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Ski Resort Life

Europe’s Five Stars, Part 2: St. Anton, Austria

Can you count the continent’s best resorts on one hand? Maybe not, but you could make a pretty good start. Five countries, five landmark resorts that define the European experience. American skiers, beware: The spells they cast may enthrall you forever.

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You knew it was the historic epicenter of Austrian ski culture. Did you know how good the skiing is?

Yes, I’ve come to St. Anton in part because it’s the Cradle of Skiing and all that—steeped in lore, birthplace of modern technique and homeland of Hannes Schneider, the guy who taught America to ski.

But mostly I’ve come because I’ve heard the terrain is killer and folks here know how to have a good time. I’ve even brought an interpreter, my exchange-student daughter, whom I haven’t seen since September, when she left for a year in Germany. She just wants to ski the Alps and maybe check out the après scene. So do I, but if I get a deeper appreciation of ski culture, that’s cool too.

Our three-day visit, capped by a one-night spin through the beer halls of Munich, couldn’t be more enjoyable. The skiing, the après and, yes, the history and culture of St. Anton exceed expectations.

Do I get my Hannes fix? How’s this for starters.

We’re riding the Valluga Bahn, taking in a sun-drenched high-alpine view that stretches in all directions, when I notice a guy wearing a Friends of Tuckerman cap. Being from Vermont, I have to ask: “How’s the snowpack?” He says he wouldn’t know—he’s been over here.

Turns out he spends winters in St. Anton—“running a couple of family businesses”—and summers in North Conway, N.H., where he grew up.

“North Conway?” I say. I decide to lay some Illuminating Ski History on him. “You know, that’s where Hannes Schneider hung out.”

I don’t even expect him to know who Hannes is. But he turns to me. “That’s my grandfather. I’m Christoph Schneider.”

Holy piccolo mondo. Yesterday I was having schnitzel for lunch in the nearby village of Stuben, warmed by an ancient tile stove, sitting right next door to the house in which Hannes grew up. Today I bump into his grandson, and he’s a fellow New Englander.

“I’m psyched for you, Dad,” says my interpreter, later, with the usual irony reserved for situations in which Dad is acting like a dork. So I let it go. We’ve skied down from the top of the Valluga and have stopped for one of, frankly, many breaks—this one in yet another mountainside restaurant with eye-straining views. They make it hard to keep skiing here, because the stopping is so enjoyable. We’re taking it easy today, enjoying each other’s company and the sunshine, touring leisurely from hut to hut. We fit right in, slacking alongside the Europeans with their glamorous sunglasses. We eat and drink and eat some more. It’s unbelievably decadent and relaxing.

The day before, different story, thanks to our cool guide, Thomas Schnabl, a Renaissance/mountain man with boarding school English. We’ve told him that we’re up for adventure, and somehow he leads us to the only powder left in all the Arlberg. Getting there involves a three-lift commute through Stuben and a 30-minute hike to the top of a cross-tipped peak. Totally worth it, even after the powder turns to frozen chop in the dark forest of towering fir and larch below. In Stuben, we have lunch at the enchanting Hotel Mondschein—right next door to Hannes’s house.

Skiing from village to village is part of the fun in the Arlberg, but St. Anton, our base, is the center of the action. The main drag is five or six blocks of noisy bustle, and we’re happy to be down near the quiet end of town at the Hotel Arlberg. Our room faces the slopes but also has an enfilading view up the main strasse with its five-star hotels, dive bars, street vendors, schnitzel-slinging restaurants and rowdy throngs of fun-loving tourists. It’s like Vail, except, you know, authentic.

At the end of our first day, after saying goodbye to Thomas, we wrap up skiing at the Krazy Kangaruh, St. Anton’s world-famous shrine to après decadence. We find it crass and touristy, packed with already-drunk Brits, throbbing with loud pop. So we go back the next day too.

As we relax with glühweins on the Kangaruh deck, my interpreter earnestly sorts the good Euro pop from the bad for me. The sun sets between massive peaks upvalley just as a near-full moon rises out of the Austrian alpenglow downvalley. It’s magic. I’ve just spent the day with my little girl, who is suddenly a beautiful skier who speaks German. We’re drinking mulled wine. And we’re in St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria. The Cradle of Skiing.

The five-star Tannenhof is heavy on tradition, airy in design. Das Mooser, next to the infamous Mooserwirt (see below), is modernist in feel. Check out the spa, built into the edge of a cliff.

The Museum restaurant, tucked among vintage gear in a 1912 cabin originally used as an SS headquarters during WWII, is an essential St. Anton experience. Or take the chair up to Galzig Verwall Stube for lobster ravioli.

You must go once to the Mooserwirt, and you may end up dancing on tables in ski boots. Another must: Take the chair to the Rodel Hutte for tee mit rum and a healthy dose of polka. The best part? Sledding back down.

The nearest airport is Innsbruck, but Zurich and Munich are nearby (125 and 150 miles, respectively), so you may want to fly to one of those instead.

Part 3: Chamonix, France