Just Back From
I first started spending the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Lech, Austria in the 1980s when I was still in high school. And in true “nowstalgia” fashion, the hyper-nostalgia trend of the moment, this year I returned with my 25-year-old daughter who is the same age as I was on my last visit. As someone who had grown up skiing in New England, my first ski vacation to Lech in the Arlberg region was a mystical mountain experience. Instead of shivering on wind-whipped chairlifts to thread icy runs through thick Vermont pinescapes, enclosed gondolas whisked us to mountain peaks that merged with clouds and were covered in fresh powder. Hot chocolate from a vending machine and tramping through a cafeteria lunch line in ski boots was replaced with rituals like women in dirndls serving Wiener Schnitzel and gluhwein in a chalet dining room by a roaring fire. We developed traditions like skiing over to Zurs for lunch at the Lorunser and taking a horse-drawn sleigh each year to the tiny village of Zug for fondue dinner. My younger sister and I became enamored of European ski fashions like the belted JetSet astronaut-like suits. (I still have my magenta number.)
My last trip to Lech was in the 1990s, when I was in graduate school, but as soon as my own kids entered ski school, my hope was to return to ski Lech with them. While my favorite aspects of winter in the Arlberg remain, I found the area offers wonderful new elements to merge with treasured traditions.
While local families remain in charge of all the top hotels, they have updated their rustic Alpine charm with modernizations like the spa and sauna complex at the Post, which includes a heated outdoor pool that is accessed by swimming from the indoor pool via a sliding glass door into the open-air. Newer private luxury chalet options have opened like those at Aurelio and Chalet N. While traditional, old-school family guesthouses like the Kristiania, where every one of the 29 rooms is decorated with family heirlooms, now has converted its garage into a seriously impressive pop-up contemporary art gallery from Sturm & Schrober.
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While last year the American West experienced record early snowfalls, the same seems to be true for Europe this year. Austria, in particular, had huge snow falls in early December, allowing regions like the Arlberg to open all of its trails and lifts before Christmas, and because of the well-packed snow, locals expect great skiing through early April. The Arlberg skiing area has also been expanded in recent years, by connecting more towns like Warth and St. Anton with new lifts and cable cars, creating one of the ten largest skiable areas, about 190 miles. With close proximity to one of the world’s top chair-lift manufacturers, Doppelmayer, Lech and Zurs have long had state-of-the-art mountain transportation before other resorts, and it is remarkably easy to ski between the different towns. Plus, with the new Zugerbergbahn cable car, which speeds up the ride to the Balmap, it is now faster and more comfortable to complete the White Ring, the Alpine ski circuit that connects Lech, Zurs, Zug and Oberlech. I highly recommend booking a great ski guide as they can steer you to the best runs, snow and weather; our team has access to the best of them.
The famous American land artist James Turrell fell in love with the Arlberg area on a visit in 2014 and decided that its mountain terrain would be a perfect place for one of his Skyspace projects. It took the town a number of years to gain approval and raise funds, but the in-ground “Light Room” opened in 2018.
Dug into the side of a mountain in Oberlech, the Skyspace Lech “sensing room” is a stone-surrounded circular space with a round aperture open to the air in the ceiling with stone walls with benches for viewing. The ceiling opening remains unclosed in good weather, so one can take a small hike from Oberlech or ski down to the Skyspace at any time to experience “the Ganzfeld effect,” a sensory deprivation phenomenon that can induce hallucinations.
It is reached via a 35-foot tunnel burrowed into the earth. The space is open to the public daily, but is best seen at either sunrise or sunset, when Turrell’s hour-long light show occurs.
The artist hoped that the space would challenge visitors to consider such questions as whether the sky is really blue; how optical illusions impact our senses and what our relationship to the sky is. As Turrell has said, “We are not aware that we ourselves give the sky its colors.”
Note that sunrise and sunset visits are popular, and there only 30 seats. Tickets are available at the Skyspace website and Lech Zürs Tourist Office.
Lech has the highest per capita ratio of Gault Millau toques in Europe with more than twenty “crowned” restaurants and a population of only 1,500. Thanks to two natives of the tiny hamlet of Zug, Rote Wand’s Chef’s Table may be the biggest food news of 2024. (Read Foodie Discovery: Rote Wand’s Chef’s Table). Another new table to book way in advance is Arlberg Hospiz Alm in St. Christoph, which has an award-winning gourmet restaurant and the area’s most talked about wine cellar.
Last year, the Arlberg hotel added an authentic yurt from Kyrgyzstan to the apres-ski scene. Every day from 4pm to 11pm its friendly bartender hosts revelers.
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