““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
We had just sat down in cozy alpine hut No. 6 on the snowy, remote slopes of Lech, Austria, when our private ski instructor, Max Weissengruber, ordered a round of peach schnapps-which he insisted was de rigueur at 11 a.m. "Life is not only about maximum profit," he said with his signature Austrian dogmatism. "It's about quality."
In Lech, an exclusive ski haven cradled in westernmost Austria, quality of life is paramount to everything-tourism, revenue, even fame. It is why, despite having been rated the No.1 ski resort in Europe in various overseas polls and publications, not to mention the most beautiful village, Lech has not attracted as much attention as, say, Aspen or St. Moritz-and certainly not from the Americans. (A mere 4 percent of its tourists hail from the States.)
But that's not to say it doesn't attract people who elicit attention. Various rich and famous have carved tracks here, from the Jordanian and Dutch royal families to Princess Diana, who skied here every year, to Hollywood headliners like George Clooney and Renйe Zellweger.
Yet the road to Lech remains far less trammeled than those to other European ski hubs, partly because the resort is not near any major city. Indeed, it's not really near anything-one major advantage for private jet travelers. The closest private airport, Altenrhein in Switzerland, is an hour away or 15 minutes by helicopter. By contrast, the nearest international airport is in Zurich, three hours away, while the nearest major Austrian city is Innsbruck, a nearly two-hour haul.
Beyond logistics, what separates Lech from most resort towns is its notion that less is more-less tourism, that is. There are bylaws, for example, against overbuilding. Architectural standards for chalet-style-only properties are strictly observed. And the number of skiers allowed on the mountain is capped, hence the village motto, "More Time, More Space."
As a result, far from the high-rises, time shares, mega resorts and uber-mansions of most ski outposts, what skiers find in Lech is a rich experience with the cadence and sights of a bygone era.
As we walked along the main road through town, which is bisected by the snaking Lech River, we passed low-slung Alpine chalets buckling under snow-laden roofs, with hand-painted murals and green-shuttered cottage windows fogged by steaming plates of spaetzle and mugs of gluehwein. Hostesses dressed in dirndls served a boozy bacchanal of aprиs skiers at the numerous outdoor cafes.
We found the scene vaguely familiar at first; after all, many U.S. resorts have tried to replicate it. But then we realized that this is the real deal, the purest of Alpine experiences, and it made all the imitations-including Lech's sister city, Beaver Creek, Colo.-look like Las Vegas attractions.
Lech (officially Lech am Arlberg) is one of five nearby villages that make up Austria's Arlberg region in the southwestern Vorarlberg province.
The others are St. Anton, a crowded, rowdy, young-partiers' paradise; Zurs and St. Christoph, both small, exclusive hubs without town centers; and the quiet, family-oriented Stuben.
All the villages have a legacy of providing topflight skiing. In fact, according to Austria's first Olympic Gold Slalom Medalist Othmar Schneider, who with his wife and daughter runs the Kristiania Lech hotel, "Skiing was not invented here, but created here." Indeed, the nascent Arlberg Technique, which formally introduced the ski world to stem turns, originated here. And the 107-year-old Ski Club Arlberg, which funnels talent into the Arlberg Ski School in Lech, is one of the world's most renowned. Perhaps that's why among the village's merely 1,500 residents there are four Olympic ski champions, all of whom own hotels.
Lech and its sister Arlberg towns run a veritable ski cooperative in winter, with lift tickets valid for all five mountains and 86 ski lifts. A free bus ferries skiers to the mountains. Locals claim there is never a dry season-or lift line-in the Lech Valley Alps, which combined with Zurs has 110 kilometers of groomed terrain and 32 lifts, many with heated seats. We verified those claims during our time here: no waiting and endless powder.
The Arlberg Ski School employs about 600 instructors, most at least bilingual, who undergo rigorous training and are available as personal guides to acclimate newcomers to the mountain's best runs-an invaluable perk. Our favorite run was the trail to neighboring Zurs via the Rufikopf cable car, which circles down into Zug and then back to Lech. Guides will also instruct you when to break for a beverage-and don't be surprised if that "beverage" is a beer before noon.
Off the Slopes
Although skiing earns top billing in Lech, it offers plenty to do off the slopes. If you take the cable car to Oberlech ("Upper Lech"), you'll find a snowy plateau some 900 feet above the village with painterly vistas and several hotels for those seeking a more isolated stay. The car-free hamlet has a tunnel system that ferries luggage and food invisibly.
After a morning of skiing, we relished the stick-to-your-ribs lunch at the Hotel Goldener Berg. The cottage-like restaurant with low, beamed ceilings serves traditional staples like Kasespaetzle (Austria's version of mac and cheese) with spaetzle, mountain cheese and fried onions, and Tiroler Grostl-fried egg over potatoes mixed with meat and ham in an individual pan. We also loved the gluehwein, a hot mulled wine redolent of cloves, lemon and cinnamon.
