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Over 10 days we completed a 1,500-mile round trip, driving through five countries to sample what these three resorts have to offer for an Easter family skiing holiday. We wanted to know can a long-distance road trip such as this, with all the packing and unpacking involved, ever be successful?
The embedded Parallel Trails video clip provides a compilation of the skiing and snow conditions we found at the three resorts – it is worth a quick view before you read on. It was at the start of April, at the end of an average season in terms of snow conditions. During our 10-day trip we skied typical blue sky Spring days, some late season slush and also, as the video shows, some fresh snow/white out days!
We weren't in a hurry after the schools broke up, so we started the adventure by taking a P&O Ferry from Dover to Calais. I've always been a big fan of taking a cross-Channel ferry - we had a civilised breakfast on board and our boys had time to stretch their legs, before the long peage drive. We had booked a Novotel at Mulhouse for the Saturday night - which was a seven-hour drive from Calais.
The next morning we completed the drive by leaving France and passing through Switzerland before arriving at stop number one - Galtur. The two subsequent internal hops – Galtur to Obergurgl and Obergurgl to Mayrhofen – took around two hours each on the wonderfully efficient (and free of charge) Austrian motorway. And faced with a 750-mile drive back to Calais, we broke up the journey with an enjoyable city break in Bruges. Which was a quirky end to a skiing road trip with a difference.
Galtur (www.galtuer.com) is a peaceful, traditional village located at the end of a valley that is also home to the party resort of Ischgl. It is a compact resort perfect for beginners and intermediates. The nursery slopes and ski school are at street level in between a small collection of restaurants, hotels and apartments. Prices are also very appealing to families – a six-day adult pass for the local area is only €175, while a children’s pass is €100.
We stayed at the self-catering Sesvenna Apartments (www.sesvenna.at), a simply furnished but spacious two-bedroom place. The boys shared a double bed, while the master bedroom has its own private in-room sauna. The kitchen is really well equipped and made it easy to knock up a quick lunch or hearty dinner. There is also a large boot room on the ground floor, with heated racks to ensure you and your children are putting on dry boots each morning.
The apartment is brilliantly located directly opposite one of the main chairlifts, so getting up the mountain is easy. Galtur is a standalone ski area with the highest lift rising to 2,500m. There are some lovely runs heading down towards the massive Kopssee lake and dam. The pistes are well groomed and there is a mix of good lifts – we only stumbled across one T-bar among the chairs and small gondolas. Queues are rare and the resort offers mainly red runs – although they are gentler reds than other European resorts.
For beginners and young skiers the nursery area – with a rope tow and magic carpet - is close to the main road and parking. It provides a safe and secure spot to build snow confidence before venturing further up the mountain.
There are also some enjoyable off-piste ski routes - a chance to wander off the groomed runs in areas designated as safe. This is particularly significant for Galtur, which still bears the scars of a fatal avalanche in 1999 that swept down into the valley, killing many tourists and locals. During the drive up the valley we noticed the enormous stone walls that have been built behind homes along the valley floor as part of the protection measures taken post 1999.
We spent a day with 26-year-old ski school instructor Sonja (www.schischule-galtuer.at), who gave us all some technique drills to work on during the runs. She was actually a German who had come to Galtur for a family skiing holiday and loved it so much she now lives and works there.
She was terrific fun and led us all through the snow park, down a giant slalom run and beat us on the speed gun challenge. While Galtur is quiet and low-key it has a fun and friendly feel to match our instructor.
One down two to go. After a morning skiing we threw the bags (slightly less well packed this time) back in the car and headed back onto the main motorway towards Innsbruck. It is a spectacular route as you motor along the valley floor flanked by enormous mountains. It took less than two hours to get from Galtur to Obergurgl (www.obergurgl.com).
We were staying at the four-star Hotel Alpenland (www.hotelalpenland.at) on a half-board basis. The family-run hotel was extremely comfortable, the staff were very friendly and good with children, and the breakfast and dinner was of a very high standard and beautifully presented. It also boasts a mini indoor play centre for the little ones and a spacious sauna – just be aware this is a naked area and children under 15 are not permitted in it.
The hotel’s location was also superb - you could click your skis on each morning from the piste behind the hotel and ski down to the main chair and gondola. You are able to unload your luggage at the front door to the hotel, before moving your car to the private parking at the rear, which is just a couple of paces from the boot room entrance.
I think they could change a couple of things though - do they really have to charge €2.60 for a carafe of tap water at dinner? Plus surely ski hotels should be offering free Wi-Fi rather than charging the €21 for three days we paid?
The resort and the accommodation in Obergurgl is on the valley floor and the ski area is up at the top of the mountains along that valley. This means you have one main lift up each morning to get to the actual skiing. Fortunately Austrian lift systems are fast, comfortable (the chairs have screens you can pull down to shield you from the harsh wind and sideways snow) and efficient. We were probably helped by the fact that the Austrian Easter holidays hadn't started, but we never queued for a single lift. Family skiing bliss!
Obergurgl is high - the top lift goes to just over 3,000m – and as a result children need to be wrapped up well as the weather conditions can change several times during the day and there are very few sheltered areas.
The runs at the very top are wide and very cruisy, although first thing in the morning they were hard and icy too. Last season had been a warm one generally, so it was no surprise that the runs back down to Obergurgl turned horribly slushy by early afternoon. On a beautiful sunny day, it is worth taking your family up to Hohe Mut at 2,670m for a mid-morning hot chocolate stop. The restaurant there offers spectacular panoramic views.
