Photo: Courtesy of Tourist Board St. Anton AM Arlberg

The Best Skiing in the World – Austria’s Arlberg Region

The Arlberg is a must for any skier. Here are some insider tips on what makes it special.

The Arlberg region in far western Austria is home to fewer than 7,000 permanent residents. They reside in small, timeless villages that straddle two Austrian states, Tyrol and Vorarlberg, and two major passes, the Arlberg and the Flexen. The region spans an area roughly the size of Vail/Beaver Creek, with a Vail Pass between them and lifts all along the way.

Stuben hides in a hewn-stone switchback curve on the western side of the Arlberg Pass, while above it plushSt. Christoph is buried in the snow, an almost mystical place that dates back centuries to when it was a refuge on one of the Alps’ most dangerous passes. St. Anton, a storied name in skiing and racing, hunkers down at the Arlberg’s eastern base right on an autobahn and a rail line; its residents are the most urban in the Arlberg, all cardigans and corduroys, brisk, busy, and confident.

The Flexen Pass abuts the Arlberg Pass on its western side and atop it sits Zürs, a tinier, tonier, four- and five-star-studded mountaintop enclave. Just a few minutes farther below are Lech and its satellites:OberlechStubenbach, and Zug. Lech has quietly become one of the planet’s most exclusive and fashionable ski resorts, a premier family destination that attracts a sophisticated clientele. Incredibly secluded, it maintains an Old World feel, with Alpine chalet-style buildings and locals garbed in semi-formal Tyrolean leathers and lodens. Even the kids who bomb Lech’s slopes seem a bit buttoned-down. Perhaps the Arlberg is best summed up by the classic saying: “To Lech you bring your family, to Zürs you bring your mistress, to St. Anton you bring your skis.”

Crowned heads have been resting on Arlberg pillows for more than a century. The king and queen of Sweden are regular visitors, along with Queen Beatrix and Prince Willem Alexander of the Netherlands and England’s Prince Edward. Princess Di liked Stuben; Princess Caroline of Monaco is fond of Zürs.

Arlberg innkeepers pride themselves on protecting their special guests and offering them an unpestered experience. “It’s a question of security,” explains Patrick Ortlieb. “You can holiday here without bodyguards, especially in Oberlech, the most car-free village in Europe.”

“Royalty and celebrities from all over the world stay with us every year,” says downhill racing champ-turned-hotelier Egon Zimmerman. “People sometimes know it, but they are left alone and no one bothers them. They like to enjoy their winter holiday.”

Dr. Beatrice Zarges, owner and managing director of the elegant five-star Thurnhers Alpenhof in Zürs, notes, “We have so many celebrities here, but we don’t name them. That’s why they like it. We are very discreet,” she says, echoing the byword of the Arlberg.

A vast 168-mile network of prepared slopes, some 5,000 vertical feet, and consistently big snowfalls make the Arlberg one of skiing’s greatest destinations.

St. Anton is known as a skier’s mountain. As befits the host of many a World Cup race, there is a sizable proportion of very good athletes there, many of them Austrian kids, either junior racers padded like gladiators or big-mountain free riders with packs, shovels, and randonnée gear. The formidable slopes offer notorious bump fields on the Osthang, Fang, and Mattun, as well as long autobahn-style cruisers down to St. Christoph, St. Jakob, and Stuben, and near-mythic on- and off-piste extremes — along with top guides to help conquer them. Valluga Peak accesses some of the region’s most dangerous terrain; Toerli Couloir, Albonagrat’s long off-piste, and the wickedly stony couloirs of the SchindlerSpitze (helmets recommended) are demanding as well. Perhaps the best-kept secret of the area is the wide-open Rendl side and the stunning backcountry.

Zürs is much admired for its long, roller-coaster intermediate fare, including a direct route linking it to neighboring Lech. Its lofty altitude gives the town some of the deepest powder in the region, endearing it to locals who love the easy parking and lift access, not to mention the outstanding off-piste opportunities. A delightful quirkiness abounds: The notorious backcountry Needle route to Stuben jumps a car tunnel, wild mountain goats (gams) often wander next to the Hasenfluh, and the beautiful powder lines that abound in the off-piste Wiesele area cascade down to a bus stop between Zürs and Lech.

Lech’s slopes are nearly as wide-ranging as those in St. Anton, with a higher base that ensures good snow all the way to the bottom. Lech and Zürs limit their combined skier numbers to 14,000 per day, so lift lines are rare. The Mohnenfluh-Kriegerhorn area includes finely tuned carving runs and blue rollers everywhere, a slope full of demanding moguls on the Steinmahder, and a thrilling selection of off-piste, highlighted by the Osthang and Sudhang runs dangling directly over town. The Rufikopf cable cars provide gape-inducing views of Lech and the sea of peaks roiling around it, along with access to some smartly pitched skiing.

Even locals consider Lech’s must-ski experience, the Weisse (White) Ring, a rite of passage for their children. Connecting three villages and four mountains in one enormous loop, the Ring includes some long off-piste that can be completed in just a couple of hours or as a daylong tour of the slopes and restaurants on the way.

Among the Arlberg’s 85 state-of-the-art lifts are numerous six-packs and an eight-seat chair locals call thegruppe stupe. Gondolas and cable cars are plentiful as well, topped by the classic peak-spanning, anxiety-inducing Valluga I, and the new, one-of-a-kind Galzigbahn tram with its gracefully modern base station.

In the Alps, skiing with a certified mountain guide is a status symbol — much like hiring a private instructor in America, only with more cachet. On big powder days gaggles of good skiers can be seen littering the Arlberg with their day packs and guides, looking like overeager schoolchildren. Some do it for show, but in these mountains getting a guide can be smart and even imperative: Skiing off the top of the Valluga is verbotenwithout one. Not only are professional guides rigorously trained and tested, they also have the inside info on the best snow, the shortest lift lines, the most memorable restaurants, the locals-only off-piste, and the hottest après scenes.

Thurnhers Alpenhof has its own in-house guide, free for guests: the classically ski-god-like Roman Dornauer, once a trainer for Germany’s elite mountain troops. Another favorite is native-born Jurgen Pirker of the Arlberg Ski School, who’s been known to book lunch in Stuben for clients while he’s busy making turns with them in untracked thigh-high powder three mountains away.

*Alpincenter Lech, +43 5583 39880;
*Arlberg Ski School, +43 5446 3411;
*Oberlech Ski School, +43 5583 2007;
*Ski School Lech, +43 5583 2355;
*Ski School Zürs, +43 5583 2611;