If you prefer not to take the cable car back down the hill, opt for the toboggan run down to Lech instead. You could feasibly do this at dinnertime, too, since the last toboggan glides down at 10 p.m.
Another non-ski option is to hike some of the snow-dense footpaths that wind among the fir trees. We were enchanted by the path that led to the diminutive town of Zug. The quiet, two-mile hike parallels the Engerle Forest, where deer return daily at dusk to feed. We also got a kick out of Nordic walking-basically power-walking, but with specially designed poles to work the upper body and increase your heart rate.
A less-aerobic option is to hitch a ride on the horse-drawn sleighs. You'll find them parked next to the postcard-worthy covered bridges along the Lech River. Drivers offer tours throughout the day and evening into a frosty landscape straight out of The Nutcracker.
A Quiet Respite
Lodging options are as impressive as the activities in Lech. One excellent choice is the aforementioned Kristiania Lech, part of the Small Luxury Hotel of the World group, which is open from December through April and is less than a five-minute walk from town. A mix of contemporary sophistication (a modern art collection is displayed throughout) and Old World charm, the 29-room boutique hotel affords mountainside views and a quiet respite from the main drag.
We loved climbing under the blankets on the deck chairs on the outdoor patio that faces the mountain and hearing nothing but the wind. The hotel's restaurant serves exemplary Austrian cuisine in several dining rooms. Don't miss the opportunity to talk to Schneider, who will entertain you with stories of his days in North and South America after his Olympic win.
Although Lech has a variety of stores that run along both sides of the river, none is more Austrian, or unique, than the multilevel Strolz, with its own smoky bar right on the retail floor. Shoppers are regaled with champagne and hors d'oeuvres as they browse, while in the children's department, a mini theater keeps tykes tantrum-free.
But what Strolz is most famous for is its ski equipment (its bottom floors are devoted to all things skiing) and in particular, its boots. In fact, if you were to purchase but one item in Lech, it should be these boots. Strolz will handcraft them to hug every contour of your feet in as little as a day. A computer scan and a foam-injecting process ensure the fit-and amazing comfort-but be prepared to stand in your boots while the foam hardens. Pairs start at $670 and are guaranteed for life.
One other recommended purchase is red wine. Although Austria's dominant white varietal, Gruner Veltliner, is pervasive in the U.S., the rich reds that natives quaff here are virtually impossible to find abroad. Red grapes, particularly in the Bordeaux group, were not even cultivated in Austria until the 1980s.
And though red production is on the rise-Zweigelt is the country's primary red wine grape-Austrians still consume more than they export. The good news: several wine shops in Lech-and even the supermarket-carry esteemed labels.
Look for Hill 1, Henrich or Bayer-labels offering big wines with dark berry fruit and mineral notes. Then walk back to your snow-buried chalet, pop the bottle, sit back and enjoy the rest of the fairytale.
Traveler's Report Card
Ambiance (A): Lech offers old-world Austrian charm, with low-slung chalets, covered bridges and horse-drawn sleighs.
Accommodations (A): Kristiania Lech (43 5583 25610, www.kristiania.at), which is described in the accompanying story, offers a fine place to stay at prices starting at close to $600 per night for doubles in high season. Another excellent option is Gasthof Post Lech (43 5583 22060, www.postlech.com), a quintessentially Austrian five-star grand dame on the main drag that has 39 rooms with antique furnishings and hand-painted bathroom tiles. Doubles start at more than $700 per night.
Dining (A): Lech offers the best of two contrasting culinary styles: simple and sophisticated. There are humble dishes like spaetzle and goulash, as well as haute options like braised oxtail with Madeira sauce and truffle purйe.
Activities (A): Skiing earns its top billing, but there's plenty to do away from the
chair lifts. Activities include Austrian curling, cross-country skiing, sleigh rides, tobogganing, snow-shoeing, Nordic walking and shopping.
Quietude (A): The possibilities for solitude are endless, from virgin footpaths to off-piste (back-country) ski runs.
Traveler's Fast Facts
What it is: An exclusive ski resort that has been ranked the best in Europe, but has not befallen the ravages of tourism.
Where it is: Part of the Arlberg, the southwestern-most portion of Austria, near the Swiss border.
History: On a plateau with a base elevation of 4,700 feet, Lech has evolved over a few hundred years from a cattle-breeding and dairy-farming community to the cradle of stylized skiing and ski instruction to a tourist Mecca. Its popularity swelled after the construction of the Flexenroad in 1895, which provided passage into a town that had been largely isolated and prone to avalanches. By 1949, there was yet another resurgence, when unprecedented economic expansion spurred rapid growth. Natives joke that everyone who lives in Lech is related, which bears some truth. People who settled here either got trapped or chose not to leave.
Where To Land Your Jet: Switzerland's Altenrhein Airport (
www.airport-stgallen.com) has a 4,350-foot runway. Arlberg Express International offers transportation from the airport to your hotel. Instead of a taxi, opt for the Maybach-the $350,000 car from DaimlerChrysler that features a V12 engine, glass roof and rear-seat entertainment system. E-mail: