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Soelden: the best winter resort you haven’t heard of (yet)

SOELDEN, Austria ― We arrived in Soelden after heavy snows had fallen and the sky had grown as blue and clear as an Alpine lake. (“We” being a family of three: husband, wife and a toddler named Ryan.)

Soelden is in the Oetztal region of Tyrol, in the Austrian Alps. It is very popular with Europeans but comparatively unknown to North American ski and snowboard enthusiasts, even to those who, like us, frequent the Alps. That was part of the appeal: After so many ski trips together, my wife and I craved something new.

We expect that word will quickly get out in our part of the world because, late last year, Soelden was chosen as the official European training base for the men’s Alpine competitors of the U.S. Ski Team. The American champion downhill skier Bode Miller had already made Soelden a base in the Alps. (The town is his headwear sponsor.)

Soelden sits along a small river, in the manner of Zermatt, and it is operated in the service of winter sports, which began in 1948 when a single chair lift, which still runs, started to carry people in a single line, the wooden skis of each resting on his lap.

You go up now in a fast gondola from either of two bases at opposite ends of town. With the sky bright and snow plentiful, our guide for a day, Erich Wilhelm of the Yellow Power Ski School, took us to one of two glaciers that sit in crags among the mountain peaks.

We reached it by multiple lifts and a tunnel taken on skis. Our reward was that top-of-the-world feeling that you get from carving clean turns on snow-packed Alpine slopes in good weather, the snow crunching and hissing as you move.

Like all good ski guides, Erich was relaxed and forgiving about the mistakes of the amateurs in his charge.

He gently coaxed better performance from us on turns and gave tips on skiing in the powder that would surely come from the snowfall expected in the following days.

As we sat down for lunch in a small and agreeably warm room at Gampe Thaya, the oldest hut on the region’s mountains, Erich explained the transformation that people like us bring to Soelden annually.

“I’m a carpenter in the off season,” he said. “There is much work to do then to renovate and improve the hotels and guesthouses. About 4,100 people live here, but there are over three hundred thousand visitors, mostly in winter.”
Skiers on the slopes at Soelden, Austria (Alan Behr/MCT)
Skiers on the slopes at Soelden, Austria (Alan Behr/MCT)

As we finished a meal of traditional mountain broth, sausages and, for dessert, Kaiserschmarnn (caramelized pancakes cut into chunks and covered with confectioner’s sugar), Austrian men seated themselves at our table. (In Alpine huts, there are no private tables, and anyone may help himself to an unreserved vacant chair.) An accordionist and guitarist strolled in and our tablemates accompanied them in song.

We had arrived soon after the start of the break for Russian New Year (Jan. 6), and there were many Russian guests at our hotel, the Central Spa Hotel Soelden. In the best Alpine tradition, the Central is luxurious but relaxed; you can dress for dinner as you would to dine at home with good friends.

Seated at the table to the right of ours each breakfast and dinner were a lovely young couple from Moscow, Daria and Tim, and their 5-year-old, David.

Ryan’s new friend David would soon have a sibling because Daria was pregnant; she spent her days in town or watching David in a children’s race. Ryan became friends with David, following him to the Oezti Club, where the ever-patient Gabi looked after the children of hotel guests from morning until dinner was over, with a break in between that was filled, for Ryan, by Caroline, a hotel staffer.

The Central’s kitchen is especially distinguished, with a flair for moderate and clever portions, always beautifully presented.

That should not be surprising, given that gourmet chefs and increasingly impressive wines are two famous Austrian exports. True to its name, the hotel also has complete spa facilities, from a family pool area, to a clothing-optional sauna and steam bath area, to a no-clothes-allowed-and-that-means-you, madam area (as my wife discovered) with a whirlpool, saunas and more.

Ryan liked sitting in the reduced-size gondola propped beside the pool, and when in the room, he would hike up his sleeves and wash his hands in his personal sink, which others might prefer to call a bidet.

On our fifth day, the snowfall that Erich had said was coming and that had begun lightly the day before was now strong and steady.

At my request, and over the objections of Frau Behr (as she is known in the Alps), we took a rest, shopping and having lunch in town. Russian skiers are obviously quite hearty.

Many made their way to the slopes regardless of the inclement weather; they were comparatively infrequent guests in all weathers at the apres ski bars and the hotel lounge, preferring an early start and an early bedtime. That attitude also characterizes Frau Behr, who usually does not let anything short of a record blizzard stop her from getting to the slopes.

It does not characterize her husband, who feels that a little less skiing, a long lunch at a mountain hut, and an invigorating stretch of sauna and whirlpool time with athletic Russian women is good for the soul.

That night, explosions rumbled from the mountains, as snow was cleared to prevent avalanches. “Sprengstoff!” exclaimed Ryan in German. (Explosives!)

In the morning, new snow came in a steady fall, and I was pleading for another day of rest, perhaps at a nearby indoor-outdoor thermal spa called the Aqua Dome. We compromised on morning massages, followed by discussion of options.

Tall and fit, with light Roger Daltrey curls, Paul is a native of Liverpool who came to the Alps to live, as I do to visit, for a love of the mountains and the mountain culture.

A rafting guide and an avid downhill mountain biker in summer, he trained in Innsbruck for what may signal the start of a more modulated life for a man of 43: working winters as a masseuse.

Paul was placating the complaints of my bad shoulder when he said, “I agree with your wife. I wouldn’t let that snow keep me from skiing.” With no Americans to consult, and with apparently every Russian who was not pregnant and one sporty Englishman against me, there was nothing for it but to get on those skis and follow Frau Behr up that mountain.

Many runs were closed when we arrived (but would slowly open throughout the day), so we skied under low skis on the lowest slopes, alongside evergreens wearing beards of white on all their branches. People fell in the thick powder, including Frau Behr, who lost her skis on a black (difficult) run.

I helped her get them on and so we kept going, she leading the way. Soelden has many blue (easy) slopes and that came to our aid now. We stayed upright despite the challenge, and we both enjoyed ourselves.

By the time we arrived at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski in Munich, to relax in preparation for our flight home, Ryan’s German had improved, he had not offered to hug any girls to whom he had not been properly introduced, and he was now telling us “I want to go skiing,” which may well happen next year.

By Alan Behr

(McClatchy-Tribune News Service)