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A guide to skiing in Kitzbühel, Austria

Time flies when you’re having fun – so the saying goes.  But surely if you are having fun, you want time to slow down to a crawl? What a pity, then, that we can’t control the speed at which time passes… or can we?  Neuroscientist David Eagleman’s theory is that time is all a matter of perception. What we think of as our sense of time is actually just a load of information that our brain has arranged and presented to us in a particular way or sequence. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take very long and time seems to fly. But processing new information takes a bit longer and makes time feel elongated – so the more new things we experience, the more time slows down.  So what better way to make a ski holiday feel longer than it is than visiting a resort you’ve never visited before – which in my case was Kitzbühel in Austria.

A BIT OF HISTORY

Kitzbühel is a picturesque mountain village situated in the Austrian Alps about 100km east of Innsbruck.  Having started life as a mining town, it is the polar opposite of  purpose-built modern ski villages and has a real vibrancy and sense of history.  It was here in March 1893 that Franz Reisch walked up and managed to ski down from the Kitzbüheler Horn, making it the first Alpine ski run in Austria.  Word spread among fellow snowsport enthusiasts and by 1895 Franz Reisch was organizing regular ski trips and ski races, laying the foundations for Austrian winter tourism.  As demand grew, hotels and rental properties sprung up and proficient skiers from the village started offering the first commercial ski lessons.  In 1929 the world’s first cable car specifically to facilitate skiing, the Hahnenkammbahn, was built.  This cemented Kitzbühel’s reputation as a ski destination of international renown and today it is one of Austria’s most iconic – and upmarket – ski resorts.

 

 

 

The village is probably best known for the Hahnenkamm which hosts the annual World Cup ski races including the iconic (and terrifying!) downhill race on the Streif piste.  Introduced 80 years ago in 1937, the northeast-facing Streif is among the world’s toughest downhill courses, and is infamous for the sheer number of spectacular crashes. For the truly crazy among us, there is also the option of taking part annually in the Streif VERTICAL UP race.  The idea is for runners to retrace steps of the Streif  downhill piste… but going uphill instead of down.  The winner is whomever completes the 3,312metre long course with a vertical climb of 860m first by any means or route they choose – provided they do so under their own power.

 

 

 

 

Because it is not a modern purpose-built village, the historic town centre itself is pretty and offers plenty of distraction for those who choose not to take part in snowsports.  The town centre is full of brightly-coloured traditional Austrian buildings that provide a backdrop for cultural events like the Carnival parade that took place when I visited.  Shopping is plentiful and varied, ranging from the usual sports and ski rental stores to designer boutiques and chic coffee and cocktail bars. It’s also worth visiting the scenic Bergfriedhof mountain cemetery, dominated by the adjacent Liebfrauenkirche and the Pfarrkirche, and containing a number of graves of well-known local mountaineers.

 

 

 

SKIING IN KITZBÜHEL

Kitzbühel is perhaps neither the highest (2000m maximum) nor the most snow-sure resort in the Alps, but it offers 200 day of skiing per year – more than most other non-glacier resorts.  The lower slopes are predominantly grass meadows so not much snowfall is required to achieve skiable coverage. There is also an extensive programme of snow maintenance in place, including stockpiling snow in “snow depots” to redistribute around the pistes. Its enviable natural position between the Hahnenkamm and Kitzbüheler Horn mountains makes it ideally placed to offer a variety of ski terrain.  Kitzbühel’s ski area is spread over several mountains, all of which are thickly wooded on the lower slopes which makes for a far prettier ski experience than many of the higher, more exposed Alpine resorts.  Despite the fearsome reputation of the Hahnenkamm, most of the slopes are perfectly suited to intermediate skiers and pistes are both wide and long.  If you love cruisey reds and blues, you have come to the right place!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Together with the pistes and ski lifts of neighbouring Kirchberg in Tirol, Jochberg and the Thurn Pass, Kitzbühel is one of the largest ski regions in Austria, boasting 179 km of groomed slopes of varying degrees of difficulty as well as 36 km of Nordic ski trails.   The slopes are split between 13 black, 25 red and 22 blue – and with the exception of the Streif, there is very little here to scare confident intermediates.   The pistes are served by 54 cable cars, gondolas and modern, fast chair lifts, many with canopies for snowy days. A nice touch is that all the lifts in the alley serving green practice slopes are free of charge, making  Kitzbühel  a great choice for first-time skiers or families with children. The free lifts are: Rasmusleiten (Kitzbühel), Mocking (Kitzbühel), Hausleiten (Jochberg), Pass Thurn, Reith and Aschau.  There are many ski schools in operation in Kitzbühel, but the most famous one and the one I used  is the Rote Teufel (Red Devils) – a nickname in reference to the red sweaters and hats that the ski  instructors wear.  Harry and Sebastian, our two guides/instructors were wonderfully patient and confidence-inspiring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, the one piste that everyone wants to try for themselves is the Streif (21a on the Kitzbühel piste map).  The 3.3km descent consists largely of intermediate slope but is punctuated by surprises like the infamous Mausefalle (mouse trap) where the slope falls away at a roller-coaster-like 85 degrees.   Although it is closed immediately before the Hahnenkamm downhill race, it is open to the public afterwards – although it should only be attempted if you actually enjoy skiing (i.e. falling down) near vertical sheet ice!  Even a few weeks later when there is more snow coverage, the Streif  is not normally pisted, and often covered in huge moguls, but it’s worth skiing a little section of just to get a sense of how skilled the downhill racers must be.  The best time to do it is early in the morning after a dump of fresh snow, but for the more timid there is also the easier “family Streif” – a piste that includes all the red parts of the Streif but cuts out the vertical drops.

 

 

 

 

If you prefer to do your skiing far from the madding crowd, head south towards the Resterhoehe ski area, via the truly impressive 3S gondola. The slopes at this end of the resort are usually quiet and at a max altitude of 1894m the area has its own microclimate, slightly chillier and snowier than the rest of the ski area. The gondola ride itself is an experience.  Opened in 2005, the S3 connects the two ski areas of Kitzbühel /Kirchberg and Jochberg/Resterhoehe and traverses an impressive 3.6km on its journey across the valley between Kitzbühel and Jochberg.  There is only a single 80m high (!) support pillar along the way and the car reaches a maximum height of 400m above the ground.  It’s a large car though, with seats, so if heights worry you it is possible to sit in the middle and gaze out rather than down!

 

 

 

 

And this is… me! Coming down  cruisey red and being expertly filmed by my ski instructor!

 

 

FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Night skiing is one of my favourite things to do on a ski holiday – as much for the slightly surreal experience of skiing a piste under floodlights and the cool night air in my face as for the party atmosphere at the late-night après-ski! Night skiing in the Kitzbühel area takes place ever Thursday and Friday night on the Gaisberg in Kirchberg village.  The slopes are groomed after the last lifts of the day closes and the lifts then reopen from 18h30-21h30 for night skiing, with the pistes floodlit till 23h30.  Night skiing is included in the price of a normal lift pass.  And if you are tired of skiing, night tobogganing is also offered at Gaisberg.

 

 

One of the more unusual experiences I have had on the snow was our trip to Bichlalm restaurant for lunch.  Bichlalm sits in splendid isolation in what used to be a little self-contained ski area but which is now an unpisted ski touring area, served by only one lift: the Bichlalm 2-seat chair lift.  Apparently a bargain was struck between the ski resort and the restaurant owner whereby the resort undertook to maintain a lift to access the restaurant for as long as the restaurant remains open.  From the top of the chair lift, it is possible to book a snowcat to take you further up to the top of the nearby Stuckkogel from where you can ski down to the Bichlalm restaurant for lunch. If you’ve never been in a snowcat, I can highly recommend this! On the day we went it was snowing lightly and visibility was not great, but the sensation of skiing in fresh powder on a deserted hill made it truly special – and lunch was well deserved!

 

 

 

 

For the 2017/2018 season, Kitzbühel lift passes cost €49.50-€55 for 1 day (adult); or €239,50-€266 for 6 days (adult).  Discount is available for children and seniors – see the KitzSki site for a full price list.

 

WHERE TO STAY, EAT AND DRINK  IN KITZBUHEL

As the villages of Kitzbühel, Jochberg, Kirchberg and Aurach are only a few minutes from each other by cab, your accommodation options are vast.  If you want to be in the thick of things, staying in Kitzbühel itself is probably your best bet.  The Schwarzer Alder hotel is very chic and its central location means that boutiques, coffee shops and the slopes are all about equidistant  It also has an amazing restaurant called Neuwirt (see my previous post for a full review).  If you are looking for a ski-in, ski-out option, then look no further than the Rasmushof hotel, directly at the foot of the Streif piste.

 

 

 

If you like things a little quieter, do what we did and stay in the village of Aurach, a short  cab or bus ride from Kitzbühel.  We stayed at the Alpen Garni Auwirt Hotel, a traditional family-run hotel that was comfortable and modern while still retaining a homely feel.  For the budget-conscious it also offered cosy wood-panelled single rooms like the one I stayed in below. It was a lovely peaceful haven to return to at the end of the day; the breakfasts were hearty; the bar well-stocked, and the owners are utterly charming.  For a wide selection of restaurant reviews, both in the villages and on the pistes, see my previous post “Where to eat in and around Kitzbühel”.

 

 

 

GETTING THERE

The nearest airports to Kitzbühel are Salzburg (74km) and Innsbruck (97km) both of which which require about a one hour road transfer. Alternatively, Munich (170km) is served by more airlines and is still only a two hours road transfer.  There are many companies offering private and shared transfer services from the airport.  Alternatively, there is also a train station in Kitzbühel and all international express trains stop there.

For more information on ski holidays in the Kitzbühel area, see the Kitzbühel tourism website.

FURTHER READING

 

 

DISCLOSURE:  I travelled to Kitzbühel as a guest of Austrian tourism and was compensated for my time.  I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.

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