The Oetztal of western Austria does a fine job of packing in the splendor you’d expect from a valley squeezed by the Alps. The region’s largest collection of glaciers creaks under hundreds of snow-covered peaks that rocket to more than 10,000 feet. Hundreds of miles of slopes swoop down faces and around yawning bowls. Add in some of the world’s most advanced lifts and a new single ski pass good for them all, and the Oetztal (pronounced itz-tal) shines as one of Europe’s most accessible winter playgrounds.
Many journeys begin an hour east with flights to Innsbruck, where taxis or car services waiting at the airport whisk you past wintry villages and pleasing farms to the valley entrance. There the land turns south for 40 miles to form Tyrol’s longest side valley as it digs deep into the heart of the Oetztal Alps. No need to drive in a place this pretty: Buses circulate seamlessly through lively hubs like Soelden and up into the remote splendor of ski-drenched hamlets such as Obergurgl and Hochgurgl—and they do it for free.
The real value, however, comes in the form of a white winter that’s nearly guaranteed thanks to high-elevation ski areas spread across two glaciers and under the Big 3—three peaks higher than 9,800 feet with wonderful names like Schwarze Schneid, Tiefenbachkogl and Gaislachkogl. (Even the German dialect spoken here is special, with its own United Nations cultural heritage status.) More than 77 percent of the slopes have snowmaking, too. This year, a new combined ski pass gives you access to slopes around Soelden, Obergurgl, and Hochgurgl for nearly 160 miles of terrain serviced by 55 lifts. A six-day peak-season pass costs about half of those sold at Vail. Even better, kids get 45 percent off.
High over Soelden you’ll find a new 10-person gondola with free onboard wifi whirling up the 10,032-foot-high Giggijoch, one of the most powerful feeder lifts in the world that slashes wait times. From there you can access more lifts to rip beginner-friendly runs or thigh-burners that plummet for 1,800 vertical feet. Nearby, the new $45 million two-stage Gaislachkogl gondola is equally powerful, with cabins floating up more than 3,000 vertical feet in a matter of minutes. At the end of the day you can ski all the way back into Soelden, a whopping nine-mile-long, 6,500-vertical-foot journey down.
Starting this winter, a new combined ski pass covers not only Soelden but Obergurgl and Hochgurgl in the rear Oetztal, too. There the slopes rocket up to more than 10,000 feet above sea level with 24 state of the art lifts and five feeder gondolas that spin till late April. You can rip nearly 70 miles of wide-open runs, most of them intermediates, though free riders duck off-piste for fun, too. That’s assuming anyone can extract themselves from the loveliness of Hohe Mut Alm, a larch-wood chalet at 8,760 feet, where gourmet plates of Tyrolean smoked ham go down well with big Austrian reds and sweeping views of countless glaciers.
The real splendor happens down in the villages, though, where an urban offering complements the unruly mountains. In Obergurgl, you can soak in pools next to the slopes at The Crystal hotel or get a massage at the four-star Gurglhof. In Soelden, designer hotels like the 125-room Das Central come loaded with a 30,000-bottle wine cellar. Daniel Craig himself stayed at Bergland, with its fireside lounge and cigar bar. Best of all, you’ll find Tyrol’s only thermal spa center at Aqua Dome, a massive 215,000-square-foot oasis with 13 pools, mineral baths, and glass-walled saunas. One soak here and you may even contemplate the fate of Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old ice man found near here. Unlike you, he missed all the fun by only a handful of millennia.
Where To Stay
Where To Eat
Pan-seared crusted steaks, velvety pinot noirs, and movie-worthy views all at 10,000 feet: That’s ice Q, a top-service sit-down restaurant on Gaislachgogl peak that doubled as the alpine clinic for 007’s love interest, Dr. Madeleine Swann, in Spectre.
Wirtshaus at Giggijoch‘
The lightly smoked beechwood pork sausages with sauerkraut and roasted potatoes warm the soul inside this gemutlich parlor at the base of the Giggijoch, one of the world’s most advanced gondolas.
Positioned at 6,500 feet, this classic alpine hutta earns special recognition for meals prepared with products from local Tyrolean farms, including its own. The Kasspatzlan pasta comes with cheese made from the milk of cows that graze these pastures in summer.
Top Mountain Star
The decks here at the top of a high-speed quad at Hochgurgl make a fine place to refuel at a panoramic bar. Grab a coffee and a strudel and soak up the views of 10,100-foot Wurmkogl peak before racing back down runs from advanced to beginner.
Hohe Mut Alm
Over in Obergurgl the Hohe Mut Alm hut at 8,760 feet has all the deck space and cozy mountain hut ambiance you seek, along with plates of smoked ham, cheese spaetzle and homemade farmer sausages.