Escape the January Blues — Skiing in Saalbach

The prospect of a sporting holiday over a seaside lounge may prove a hard sell, but the dark chills of January leave little options, and the beautiful food, drink and vista views of the Austrian outback may yet tip the scales in their favor.

Saalbach-Hinterglemm form Austria’s Ski Circus, the country’s largest such resort located in a valley in the Salzburgerland, with over 200km of slopes crisscrossing its ridges. For all its largesse there is a small scale charm and coziness to the place.

The intertwining villages expand along the floor of their V-shaped valley in an eclectic mix of holiday-makers; streamlined Mercedes jostle with student filled buses, to the cheers and chatter of pan-continental languages that fill the party-towns’ streets.

Of the two locales Saalbach is the more convenient, with lifts stretching east and west to Leogang on the other side of the mountain. Both villages are free of through-traffic and both are lively from mid-afternoon until the early hours. Saalbach in particular can get rowdy, with drunken revelers still in their ski boots late in the evening.

Saalbach itself gathers up a collection of buzzing nightclubs and party-town vibes, and plops it in the middle of the charming old town square. Cheesy 80s tunes waft in-between traditional houses and breweries. The result, if staying centrally, is near to an ideal blend of Austrian charm with French convenience, all to the tune of a college town backdrop.

Example of said ‘Austrian charm with French charm’

Hinterglenn offers the quieter side to Saalbach’s coin, sporting a collection of B&Bs and rental houses, crouched above its busier counterpart. Specialty schnapps stores and dumpling restaurants fill the streets, many of which boast singularly local delicacies.

Michel, the owner of the tiny schnapps bar points to the hills beyond the window and curtly justifies the “specialty” of his store: ‘The berries, we pick from the mountains up there. There is no English name. It takes five years to grow and make into schnapps.’

But the merger of bustling modernity and traditional charm is not without its drawbacks; the sprawling result of the two villages proves an arduous trek in ski boots, leaving some at the prey of the sparse and expensive taxis circling the town.

The bus service has nothing to boast about either; it finishes early, is packed at peak times, and runs indirect winding trails between resorts. For the ‘largest resort in Austria’ the lack of transport can seem woeful at times.

But the ultimate crux of the journey is the skiing itself; of the 200 kilometers slopes, 90 kilometers is classified as blue (beginner), 95 kilometers as red (intermediate) and 15 kilometers as black (expert). Most slopes are very wide and well-marked. This makes Saalbach-Hinterglemm the ideal destination for beginners and those returning to the sport after a hiatus.

Piste map for saalbach-Hinterglenn

But the intermediate-centric slopes should not deter the supersonic expert, as the many off-piste areas are correspondingly practically untouched. The highest peak is the 2,096-meter-high Schattberg-West; the lowest point is at 788 meter in Leogang. And for those who can appreciate it, across the entire circuit of the resort, there is only one T-bar that is unavoidable.

The slopes themselves are some of the best in Europe; the evidence of which is loud and proud in the formerly tiny villages-turned bustling party towns. The Ski circus has made a point of catering to all levels of skill and experience, which is a statement often sold but rarely fulfilled by resort brochures.

Altitudes are modest and the ever-climbing temperature has decreed a year-on-year decrease of snow. Any tick above absolute freezing sends fog from the low-lying hills rolling up the mountains. The south-facing majority of the slopes also lend a hand to early spring melting, shrinking the window of opportunity for the would-be holiday maker to the mid-winter rush.

Snapshot from the bluest of blue slopes

The instructors are, similar to the holidaymakers, largely university students; professionals in their sport angling for something more permanent in the towns below the slopes.

A Dutch student in the summer months, instructor Max describes his between-season studies; ‘I’m in my final year of study, in Holland e have school, university, and an in-between level of education. I’m currently in the in-between one. Once I get to university I want to study hotel management.’

The student centric vibes alongside the family friendly hotels and conveniences land Saalbach at the perfect tightrope balance that all resorts of its type strive for; it’s a party town at heart with the safety net comforts and privacy the family holiday requires.

The final result is a destination almost entirely composed of broad slopes between swathes of breathtaking vistas with enough après ski huts along the slopes so that relaxation never feels too far away. As a way to escape the January blues, the cure may just be a trip to the ski circus. (word count: 805)

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