Lusting  for Lech
By Hilary Nangle

My Arlberg Express driver greets me at the Zurich airport, but our conversation is minimal. He doesn’t understand my English, and I can’t translate his German. We settle into companionable silence for the 2.5-hour journey to Lech, a tony Austrian village cradled by soaring peaks blanketed in white down. As we near our destination, he points upward. I squint, cocking my head to see not only the rubble-strewn path of a massive avalanche, but also the cliff-hugging Flexen Road, an engineering marvel constructed between 1895 and 1897 that snakes up and over a narrow mountain pass via switchbacks and tunnels. I gasp, he grins, and the adventure begins.

lech switzerland
Lech Switzerland

I’ve come to Lech to ski The White Ring, to savor Austrian pastas, pastries, and schnitzels, and to experience the alpine region that produced luminaries such as Hannes Schneider, considered the father of modern skiing, and Olympians Othmar Schneider, Egon Zimmerman, Trude Jochum-Beiser, Patrick Ortlieb, and Karl Schranz. It’s fitting that I’m staying at The Kristiania Lech, the chalet-style Small Luxury Hotels of the World member founded by Irmgard and the late Othmar Schneider, and now managed by their daughter Gertrude.

Othmar’s impressive collection of skiing and marksmanship medals, trophies, and related loot line shelves and fill cases in the lobby and living room. Mementos overflow into the Rote Bar, where they take a backseat to museum-quality contemporary artwork, art deco antiques, a Steinway grand, and traditional Tyrolean woodwork. Outside the bar, skiers fill the sunny terrace; some savoring lunch, others snoozing on cushy chaises. I’m smitten, and that’s before I see my room.

The art show continues in the Kristiania’s 29 individually decorated guestrooms. “We not only provide our guests with a bedroom and half-board, but also a private collection of art,” Gertrude says. Some rooms showcase traditional Tyrolean style; some ooze European elegance. My two-story suite’s modern design, with its lime green walls and vibrantly colored, multi-hued-and-patterned upholstery, shocks me into a smile. I glance out the window, taking in a postcard view of Lech, a Tyrolean charmer over-lorded by the onion dome-topped clock tower of the late 14th-century St. Nicholas church. Bliss!

explore british columbia skiing
Via the Kristiania, I have opted for the private ski guide service and, after breakfast the first morning, I rendezvous with Harry Dohr, a fully certified instructor with Skischule Zurs. We spend the next three days attempting to make a dent in the Arlberg’s overwhelming terrain: 174 miles of marked pistes and 112 miles of high-alpine powder runs connected by 79 cable cars and lifts and a free bus service. The plan is to begin in Lech and Oberlech, with a nod to petite Zug, tucked in the cleavage where descending skiers from Lech meet those from Zurs. Day two, we’ll descend from Rufikopf to Zurs, a sleepy enclave, and then hop a bus to St. Anton. We’ll finish with the prize, the White Ring. Gertrude offers lunch suggestions, and makes reservations, where possible.

Thanks to Harry’s 23 years of experience here, we always ski the best snow, rarely wait in a line, and often have the route to ourselves. Even better, I get to shadow his impeccable Arlberg style. Lech’s predominantly intermediate pistes and slopes are perfect for day one, and by the time we break for lunch on the terrace at Lech’s posh Post Hotel, a favorite among celebs and royals, my grin is as bright as the sunshine. Famished, I order Kasespatzle, an Austrian mac &  cheese topped with fried onions. I tell myself  the side salad makes it healthy.

Lech’s haute status is cemented not only by the Mercedes Benz off-road experience offered, but also its heli-skiing operation. “This region is the only place in Austria with helicopter skiing,” Harry tells me. Not just any ’copter, mind you, but a BMW bird. Harry says the conditions don’t warrant a flight. After lunch, we check out the Kästle museum at the top of the Rufikopf tram, then ski a long, leisurely route back. My legs beg for mercy, and I find salvation at the hotel’s spa in a massage with Iris. She works miracles, and I book another for the following evening.

The next day we head toward St. Anton, which is known for some of the world’s best après-ski. It’s common to spot skiers on St. Anton streets making their way home late at night, clomping in their ski boots, their skis slung merrily over their shoulders. But it is too early in the day for après. Instead, we make a pilgrimage to nearby Stuben, birthplace of Hannes Schneider, then we break for lunch in St. Christoph, home to Austria’s elite ski instructor university. My burger, a house specialty, is killer, but it’s the dessert, Kaiserschmarrn Hospiz Alm, that slays me: a huge, hot pan comprising sweet pancake pieces spiked with rum-soaked raisins, accompanied by big bowls of plums and schlagg, lots and lots and lots of schlagg (a.k.a. whipped cream). Our waiter saturates it with a generous pouring of Grand Marnier. Swoon!

I ask for a peek at Hospiz Alm’s wine cellar. It’s located on the same level as the restrooms, and in a brilliant design move,
a slide wraps the stairwell. Whee! Inside the cellar, approximately 3,000 three- to 18-liter bottles of Bordeaux, including many rare vintages, line the walls and ceiling.

On my final day, we ski The White Ring, the 14-mile circuit connecting Lech, Zurs, Zug, and Oberlech on a clockwise route established more than 50 years ago. Harry’s made it no secret that he’s partial to Zurs, and as we descend from Rufikopf, I understand why. Its relative isolation, deep history, and lack of a lively village means many skiers skip it. Their mistake.

“Zurs was the first purpose-built ski resort in the world,” Harry says. The first ski class was held here in 1906—Hannes Schneider was a student, and the first lift in Austria was built here in 1937. Harry promises we’ll return for lunch, as we ascend to Madloch for the grand descent to Zug. This is the steepest section of the Ring, and conditions can make it tricky. I shadow Harry pinballing through the moguls, tucking the flats, and snaking the wooded slopes below.

We relax on the broad, open slopes of Lech and Oberlech, before returning to Zurs for a leisurely lunch at the five-star Lorünser, a full-board hotel. I feel I’ve earned the schnitzel topped off with a light-as-air cheese-curd strudel. Afterward, we ski Zurs’ empty slopes until my legs cry “Uncle!” Even then, I want to continue; I want to carve each run into my memory to satiate until I return to the Kristiania, Jean Francoise’s divine Sacher torte, and The White  Ring.