Easy and efficient ski trip with children: St Anton
Why it works:
Lately Austria is slowly positioning itself ahead of other European countries for skiing. Or should I say it is going back to where it was in the seventies before the French started developing vast ski areas? Especially for families with young children and for first-time skiers in Europe, skiing in the Tirol checks all the boxes: easy access from major cities; quality of ski schools; efficiency of the English language of ski instructors; lots of family friendly restaurants, kids clubs and hotels that easily arrange babysitting.
There are small towns good for little beginners such as Alpbach and Obergurgl. Lech is the most fashionable ski resort in Austria and the Dutch Royal Family’s long-term favourite since the end of the Second World War. However, St Anton is especially appealing if:
1. You are a first-time skier in Europe and want everything to go as smooth and efficiently as possible. First-time skier or not, you shouldn’t want anything less than that, especially, when you’re with young children. At restaurants, for instance, your plates are taken away as soon as you put down your fork and knife and your water glass gets constantly filled up by the attentive staff when it’s less than half full. Everything is quick and precise, somewhat like being in the army with precision and efficiency, though with extreme friendliness.
2. You are a hard-core skier who wants to have some serious fun after dropping the children off at ski school in the morning. While other towns, including Lech, are good for beginners and little ones, their lack of challenging pistes can be a bit boring. After all, the iconic St Anton is the birthplace of modern alpine skiing and is consistently ranked among the top resorts in the Alps. It’s also one of the snowiest regions — you can ski until well into March — and boasts extensive off-piste terrain. For those keen on cross-country skiing, try the 40 km long network of trails that offer both rigorous and less-demanding routes.
3. You want a quiet and pretty family-friendly resort that keeps the authentic character of the mountain village but want fun and liveliness at the same time. St Anton lacks luxury shopping experience but, as a serious ski town, the stores carry high-end performance ski wear.
4. You want to use the season pass in several US ski resorts such as Beaver Creek and Vail, among others.
How long should you go for?: A minimum of a week, unless you want to arrange private lessons, as ski schools tend to run their programs on weekly basis starting from Sunday or Monday.
How to get there:
If you fly into Innsbruck (easiest option) it’s only an hour drive to St. Anton. Ask the hotel and they will arrange the taxi service. If you choose to fly into Zurich or Munich, it’s 2 and 3 hours, respectively.
Where to stay:
Families and beginners who don’t care about the variety of restaurants and spending time in town after skiing could stay in Nasserein, situated about 15 minutes away on foot from St. Anton. If you want to have it all, the best bet is to find a hotel in St. Anton, close to the main Galzig gondola, a good ski rental place (go to INTERSPORT on Dorfstrasse; both are very efficient and friendly) and ski schools. There are plenty of options along the main road, Dorfstrasse. According to the world’s largest online hotel search site, St. Anton has Europe’s most highly-rated ski resort accommodations.
We stayed in Raffl’s Tyrol Hotel, a sister hotel of Raffl’s St Antonerhof. It’s more modern than the latter and the staff are extremely friendly and would do anything for you and your children. The price includes breakfast and a three-course dinner. In fact, most hotels include dinner, as most people would rather stay inside when the sun goes down in the mountain village. If your children want something simple — pasta with cheese, wiener schnitzel and so on — instead of the three-course meal, just ask. Their service is so exceptionally good that it reminds me of ‘Genie in a bottle’. If you ask, they’ll do it. You can use the swimming pool at the main hotel, which is a few hundred metres away, but I was told by Raffi’s Tyrol Hotel’s director that by next spring they will open a swimming pool and spa on the site.
Other hotels with great service include the excellently located Montana Hotel on Dorfstrasse, the high-end Das Mooser, and the boutique modern Hotel M3, which also owns a sleek restaurant Hazienda located in the same building.
What and where to eat:
As you might have guessed, if you’re on all sorts of free-something diet (carb-free, gluten-free, sugar-free etc) you’re in the wrong place. But what fun is skiing without hearty meals and a good glass of wine? Here are a few must-try dishes other than the usual wiener schnitzel, goulash and apple strudel :
Austrian equivalent of mac and cheese. It’s made with little dumplings, ‘spatzle’ (literally, little sparrows), cheese and fried onions. The ultimate comfort food after being outside in the cold mountain for hours!
With bacon, potatoes, beef, onions and a fried egg on top, how can it possibly go wrong? So simple to make and a great way of using up last night’s leftover, this was my favourite dish. Even more appetizing served in the traditional rustic pan.