The skiing is actually spread across three mountains and by far the most impressive skiing is over at Hochgurgl, which is linked to Obergurgl by a 20-minute horizontal gondola. Hochgurgl has a viewing platform at just below 3,100m with stunning views across the valley to Solden in one direction and the Italian Dolomites in the other. Go when the sun is out though - it is an exposed spot but you can always duck into the cafe to avoid the icy wind. It was one of the first spots Skischule Exclusiv instructor Thomas Schoepf (www.skischule-exclusiv.at) took us to before he gave us all some one-to-one carving tuition.
Hochgurgl is where Lindsay Vonn used to train with the US Ski Team, so you can expect great pistes offering the perfect chance to perfect wide GS turns. But there are also some fun off-piste areas. Many are just off the piste and have a shallow gradient making them ideal for children to practice in the powder. There is also a night toboggan run that starts at the small cluster of hotels at 2,150m and winds its way 3km down to the valley floor.
There is no doubt we will return to Obergurgl. It is a perfect resort for families with excellent skiing, reliable snow conditions and relaxed apres ski.
Stop number three was the Zillertal valley (www.zillertal.at), which is home to Mayrhofen and the Hintertux Glacier. It was back up to the main motorway and this time past Innsbruck before ducking down towards Zillertal – just over two and a half hours from Obergurgl.
Our accommodation was the four-star Sport Vital Hotel Central (www.vital-central.at) towards the end of the Zillertal valley, about 5 miles from the Hintertux Glacier. Once again it offers superb food (we stayed on a half-board basis and there was a really good daily choice for parents and children from the set dinner menu), comfortable family rooms (the boys were on a sofa bed, we were in a double behind sliding glass doors) and a very inviting indoor pool and (naked) sauna area.
It was impossible to fault the service or the staff, who even went out of their way to help when I was laid low with the flu! The hotel also has its own free-of-charge ski guide, which is a service well worth taking advantage of when you first arrive.
I'm a piste map kind of guy and I am happy to admit I found it hard at first to grasp how Mayrhofen works! Fortunately we had help in the form of Stefan Wierer, a wily ski and mountain guide, who also leads Himalayan expeditions.
Like Obergurgl, Mayrhofen is a valley resort with lifts taking you up to the actual ski areas. In fact Mayrhofen is made up of four ski hills - Eggalm, Rastkogel, Penken and Horberg. It is a pretty big, sprawling set of runs with lifts scattered across the mountain tops above Mayrhofen. With Stefan's help we motored around the best of them.
The skiing goes up to 2,500m and, like Obergurgl, the lower runs became very heavy, very quickly due to the warm April conditions. It is largely blues and reds but within that there is plenty of variety, from children's beginner zones through to wide cruising pistes, a competition level snow park and a few steep challenging blacks – including the Harakiri, which claims to be one of Austria’s steepest pistes. Every level of family skier will find something that suits them at Mayrhofen. It is a mightily impressive place to ski.
The Hintertux Glacier is well known as a year-round ski resort and with a top lift up to 3,250m it offers terrific snow conditions. It can also get very cold and very windy up on the glacier. On one day we were there (middle of April) it was -12 degrees. So it is best to always check the weather forecast before heading up the hill and wear enough layers, particularly for children.
Hintertux also boasts a wonderful non-skiing attraction - the Ice Palace (www.hintertuxergletscher.at). Just 200m from the highest point of the glacier is an entrance into a labyrinth of natural crevasses that sit just metres below the ski slopes above. The ice formations make this a must-see attraction. You can do the tour in ski boots, but there are lots of ladders to climb up and down, so snow boots are a better bet. Plus take sunglasses to avoid being blinded by the brightness of the snow when you come back out from the crevasses.
So is it possible to take to the road and ski at three Tirolean resorts on one family holiday? The driving was pretty easy, while the packing and unpacking more than once on a holiday wasn't too much hassle either (we got used to it as the trip went on). Certainly staying in hotels on a half-board basis is essential though, as not having to worry about meals was a massive bonus.
We drive all the time to ski resorts - mainly because we have four pairs of skis and boots to take with us - but until now we've never gone further than France. Everywhere else always seems an awfully long way. This Easter family ski adventure has proved that not to be the case. All four of us are taken by the Tirol.
For more information on the whole Tirol region, go to www.visittirol.co.uk
Sebastian, aged 12, says: ”All the resorts had lots of snow so the skiing was really exciting. I thought the hotels were really fancy and the food was great. One of them had a pool, which me and my brother loved going in at the end of the ski day. My favourite resort was Galtur because there was hardly anyone there and the apartment was very cosy. One day in Mayrhofen it was really snowy. We were with the hotel ski guide and it was difficult to see where you were going but still great fun. The snow was really deep – it was over my boots - and I fell over a few times into the fresh snow.”
Ollie, aged 10, says: “My favourite resort was Obergurgl because it wasn’t that busy so we didn’t have to queue for lifts. The skiing was really good, the runs at the top had lovely fresh snow on even though it was Easter. The hotel had very good food and it was fun having a buffet and being able to go up from your table to get your own food. The ski instructor in Galtur was really friendly, while Stefan was a dude and made me laugh.”