This quiet little town has always found itself off the beaten track despite being only an hour from Salzburg. But new lifts have integrated it into the beautiful Hochkönig ski area and stylish hotels are opening their doors.
Maria Alm is an unassuming place yet charmingly traditional, dominated by its church with its 76m needle-like steeple, the tallest in Salzburgerland and one of the pointiest in Austria. It used to be that a shuttle bus was needed to get to the 120km of the Hochkönig ski area but the swift, silent 10-person Natrunbahn gondola, opened late 2018, connects town centre and mountain top.
About the Hochkönig region
Hochkönig means High King, and the mountain of the same name dominates the views from the ski slopes which run through several towns and villages, from Maria Alm at one end to Muhlbach at the other, a great day out there and back. The mountain, with a ridge that extends almost as far as the skiing does provides a grand panorama even as the runs dart cosily amongst the trees.
Maria Alm is the biggest place to stay; it’s not a major resort (although now it has a direct link to the slopes that is likely to change) but there are decent, bars, restaurants and hotels.
The skiing at Maria Alm’s Natrunbahn
At the top of Maria Alm’s Natrunbahn you can take the long, pretty ski back down or head on the other way to connect to the Hochkönig circuit. Down and then up, the skiing above Maria Alm reaches 1,900m at Aberg-Langeck where several short black pistes and various off-piste options provide a challenge in an area where most of the skiing is good, intermediate fare.
The Hochkönig mountain at nearly 3,000m runs in a ridge parallel to the ski slopes as they head east, tree-lined runs that dart down first into Hintermoos and Hinterthal (a long red from top to bottom with the option of switching to a black half way). From there, runs hop over the Gabuhel peak, Austrian skiing as you always imagine it, picturesque and safe for all the family. And, while this might be a largely unknown area, the lifts are all modern.
From here there are plenty more ups and downs – up to fabulous viewpoints and down through the trees – before arriving at the farthest point, the little town of Muhlbach. And then you get to do it all in reverse, everything looking different. And it’s perfect for families with blue runs available nearly all the way, save for a few easy reds.
Another bonus is that Hochkönig is on the Ski Amade lift pass (named after Salzburg’s most famous resident, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), which has 760km of pistes in five regions, including the elegant spa town of Bad Gastein and the Dachstein glacier. Nowhere is more than an hour apart and, given the short drive from Salzburg, it’s a great region to come and explore a different area each day at no added cost.
Why go there?
The charm: The 120km of runs give plenty of options for all levels but in a quieter, more laid-back way than better-known places. As of yet there are no major British tour operators – and none of the crowds.
The ease: Maria Alm is only 44km from Salzburg airport. There are many shuttle services, it’s an easy drive in a hire car and some travel companies offer transfers.
A taste of winter: Hilltop Gasthof Kronreith (a short cab ride or a decent walk) has good honest Austrian dinners – and a 1.5km toboggan ride down. A horse-drawn carriage takes you on a moonlit ride through lovely scenery. And there’s night skiing in Maria Alm three days a week – one of many free offers on the Hochkönig Card, complimentary at most hotels.
Where to eat on the slopes
Tom: Epitomising Maria Alm’s new boutique flair, contemporary cowshed chic, created by Tom Schwaiger, brother of Sepp, behind the town’s newest, coolest hotel, the Sepp. A first-floor balcony area looks through the glass roof (which slides back on nice days) and over the bar downstairs, lined with old chairlift seating. Posh nosh, too – I tried the special menu built around Jägermeister herb liqueur including such gems as pear soup with a slice of pear in Jägermeister dip and a Jägermeister and pear puree cocktail.
Steinbockalm: Farther into Hochkönig, at Hinterthal, with fantastic views. The place is a neat mix of modern and traditional, two rustic huts connected by a cool bar and lounge above which sits the terrace. Think dishes like braised beef with creamed polenta, fried mushrooms and potato straw. Special events include Sushi Sunday, live music, craft beer festivals and even a farmers’ market.
The X Factor: A Culinary Königstour is a day out on skis either guided or alone taking in six summits and varied mountain huts. Home Cooking gives you Alpine snacks, pancakes and other delicacies at four farms. Herb Enjoyment gives food and natural secrets at four spots while Peak Enjoyment offers a four-course tasting menu split around the peaks
Budget: There are a number of small pensions here, including Pension Augenbrundl in a quiet countryside setting but an easy stroll to Maria Alm’s centre. Cosy rooms with balcony or terrace and hearty breakfasts. Doubles from €58, B&B.
Mid range: Hotel Sepp, new in late 2018, combines woody tradition with contemporary chic and a touch of playfulness. Owner/architect Sepp Schwaiger is the mastermind. There’s a lift with an interior clad in the metal panels from one of those old, upright cable car cabins –with a ‘window’ that shows film of a real mountain ride. The top (3rd) floor is the heart: piles of teapots so you can make your own cuppa, a cheery bar and a restaurant and included breakfast buffet until 1pm. On the terrace is an Airstream caravan converted into a sauna – it juts over the street with ‘Don’t Panic!’ painted beneath. Alongside is an open-air infinity swimming pool fed by a natural hot spring. Doubles from €200, B&B.
How to get there
FLY: EasyJet has budget flights from London Gatwick to Salzburg five days a week along with flights from Luton, Liverpool, Bristol and Belfast.
PACKAGE: Ski Solutions has seven nights B&B at Hotel Sepp’s less jazzy sister, Hotel Eder, from £1,410pp including flights and transfers. Ski Fix, run in Maria Alm by long-time Brit residents Thom Henderson and Kate Cannon, can put together a two-night break, B&B, in a four-star hotel, from £189pp, including transfers and a day’s ski guiding. Flights extra.