The Blog

My Friendly Little Austrian Ski Lift Has Morphed Into a monster - but I Guess That's Progress!

Whenever I find myself in urgent need of some mountain air and high jinks to blow away the cobwebs of a busy autumn, I head for the Alps. One of my favourite haunts is Obergurgl, in Austria, which has almost become a second home. A long-time favourite with British skiers, the resort, linked with neighbouring Hochgurgl, is perched high at the far end of the Ötztal Valley close to the Italian border.

Why Obergurgl? Because although it always has a party atmosphere, it's more sophisticated than some Austrian resorts - you know the festive season is going to be exhilarating without being tacky, and the quality of the food and service beyond reproach. Obergurgl somehow manages to be lively but stylish. At this altitude (just under 2,000 metres, so a genuinely excellent snow record) champagne corks pop with extra zest, and the bubbles may well go to your head faster. But while the behaviour of some guests may not be as white as the driven snow, this corner of a foreign snowfield that is forever England is certainly not lager-lout territory.

As for the skiing, there's certainly plenty of it - almost 70 miles of slopes, all told, served by 24 lifts. It's so high it can sometimes seem a little bleak - but not on New Year's Eve, which is why skiers of all ages and all levels make this annual pilgrimage. A high percentage return year after year for what are usually quite gentle New Year's celebrations. Just about all the main hotels have atmospheric gala dinners - one of my favourites takes place at the family-run Edelweiss and Gurgl Hotel.

For this coming winter (2015-2016) an important new lift has now opened high on the Hochgurgl side of the slopes, with a second - even higher - section due to be installed in the next couple of years or so. The exciting new state-of-the-art Kirchenkarbahn can transport 2,400 people per hour - not only increasing capacity but also reducing lift queues.

The only downside of the new lift for me was the discovery that it has replaced a T-bar I was once rather fond of because it accessed some little-known powder stashes that I regarded as my little secret. Now Hochgurgl's hoi polloi can all join in the fun!

Meanwhile the futuristic, extensively sweeping lines of the "Top Mountain Cross Point" Kirchenkarbahn base station will house an impressive motorbike museum, plus a restaurant serving Austrian alpine cuisine favourites. There'll be room for 220 inside and seating for a further 220 outside on a terrace.

Other highlights for 2016 include the completely refurbished Schönwies Hütte (2266m), reached from the top of the Steinmann chair by skiing behind a skidoo or quad bike, Snow Fun Parks with a Fun Slope in Hochgurgl, and a smaller, more technical one in Obergurgl - the Quattro Snow Park with rails, benches and, jumps, etc. And on Fridays, the recently introduced "First Line" is popular with early risers who book in advance to make first tracks with a ski school instructor.

But pride of place in terms of altitude and novelty still goes to Hochgurgl's Top Mountain Star restaurant (3030m). By taking a mere four-minute chairlift ride up to the very top of the Wurmkogl peak, you're greeted by the impressive glass-walled restaurant perched on a panoramic platform with remarkable views across the Ötztal Alps and the Italian Dolomites.

Back in Obergurgl, the Hohe Mut - famous for its challengingly steep bumps - was transformed a few years ago by the Hohe Mut Bahn gondola, which is so close to the Edelweiss and Gurgl Hotel that I could see the base station almost outside my bedroom during a return visit in November 2015 - a serious incentive not to be tempted to lie in!

I have always enjoyed the Hohe Mut in powder, but in the old days you had to be quick and ski it before it got bumped up. And bumps, or "moguls" have always been my nemesis. Luckily what until then was always rather the preserve of hard-core skiers and snowboarders is available to intermediates thanks to the red run which avoids the tougher off-piste sections of the celebrated 2,803-foot (854m) vertical drop. In many ways it was a relief to find that when the new Hohe Mut gondola was installed, there was now a choice between making a fool of yourself on the moguls of the old run and looking rather less ungainly while enjoying the comparative luxury of a groomed descent.