*Germknodel (yeast dumpling)
Not a very appetizing name, I know, but this fluffy round bun topped with poppy seeds and filled with plum jam is traditionally served with melted butter. It’s also served with vanilla sauce, which I prefer.
It literally means, ‘emperor’s mess’ and was named after Kaiser Josef I of Austria. Forget about skiing — discovering this dish was the highlight of my trip. This thick, light and fluffy pancake is cut up in small pieces while frying and served with fruit. Apple sauce, berry compote, peaches … really, anything works. With my radar always on in search of good food, I couldn’t help but notice a young man next to me eating this while I was taking a lunch break at a mountain-top outdoor restaurant after a morning ski run. And how could I not ask what it was? After being given a quick lesson on how to pronounce it properly, my husband ordered it for us to devour.
After dropping off the children at ski school in the morning, some days we just took it easy by strolling around the town, exploring the neighbouring towns, enjoying a long lunch followed by good espresso and long conversation. For traditional dishes, try Hospiz Alm in the neighbouring town of St. Christophe. It’s within an easy 10-minute car ride or, alternatively, you can take the gondola (line 4) from the Galzig gondola station. It’s a local legend, with its extensive wine cellar, and a popular spot for celebrities. Also Alber’s Rodel-Alm is very popular for its authentic charm and cozy mountain hut atmosphere. It’s out of your way if you’re staying in St. Anton, but as it’s situated at the foot of the toboggan run it’s fun for dinner after the late-evening tobogganing on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
For a more modern and light cuisine and atmosphere, try Pete on St Anton’s main street. It’s small, unfussy and lovely, with a less heavy interpretation of the traditional dishes. It’s part of a hotel and on the ground floor they sell a good range of skiwear. Also, try Galzig Bistro Bar by the Galzig gondola station, and Hazienda, part of Hotel M3 for its lively and relaxed ambience. Hotel Schwarzer Adler A la Carte, located on Dorfstrasse, serves classic Tyrolean food but in a more refined style than those mountain huts.
The main ski school for children in St. Anton is Skischule Arlberg. It’s the largest ski school in Austria and the instructors are highly qualified and speak fluent English, making it a popular destination for British and American families.
Plan your trip bearing in mind that the course always begins either on Sunday or Monday. Children meet up in the morning at 9:30 and you can arrange for the half-day lesson until noon or all-day until 3 pm. They have a lunch break from noon to 1 pm. On the first day, we made the mistake of pulling out our children and taking them to lunch with the intention of bringing them back to school at 1 pm, as we thought we should spend more time together as a family during the day. But it was just too hectic. Imagine dragging two little children in their heavy awkward ski boots to the restaurants, taking off the million layers of ski clothes before sitting down, looking at your watch anxiously while waiting for your order to come, constantly telling (or yelling) the children to hurry (not good, not good… food should be savored and enjoyed, not thrust into one’s mouth!), then taking off more layers of clothes on the trip to the bathroom before they return to school.
Much better to leave them at school and accept that the quality of their lunch will be a few levels removed from the Michelin starred restaurants (but then I know that they’ll be much happier with a bowl of mac and cheese than with a plate of sautéed foie gras and roasted veal sweetbreads with reduction of Cabernet Sauvignon at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant).
On Sunday and Monday mornings, when the weekly classes begin, it’s a chaotic process of sorting the children into different levels. The size of the classes was too big for my taste, with 8-10 children. But my eight-year-old loved the social aspect of it and chose to stay with the school even after we suggested private lessons. Our 4 year old had a better time with a private instructor.
All private instructors at Skischule Arlberg are often fully booked during school vacation weeks. If that’s the case, try Skischule St. Anton, which is situated nearby. I made a specific request for a young, friendly, female instructor for my daughter and that’s just who she got. They took the bus to Nasserein, which is a nearby town that offers wider and less steep slopes, suitable for beginners. My son, who was enrolled in group lessons, went there with other children in ‘Hoppel Express’, a mini train ride that children enjoy. It’s an easy 15 minute walk from St. Anton. So if you’re curious how your children are doing you can take a nice stroll to Nasserein.
Also keep in mind that on Friday there is normally a class ski race for children to cap the fun week of learning. We were scheduled to come back to London to avoid the end of the vacation madness on the road and at the airport, which didn’t go down well with my eight-year-old, as he wanted to participate in the race. So you decide what works for your family.
What to pack: