Mountain playground

Eoin O’Sullivan takes to his skis to test out the slopes of Westendorf.

OKAY, okay! So it’s no longer such a clear-cut matter, black and white. No longer does a ‘real’ holiday have to consist of doing as little as possible, lying comatose on a yellow beach, turquoise waves lapping, golden sun beating. No more does a getaway represent the months-long wait for a summer sunshine sojourn in an effort to counteract the winter blues.

No, my preconceived notion of a holiday has been irreversibly altered, coloured by a fast-paced, action-packed winter break spent skiing in the immaculately picturesque Austrian Alpine village of Westendorf.

Nestled between the Hohen Salve and the Kitzbuheler Horn mountain ranges in the sunny Brixental valley, the snow-covered chocolate-box village of Westendorf is everything a typical Austrian Tyrolian mountain village should be.

With its distinctive wooden chalet-style buildings, complete with ornate balconies, this charming and quaint little village plays host to a range of shops, cafes and restaurants, and, as the 2012-2013 ski season fast approaches, is the perfect base from which to explore the surrounding Ski Welt area, Austria’s largest interconnected ski area.

The Ski Welt boasts a whopping 279km of ski slopes serviced by 70 lifts and cable cars and more than 1,000 snow machines that ensure the slopes can be artificially snowed should weather conditions necessitate.

With more than 70 ski huts, restaurants and apres ski bars dotted across the area, you should never be too far away from some form of refreshment.

Or maybe less so if, after a day’s skiing instruction, you are still back at the nursery slope, which lies right next to Westendorf village, flailing about on a slippery surface. I’d never skied before and perhaps it is somewhat telling that it never even crossed my mind that I might struggle acquiring the art. It quickly became apparent, however, that that fluffy, powdery, picturesque snow was not in the least bit forgiving when contacted with a helmeted head at speeds approaching what felt like a hundred miles an hour.

Luckily, I was under the patient and watchful eye of my saintly ‘Schischule’ instructor Hans, aka ‘Happy’, in a nod to his amiable disposition. With a troupe of certified ski school instructors on hand, both group and individual courses are available for all levels of skier and pretty soon, I was whizzing down the nursery slope in a fashion somewhat at least resembling skiing.

It is hugely beneficial having the nursery slope in Westendorf adjacent to the village. In other resorts, it is necessary to get a cable car or chairlift up to a meeting place to meet your instructor, before an awkward, ski boot-clad, sweat-inducing clamber to the slope, robot-like, with skis and helmet and goggles in tow. In Westendorf, throughout the day, during breaks and in the evening, you are never far from your chosen accommodation or the village amenities.

I decided after my first day’s tuition to take full advantage of the nursery slope’s proximate location to the many apres ski bars that are situated at the bottom of the slope.

Now, earlier in the day, Hans had informed me that if you are going to drink and ski, you should always drink two beers instead of one, given that skiing involves the use of two skis. It was a question of balance, you see.

Determined to put the theory to the test, I embarked on an apres ski tour de force which began in Cafe-Bar Friends, and ended — complete with thumping kitsch discotheque music, drinking games and silly dancing — in Karat, where a bucket of ice containing 12 mini shot-sized bottles of Jagermeister liqueur, all illuminated with a burning sparkler, can be acquired for

€45.

By the end of it, I couldn’t quite remember what Hans had said about one or two beers, or multiples thereof, but I do recall making a concerted effort to end my intake on an even number.

Westendorf isn’t the liveliest resort in terms of nightlife. The apres ski scene is more relaxed and less chaotic here as opposed to some of the more party-crazed, hedonistic Austrian resorts.

Westendorf, as a resort, is more along the lines of the unspoilt, family-friendly variety, but with just enough restaurants, bars and cafes so that all tastes and budgets are catered for.

With night-time sleigh rides through the surrounding winter wonderland, bowling, ice skating, winter walks and toboganning among the host of activities on offer, there is more than enough to keep the whole family entertained.

Similarly, the ski school is very family-orientated and offers a mini club for children

Left, Gondolas above snow-covered alpine huts above Westendorf, Austria; below, Two skiers pause above Westendorf to look down on the valley below; opposite, Westendorf town centre.

Pictures: Stephan Bannach, Jessica Haupt/Kitzbueheler Alpen Brixental

aged from three to four years and a kids club for those aged five-14 years, with a well-equipped dedicated children’s area.

The week culminates in a party and races which is topped off with a prize-giving ceremony.

Nearby Kitzbuhel, a 700-year-old medieval town, is a much larger, livelier spot, and is also well worth a day or night trip to check out its wide array of bustling shops, galleries, cafes and sophisticated night spots.

Now, there must have been some truth behind ol’ Hans’ words of wisdom regarding the beers because day two on the nursery slope showed a marked improvement in my skiing and, after a day perfecting my snowplough (read acquiring some vague level of control when turning) and practising my parallel turns (read staying upright, albeit not always with anything even remotely approaching grace), it was time to head up into the mountains and hit the slopes proper on day three.

Breathtaking is the only way to describe the view that unfolded as the cable car from the village broke through the tree-line on the way up the Choralpe mountain up to Mittelstation at 1,320m and on up to Talkaser at 1,770m.

There was something serene and otherworldly about the ascent, a sense of calm, a sense of leaving the hustle and bustle behind. Peacefulness descended as the quiet, enclosed capsule proceeded almost silently up the mountainside.

Once disembarked at the top, snow-capped peaks stretched out in all directions, blanketed by a cloudless, crystal blue sky. The air was fresh and clear. The mountain, snow-covered and dotted with pine trees, dropped off into the distance on all sides, Westendorf barely visible on the valley floor, far below.

I spent the morning adjusting to the slopes and practicing on the drag lifts and beginner slopes, before lunching on traditional bratwurst and wienerschnitzel at the mountain-top Bergrestaurant Talkaser, the Austrian Alps in all their glory an impressive backdrop.

The rest of the trip in this spectacular mountain playground was spent trying to improve on technique and exploring the many and varied surrounding ski runs. Westendorf and the Ski Welt offer a total of 63 blue (beginner) runs, 57 red (intermediate) runs and eight black (advanced) runs which combine to ensure that every level of skier, and snowboarder, is catered for and challenged.

That I found the whole trip a challenge is for certain. It was physically and mentally engaging from the get-go. You switch off from the everyday pretty quickly when hurtling down a ski slope at seemingly break-neck speeds.

And ultimately it was hugely worthwhile in that I learned a new skill.

But therein lies the biggest challenge for me.

My earlier notion, that a holiday has to consist of lying on a beach, doing as little as possible, has been completely blown out of the aforementioned turquoise water. This was a holiday characterised by physical exertion, effort and the resultant excitement.

And each day the sun beat down from a cloudless blue sky illuminating the fact that vitamin D-boosting winter sun — of a slightly chillier variety, granted — is available closer to our emerald outcrop than I’d previously thought.

No, from now on, for me, a ‘real’ holiday is not such a black and white matter; more white — snow white.

HOW TO GET THERE

Booking

We travelled with Ireland’s leading ski tour operator Crystal Ski, part of TUI Travel, the biggest holiday company in Europe. Crystal Ski offers a huge selection of accommodation and resorts to suit all budgets, group sizes and tastes. Crystal Ski Plus Packages, 7 nights from €529, includes, flights, transfers, accommodation, ski/board hire and lift passes (book before Nov 30). A few other lead-in prices for 7 nights in Austria with Crystal Ski: 2-star Guesthouses, B&B in Mayrhofen, €599, Dec 22. 2-star Pension Scherntanner, B&B in Soll, €489, Jan 12. 3-star Sport Hotel, half board in Neiderau, €599, Jan 5 and Jan 12. Visit www.crystalski.ie or call 01- 4331010.

Accommodation

We stayed at the 4-star Hotel Schermer in Westendorf. This recently decorated hotel is top-class and boasts light, nicely designed rooms, an excellent health spa area with a choice of beauty treatments, a sauna and steam room, an indoor/outdoor pool and a fitness room. This very popular family-run hotel is extremely welcoming and is the perfect base, with its central location just a three-minute walk to the cable car/gondola. Prices start at €959 for 7 nights, with flights and transfers included, half-board (Mar 9 departure).

Nearby

Dazzling Kitzbuhel is well worth a visit and is just 20 minutes from Westendorf by car. With its wide host of designer shops, jewellers, galleries, cafes, sophisticated restaurants and night spots, there is something for everyone.

Salzburg is worth a visit although the transfer time by car is two-and-a-half hours.

Food and drink

With 70 ski huts, restaurants and bars dotted about the ski area you should never be stuck for somewhere to rest your weary bones.

In Westendorf village, Restaurant Berger, Aunerhof, and Cafe Hohe Salve were recommended. Try Cafe-Bar Friends (Dorfstrase 22), Village Pub (Dorfstrase 25), or Karat (Dorfplatz 2) for a lively apres ski scene.

On the mountain, Bergrestau-rant Talkaser serves up a host of traditional fare, including Bratwurst, wienerschnitzel and knodel.

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