass plant to provide heat and hot water for the resort, also by providing a free public bus service to reduce the need for cars.
The more famous neighbouring resort of St Anton is very different and to my eyes, its narrower valley seems quite cramped and lacks the charm of Lech. Nevertheless, it is legendary for both its challenging off-piste skiing and for its drinking culture - the young and adventurous Swedes almost made it their own really appreciating the lower prices of alcohol. Again, it is better to take the Bentley to St Christoph to ski St Anton’s slopes, the resorts are now linked by a tortuous string of lifts (both ways on the Flexenbahn). If the off-piste snow is stable then it is more than worthwhile as it offers extensive ‘world class’ challenges at all levels. However, the prepared pistes do not offer challenges for an intermediate skier, the only advantage over Lech is that some of the runs are longer.
Not so well known is nearby St Christoph, a small resort where they have rebuilt an Hospice and added a cultural centre where I attended a fantastic jazz concert before dinner. A unique attraction is the largest collection of claret in the world outside France with the core of the collection in large bottles – up to 27 litres. The only way to buy the wine is to consume it on the premises as their pricing offers some extraordinary opportunities with newly fashionable, i.e. expensive wines, perhaps well below market prices. The prices are based on the purchase cost plus 5% for each year in storage, so wine lovers travel from far and wide to dine and enjoy the rarest of wines.
Whilst you will not find the inveterate night-clubbers in Lech, there is enough variety and activity to give the resort a bit of a buzz. There is a large core of guests who regard Lech as their relaxing winter home to which they return year after year – the atmosphere is infectious. I certainly look forward to returning.