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|Resort: Flachau and surrounding areas
Domain: Ski Amade
Date: 10-17th January 2009
Our holiday: We usually ski as a group of families, so have been limited to New Year, half term and Easter in previous years, plus in the last 3 years, we've started to fit in one or two long weekend trips for the boys. This time round, various things conspired against a group holiday, so it ended up as just three blokes let loose for a week.
Websites : http://www.flachau.at and http://www.skiamade.com/en/winter
Basics : Flachau is 70km south of Salzburg, immediately beside the main E55/A10 motorway. We flew from Leeds/Bradford to Salzburg with Jet2.com, and then picked up a pre-hired car from Budget at the airport. Although this was small (a VW Polo), it was enough for us to fit everything in, and to cope with 3 pairs of skis for a week by folding the rear seat section flat. Transfer time was 50 minutes on a Saturday at lunchtime, with no real traffic to speak of at any time during our trip. Alternatively, the train from Salzburg can get you as far as Altenmarkt or Eben, from where it is a 5-10 minute bus or taxi trip. There is also a Postbus which runs from the airport to the centre of Flachau - see http://www.oebb.at/ for details.
Lift system : All very modern and quick, with a couple of minor exceptions - the chair from the middle section of Flachauwinkel to the top of the pass towards Zauchensee is a non-detachable 3-man chair, with a taste for the backs of knees and the space under the shoulder blades if you get it wrong, and one or two of the smaller gondola systems are showing their age a little. T-bars are limited to little-used areas, and so can be avoided unless you are really keen to ski everything, in which case, be warned that they are very steep in places - 55% on one of the runs - and are fairly long too.
Almost all of the chairs are detachable, and anything from 4 to 8 seats has a bubble. A couple are heated, but we never felt this to be a necessity during our trip.
The terrain : This central area of the Ski Amade offers the closest thing to a single large area that the region possesses - the whole area is a collection of villages and small towns each with their quota of lifts, and in a few places these have been linked to provide a larger area. Where the links don't exist, there are fast and efficient bus services or other shuttle services to get you between key points. This was one of the reasons we hired a car for the week, as we are old and cranky, and hate waiting for buses, plus it makes for an easier transfer and more skiing time.
Flachau's slopes cover one flank of Griessenkareck (1991m), and are linked to the other flank down to Wagrain. Almost all of this area is wide, tree-lined runs on blue or red slopes, and it is possible to run from the top back to the valley bottom on both sides.
There are 3 lifts from the town - Space Jet, Snow Jet and Achter Jet, with the Achter Jet being the main one with an 8-person gondola. Since the main slopes don't vary much in gradient, the blue runs tend to be on the summit, or they zigzag across the reds. Many were perhaps above the average difficulty level for blue slopes, so while this is an excellent place to learn, the progression will be quick.
Wagrain's slopes also extend onto Grafenberg (1702m), which is linked across town by bus. From Grafenburg, you can "bounce" over Sonntagskogel (1850m) and Hirschkogel (1755m) to eventually end up in Alpendorf, so there's a lot of linked runs with excellent lifts, although it can get confusing when you are trying to get back in a hurry, and there are a number of areas where runs cross and everyone seems to be traversing to a lift other than the one at the bottom of the run they are on.
There are three shortish black runs, which are very variable depending on the weather - in packed conditions they are straightforward, although 40 is very steep and narrow. However, we've previously been in this area in March, when 55 from Hirschkogel was marked as for "experts only" due to the ball-bearing-like surface we found half-way down it. Any change of direction sent 1" ice spheres flying. However, this time around, it was in good condition with a packed surface, and could easily have been a red piste.
Flachauwinkel is a small collection of houses and farms, with two lift systems imposed on it - one heading up Mooskopf (1980m) and then down to Kleinarl, and the other going up to Rosskopf (1929m) to give access into the Zauchensee valley. On the Mooskopf side, there are a number of wide red and blue runs, all providing excellent cruising and a great scenic run for beginners and intermediates alike. In addition, there is a snow park which runs alongside several of the main runs, so rather than banishing the show-offs to the far side of the area, they are always visible and those adventurous souls who want to can dip their toes into the park and get out again quickly. The runs from the top of Mooskopf are easy enough, with the main area including a timed slalom course and a speed course with a timing system on the finish - this is short enough to allow recreational skiers to give it a go without scaring themselves to death, but still steep enough to see the experts top 100kph. My attempts were all in the 75-80kph range, which seemed respectable in standard kit.
