Zell am See in Austria makes for an unusual ski destination, being not really a resort as such, but rather a charming and historic town, set beside a stunningly beautiful lake. It’s an easy journey from the UK – just fly to Salzburg, then it’s around an hour and a quarter hour transfer. Master Gallivant and I just had the pleasure of spending a long weekend there.
We stayed at The Grand Hotel, aptly named as it is a true Grand Dame. The décor is classic and understated, with the wow factor coming from the stupendous views over the lake – the location really cannot be beaten.
Neither can the staff. They are efficient and helpful but also super friendly. Above all else, they are what would bring me back here.
The Grand Hotel is child friendly, too, with family rooms and suites. There’s a kids club for 3-10 year olds, open in the winter from 8.30 to 12.30 in the morning and from 4.30 until 8.30 in the evening – useful when you want to use the spa or have a grown-ups dinner – and babysitters for when you want a proper night out in the town or at the hotel’s new casino. Plus there are baby monitors, a playroom, children’s menus and juice bar and even mini bathrobes.
Kids can splash away and make as much noise as they want in the hotel’s indoor pool, as there is a separate spa area for grown-ups (16 and over), with various saunas, steam rooms and relaxation areas plus treatment rooms – especially welcome when slope weary legs need a massage.
The lifts up to Zell am See’s ski area – Schmittenhöhe – are just a 10 minute drive away and the hotel provides a free shuttle bus to whisk you over there. Around a 20 minute drive away is the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier in Kaprun. It comes in very handy when you are visiting either early or late in the season as we were, when the snow is less reliable. Skiing on the Schmittenhöhe mountain was great, but with temperatures up in the 20s centigrade, the snow was starting to melt fast, and come late afternoon, it was a bit like skiing through a giant Slush Puppy.
Up on the glacier, another 1000 metres higher (and on the same lift pass, incidentally), you can guarantee snow from October until at least June…and often as late as July! The runs are big and wide so rarely feel crowded. New lifts started operating this season right up to the summit at over 3000 metres – the panoramas from the top are breathtaking.
The skiing in both Schmittenhöhe and Kitzsteinhorn is perfect for beginners and intermediates. There are only a few black runs so I’d say it’s less good for expert skiiers wanting real challenges, although Master Gallivant and I enjoyed a couple of lovely long blacks on Schmittenhöhe and the Black Mamba on Kitzsteinhorn.
There is a third ski area, Maiskogel, just a few minutes from the Grand Hotel and perfect for families and beginners – with professional children’s ski teachers, children’s meals in the restaurants and even an alpine rollercoaster! It was closed when we visited, however, as it’s at a lower elevation and not as snow sure.
By the way, a new lift, forecast to be completed by the 2018/19 ski season, will connect the whole Zell am See/Kaprun ski region with Saalbach, creating a vast, linked area – the largest in Austria.
We stopped for an alfresco lunch each day, throwing off the layers to appreciate the sun’s rays then, after another of couple of hours on the slopes returned to our hotel for a swim (with lake views), sauna and some sunbathing, with temperatures one day hitting 24C – in April! Incidentally, when packing for this trip Mr Gallivant asked if he should take a pair of shorts. ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ I said. ‘We are going to a ski resort. That’s the last thing you’ll need’. Turns out I was wrong – as he didn’t tire of telling me!
Then we would head down to the terrace for hot chocolate (or in my case a refreshing Aperol Spritz) next to the lake, watching the swans, ducks and moorhens swimming, diving and playing.
After a nap (skiing is tiring work!) we’d head down for dinner. The food is good. My one gripe would be that the courses come quickly. Some people like that. I prefer to take my time over a meal, but I did find that when I asked for a little time out the staff were more than happy to oblige.
There’s lots that we didn’t do and if you are interested in winter activities other than downhill skiing, there is cross country skiing, tobogganing, ice climbing, horsedrawn sleigh rides, snow shoe hikes and, when it’s really cold, skating on the lake (or at the ice rink). And if you just want to ski, ski, ski (or snowboard) there’s night skiing three times a week.
It’s incredible how refreshing just a few days away can be – it’s just enough time to properly relax and unwind. And spending a bit of quality time alone with just one of your children? Priceless!
* Winter prices at The Grand Hotel in Zell am See start from around £81 per adult per night when sharing a double room. This price includes breakfast, afternoon snack and five course dinner, plus shuttle service to the ski slopes. Family rooms start from £105 per adult with children sharing with parents enjoying reductions of up to 100%. All guests have free entry to the Classic Spa (pool, Jacuzzi, two saunas, relaxation room, gym). Guests in certain category rooms also have free access to the Grand Spa. Others can pay a £12 supplement per day. For details visit www.grandhotel-zellamsee.at
* Airlines flying to Salzburg include: Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Luton, Liverpool, and Bristol; British Airways (www.ba.com) from Gatwick and Glasgow; Flybe (www.flybe.com) from Southampton and Exeter; Jet 2 (www.jet2.com) from Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Manchester.