Think of Salzburg and you think Sound of Music . . . but you should think ‘Sound of Snow.’
It’s a bit of a corny slogan to emblazon across SalzburgerLand, but the huge winter playground is very proud of what it’s got – and the seductive sound of skis hissing through fresh powder high in the Alps is high on the list.
With nearly two dozen resorts in the region to go at, you’re almost spoilt for choice and you’d be very hard pressed to get bored, but a great place to start is the traditional holiday and cultural centre of Sankt Johann-Alpendorf.
Sankt Johann im Pongau, to give the village its full name, might not be as familiar to many of us as the other St Johann, just round the corner from Kitzbuhel – a place I never tire of – but it's an interesting place in its own right and a launchpad to the spectacular Salzburger Sportwelt area.
This takes in 350km of slopes stretching all the way to Filzmoos, via other well-known resorts like Wagrain and Flachau; and which in turn is at the heart of Ski amadé, an alliance of five separate regions with an astonishing 270 lifts and something like 850km of slopes between them . . . and all on one lift pass.
It's the biggest ski area in Austria, with a fantastic reputation for all levels of skiing ability, and they don't just cater for athletic kids, either, with independant travellers able to book a special Sixty-plus Package with a dedicated programme and various attractive deals.
St Johann itself, just 60km from Salzburg and known for its shopping and spectacular parish church with twin steeples, has its own learning slope with a lift virtually from the village centre and has been a popular spot for school trips. Most locals had their first taste of skiing here and it's still a great place to snatch a couple of runs in your lunchtime, but for the real skiing, you head just a few minutes up the road to the hamlet of Alpendorf, where a gondola or chair can be the first link in a chain leading to a mind-blowing menu of ski runs stretching further than you can see.
It's also a link to some great mountain restaurants and some great views, all reachable without skis for the less nimble, so long as you can manage the not-to-challenging walk between the lifts, where the attendants will happily slow down the chairs and help you on and off. If any incentive were needed, ask around and popular opinion leads you to the Strassalm, 1530m up at the foot of the Sonntagskogel, where Marianne and Johann Reich serve up amazing food, much of it from the family farm – well worth wrapping up warm for the chairlift!
If you want to go further afield, from the top of Hirshkogel at 1755m or the Gernkogel at 1787m, you can head off over to Wagrain and then just keep on going . . .
Or you can take your time, soak up the scenery and then come back over and enjoy what Alpendorf has to offer. And there's plenty. Laurels must go to the Oberforsthof Alm, a top-drawer family-run restaurant you can ski to, walk to or drive to – or even take a helicopter to, if you have the cash and the inclination – and where you can enjoy the finest food and one of the most extensive and exclusive wine lists in Austria. It's a popular spot for weddings, parties and special events and I was told Formula 1 driver Ralf Schumacher is a regular guest, but there is not even a suggestion of a snobbish edge.
Their lunchtime gulaschsuppe, always a useful quality litmus test of a mountain restaurant, was simply delicious; and a good indication of what was to come when I went back for a gourmet spread with a bunch of other skiers later on. It helped, said the ladies, that the hunky waiters were very attentive and looked great in lederhosen and climbing boots. The chaps among us also approved of the waitresses, especially Lily, the stunning blonde daughter of the house, resplendent in traditional Austrian blouses and a neat line in non-traditional mini-lederhosen and boots.
That didn't detract, of course, from a wide-ranging taster menu of excellent food, which really did live up to – and even exceeded – expectations. The apres-ski and nightlife there was also a bit special, with a separate, atmospheric Almbar, keeping the noise in and the cold out as the numbers and volume went up and the temperature tumbled. Being Austria, Red Bull seemed almost compulsory among the youngsters (the home of Red Bull is not far up the road), but it’s best to be wary if you have hypertension or don’t want to dance on the ceiling. And in the right company and with the right music, you can still be having a ball until it’s time for breakfast back at the hotel (OK, I’m not proud, but it was 7.45am).
That’s the next plus point, because Alperdorf has plenty of good hotels within walking distance, like the (again family-run) Rothirsch, where the buffet-style breakfast to fuel-up for skiing or hiking was substantial and varied, with smiling staff on hand to dispense coffee and make sure everyone was looked after.
The Höllwart family certainly looked after me after I ripped a muscle skiing (BEFORE my night out!) with receptiion and kitchen teaming up and quickly providing tea towels full of ice to lessen the damage so I could continue my trip and not miss out on anything.
Not missing out included a meal over the road in the 5* Hotel Oberforsthof, a rare treat with a guided tour of Austrian wine thanks to very keen and knowlegeable staff – and appreciative tasters.
I did enjoy the treats to distract me from my injury, but hurting myself did serve to highlight something to be wary of, especially if you’re not quite the skier you used to be or just tired at the end of the day.
Many resorts, like Alpendorf, have reasonably easy runs down to the village, but do look at a piste map and ask around – some routes which start and then finish as greens and blues have red pitches in the middle which can be steep, very worn, very icy and sometimes quite scary. I came to grief on just such a stretch, with no escape route . . . and it wasn’t fun. The rest of the ski down wasn’t, either – so please do check!
One of the most surprising aspects of the trip was the number of smokers in the clear, fresh air – and in many of the bars and inns, where even the staff were sparking up behind the counter. The fug might have cleared in the rest of Europe, but in Austria, it’s still very much a feature.