Going the other way off Mooskopf is a deceptive run through a park area. It starts off on a shallow gradient with a wide area which includes a few rails, but pretty soon it takes a significant dive over a shoulder of the hill, slims down to a 30 foot wide mogul field on a 35 degree slope, and funnels all of this into a landing area about 10 feet square at the top of a rickety wooden bridge. Since the bridge is suspended at both ends, and the far end is lower than the start end, this provides a mini ski-jump which cannot be avoided, and since the bridge is narrow, any attempt to keep your speed down is doomed to failure, so all you can do is go for it and hope that the ramp the boarders have built at the far side doesn't land you on your head.
After this, there is a lovely open area to play in, with ramps, tables and so on for those so inclined, and some tree-scattered off piste in a shallow bowl.
Taking the runs on the other side of Mooskopf down to Kleinarl, the mountain is completely different - challenging reds for the most part, but with blue alternatives that are only slightly less intimidating.
Between the two halves of Flachauwinkel, a tractor runs a road train on a shuttle service, which takes about 5 minutes to move you from one lift to the other. The transport may be basic, but it works well. From the bottom of Rosskopf, an old gondola takes you half way up, and a 3-man chair goes the rest of the way up. Coming straight back down again is a challenging red which runs all the way to the bottom, with an easy blue based on a roadway snaking across it. For the confident skiers, there's also a skiway to the left of the red run, which consists of two very steep and narrow sections which go straight down the hill. We ran it 5-6 times in total, in differing conditions, and it was great fun - but good skiers were regularly stopping at the top of it for a look and then deciding to try the red instead.
Zauchensee was in the middle of preparations for the Women's world cup races when we were there, but although the race course was closed, the rest of the area was excellent. Coming into Zauchensee from Rosskopf, the left-hand side of the piste drops out onto a narrow roadway, which then skirts across the top of three runs before providing access to the main drop into the lift complex. These three runs are black, red and black respectively, with the difference being that the red is in a natural gully, so mistakes mean falling or running up the edge until you stop, while a mistake on the black runs either drops you into an off-piste area with moguls and rocks in it, or into the gully from a height. Apart from that, the slope and width is pretty much identical, so all are a challenge.
The slope here is around 35-38 degrees at the top, which is more than the photo would suggest.
On the other side of the valley is a black run down from RauchkopfhÃ¼tte, which only ever saw excellent snow conditions all week, so personally we considered it to be a standard red rather than a black run, so for those graduating onto their first black, this would be the one I'd choose to boost their confidence.
Queues : On one day I was forced to stop and wait for 10 seconds while the 8 people in front of me cleared a narrow area of a blue run down a roadway. For the rest of the time, we shared pistes with 20-30 people max, and in many cases had the piste to ourselves, seeing no-one on the way down, and no-one on the lifts as we passed under them. On one occasion, we seemed to have a whole mountainside to ourselves. However, the main run down into Flachau does get busy at times, with maybe 300 people over 4km of run, so when they bunch you may find 40-50 within the next 100m of the run. Compared to other resorts I've visited, even this seemed very quiet.
The longest we waited in a lift queue was around 45 seconds, except for one lift which closed to allow a helicopter to lift a casualty off of the area where the lift dropped its passengers. Even this was limited to 5 minutes, and affected around 50 people.
The snow : We had 3 days of blue sky skiing, with everything hard packed and running quickly. Day 4 was forecast for 8cm of fresh snow, but after breakfast we cleared about 10cm from the car, and it kept coming down throughout the day, so it probably ended up being closer to 20cm in total. Certainly visibility was low for almost all of the day, and by 2pm most of the new snow had been scraped around and piled up to present more of a challenge. Day 5 was clear but cloudy, with most of the snow bashed into shape again, and day 6 was another blue sky day with hard packed pistes. Just after we left, the snow gods dumped another 20cm or so onto the area, and this week's forecast is for fresh snow every day.
Off-piste : Not really my cup of tea due to lack of interest/ability, but Zauchensee is probably the best bet for off-piste, with the areas above the lifts looking like regular haunts for those who are prepared to trek to get to the fresh stuff. Some of the ridges were showing distinct cornices, but the avalanche risk was low throughout our time there. For lift-served off-piste, the park area in Flachauwinkel is the place to try - it's now officially been christened "The Stash" on the maps, and carved yetis placed around to make it a kind of rustic sculpture park as well, but of course it is small and readily accessible and was tracked out within a day of the fresh fall.
