Gastein and Grossarl are a pair of gorgeous and very different winter destinations barely an hour’s drive from the divine easy-to-access Austrian city of Salzburg and its airport with regular flights. And they are home to three ski areas, all very close together.
Bad Gastein/Bad Hofgastein
Gastein is the big one, linking the classic spa town of Bad Gastein (all grand belle epoque buildings along with a waterfall thundering into the gorge that cuts through the middle) and Bad Hofgastein (more modern and busier but still with Austrian charm).
Right at the end of the valley, along a narrow road, between river and rocky wall, is Sportgastein; no town just a lone ski area with the valley’s highest pistes.
Near the valley’s entrance is the little village of Dorfgastein, quieter yet with slopes bounding over to the Grossarl valley and the picturesque village of Grossarl, with its bundle of upmarket hotels. All are on the Ski Amade lift pass which covers 760km of piste across five neighbouring regions.
There’s 200km of pistes across the three ski areas, all only a few minutes apart by free bus. The Bad Gastein/Bad Hofgastein area has runs across several peaks reaching 2,251m, high (and snowsure) compared to many Austrian resorts.
The skiing is excellent, mostly easy-going reds with a few blues, the occasional black and lots of off-piste, much of it through the trees, and with regular views over town and valley.
Good intermediates will love Bad Hofgastein’s H1, a twisting 10km run from top to town. This season catch the clanky old funicular up from the Hof – already the Schlossalmbahn gondola, with its futuristic base station, is rising in town and from December 2018 will head straight for the summit.
Sportgastein is smaller but more dramatic with Ski Amade’s high point, 2,686km Kreuzkogel, with 360-degree views, but is equally good for intermediates with plenty of tree-lined runs.
Dorfgastein/Grossarl, which itself tops 2,000m, is relaxed and family-friendly but with plenty of skiing for all levels. A smooth piste dashes down the ridge that divides the two valleys giving lovely views in each direction and you can easily ski either way, with gondolas back up. Food is exceptional in all three areas with a collection of Ski-Toque huts, mountain restaurants offering signature dishes from top Austrian chefs.
All three resorts are a delightful mix of ancient and modern. Bad Gastein features the mighty Felsentherme, a vast complex combining tradition with contemporary chic, with huge year-round open-air pools.
It’s a fascinating town with its rocky chasm, spray flying up from the falls – over which the zipline ride is irresistible. In the basement of a former five-star hotel (now apartments) is Ginger’n’Gin, a trendy spot that combines a vast gin menu (try the Hidden Gem Austrian gin from a schnapps maker) with oriental cuisine.
Bad Hofgastein features the Alpentherme, a huge modern natural hot water spa complex with an outdoor swimming pool, in the middle.
For a traditional dinner, including accordion music, knee-slapping dances by men in leather shorts and schnapps quaffing, nowhere beats the Bellevue Alm up on the slopes; you take a rickety single-seat chairlift up – and toboggan down.
Grossarl is different again, understated and sophisticated – a nighttime sleigh ride through the quiet streets has a beguiling charm, stopping beneath the star-lit sky to knock back the driver’s home-made schnapps.
Where to stay
Bad Hofgastein is the most central resort for skiing all three areas. One of the biggest (yet still pretty) hotels, the Osterreichischer Hof, even has a subterranean corridor to the Alpentherme (leading from its own not inconsiderable spa and pool area).
Grossarl is lovely in its quiet way, nowhere more so than the splendid Grossarler Hof opposite the lifts, a palace-sized hotel in chalet style, part of Niche Destinations, a collection dedicated to uniting understated elegance and sustainable tourism.
A waterwheel turns as you enter and the divine bar is a world of wood saved from old famhouses combined with glowing red chairs. To one side what appears to be a farmer’s hut is actually a dark, discreet annex to the main dining area with its modern take on tradition. Deer soup anyone? Chocolate treats with poppy seeds?
If you do two things…
Take breakfast at the top of Sportgastein: on long legs, looking like a creature from War of the Worlds, is a 1970s metal dodecahedron, which once was a lifties’ lookout.
Now you can book a breakfast (max 15 people) with sparkling wine and early lift access – a wealth of meats, cheeses and fizz with a mountain man whizzing up scrambled eggs on a tiny hot plate. €45 but an unforgettable treat. And from March the peak boasts the Alps’ highest farmers’ market.
Go ski touring (sliding uphill on special skis then skiing down). Most Grossarl hotels (including the Grossarler Hof) are in a programme that offers a free day’s guiding (snowshoeing too). Simply rent skis and boots, (costs about £25). We were ferried to the Ellmau side valley then spent the morning hypnotically moving up through trees and dappled sunlight to a deserted mountainside where we sat and ate our lunch (all part of the deal from the hotel) and pondered the beauty of our twin valleys.
Crystal Ski offers seven nights at the Osterreichischer Hof from £811pp, half-board, including flights and transfers. The Grossarler Hof offers a four-night Amadé Ski Finale break, April 4-8, from €640pp (two sharing) including four-day lift pass, breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner. Transfers, through the tourist office, from £25pp, one way.