Fashion reporting : a few fartbags and rear entry boots were in evidence, but nothing worth a sly camera shot until one Russian chap caused dizzyness and nausea across a half mile radius:
(click to enlarge)
The resort : Zauchensee is effectively one farm with a modern ski village built around it, so while it retains some of the charm of Austrian village life due to the sympathetic architecture, it hasn't got much soul, and after dark is probably fairly empty as the only places to eat or drink seem to be the many hotels. Flachau is basically a dormitory town, although the old part is nice, and the main street does have some character despite being almost all custom built modern hotels and houses for use as apartments or pensions. Wagrain is more of a traditional town, since the lifts are effectively on the perimeter. None of them are chocolate-box pretty, but none are hideous either, and Flachau in particular has a nice feel to it as you walk around, despite it being strung out down the main street for 3 km.
Flachau and Wagrain have all of the usual facilities expected - supermarket, bakery, etc, plus a doctor. However, to the best of my knowledge, neither has a pharmacy - the doctors will dispense medicines in an emergency, but their standard hours can be somewhat limited. Given that in Austria anything from aspirin and paracetamol upwards are controlled substances and cannot be sold anywhere except a pharmacy, this can be an issue.
Wagrain has an excellent spa complex, which has indoor and outdoor swimming pools with a slide, plus a wellness complex with saunas, steam room, plunge pool and relaxation area. It also has what we call a "donkey track" - an oval ankle-deep pool split into 4 sections which alternate between hot and cold, and which is excellent for those who suffer from foot or ankle pain after a day in ski boots.
Food : In our experience, there is no such thing as a bad mountain restaurant in this area. We've been in most, and never had an issue. If you like Austrian food, it's wonderful - grillwurstl, soups, tirolergrostl, schnitzel, pasta, pizza, strudl, etc.
In particular, we love the Starchenstadl on the run down from Grafenberg to Wagrain - good menu, great value for money, great atmosphere, and most of all excellent staff who are efficient and friendly and seemingly in perpetual motion.
In town, we always ate in Flachau, as we were staying in an apartment and didn't want to go far on the evenings when we did eat out. New this year was a pizzeria next to the Fire&Ice nightclub, which was stylish and efficient, but no more than average in terms of the food. There are at least 3 other pizza restaurants in Flachau, and none of them seem outstanding.
We also ate at Hoagascht ( http://www.hoagascht.at/ ), which was also our normal watering hole - I cannot speak highly enough of this establishment, which manages to combine excellent food with a comfortable and welcoming drinking den. The staff are excellent and attentive without being pushy, and always seemed to be having almost as much fun as we were. Friday and Saturday nights are very busy, and booking in advance for a meal is recommended.
For variety, we tried the Kaiserstub'n, which was quiet but provided a good range of wholesome meals.
And finally, on our last night we had steaks at the Schusterhausl ( http://www.tauernhof.at/schusterhaeusl/index.htm ). This is a small wooden building which used to be a cobbler's workshop and house, and it remains cosy enough that booking a couple of days ahead is a good idea.
Accommodation : We stayed in Appartements Habring ( http://www.appartements-habring.at/ ) in an apartment which was advertised as being for 3-4 people, and turned out to be an Austrian twin bed in one room, and two singles in an L shape in the other, which was perfect for us. A small lounge/diner was adequate, although the combined 2-ring electric cooker and sink in a single stainless steel unit was a bit of a pain. The loo and shower rooms were adequate, and storage facilities in the basement were basic but OK (no heated boot dryers here!). The location was excellent - 40 yards to the bar, 60 yards to the supermarket, 20 yards from the bank, and on the main street. For those without a car, a skibus stop was directly opposite the house.
Car hire Â£200 plus â‚¬22 for fuel
Ski hire â‚¬110pp for premium skis
Lift pass â‚¬186 for 6 days
Typical lunches on the mountain were around â‚¬10pp for a main course and large drink. A 0.5L beer was â‚¬3.20-3.70 both on and off the mountain, with gluhwein at â‚¬4, and hot chocolate or coffee around â‚¬3. Evening meals varied from pizzas at â‚¬8 to fillet steak in a madeira and peppercorn sauce plus veg and potato at â‚¬25 (yum....).
All in, around Â£900 for a week.
Conclusion: The Ski Amade area is an undiscovered gem for British people, and even though have mentioned it here in the past, there were very few English speakers in evidence. Most of the people on the hill were Austrian, German, Dutch, Russian or Polish in that order, with British a lot further down the list. Unlike the larger resorts, there are not yet copious signs in Russian throughout the towns, and while English is spoken in most of the shops and bars, you're likely to need some basic German to get by in B&B accommodation and in smaller shops and non-ski establishments.
The area has a wide range of pistes and environments which will suit just about anyone, but the lack of a truly integrated lift system may put some off. Since each area easily has enough to keep even expert skiers happy for a full day, the ski buses can be used once in each direction to add some variety, and are regular, reliable and quick.
Edited for typo and formatting
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